Book Reviews: Melancholy and Melancholy II by Jon Fosse

Norwegian painter Lars Hertervig, an actual real-life figure who struggled with schizophrenia and only found widespread success after his death, is the focus of Jon Fosse’s “Melancholy.” Here’s one of his works. “Melancholy” is split up into three sections. The first and by far largest follows one day of him as a young man, struggling to make it as an artist and studying at a German academy for art. He’s too afraid to go to the school that day, reasoning that while he is one of the few there who can actually paint, the teacher will probably hate his work-in-progress. To complicate matters, he’s in love with his landlord’s daughter and his strange behavior towards her is getting him kicked out, and both of these events seem to trigger a schizophrenic episode (presumably one of his first).

The story is narrated in a stream of conscious style on steroids. I’ve seen a lot of reviews quote large sections of text in order to illustrate but I won’t. In pieces, it seems annoying. Taken altogether, instead it’s a fascinating and intense examination of a brilliant, troubled mind. At times it really does feel like you’re reading someone’s thoughts. It isn’t for everyone, but if you can handle it, you’re in for a wild ride.

The second part again takes place on a single day. A few years have passed. Lars is locked away in an asylum, still fantasizing about the landlord’s daughter and dreaming of escape. Once again, Fosse provides a gripping psychological portrait that proves irresistible.

The third section is a change of pace. It’s set in the late 1980s/early 1990s and follows a writer considering writing a novel on Hertervig. Depression, though, has stopped his pen, and he is going to a young priest to see if religion might lift his spirits. This easily could have become a postmodern curiosity, not at all in line with the rest of the book, but although it seems to be taken from Fosse’s own life, he maintains the same style and same intensity to make it the perfect ending. This part does not “properly” end the threads of Hertervig’s life but it does explore art and wraps up everything on a thematic level.

An odd way to end the book, one not every writer could pull off, but Fosse expertly watches his step. Highly recommended, one of the best books I’ve read all year.

A year after “Melancholy” was published, Fosse wrote “Melancholy II,” a coda to the previous novel. Though a lot shorter than its predecessor, it covers just as much if not more ground. It follows one of Lars’s sisters over the course of, again, a single day years after his original breakdown. Lars is dead; she is a senile old lady just barely managing on her own. It opens with her sister-in-law asking her to come see her dying brother (not Lars), she agreeing, and then, in her old age, completely forgetting and instead losing herself in reminisce about Lars.

The prose here is changed, more in line with Fosse’s usual style of long but simply-worded sentences rather than the intensity of “Melancholy.” For those put off by the original, “Melancholy II” can be understood on its own, although there is a lot to be gained here by reading the books in order.

Fosse manages to weave human existence into this short bit of space. It’s haunting in the best of ways, at times gross (elderly people do not have the best control over bodily functions) but never unnecessarily so, never only for shock value.

If only more of Fosse’s books were available in English.

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Book Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season is the very deserving winner of the 2016 Hugo award for best novel. It takes place in a fantasy world where every few hundred years a cataclysmic, multi-year long disaster will happen, much like a miniature extinction event. The book starts as another is beginning. “Magic” in this world works by controlling earth, and most people cannot be taught: you either have the gift or don’t. these people are feared and reviled, kept away from society in their own slave-like community.

I won’t say much more about the book itself, because I went in cold, not knowing what to expect, and came away exhilarated so I don’t want to say too much. The world-building is incredibly interesting. And the plot…I remember as a teenager reading a ton of fantasy books and reaching parts where it would be almost painful to tear myself away from the action. That’s like the whole second half of this novel. Just go out and read it, it’s one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in a long time.

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, wants to mentally link all the books he’s ever read in his head so that he can always be reading. His wife, Maria, 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.

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 no matter your tastes, it’s worth checking out.

