Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

Giovanni’s Room was written by James Baldwin – an African American, published in 1956. I don’t know about you, but whenever I start on a new author, I look them up first, to know what they look like and their brief background. I often find strong correlation between who the author is and their work, so a kind of expectation is built. With Giovanni’s Room, it was all blown out of the water. I expected an African American story, but it is so far removed that I’m still struggling putting the image of the author next to his book in my mind.

For a start, the story is not even set in America, but in France. The protagonist is a white American called David – middle upper class, has an American girlfriend. David meets Giovanni – an Italian trying his luck in Paris, and later has a relationship with him. More important characters include a couple of older French men, whose names I had to google to discover the proper pronunciations: Jacques and Guillaume. They’re both wealthy, such that they have financial power over the young ones like David and Giovanni.

The quartet makes an interesting dynamic. In fact, the book opened my eyes to a very unfamiliar world to me: Parisian gay bars. There are all kinds of rules and expectations and power struggle. The older wealthy men are expected to treat (buy drinks and food), and in a way they’re seen as pathetic and desperate, being old and ugly. The young ones are dirt poor, but they have themselves to offer. If they play it well, giving hopes may just be enough to string the old men. Sex however is the ultimate prize.

David’s denial of his same-sex attraction is a major source of conflicts. There’s no race issue at all – it’s not that kind of book. I’d be very interested to read Baldwin’s other books and see whether it’s addressed somewhere else. It just seems odd to me that an African American writing in the 50s wasn’t writing about race issues.* It’s so amazing in many ways. Giovanni’s Room felt like it could’ve been written by a white French man. There are even healthy sprinkles of French words and sentences (that I had to look up to know what they mean). I’m intrigued.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

A little anecdote: James Baldwin was mentioned in Capote the movie, which I watched while reading Giovanni’s Room. I didn’t plan it, but it’s an interesting coincidence that Capote and Baldwin lived and wrote in the same era, and both were gay.

* This is confirmed on Wiki, that mentions: “He wanted to distance himself from American prejudice and see himself and his writing outside an African-American context. Baldwin did not want to be read as “merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer”.”

James Baldwin

Dance by the Light of the Moon – Judith Vanistendael

Published in English in 2010 by Self Made Hero (first published in Belgium, 2007)

I went to a panel of European Graphic Novelists a couple of years ago at the British Library (wrote a little about here), and one of the panelists was Belgian author Judith Vanistendael. Her semi-biographical graphic novel based on her own experience falling in love with a refugee piqued my interest, and I still remembered it as I saw this book at my library one day.

It’s quite surreal reading it now and felt how timely it is, what with the refugee crisis all around us. The book was actually published in 2007, and I imagine the real event was happening even years before that. It is now 2017, and seems the time has finally caught up with the graphic novel.

The first part of the book is told from her father’s perspective (it’s said to be in response to the short story written by the author’s father), the second part is told in flashback by the protagonist, Sophie, to her young daughter.

The man in question is from Togo, who sought asylum in Belgium. Despite prejudice and skepticism, Sophie’s parents try their best to stand by their daughter and open their home to Abou. I found it quite touching actually, and could feel the parents’ mixed feelings in particular. After all it’s not just skin color they had to overcome – that’s probably the least of the problems, it’s the vastly different background and culture, socio-economic factor, not to mention residential status. Abou’s refugee application may not even be accepted and the potential to be deported is looming.

Here we get a glimpse of how complicated and how fragile the refugee application process is. The fact is only a small percentage of applications would succeed, and there are too many factors – at times seemingly arbitrary – at play. In my life I’ve gone through many immigration processes, and I could relate in some ways. You’re at the complete mercy of unknown individuals “up there”, you never know if one single tiny oversight could cause rejection, and once rejected, there’s very little you can do. It costs a lot of time, a lot of money, and not to mention emotional toll. It makes you feel very very small.

The black and white illustrations are very effective, and beautiful in showing the black and white skin individuals. I think this book definitely deserves a wider audience.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

The Hunting Gun – Yasushi Inoue

First published in Japan, 1949

This is the first book I finished after a couple of months of reading slump. And it was just the right book. It’s short and compelling, and the Pushkin edition is just beautiful to hold and read.

