The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Month: January, 2016

Harvard Review, #47

I received the Harvard Review as part of my Journal of the Month subscription. I must say most of it I found boring. The stories and essays, for the most part, did not grab my attention. At least one I skipped after four pages of droll. The others I struggled through, trying to get something out them, trying to figure out what I was missing. The poetry also felt lacking, though I often feel that, but I came across three poems, two poets, that struck me deeply, and 3/20 isn’t too bad a success rate in my experience.

I will admit that getting sucked into literary magazines is hard because they jump around so much. With a collection of short stories or poetry at least the author is making a compilation for you and something, whatever makes the author unique, stays constant across the board. You can look forward to more of it. Editors of literary magazines are making compilations as well but the material is so disparate that the kind of continuity that keeps you engaged into the next piece is almost impossible to create.

The poems I loved were by Anya Silver (Maid Maleen and Snow White) and Charles Harper Webb (People Think That I’m a Gourmet Chef).

There was a story at the end about a Bangladeshi immigrant in Queens that was incredibly striking and sad and had amazing voice and narrative (by Martin Cloutier). And one of the first stories about a woman trying to get her child into daycare also did a great job with voice and tone though the narrative was not as strong (by Johanna Berkman).


When Women Were Birds

By Terry Tempest Williams.

I bought this book on a whim at a warehouse sale. I bought it because I realized that I had only picked up books by men and I want to read more female authors. I bought it because the first page intrigued me. I bought it because the cover recommendation is from Anne Lamott.

The book read like poetry: soft, evocative, almost subconscious. Terry begins by telling you that her mother left her all her journals. After her mother died she went to read the journals, only to discover they were blank. From there the book dips and dives into various parts of Terry’s life, mostly in chronological order, but all surrounding this question of voice, specifically the voice of women, specifically the voice of her mother.

I loved the book. It was a beautiful, meditative read full of gems of wisdom and poignancy. Terry is many things I am not: raised in the Mormon faith, at home close to and in the wilderness, a women who can identify birds. Yet this did not stand me apart from her. I still thought she was talking to me.

Her treatment of religion was especially interesting. Though she never explicitly discusses a loss of faith it is clear that she is no longer tied to the Mormon teachings and that she feels part of many religions and many gods. Again, though this could easily have bothered me it did not. In fact her approach almost mimics my own: that religious stories are mythology we use to understand our lives.

The moment Eve bit into the Apple, her eyes opened and she became free. She exposed the truth of what every woman knows: to find our sovereign voice often requires a betrayal. We just have to make certain we do not betray ourselves. For a woman or man to speak from the truth of their heart is to break taboo. The mask is removed. The snake who tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit was not the devil but her own instinctive nature saying, Honor your hunger and feed yourself. -When Women Were Birds

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

By Robin Sloan.

I loved this book, though I had a lot of problems with it. I thought the characters were presented poorly, described more as you might describe someone at a party full of computer scientists (Mark used to work at Google but now runs his own start-up selling perfect toroid bagels) than as you can using words in a book (Mark might do something that shows you something about his character). For a while I did not like the main character because he felt shallow and fame-grabbing. And the circumstances of the story felt made up. They are, of course, it’s fiction, but I had a hard time suspending my disbelief for a while. I stuck around because the plot was incredibly intriguing and I ended up getting to know the characters and liking them more, believing in them as people. And the plot was great. It delivered on all accounts.

Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow

By Banana Yoshimoto.

Kitchen is the novel and Moonlight Shadow is the novella companion, hardly more than a short story. They are the debut stories of a Japanese author. She picked the name Banana for herself as her pen name. Kitchen is quirky and strange, the voice just a little off somehow, perhaps it’s the translation. The main character had a personality that took me a while to find, but the story was great, the twists and turns not the focus but the background for the main character’s development.

I enjoyed Moonlight Shadow much more, though perhaps Kitchen prepared me for the style and I was more receptive to it. It was incredibly sad with a touch of magic realism that was almost… not beside the point or unnecessary but not the key to the story’s success. I cried for a long time afterward, the sadness of the story bringing out other sadnesses in myself.

The Master of Go

By Yasunari Kawabata. Translated from Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker.

This novel chronicles the last Go game of the Master of Go in Japan as he takes on a younger challenger. It’s actually mostly true, and Kawabata reported on the game for a newspaper at the time. A co-worker has been teaching a couple of us at work how to play Go, so I had a little bit of context for understanding the game which is occasionally detailed in diagrams. Specific moves are discussed in the book. I had trouble following the game in any kind of technical capacity, but I followed the game emotionally as Kawabata lays it out. I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed the book as much if I had no understanding of the game. I think I would have.

Which is to say I loved the book. The writing style is sparse and the chapters are short. Much of the book is about the physical ailments of the competitors, especially the Master who must take a months-long recess in the middle because of a heart condition and eventually dies one year after the game. It’s also about the various rules and recesses they have on top of the actual rules of the game. Because the game takes many months and is so physically intense for the players they set up procedures for breaking and returning, all of which is a kind of meta-game on top on the purity of placing pieces on the board. This is actually part metaphor for the new players of go. For the Master is it almost absurdity and the thought of strategizing the meta-game is offensive.

The game is described as a work of art and the players as artists. The book is rich with simple language but it also does not profess to higher meaning that it does not directly address. At one point, when the Master’s opponent Otake wants to forfeit because he does not want to challenge the Master as he dies, Kawabata (as Uragami in the book) details his opinions of what the game means in hopes of convincing Otake to continue. These opinions are rife with explanations of larger cultural implications of this particular game.

There is something beautiful and deeply engaging about the book that I don’t fully understand how Kawabata achieved. Something about the simple straight-forward writing, the selection of details, the way you know at the beginning that the Master loses but still are gripped by the unfolding. I want to write like that.