Book Review: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

A few weeks ago I reviewed Samuel R. Delany’s enigmatic book, “The Einstein Intersection.” Today, I’m going over another one of his New Wave novels–no, not “Dhalgren” (though that will appear on here eventually)–but “Babel-17.” Written when he was just 23 years old, it tied with “Flowers for Algernon” for Best Novel at the Nebulas in 1967.

Even at a young age, Delany writes in a beautiful poetic prose. The world of the book is also fascinating. The premise is that far in the future, during an interstellar war, Earth’s side begins to pick up bizarre radio signals during attacks. They christen this code, or language, as Babel-17, and enlist a genius poet/linguist to crack it. Along the way, she gets an oddball crew of her own to pilot a ship to help her in her quest to solve the mystery.

The problem is just how interesting this world is. Between ghosts, poetry, people genetically modified to resemble dragons, Delany’s world is brimming with life, but at only 180 pages, there’s inadequate time to fully explore everything. I also was a little disappointed with the ending, but for the exact opposite reason. Delaney explains everything about Babel-17 and the attacks and–it’s a bit anti-climatic. A part of me feels like it would have been much better had Delany left a bit more mystery there.

But “Babel-17” is still a hell of a read. It confirmed Delane as one of my favorite writers and is never a chore to read. It’s not perfect, but it is a great book.

Book Review: The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany

The New Wave movement in science fiction was an attempt at composing more “literary” genre books: less escapism, more beautiful writing and deep themes. Writers associated with this include Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, and many others. Among them, one of the most prominent was also one of the youngest: Samuel R. Delany, who won a Nebula award for best novel when he was only 24. In these earlyish works, his prose reads like pure poetry and the ideas behind his books are incredibly thought provoking. “Babel-17,” the book that won the award, explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language effects how we think and express ourselves. His follow up, published just a year later, would win him a second Nebula.

“The Einstein Intersection” is the New Wave at the New Waviest. It’s the story of aliens who have come to live on Earth and live out humanity’s myths. The main plot follows a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, but there are also biblical hints of Jesus, the Minotaur, and contemporary figures who presumably got myth status in the future (like Ringo Starr). Preceding each chapter are quotes from philosophers and occasional passages from Delany’s journal as he wrote this.

My only reservation about this is the length. It’s more novella than novel with around 140 pages. It’s incredible just how much Delany can get out of that few pages but I would have liked to see more of the interesting world he built, with three genders, dragon wranglers, genetic mutations, and, of course, the myths.

Fans of light, adventurous science fiction will probably not like this. There are a few action scenes but they are never the focus. Upon a first read, most people will probably be confused at a number of parts, especially the ending. When it first came out and garnered acclaim, there was a fair amount of backlash labeling it “pretentious literary nonsense” (and other New Wave books as well). Even at his most tame, Delany is still controversial (and this is by far Delany at his most tame. His later works are…pornographic).

Though I cannot bring myself to recommend this to everyone, if you’re intrigued by the premise, check it out. One of the best I’ve read this year.

Book Review: Catherine Certitude by Patrick Modiano

Not the definitive Modiano novel, but my library had it so I thought why not. This is Modiano, chronicler of the dark Occupation, reporter of the Holocaust, and speaker for those who no longer can, doing a children’s book. And it has nice, whimsical pictures, like something out of Roald Dahl. (Plus the short length doesn’t hurt!)

The story, if you can call it that, is about a grown ballet teacher reminiscing about her childhood in Paris, after her mother had immigrated to the US and it was just her and her father. Her father and his snobbish partner run a shady company that Catherine doesn’t know much about. All she knows is that various loose ends with it are the reason they can’t join her mother. So her days mostly consist of her going to school, going to her dance class, and doing homework in her father’s warehouse.

And, heads up, the rest of this review will have spoilers, as most of my problems with this book are there.

