Book Review: The Last Lover by Can Xue

Can Xue is becoming one of my favorite writers. She’s a surreal writer from China, and when I say surreal, I mean, if you imagine Haruki Murakami being a 3/10 in terms of otherworldly content, she’s a 10. Her stories quickly lose sight of reality and enter their own horrific dream worlds. In English, her best-known work is her novel Five Spice Street, but I prefer The Last Lover, winner of the 2015 Best Translated Book Award.

It starts out simple enough: Joe, a sales manager at a clothing store, who wants to mentally link all the books he’s ever read in his head so that he can always be reading. His wife, Maria, is has mystical problems of her own, and both Joe’s boss and a customer of his are having issues with spouses and lovers.

Locations repeat, people become animals, ghosts appear, and characters visit cities that are entirely underground. Though most of the characters have overarching stories, most chapters are episodic. Present throughout (and linking everything together) is the theme of love and what it means to these people.

There’s not too much else to say. Can Xue’s writing is like a kaleidoscopic dream. And much like dreams, describing it to other people is just boring. You have to read it yourself to experience it. It’s not for everyone, but it’s now one of my favorites.

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A Young Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway needs no introduction. His minimalistic stylistic innovations won him the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes and are still influential almost a hundred years later. Not only that, but his first full-length novel, The Sun Also Rises, established him as a major force in literature and some consider it his best work today. I recently read two volumes of a Hemingway biography, The Young Hemingway and The Paris Years by Michael S. Reynolds, and was struck by just how motivational a figure Hemingway was. Even if you dislike his social views or his larger than life persona, there’s a lot to learn from his discipline and early failures.

After serving in World War 1 as an ambulance, driver falling in love with a nurse, he returned to his family in Illinois and tried to piece back his shell-shocked life. Overseas, he had mentioned to the nurse that he was a writer, and he was determined to professionally publish something so that his lie would become reality.

But as their relationship fell apart, he continued writing and sending off his stories to places like the Saturday Evening Post. Although he wrote voluminously, all were rejected. They were, for the most part, non-autobiographical tales written in imitation of the popular writers of the day like Kipling and Sherwood Anderson and bad poems. He also started a novel based on his life in the war and with the nurse and worked on it intermittently. At the same time, he found work as a journalist, honing his skills for papers, but he considered this hackwork.

Eventually, he found another girl, Hadley, married her, and soon after attracted the attention of Sherwood Anderson. He advised the young writer to go to Paris, where the cost of living was a lot less, and where many artists were shacking up. He gave them a couple of letters of introduction to people like Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach, and then the couple was off in 1922.

Hadley had a trust fund that would have enabled them to live, albeit just above the poverty line, with no work, but Hemingway refused and kept doing journalism, and traveled to Germany and Turkey and Greece to cover stories. All the while he kept writing–until tragedy struck.

While traveling, Hadley was supposed to meet him, bringing with her a valise filled with his stories, but somehow, somewhere in the crowded train and station, she lost it. Hemingway was heartbroken: other than on story (Up in Michigan) and some juvenilia he had outgrown, every story he had written along with his novel had vanished. He revised Up in Michigan a bit, but due its sexual content, it took a while for it to see print.

But the good news was soon after he finally got a book deal. It was not a glamorous publishing house, in fact, it was practically a vanity press printing, and the book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, sold less than ten copies in Paris. His next book, in our time, received similar press. And although he was starting to make a name for himself in literary circles in Paris, few magazines would take his work. His first big story publication, Indian Camp, was published in The Transatlantic Review, where he sat on the editorial board. Another short story collection followed, entitled In Our Time (with capital letters this time), and while it won praise from critics, the day when Hemingway would be able to earn decent money from his writing was still a few years away.

His break out novel came out in 1926, 8 years after 1918 when he had returned to Illinois and begun toiling away almost everyday. Although he is falling from critical favor now, he still provides a good lesson on staying motivated. If you don’t quit writing, one day you’ll see publication. Just don’t get discouraged when it takes you multiple years.

