Month: August 2016

Coin Locker Babies by Ryū Murakami

Ryū Murakami’s novel Coin Locker Babies was published in 1980, a fact that surprised me when I learned it just a few moments ago. It is certainly not timestamped -I would have believed that this book had been published at any time between 1970 and the present. It is also rather surreal (not unlike the works of a certain other Murakami in that regard) but I would have assumed that it pulled quite a bit of its inspiration from the counterculture fiction of the mid-80s and the 90s, from William Gibson, from the splatterpunk movement, and so forth. Maybe Ryū Murakami was synthesizing the same kinds of inspiration in a similar way, or maybe the underground Japanese fiction of this era was a partial influence on the way certain subsets of Western counterculture writing started to go. Having not yet even begun to gestate at the time all this was taking place, and not being especially familiar with the direction of influence, I leave my wondering at that.

Coin Locker Babies is very dark and very strange. It employs both traditional realism and the extreme and surreal in such a way as to leave the reader disoriented and unsure -it’s an unreliable narrative, with no unreliable narrator to fixate on on to contextualize away the uncertainty. This is a powerful narrative technique, although it can sometimes leave the reader feeling a bit at a remove from the narration. The story is also nihilistic to such a degree that the characters, who are well-rounded and interesting, are also set off at a distance. We care what happens to them, but more out of curiosity than anything else. There is no investment and there is no sense of urgency.

While most of what I’ve said above might be construed as negative, the combined effects synthesize well. This book’s component parts fit well together, and the end result is both engrossing and inclined to provoke a deeper examination -a hard marriage to achieve. I blew through the last 180 pages of small, tight typeface in a single sitting, unable to put the thing down, and that doesn’t happen to me often.

Recommendation: Read it, but maybe take a pass if you are squeamish or have a compulsive need to find the people in your books to be “likable” or “relatable”.

bone -Yrsa Daley-Ward

My fiancee found this particular collection on Amazon, and recommended it highly. I’ve been reading a lot more contemporary poetry in the last few years, but it’s still very much unfamiliar ground for me. bone is an independently published collection of poetry, available both in print and at a very attractive price as a Kindle Edition (which is how we read it). Almost all self/”independently”-published poetry collections are very bad, but bone is clearly one of those exceptions that prove the rule.

Yrsa Daley-Ward’s poetry is both lyrical and highly narrative, reminiscent in effect, if not in style, of Raymond Carver’s story-poems. These poems are autobiographical, and together they function not only as verse but as memoir. They are very, very good, and they hit you like something with some serious kinetic density. Much like reading Cormac McCarthy, I had to stop and sit for a while after many of these individual poems, and again after finishing the collections and feeling their collective weight.

While there is no doubt an interesting conversation to be had about Amazon, about publishing in general and the self-publishing of poems in particular, I don’t want to talk about that right now. However this collection made it out into the world, it did, and it’s fantastic -this has become my new all-time favorite collection of contemporary poetry. I tried to contact Yrsa Daley-Ward to express my feelings of admiration and to inquire as to where I could obtain here previously published short story collection, (out of print and unavailable) but she only seems to be available on Twitter. Maybe this means I’ll have to take the plunge and Tweet myself.

Recommendation: Go buy it, go read it! Fucking hell, these poems are good.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00MNSONQE/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

A Book of Uncommon Prayer

Reading Log favorite Matthew Vollmer edited this particular anthology, an artifact that began as a personal writing project and expanded to include the work of many writers. Everything in here is a variant of a prayer, specifically, an uncommon one, a prayer for people watching airline safety demonstrations, for people seeing their new home in the harsh light of objectivity, for people who bought Brazilian waxes on Groupon. Some of these prayers are very funny, some of them reveal an upsetting reality, some of them are simply thoughtful or meditative.

As will be the case with any anthology, some of these pieces didn’t do much for me, but the vast majority ranged between decent and excellent. Verbalizations are often an indicator of how deeply I am engaging with a book, and there were both audible laughings and muttered “fucks”. There were at least a dozen or so prayers in here that really stuck -not a bad ratio at all.

The rather novel conceit of this collection seems to have forced writers to either adapt existing work or to stretch themselves into a slightly different form, and with generally excellent results. I would recommend reading this collection over a week or two at minimum, rather than blasting through. The format holds up best when you aren’t subjecting it to a binge.
Recommendation: Buy it, read it. Very solid and diverse collection that does something different without trying too desperately to be different.

http://www.outpost19.com/UncommonPrayer/

Dostoyevsky, The Gambler, and all the Big Important Russian Novels

I still have not read any of the Russian behemoths, but my experiences with the novellas of Tolstoy and now Dostoyevsky are making that a rather untenable position. The Gambler is as good a short novel as any, a masterclass in the writing of scenes and in the propulsion of plot. While certain stylistic anachronisms -the heavy use of cliffhanger chapter endings and exclamation marks, for example- read a bit badly, the book itself is a pleasure. The narrator isn’t fully “unreliable” in the modern sense of the trope, but his narrative is incomplete, seeming to lack certain unflattering details.

The Gambler also deserves high raise for its depiction of the act of gambling itself. Dostoyevsky was a compulsive player, and we even owe the existence of this book itself to one of his gambling debts, so his way of describing the play, the emotions and motivations behind it -it all rings very true. But to compliment his scenes of gaming as mere descriptive fidelity would be to far miss their value -the reader is powerfully drawn in by both the narrative and the way in which that narrative is accounted. Suspense is never used cheaply, and there is a compelling sense of urgency and immediacy in the reading which mirrors the frenetic need for play being depicted. And the strict absence of any superficial moralizing makes the moral and philosophical considerations here stand more proudly upright.

Whenever I find myself in the position of reviewing some part of the literary canon, I feel limited in what I might say. These reading logs are short and superficial by design -I can’t say anything in this medium that has not already been said many times about Dostoyevsky’s ability with prose. And, having read little else of his, I can’t make this a comparative review. The Gambler was a wonderful introduction, and I eagerly anticipate reading more.

Recommendation: Read it!