For fans of Modiano, this is a decent outing, with some memorable characters and scenes. However, in typical fashion, he answers very few if any of the questions he asks. This is less a narrative than a series of memories, few of which build on each other, and as a result, it’s missing something, some impetus to drive things along. There is hardly any conflict in the book. Sure, her and her dad want to go to America and Catherine would like to see her mother again, but so little of the mother is seen it takes a backseat to the relationship between Catherine and her father. And between them there is no conflict. At a party where her father is trying to make business contacts that he thinks will finally get them to America and fails, Catherine feels bad for him, but other than that, it’s smooth sailing between them.

Catherine herself does very little. She has her dance classes, and at one point she makes a friend who invites her and her father to the party mentioned above, but that whole arc just reads like it’s there to remind readers they want to leave France. The friend soon moves away, the people the father meets do not help them, and it is never mentioned again after. One day the father is suddenly free to leave and they then leave.

That’s it. Nothing is answered, which Modiano can pull off in his adult books, but here for a book meant for kids…well, I can’t see any kid being happy with this book. Even girls into ballet might find the dancing bits fun, but would definitely think the rest of the story an enigma. The lack of narrative-drive hurts it. Although the main conflict should be about them getting to America, it reads more like a meditation about her father’s mysterious job, but Catherine herself doesn’t actually dedicate too much time pondering over what it might be he does—it’s tough to imagine a child getting invested in this.

I’ll give this book two ratings. I’m not super well-versed in children’s lit, but I did spend a summer at a children’s fiction publishing firm, so this first rating is for kids. I really can’t see too many kids liking it for the story itself, although, again, those pictures are awesome. One star for kids.

As a fan of Modiano, I’ll be a bit more generous. It has all the hallmarks of his writing, and while they end up being much less satisfactory here than in his other books, it’s still decent fare. If you’re a fan of Modiano’s writing, it is worth a look. You can blaze through it in 45 minutes, so you’ll be done long before you decide you don’t like it. Three stars for fans.

Book Review: Danube by Claudio Magris

Though marketed in some editions as a novel, this is anything but. Taking a trip down the Danube River from its source down to its end as a springboard, this unorthodox travelogue (in which Magris himself barely figures) examines landmarks, historical events, and philosophical and literary ideas based around the waterway. Topics vary from Celine and Hegel to beer and Bulgarian bandits, from well-knowns to people obscure even to those with PHDs.

It’s impossible to discuss all the themes and ideas presented in here, as it’s basically a cultural biography of the region, but if pressed to identify one, identity plays a huge part. Identity is one of those big themes in literature, and many a writer has set out to record on it in all kinds of manners. But this is a wholly original book. Historical stories on ancient peoples migrating and assimilating throughout the ages populate it, and as far as writers go, it seemed like Elias Canetti and IB Singer came up the most regardless of the specific areas Magris finds himself in, two once great giants of literature who lived all over Europe and America. This is one of those rare books where subject and theme align perfectly, like they were made for each other.

It’s slow going at times. There is no real plot or conflict to motivate the reader to read on. And yet, each day, I would pick up this book and read a few pages (it’s so dense, expect to take your time with this). The prose is beautiful, poetic, but this is definitely not for everyone, especially those who just want escapism from their reads.

Encyclopedic in scope, I’d like to recommend this book but I can’t actually think of anyone in real life I know who would like it. DANUBE is not the kind of book you can pick up and quickly power through; it needs to be read slowly, let your attention meander like the river, look up some other books as you make your way through this one. If you are the kind of reader look past the lack of a traditional story into the history or philosophy or literature, the type of reader who likes to be challenged, this is for you.

Book Review: The Poet by Yi Mun-yol

A young boy’s grandfather is posted as a governor in a northern province in 18th century Korea. A rebellion breaks out and in order to save his life, the grandfather betrays the state and joins their cause. The uprising is soon routed, the grandfather executed, and the family he leaves behind is condemned to death. After years of hiding, the sentence is commuted, but their land remains confiscated and the mark of shame follows them everywhere.

From this guilt-ridden background, the young boy’s poetic developments begin, and, despite winning a rural poetry competition at age 19, this Künstlerroman is far from over.