It’s not a perfect book, and for me the ending peters out a little. But there are a lot of things to like. I find the story framing fascinating in particular. The story starts from a poet, who is sent letter by a reader of the poem recently sent to a magazine. The reader thinks the poem is based on him, as he remembers a time and place, where he carried a specific type of hunting gun – all elements of which were featured in the poem. Together with his letter, the reader attaches three letters from three women in his life. Through these letters the story is told.

I don’t generally like novels written in letter format, as they often feel contrived. But the book is short enough for me not to mind. It just felt like story told from three point of views.

The Hunting Gun is Yasushi Inoue’s debut novel. He later won the Akutagawa prize for his second novel, also published by Pushkin: The Bullfight. The three perspectives in The Hunting Gun reminded me of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s possibly most famous short story: In a Bamboo Grove (which Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon is based on). I read and mentioned this not long ago, and would highly recommend the short story, in which a single event is told from multiple character perspectives. It seems very apt for Inoue to win the prize, though it’s for his second book.

I read the book with my Japanese Lit GR group. We agreed that the prose was such a delight to read, that we could gloss over the possible lack of depth in characters and unique story line. But really for a debut book that barely reaches 100 pages I think it’s accomplished a lot.
It’s my first time to read Inoue, and I’d be interested to read more of his works in the future when I get the chance.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

Inoue Yasushi

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

the bell jar
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (US, 1963)

I read the Bell Jar sometime in November and only got the chance to write about it now, so it’s started to get a little fuzzy. I went back to Sydney for 2.5 weeks in the first half of November, then fell into a bad reading slump. So really I have not read much since The Bell Jar – only one “book” of Middlemarch (a slog), and one short story (fantastic!): Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. I’ve resigned to the fact that I can only finish Middlemarch next year, as I’m only halfway through the tome, and I may not read much more until the end of the year.

The Bell Jar is the only novel by Sylvia Plath, is said to be a feminist text, and semi-autobiographical. I knew about Plath’s suicide, and I had some idea that the novel would be somewhat about descending into madness – and it is. It reminds me of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

The book starts in New York City. We meet Esther Greenwood, who won a prestigious internship at a fashion magazine with a selected other young women. She is supposed to be having the time of her life, but she is mainly… depressed. In the second half, she goes back to her home, in a small town somewhere, and things just keep going down hill.

For me there is definitely a recognizable feminist undertone throughout. A sad discovery of the way the world works and there is nothing much you can do about it. You’re so insignificant, a single fish swimming against the current, a rebellious speck. There’s a realization that you’re dealt the bad cards by being born a female.

It’s hard to imagine someone like Plath being married to Ted Hughes, and then having to take care of two children from the marriage. Hughes is a series adulterer (when he was with Plath, and after), and his next wife after Plath also committed suicide! I never read anything by Hughes – and I don’t know if I want to, but really, having 2 wives who killed themselves does not give a good impression on the person’s character, does it? Furthermore, Plath and Hughes’ son also suffered depression and hanged himself. This guy is literally littered with deaths.

While I wasn’t quite blown away by The Bell Jar, I think it gave an interesting insight of the time and place and the mind of a Sylvia Plath. Like a few other authors, I find her life story possibly more interesting than her book. I may read more about her in the future.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

“I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three… nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.” – The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is one of the Guardian’s 100 best novels written in English, amongst plenty of other book lists.

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Hell Screen and Rashomon – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

hell screen akutagawa ryunosuke
 

A tiny book that packs a punch! This is my first time reading Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, as it was selected for my GR book club. The Penguin grey copy above is actually out of print now, so I almost gave up getting a copy. But I later found the Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories  – also by Penguin – at the library, and found the 2 stories included in the grey book: Hell Screen and Spider Thread.

The Spider Thread story was very familiar to me, like one of those folk tales I grew up with but never knew the source or author. I wondered whether it was based on an even older tale – retold by Akutagawa (ala Brothers Grimm), or whether this was really the original. But reading the extra notes in my edition, it seems Akutagawa did adapt tales as old as 12th century.

