Hour of the Star – Clarice Lispector

First published in 1977 in Portuguese

I totally forgot that August was WITmonth or Women in Translation Month, but I did actually read the right books. I read Lispector’s Hour of the Star, and I just finished Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

Clarice Lispector seems to be the go-to author for women in translation books. This is my first time reading her work. Unfortunately I didn’t like it as much as I expected to. It made me think whether my problem is with works translated from Portuguese in general. Perhaps the language just does not translate very well to English. The last book I read translated from Portuguese was The Book of Chameleons, and despite the fact that the two authors come from different countries (Agualusa is from Angola, Lispector from Brazil), and of different gender (while we’re talking about it), I had quite similar problems with the 2 books.

In Hour of the Star Lispector uses a narrator to tell the story of Macabéa, a simple, poor girl. Some readers mentioned their problem with the passive character or the simplistic story, but for me it’s not that. I didn’t like the writing style. It is very odd sounding, punctuated with nonsense words and sentences, and words in parentheses (example: “(explosion)” which is sprinkled liberally, and I didn’t get the purpose of). I did not enjoy reading it, and I was very much aware that I was reading a translated book.

The translator’s notes of my Penguin edition gives a bit of an insight into the challenges of translating the book. According to him, it doesn’t only sound odd in English, but also in Portuguese!

“Because no matter how odd Clarice Lispector’s prose sounds in translation, it sounds just as unusual in the original. … Clarice Lispector’s weird choices, strange syntax, and lack of interest in the conventional grammar produces sentences – often fragments of sentences – that veer toward abstraction without ever quite reaching it.” – Translator’s Afterword

Benjamin Moser goes on for 3 pages about how difficult it is to translate Lispector’s books, while arguing at the same time that it does not mean they’re untranslatable – as “they are not littered with regionalisms, slang, puns, or inside jokes. Her meaning is almost always perfectly clear.” While I appreciate the challenges, I’m not sure if it does much for me as a reader.

The Book of Chameleons also uses a narrator to tell a story (a gecko in its case). I kept wondering while reading Hour of the Star, whether the narrator in the book was also some sort of fly-on-the-wall animal or spirit. We know the gender is male, because he said that this story needs to be told by a male writer. “.. a woman would make it all weepy and maudlin.” – p6. (Is that sarcasm by Lispector?) I just found him annoying, and it gives an extra layer that distanced me even further from the real character of the story. I failed to connect emotionally with any aspect of the book.

Saying that I’d probably try another book by Lispector, just because they’re short. Biblibio seems to have the same reaction with me in regards to Hour of the Star, but she ended up liking her short stories. I can see why. I don’t feel the experimental writing style sustainable for a long period of time – I was already struggling with 70ish pages. Longer than that would’ve been frustrating. It might work better for short stories. Tony also recently posted about The Passion According to G.H., the book that I initially thought of reading next, but it sounds quite similar in style with Hour of the Star, confirming I should jump onto her short stories next instead.

Mee’s rating: 3/5

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977)

Game of Thrones 3D Mask Book – Direwolf

I was offered by Carlton Books one of the Game of Thrones 3D Mask and and Wall Mount Books. I chose Direwolf from the House of Stark (of course). I hadn’t done any handcraft thing for a while and had to buy a couple of glue tubes. (I do recommend getting a good strong glue that dries up fairly quickly!) Took me a while to get going but once I sat down I finished the construction in one day. To be honest it did take me longer than expected. I was thinking an hour, but it did take me a good few hours.

The result was better and bigger than I expected. I let the pictures speak for themselves :)

Testing halfway to use it as a mask. Mr Mee volunteered as model.
Direwolf contemplating life and the back garden
Frontal side isn’t as impressive though

You can use it as 3D mask, or continue constructing the neck and wall mount to hang it on the wall.

It’s now hanging on one of our bedrooms

There are 4 books in the series. Part of me wish I had chosen the Targaryen dragon, because it looks really cool. But how could I not choose the Stark’s Direwolf?

In fact all three animals look cool. Though I’m not too sure about the White Walker…

All books are now available at book stores and retailers. Each for £14.99. (The Stark Direwolf and Lannister Lion books are available from 10th August, with the Targaryen Dragon and White Walker books available from 7th September 2017.) 

Thank you Carlton Books for my complimentary copy!