This boy is a real figure in Korean literature, a famous poet named Kim Sakkat. Unfortunately, little of his work has made the translation jump into English (I can find only one collection of his poems available on Amazon). Still, readers need not know the poet’s life story to enjoy this.

The artist’s journey has been done before, but the focus of this one prevents it from getting stale. Lots of moments in the poet’s life are mentioned in passing: fleeting moments with his family, his marriage—even his death barely gets a mention. The important thing here is his poetic maturation and how his grandfather’s crime affects him. The emphasis isn’t coincidental: soon after the Korean war, Yi Mun-yol’s father defected to the North and his family experienced similar treatment at the hands of others. Not too much biographical information on the writer is available in English, but it seems he dropped out of college and for the most part educated himself, also like Kim Sakkat.

In terms of action, it is a bit light. Much of the conflict resides in either the family struggling to hide their scandalous past or in Kim’s development as a writer. That said, anyone who likes to read books about books or poems or appreciates stories of self-discovery like Hermann Hesse will find more than enough here to keep reading. The short length also helps keep the story from dragging.

The language is at times distant and academic, but there are points where the prose soars to heights just as poetic as Kim’s work. Sprinkled throughout are poems that I believe Kim Sakkat actually wrote. Reading them translated was a whole different experience than what they’re like in Korean, but they are still enjoyable and reminiscent of some Chinese poets, like Du Fu.

Though I’m posting this now, I actually read THE POET last year. And what a book. Though not for everyone, it was definitely one of the best I read in 2015 and convinced me to dive into Korean literature. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Radish by Mo Yan

Mo Yan, controversial Nobel Prize winner, started writing soon after enlisting in the Chinese army in 1976 and published A TRANSPARENT RADISH, here simply titled RADISH, in 1984. It is one of his first published works, and it does feature some flaws typical of early books, but fans will see the writer who would soon publish RED SORGHUM stepping up to bat here (a classic he published just two years later).

Already Mo Yan’s unbridled prose energy is present here (though slightly more reigned in than in later works) and the usual themes of food and hunger waft through the text. The plot centers around a scrawny, sickly mute boy, Hei-Hai, trying (and usually failing) to perform the tasks assigned to him by a work brigade. The other main characters are the blacksmith he works under, a mason, and the maiden Juzi, who meet each other through Hei-Hai and become embroiled in a love triangle.

The novella is mostly character driven, and for that it suffers. In a book of this length it’s difficult to fully describe characters, leaving the main characters more archetypes with one or two distinguishing details than fully formed, and some side characters are one dimensional and don’t appear nearly enough. Those new to Mo Yan, beware that he does not have a kind view of humankind. His fiction is a cruel world where miserable things happen to almost everyone and even the characters the reader is supposed to root for have awful qualities. If you need a sympathetic character (or an uplifting ending), Mo Yan might not be for you.

Still, the plot never flags. I was never on the edge of my seat but I also ever wanted to put it down. I have heard that after the Nobel Prize, some high school students in China are now required to read this, and after reading, despite the flaws, it is not hard to see why. English readers, however, might get less out of this than a Chinese reader, due to cultural differences. The descriptions of the work brigade would obviously resonate more with those familiar with Chinese culture.

Interestingly, little of the magical realism that Mo Yan is famous for is present here. Other than a brief appearance by a “transparent radish,” there is nothing, and those not expecting it might be thrown off by the sudden appearance of a see-through vegetable. By the end of the text, though, the metaphor of the radish makes sense. I highlight this not because it is a negative, but rather because it hints at an early Mo Yan more grounded in reality than his later metafictional, mystical works. Considering a lot of his novels revolve around those elements, what would a realistic Mo Yan be like?

Overall, RADISH very obviously an early work, but its pros outweigh its cons by a good margin. It is probably not the best place to start exploring Mo Yan or his country’s literature, but with its cheap e-book price, anyone already acquainted with those will find something interesting here.