The Hell Screen story was new to me. It uses an interesting technique of “narrator in denial” – which I guess is a variation of unreliable narrator, but for me at least, it wasn’t immediately clear at first reading. I put my full trust on the seemingly genuine narrator, who’s an old officer of a wealth Lord. He gives us glimpses of story between his Lordship, the artist the Lord employs, and the artist’s daughter. And really only at the end I realised he injects his opinions and skewed views a bit too much. Because of the layering, and the multiple themes running through the story, it is perfect for a book group read. I’d highly recommend it.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

rashomon

And because I enjoyed Hell Screen, I decided to go ahead and read the two stories that Akutagawa is probably best known for, thanks to Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (which I have not seen). The film is actually based on the story In a Bamboo Grove, while the story of Rashomon itself only inspired the use of Rashomon – the Kyoto main city gate.

Both stories are less than 10 pages long. I read Rashomon first. The ending gave me goosebumps all over. I honestly think this might be the most chilling story I have ever read. Dark. Very very dark.

In a Bamboo Grove is narrated using the police commissioner’s interviews with a few people on a common incident – a murder. As you can probably guess, everyone tells their story a bit differently. What a great technique. What storytelling! It’s amazing how mere few pages could elicit such visceral responses.

Overall I’m completely blown away by Akutagawa. I may not read all the stories in the Penguin book immediately, as these stories already gave me so much to ponder about, and I like to let them linger for a while. But I definitely intend to read more of his works. I have Kappa on my shelf and from what I gathered it’s also quite dark.

I rated Rashomon and In a Bamboo Grove 5 stars. Stars, stars everywhere.

Rashomon is included in 1001 Books you must read before you die.

The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa

the book of chameleonsagualusa

Published by Arcadia Books. First published in Portuguese in 2004, published in English in 2006, translated by Daniel Hahn.

The Book of Chameleons won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007. Agualusa was again nominated earlier this year, for the same prize – merged with and now called Man Booker International Prize – with his second novel published in English: A General Theory of Oblivion. My GR book club are reading both books, but I chose The Book of Chameleons because it was the shorter of the two, and it actually won the prize :) (The winner of 2016 Man Booker International is The Vegetarian by Han Kang, which I read and reviewed this year too.)

Just a few weeks before I started reading this book, I actually met someone from Angola, who told me lots of stories about the bad political situation in Angola. Funny how things often just come together around the same time. Prior to this, I’m not even sure whether I knew where Angola was.

A brief introduction to Angola: it’s a country in Africa – south west coast, its capital is Luanda. It used to be colonised by Portugal and only won independence in 1975. The effect of Portuguese colonisation cannot be underestimated. The two countries seem to be tightly knit. Angola’s official language is Portuguese, and both my friend and Agualusa spent considerable time in Portugal. In fact both of them also have close relationship with Brazil. Agualusa divides his time between the three countries, and my friend married a Brazilian. I’m curious how much the three countries’ cultures have in common, and would really like to read books from Portugal and Brazil soon.

So back to the book, The Book of Chameleons is narrated by a lizard, who acts as the fly (predator) on the wall. His human friend is Felix Ventura, who creates people’s past for a living. He doesn’t quite do forgery – it’s more romantic than that. People who don’t like their past can be given an entirely new past, full of better memories, lineage, photos, and little items to back up the stories. There are a few characters that come into Felix’s living room who require his service, and we get all the stories through the lizard.

Now this book apparently has been compared to Borges or Kafka. The downside of comparing a contemporary author with classic big name authors is that most often than not, it doesn’t live up to the expectation. I happen to love Borges and Kafka. So really Agualusa didn’t start fairly for me, and frankly, had no chance.

I think the premise is actually quite promising, and has a good potential, but I didn’t think it was substantial enough. The book is 180 pages and has a lot of blank pages, because the chapters are so short. Almost all chapters are a few pages long, some are only half a page. Some chapters felt like fillers – there was nothing in it, like vignette of unrelated dreams. In Borges’s hand this would be a short story – dense and full of twists and turns. In fact any one story in Ficciones would be comparable to this book. And better. While Kafka is funnier and more emotional, and simply weirder.