Book Review: Zoo Story and The Sandbox by Edward Albee

These are technically two plays, not one, but Zoo Story is a one act and The Sandbox is super short, so they get put together for this write up. They were both written by the amazing author Edward Albee, best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Whenever people complain about how Philip Roth has never won the Nobel I always roll my eyes–because of Albee. He truly is an amazing writer.

Zoo Story was his first published play. In it, a well-to-do businessman sits on a park bench in Central Park when an alienated odd ball walks by and insists he talks to him because he’s just been to the zoo. From there, their conversation gets philosophical, personal, and, towards the end, tragic. It’s on the surface its reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, but deeper down it’s its own singular piece.

The Sandbox is a bit more out there. A young man is performing calisthenics in the corner of the stage as three people–a married couple and one of their mothers, who’s approaching senility–come on and relax at the “sandbox.” Eventually, the couple leaves behind the mother–and things only get stranger from there.

Both of these are excellent examples of the “theater of the absurd,” but The Sandbox can be a too much for some people (it was critically panned when it first came out). Zoo Story may not be the classic that Virginia Woolf is, but it’s still one in the “Albee canon.” Albee is not to be missed.

Book Review: The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

Those of you who have never read Camus’ The Stranger, go read that now. Those of you who have already done that, consider reading this book.

It’s a post-colonial tale of what happened in The Stranger, with the senseless murder of an Arab (“because the sun’s light was too bright”) operating at its fulcrum. That Arab, unnamed and of little consequence in the Camus beyond being a plot device, is the protagonist’s older brother here.

The book opens with an old man narrating his story to a journalist at a bar. He tells of his brother’s murder, how his mother and he dealt with it, what they did when they found out the murderer was a celebrity (in this universe, The Stranger was published as a work of nonfiction), and how the investigation never offers them any relief. There is a loose plot, which creeps dangerously close to the story of The Stranger, but for the most part it reads as a rant. For anyone who’s read any Antonio Lobo-Antunes, the same caustic anger can be found throughout here. But not the wild, Faulknerian prose. Although this book has a bit more poeticism to it than Camus, this book is told in language simple enough to be reminiscent of Camus’ writing.

This set up could get old very quickly, but luckily Daoud wrote a book that also mirrors The Stanger in terms of length: it clocked in at about 150 pages with large print in my copy.

While I don’t think it’s likely this will go on to be the world classic The Stranger is, it is definitely a must read for fans of Camus and those interested in post colonialism. Highly recommended.

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest work, The Buried Giant, is an odd book. It has a fantasy setting, but it’s more literary and slow than any other novel in the genre I’ve read. It has an interesting plot, but it takes a while to puzzle out what’s really going on.

The basic premise is that a fog of forgetfulness has fallen over the land of England–not England as it is now, but rather the England of Arthurian legend. Axl and Beatrice are an old couple living on the outskirts of a town. They are treated poorly by the residents, but no one seems to remember what could have brought this on. They decide to leave in order to go see their son, who they vaguely remember and think is nearby. Along the way, they encounter ogres, knights, and Saxons (who despise the Britons), and gain some companions.

All of this is told in Ishiguro’s typical artful prose, which is neither too purple not too minimal.

But while it does feature some excellent meditations on death and love, the plot itself is a bit lacking. The main story turns out not to revolve around the old couple but rather some of their new friends, and by spending more time with Axl and Beatrice, the plot ends up a lot slower and more underdeveloped than necessary. There’s definitely a good story with them, but it would have been more fit for a short piece or novella than the better part of a novel.

If you haven’t already, definitely read The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, his two masterpieces. If you like them, move on to this. Even if you are a big fan of fantasy and want to get acquainted with Ishiguro through this one, I would say hold off and check out his others. This is neither an amazing Ishiguro or fantasy book (although it certainly is worth a read).