Tag Archives: 4 Kafkas

In the Woods of Memory, by Shun Medoruma (2009, translated by Takuma Smiley, 2017)

In the Woods of Memory tells of the rape of a teenage girl during the American occupation after the Battle of Okinawa and the subsequent attack on an American soldier by a young Japanese fisherman.  Though the novel begins in 1945, most of it takes place sixty years later as Medoruma places us in the perspectives of nine Japanese and American characters, bridging the events across time.  The novel’s real power unfolds as readers merge its events together on their own, pinnacling in the stream-of-consciousness Seiji chapter (originally written using Okinawan dialect) that evokes the most powerful modernist fiction.

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In the Woods of Memory at Stone Bridge Press

The Possessed, by Elif Batuman (2010)

Elif Batuman is a grad student in Russian literature, and these essays are about her adventures.  Aside from some dense portions related to the actual Russian literature, this book moves, due in no small part to Batuman’s dry, quick-witted humor that pokes fun at everyone from the Uzbek landlord who feeds her from an ant-covered jam jar to the elderly professor who literally shits his pants.  The real gems, however, are Batuman’s introduction on why she avoided creative writing (reminiscent of her essay “Get a Real Degree”) and her reflections on grad student obsessions—both pointed commentaries on academia.

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A Girl on the Shore, by Inio Asano (2011)

A ninth-grade girl wanders distraught after a subpar encounter with the class playboy, then seeks solace with another guy who likes her and a shit-ton of graphic middle-school sex ensues.

I’m not kidding—this manga isn’t for the squeamish, since there’s A LOT of sex here shown in close-up, and just when you think it can’t go any farther, it does.  In terms of story, Koume and Isobe’s relationship shows a lot about first love, disenchantment, and searching for something you can’t quite describe, and their confused realizations keep you guessing until the end, with stirring results.

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Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie (1911)

Another children’s classic I never actually read as a kid, the original Peter Pan holds up solidly in its story, characters, and playful writing style, but not in its cringeworthy turn-of-the-century descriptions of Native Americans. Barrie also inserts some distinct undertones for careful readers, such as the rivalry between Wendy and Tinkerbell for the clueless pre-pubescent Peter, the Darling parents’ obsession with doing everything society expects of them, and Hook’s being a former prep school kid, along with an epilogue (left out of the Disney version) that explores what it really means to outgrow the carefree adventures of youth.

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Last Words, by George Carlin (with Tony Hendra, 2009)

Carlin’s posthumous memoir (based on a decade of conversations with co-author Hendra) covers his New York childhood, his humdrum ‘60s comedy, his departure into gritty realism (“Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV”), his cocaine addiction, and finally his move toward satirizing politics and society.  This was my first real foray into Carlin’s work, and it proved a solid start—many of his most famous pieces are transcribed with commentary, and his biting, thoughtful voice is always present.  I was most drawn to his reflections about leaving the mainstream to find his real voice—undoubtedly the strongest section.

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Death: The High Cost of Living, by Neil Gaimon, Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham, and Dave McKean (1994)

In this Sandman spin-off, one day per century Death descends to convene with the living in the form of an upbeat goth girl, and this time she’s befriended Sexton Furnival, a suicidal sixteen-year-old in need of perspective.  Their adventures are easily resolved, but the real magic lies in Gaimon’s dialogue and in the Death-Sexton mismatch, which takes place before a decaying urban backdrop alongside a colorful cast of side characters.  As a bonus, the collection comes with a ‘90s-era sex-safe comic outlining the importance of condom use as protection from AIDS, a PSA time-capsule fitting of the Philadelphia era.

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Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse (1963)

No one understood social class like the 20th century British writers, and P.G. Wodehouse’s fiction feels more insightful than ever in the post-Occupy age.  Wodehouse wrote some 45 novels and stories about inept young millionaire Bertie Wooster, who’s constantly being bailed out of trouble by his astute butler Jeeves.  This book’s simple (albeit labyrinthine) plot consists mostly of comical misunderstandings, cowardly dives behind sofas, and threats that poor Bertie might actually have to get married, told through Wodehouse’s laugh-out-loud funny prose.  As such, the novel can be forgiven for its hackneyed setups, since the end result is pure fun.

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The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed

In general, I enjoy collections (short stories or essays) less than novels because the act of repeatedly beginning anew is less fulfilling than starting a single story and following it to the end. That said, 2013 was a good year for essays, and Strayed’s selections are astute. My favorite ones (about a tour through a Nazi storehouse, a highway serial killer cold case from the 1980s, and a new mother watching her neighbor’s infant through a crossed baby monitor signal) hit hard, with raw, succinct power. There are some losers here, but the good ones far outweigh the bad.

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Shakespeare Wrote For Money, by Nick Hornby (2008)

I love Nick Hornby’s Stuff I’ve Been Reading column (which he’s written on and off for The Believer since the 2000s, and perhaps will again when the magazine finally makes its return??) because he talks about books like a real person, avoids pretentious review-speak, and jokes about how Americans don’t understand British football.  Though this review collection’s in the same vein as his others, I missed the more stylized jacket flaps and the book excerpts that came with the first two collections, which made finding new books for my own towering To-Read stack that much easier.

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Four Major Plays, Volume II, by Henrik Ibsen (1881-1896)

Prior to this I’d only read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, and while these four plays are less significant, they built off of the other Ibsen I’d read while covering more thematic ground.  Ibsen was a progressive decades ahead of his time, and today these plays seem more relevant than ever, covering environmental protection, the place of women in society, the dangers of populism, parents wielding control over children, and choosing money over love.  I enjoyed the denser John Gabriel Borkman much less due to its heavy exposition, but maybe also because I haven’t gotten old yet.

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Ghosts 

An Enemy of the People  

The Lady From the Sea  

John Gabriel Borkman  

Fight Scenes, by Greg Bottoms (2008)

Fight Scenes is about growing up in the 1980s with your friend whose dad keeps naked pictures of women he’s slept with under his bed; it’s about dealing with bullies and looking at porn with girls you like and sitting in front of the 7-Eleven and smoking pot in the woods and fending off crazy racists at the local Popeye’s.  Bottoms shows us these moments in a series of vignettes that all say more than they seem to at first glance, so that the book shows us both his ridiculous middle-school adventures and how fucked up life can be.

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Where I Got It

A 2016 Christmas gift from the same friend who got me Rose of No Man’s Land, which is also pretty rad.

Atonement, by Ian McEwan (2001)

In 1935 Britain, a thirteen-year-old girl’s overactive imagination and accidental brush with the c-word lead her to send an innocent man to prison for a sex crime.  While the first half covers the misunderstanding, the second deals with the grim early days of World War II, both on the French front and in the hospitals.  Everything about this book feels like it shouldn’t work (historical fiction, child narrator, loaded politics) but it does, which speaks to McEwan’s skill as a storyteller.  Though the prose is often slow, there are enough hard-hitting dramatic moments to make this an intense read.

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Where I Got It

From a friend who was getting rid of books in the summer of 2015. I have mixed feelings about movie cover tie-ins, but this one pulls it off quite well.