I’m probably being a bit unfair, but how you read one book is a combined result of all the books you’ve read in the past – and in practice there’s no way to read one book in full isolation.

Having said all that, I think it’s a pretty good book. Just not brilliant. Read it if you’re interested in translated fiction, and/or would like to tick off Angola from your reading goal. If you haven’t read Borges, as a companion piece, I’d recommend Emma Zunz short story.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

 

Tamara Drewe and Aya of Yop City (Graphic Novels)

Tamara Drewe – Posy Simmonds (2007)

tamara drewe

I watched Tamara Drewe the movie many years ago, remember liking it, and thought I wouldn’t mind reading the graphic novel to see it in different format. So I took it when I saw it at the library.

The setting is charming: a writer’s retreat somewhere in England countryside, where writers go to have all services done – meal, cleaning, laundry presumably, leaving them all the time in the world to ponder and write. I can only imagine how much this may cost.

In the oldest story structure style of a stranger coming to town, Tamara Drewe is a former inhabitant of the small town who went to make a pretty successful writing career in London, now back to her old family house with a nose job and glamorous London life under her belt. At one point she even starts bringing a drummer boyfriend who’s been in a band!

This feels like a really grown-up graphic novel. Simmonds often write in prose and paragraphs with illustrations on the side, in addition to the usual comic panels. The characters and conflicts in the story are realistic and down to earth. The open marriage relationship between the married couple host of the retreat is particularly interesting and believable – all the characters are. Love how all the threads come together at the end. The literary backdrop is a bonus.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Aya of Yop City (Aya #2) by Marguerite Abouet, Clément Oubrerie (2009)

aya 2

Aya of Yop City is the second book in the Aya series. It picks up a story thread from the previous book – which I read years ago, so it took me a while to remember. The premise isn’t complicated however, so it almost doesn’t matter whether you’ve read the first Aya or not.

The series is set in the idyllic Ivory Coast in the late 1970s. It seems rare to find books set in Africa that are not about bad things happening, and Aya fills in that gap. I love how it just tells the story of average middle class people with their middle class problems – that felt like it could happen anywhere in the world, except that this is in Africa.

But in some other ways it also felt uniquely African. There’s a baby in dispute at the beginning of the book (as pictured with Aya on the cover – but he is not Aya’s baby), and I love how the baby being passed from one hand to another and is essentially taken care of by the whole village. There’s a little note at the end of the book about the African culture related to this, how spoiled a woman would be after birth, how mom and grandmother would take care of her, while sisters, sister-in-laws, cousins would take care of the baby, and the rest of the women in the village help with the cooking and cleaning. In the weeks following, the mother would go from one door to another in the neighborhood to introduce the baby, sort of a ritual to make it part of the community. As it grows up, the whole village would keep watch together. Such a nice image.

Aya herself is a great main character. She is the sensible one amongst the other crazier characters. She is a good student and she clearly has dreams and goals for her future that is not simply playing housewife. Just like book one, book two also includes a recipe, this time Kedjenou Chicken. (I have yet to try the recipe in the first book =/ )

There’s interview with Abouet (who’s migrated to France at a young age) at the back of the book with a quote that’s especially poignant even to this day:

“As an African from the West, I would like to point out that the French had the black Africans brought over to do the jobs that no on else wanted to do. As long as the Blacks stayed in their assigned place – as supermarket attendants, house maids, street sweepers, in child and geriatric care, or at most, as artists and athletes – all went very well. But now some of the offspring and young children of those first arrivals are doing more than that. At the price of a difficult struggle, they are becoming company owners, managers, intellectuals, and they are more visible. These Blacks sense more discrimination because they have abandoned their role. This kind of racism is more frequent when the economy is doing poorly.

Today’s real danger is not idiotic racism and the increase in nationalists. We know how to deal with it — it is evident in ordinary attitudes which convey the worst paternalistic and condescending cliches that symbolically destroy Blacks even more surely than the overtly racist insults.” (Interview with Angela Ajayi at Wild River Review)

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

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