 

Black Rain – Masuji Ibuse

First published in 1965, Japan. Original title: 黒い雨 [Kuroi Ame]
Black Rain tells the aftermath of the infamous atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Personally I never read book that describes what happens to the people on ground zero – not to this extend anyway. For some reason in my mind it was total annihilation, but of course it wasn’t as clean as that. People in the vicinity were affected in thousands different ways – and to my mind they suffered the most (compared to instant death). The many ways the atomic bomb affected people are so varied, that when I thought the worst has passed, worse scenes came around the corner, again and again.

To think that humankind has done this to each other in the past, and knowing what happened, keeps the possibility for the future. It’s hard to comprehend. This should be a required reading, especially for anyone having any access to or any influence over the nuclear button. Why Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What would happen if it were Tokyo? It’s equally unthinkable for other major cities with the highest density and the most important infrastructure. At this point, a few countries in the world have the weapon almost just to keep each other in check. But it’s not hard to imagine that at the end, it could be triggered by a human mistake. Then we are truly doomed. Humanity as we know it may perish. Apocalypse in the truest sense.

Ibuse based his tales on real life diaries and interviews of the victims so it’s free of sentimentality, it’s fact after fact. You’d think it’d be permeated with rage, but it’s not. The overwhelming reaction is that of bewilderment. The nuclear bomb at the time was an unknown entity, a completely new weapon. The people of Hiroshima have been the guinea pig of the world.

Structure wise it could use some improvement. The book laid out diaries of a few people with not very strong connections, which shouldn’t work as narrative fiction. However you can’t read it as fiction, you read it as non-fiction, no matter how Ibuse labeled it. I suspect it gave him more freedom to do it as a work of fiction. I like the framing of the story in particular. It starts with a young woman called Yasuko, who has trouble finding a suitor because of the circulating rumors that she was affected by the bombing radiation. Such a ‘small’, domestic beginning, starting a year after the actual bombing. Bigger things are revealed gradually to readers, each thing more devastating than the next. For me the end is hopelessness. Truly nothing good comes out of war.

“I hated war. Who cared, after all, which side won? The only important thing was to end it all soon as possible: rather an unjust peace, than a “just” war!” – p161

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

Masuji Ibuse 1898-1993

My second book for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge – now in its 11th year!

The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

First published in 1907

I received another invitation for the Happy Reader (real life) book club, and after a short consideration, decided to join again as I really enjoyed the last time with Treasure Island. They again sent me a copy of the book – which I really appreciated, but wish they had organised everything a bit earlier. The reading period was two weeks, and I didn’t quite finish it in time (probably about two third). Luckily I got to the point that mattered.

I never read Joseph Conrad’s, so this is my first. I knew he was the author of Heard of Darkness, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The Secret Agent just came to my attention with this event. A quick read of the summary showed that it’s a London book, Soho specifically, with Greenwich as an important setting. I’m a big fan of Greenwich area so it was almost enough as a hook in itself, and I work in Soho! From Penguin introduction:

“The Secret Agent is as much a Soho novel as a London one. Loosely bordered to the south by Leicester Square’s theatres to the east by Covent Garden’s fruit and vegetable markets, to the north by Oxford Street’s busy shops and to the west by Regent Street’s wanky stores, Soho, home to the Verlocs, was the apotheosis of Bohemian London, a bolthole for refugees, prostitutes and Anarchists. In Charles Booth’s analysis of the district in 1898, what most characterized it was the starkly heterogenous mix of its denizens, from the well-to-do to the nearly destitute. While the East End housed the recent influx of Eastern European immigrants, Soho was home to an established immigrant population, though it was no more reputable. Adolphe Smith writing of the district in 1909 states: ‘For centuries England, but more specifically London, has been the asylum of the defeated.’ … Soho was thus a natural home for Conrad’s Anarchist misfits. … To Conrad and his readership, therefore, the district represented the alien in the home, at home even; … Soho, in reality and in Conrad’s imagination, was terra incognita, a locale of political conspiracy and sexual deviance, a zone where ‘foreigners’ circulated.”

Amazing to think how Soho was a century ago, now that it is one of the most expensive place on earth, the rent per square foot is astronomical. (So much that visual effects studios are being pushed out of Soho. But that’s story for another day.)

Conrad got his ideas from a real event. In 1894, a 26-year-old Frenchman named Martial Bourdin accidentally got himself blown up near Greenwich Observatory. His purpose and plans were not clear. That and a bunch of other incidents terrorised Britain and Europe in that period, known as the Anarchist movement. Anarchism was not simple or monolithic. They’re “unified only by their impassioned rejection of government and authority” (Penguin Introduction, an excellent read.)

