“There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby”

There Once Lived a Woman

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

The first English-translated collection from prominent Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, selected and translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. I read a 2009 Penguin paperback (from the library).

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3 out of 5 stars (average).

Times Read: 1

The Introduction explains: From over a hundred stories we chose pieces with a common fantastic or mystical element (…) The stories in this volume were composed over the last thirty-plus years, but many of them are from the past decade (p.x).

As an entry to Petrushevskaya’s writing, this may have been a mistake. The collection becomes repetitive in mood and execution with a majority of stories ending on “it was all a dream”/ “dead the whole time” motifs. Full-on dream logic is frustrating; if anything can happen at any moment, there’s no tension other than wondering when the protagonist will realize they are asleep/dead. Also, unfortunately, some stories feel like confusing translations rather than an expression of Petrushevskaya’s style.

The language and plots have a timeless simplicity, making most stories feel like they could exist anywhere in the 19th or 20th century, but then Petrushevskaya surprises with the occasional reference to a cassette tape player or cell phone.

There are gems in here and most stories work on their own, it’s putting them up against so many of the same that weakens them. But the stories are so short that the duds breeze by. Continue reading

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“The Vegetarian”

The Vegetarian

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Han Kang’s 2007 novel of novellas and winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. I read a 2015 first edition in English published by Hogarth and translated by Deborah Smith (and carried by my always-excellent library).

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4.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

Seen the Movie: No.

The Plot:

Three novellas follow the fallout in Yeong-hye’s family after dreams convince her to stop eating meat.

I don’t know how to categorize The Vegetarian. It contains much more than I can convey after a single reading in a single review. We’ve got satire, allegory, horror, family drama, depression, and eroticism. It can be enjoyed for its literal, on-the-page plot or studied for broader themes and meaning.

Each part follows a different figure in Yeong-hye’s life (we only hear her thoughts in brief italicized sections in the first section):

Her husband: a selfish man more concerned with how Yeong-hye’s behavior will look in public than her safety.

Her brother-in-law: a struggling artist who becomes sexually obsessed with her.

Her older sister: a mother and career woman fighting her own nightmares while trying to make sense of her sister’s increasingly dangerous behavior.

Han does not spell out answers and motivations – the characters themselves don’t wholly understand their own reactions and behavior. And though the story of a woman rejecting all meat – even her own – seems bizarre, it is realistically handled to the point where the characters (and readers) will be shaken by how thin the edge of socially-defined sanity is.

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“Hotel Iris”

Hotel Iris

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Yoko Ogawa’s 2006 novel, translated in 2010 by Stephen Snyder. I read a Picador paperback from the library.

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3 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Seventeen-year-old Mari enters a violent relationship with a sixty-seven-year-old translator.

Parts of Hotel Iris are much better than 3 stars but the things that bother me are enough to drag my overall rating down. Ogawa’s clean, simple style is incredibly intelligent and readable. But the central relationship is disturbing and there are upsetting, graphic scenes of sexual violence.

I am not against BDSM between consenting adults with established trust. But Mari never verbally consents to the relationship; up until the last sex scene between her and the translator, she pleads, “Stop! (…) Please stop! You’re hurting me!” (p.156). Her calm mental narrative tells us that she does not want it to stop, that she is taking pleasure in the abuse, but by never verbalizing it, this story reinforces the terrible idea that women actually mean yes when they say no. Mari and the translator have no safe word, no way to communicate consent. It’s a frighteningly unhealthy relationship.

Many of Ogawa’s protagonists are disturbed, though they never question their actions or mental health. They are what they are and do not apologize or wonder about the reasons. It’s fascinating.

Other aspects of Hotel Iris are incredible; images and scenes will stay with me. The prose is so smooth, the images so vivid and strong, that I also have to give huge credit to Ogawa’s translator, Stephen Snyder. Continue reading

“Pinball, 1973”

Pinball, 1973

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Haruki Murakami’s second novel, released in 1980, a year after his debut Hear the Wind Sing. I read a 2015 Knopf hardcover that combines Wind with Pinball, both translated by Ted Goossen (and borrowed from the library).

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2 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Meandering stories about a translator living with twins and the Rat, who enjoys a relationship with a woman, then cuts it off and skips town for no apparent reason.

You might notice the steep rating drop between Wind and Pinball. Maybe it was a bad idea to read them back-to-back but even if I took time off, Pinball couldn’t rival Wind. The narrative never settles. It begins with the line I enjoyed listening to stories about faraway places so much that it became kind of a sickness (p.105), goes on to talk very specifically and seriously about an ex-girlfriend named Naoko, then mentions neither element again. A few pages later, the book attempts to restart, with the heading ON THE BIRTH OF PINBALL, then takes another sixty pages to bring up pinball again.

The secondary plot deals with the character the Rat, whose sort-of epilogue at the end of Wind has been retconned. His story never intersects with the narrator’s. In fact, the two are only mentioned together on page 183, in a sort of flashback. The Rat is still visiting J’s bar but our narrator (who doesn’t at all seem like the narrator from Hear the Wind Sing) is four hundred miles away. I don’t understand why the stories are in the same book.

The pattern of ennui, drinking, smoking, sleeping, and looking in mirrors becomes tiresome, especially with no real characters inhabiting the world. The Rat’s lover is referred to only as “the woman” and we never understand why he is drawn to her or why he decides to leave. The narrator’s lovers (attractive twins who appear in his bed one morning and spend the rest of the story making him coffee, food, and baths) never speak of themselves. They have no names, no history, no personality. It’s a hollow world.

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“Hear the Wind Sing”

Hear the Wind

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Haruki Murakami’s 1979 debut. I read a 2015 edition, translated by Ted Goossen which combines Wind with Pinball, 1973 (thank you, wonderful library).

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4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 2

The Plot:

A young man drinks with his friend the Rat and meets a nine-fingered woman while on college break in August 1970.

Hear the Wind Sing is more novella than novel, more stream-of-consciousness than narrative. There’s no real conflict but instead the kind of Deep Thoughts one has in their early twenties. There’s the tragic, mysterious girl who cries on our narrator’s shoulder, there’s the rich best friend who drinks too much. There’s our narrator, who is told by the friendly neighborhood bartender, “You’re a sweet kid, but part of you seems – how should I put this? – above it all, like a Zen monk or something…” (p.71).

Hear the Wind Sing is a lackadaisical beatnik Kerouacian On the Road-type piece of work, but I like it a lot. I read it for the first time in my early twenties, and that’s the best time to put it in someone’s hands. The prose is simple and non-showy, which I appreciate; the story is pleasant and the narrator more likeable than anyone I ever found in Kerouac.

Murakami also has a more humorous approach than the usual self-important beatnik author and there’s an element of Vonnegut in his shifts from topic to topic and short chapter structure. There’s even an invented pulp-novelist in the style of Kilgore Trout (see note [27]). And, like Yoko Ogawa (see intro notes for Revenge), Murakami avoids assigning full names to his characters: we get “I,” “the girl with nine fingers,” “the Rat,” “J,” etc. Continue reading