In a way the book felt timely, what with the terror attacks that have been happening in recent years. It reminded us that there have always been attempts to disrupt society and break peace, by different group of people, under different movement names, throughout different times. Sadly nothing is new nor unique, and history probably repeats itself again in the future, even after we’ve passed through this particular period.

People mentioned the book as dense, which I agree with. I went through it with audio book to keep my reading pace constant and ensure my reading to move forward, as I’m the type of reader that often gets stuck on a paragraph that I can’t get into for a while, just repeatedly reading without getting anything into my head. Audio book forces me to keep going. The Secret Agent does need a bit of dedication to read, but I think it pays off at the end.

Conrad himself had a very interesting life. Born in (what is now) Ukraine, he moved around Europe with his family before moving to England. English is his third language. (Reminded me of Nabokov.) He’d also been a sailor traveling to Australia, south east Asia (now Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand), and Africa (Congo). What a life! The feeling of ‘foreign-ness’ I can relate with, and it comes up in The Secret Agent with almost all the characters being from ‘somewhere else’, half-descents, live outside of ‘place of origin’, and identify as one thing or the other. I’m interested to read more of his works to see how the themes play out.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). Born: Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

First published in 1968

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the book that the movie Blade Runner (1982) is based of, and it’s Philip K. Dick’s first book I read, though I’ve watched many movie adaptations of his work, like Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau.

I watched Blade Runner pretty late, only a few years ago, but didn’t remember much of the story, apart from the whole androids vs humans thing, so I read this book almost afresh. Another factor that pushed it to the top of my TBR is that a new Blade Runner movie is coming out, starring Ryan Gosling – titled Blade Runner 2049, so if you’re like me and would like to know more about the original work, now is a good time to start :).

The main character is Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who goes after androids who “run away” – as androids have no rights to independence. The world building is very well done. The world as we know it has practically ended because of some mysterious dust, and most of the earth population has migrated to other planets. Thus the setting is a decaying earth, featuring characters who are left behind or have come back or stayed for some reasons. An interesting aspect that I observed is that the whole story is actually just set in one single day (or a single day and a bit). It’s a full on day for Rick Deckard!

It’s a very fun book to read, and perfect for me who often feel stuck on some slow going books – this one just flew by. But for a science fiction – a genre that mainly runs on ideas, I don’t think there’s any deep meaning or message in the book. If there’s any I couldn’t find it. The book was published in 1968, and the story is set in 2021. We are now in 2017, and we now know that we’re so far from making androids remotely close to being human. Not sure if that would ever happen in fact, not even for the next 100 years. So the idea of right to independence and freedom for androids seems moot. The idea that an android may have “soul” is irrelevant in even today’s world – it’s so pie in the sky.

And the book actually felt a bit dated for me. In Dick’s world, technology has advanced so far that people are having difficulties differentiating androids and humans, but there is no mobile phone. People use coin to make calls on land line – the only ‘advance’ thing being it’s a video call. Reading this in 2017, it felt very much that it was written before mobile phone technology was invented – and that it didn’t cross the author’s mind that in the near future, before humanoid androids are invented, everybody has a mobile phone with them 24/7, the size of a small calculator, which has plenty of functions including – guess what – a video call, and access to a vast amount of information. But this could be just me. I have previously mentioned about the phone technology being a thing that makes a book feel dated.

But at the end of the day it was a fun read, and I’ll definitely be up for more Philip K. Dick in the future!

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

I’d been meaning to read this book for years. Years. Maybe a decade. You know what it’s like – you put a book onto your TBR and a decade later it’s still there, unread. I’m glad I finally got to it, but I’m not sure whether it quite lived up to my expectation.

Oranges are not the Only Fruit is the first book by Jeanette Winterson I read. I first knew her from the “1001 books you must read before you die” list. I know she’s popular. I’ve even seen her in person at some Penguin’s event. I liked the sound of Oranges and I liked the title. I did enjoy reading it too, to a degree, but it felt like I wasn’t the targeted audience of the book. Let me explain.

Oranges is set somewhere in mid England, working class, Christian society. I’m not sure when it is set, but the book is published in 1985, so anytime before that I guess, the 60s or the 70s. If you know even a bit about this book, I think you’d already know that it is about a young woman coming out and coming to terms with her homosexuality. It’s semi-biographical, even the main character is called Jeanette.

It is a debut novel, and it read like one. I felt some parts were disjointed, but there were moments of brilliance. The story is interspersed with sort of fantastic tales (some from Arthurian legend?), which although I enjoyed reading, I had trouble connecting with the main story line. And this is where I put my case about not being the target audience. It seems Winterson wrote this book with “her own people” as the audience in mind – mid England, working class, Christian. I was raised in quite traditional Catholic/Christian family and society, so the religious references I understood, but it’s hard to imagine anyone raised in other religions to “get it”. The English working class references I probably missed in much greater degree.

The point of reading is the access and ability to “jump” into people’s lives completely different from yours, which is what’s amazing about it. So I’m wondering, as a writer, should you make an effort to include people outside of your core audience? I don’t know the answer to that. But reading this book I couldn’t avoid the lingering feeling of being out of the circle, an unexpected audience on the side peeking in, and probably only got 50% of the in-jokes.

So to conclude, no, the book was not quite what I expected. But some parts of the book made me want to read more books by Winterson, especially the fantasy part. I liked her humour. It also reminded me of Amy Tan’s books, which just like Oranges, focus on primarily mother daughter relationship, while father’s role remains minuscule, if any. As Jeanette ruminates in the book: “As far as I was concerned men were something you had around the place, not particularly interesting, but quite harmless.” – p126

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

The Temple of Dawn – Yukio Mishima

First published in Japan in 1970, The Temple of Dawn is book #3 in the Sea of Fertility tetralogy.

The Temple of Dawn is book #3 in The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. My review for book #1 Spring Snow here and book #2 Runaway Horses here. If you have not read the first two, warning there will be possible spoilers.

So my relationship with Mishima’s epic has been long and slow going, as I read Spring Snow in 2015, and Runaway Horses in 2016. With The Temple of Dawn in 2017, I plan to read the last book The Decay of the Angel in 2018. That’s one book per year if you noticed, as I’m not the type of reader that can read more than one book consecutively by the same author. The good thing is that way you give adequate time for each book, the bad thing is you may forget details from previous books.

I read this with my Goodreads Japanese Literature group (discussion board here), and it seems to cause very conflicting reactions – unlike the first two books. My own take was just lukewarm – there are bits I liked and bits I didn’t like. But my overall impression is that it’s definitely the weakest book of the tetralogy so far. Even Mishima couldn’t avoid the “saggy middle” that seems to often happen to a book and especially a series of books. It felt like a filler, something in between an exciting beginning (book 1), peak (book 2), and the (possibly exciting) ending (book 4). Makes me wonder, do we need a middle at all? Why don’t we just cut the middle of everything?

So in The Temple of Dawn, the readers are brought to Thailand and India at the early chapters – which I actually quite enjoyed, before going back to Japan. Mishima used the settings to explore the roots and other branches of Buddhism, including Hinduism. He went into the history and philosophy of those religions, which I could see the reasons of, considering the series is all about transmigration. But it doesn’t bring much into the narrative. It’s meandering and self-indulgent, and I’m not sure how much I remember of it at the end.

Unlike the previous two books that concentrate on Kiyoaki and Kiyoaki reincarnate, The Temple of Dawn dwells on Honda, who is frankly a boring character compared to any form of Kiyoaki. This time Honda believes that he has encountered his friend in the form of a Thai princess, who is somewhat still related to the two Thai princes appeared in Spring Snow.

The book is divided into two parts, separated by untold years of World War II. I initially thought WWII would take central stage in book 3 or 4, but apparently it was just swept under the rug. The princess is 7 years old in part 1, Honda 46 years old, and the year is 1941. Part 2 is set 11 years later in 1952, Honda is 57 years old, Ying Chan the princess is 18 years old.

So Kiyoaki is now in the form of female – a passive one annoyingly, and is the object of obsession of Honda. Is he symbolically attracted to “life” and the embodiment of the mysterious transmigration? Or is there a homosexual undertone there? (Mishima is largely accepted as homo or bi-sexual – though his wife would disagree.) In any way I failed to grasp the purpose of Honda’s lust in the overall narrative. He came across as an old creep. The age and gender of Kiyoaki’s form this time really hinder her to blossom into her own character like Isao, who was at the peak of his life. As Kiyo reincarnate gets younger and younger, I wonder how his last form will contribute to the narrative. Those who have read all books in the series hinted that the last book makes the whole journey worthwhile. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Mee’s rating: 3/5

My first book for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge – now in its 11th year!

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