Reading List –January

February 3rd, 2008

Lightest month all year, what with writing one book and, editing another, the Dickens Challenge, taxes, and moving, as well as getting ready for six months in Asia. Anyway, here we are:

Trouble Comes Back, Keith Snyder, 4 stars: Another contemporary California mystery that’s primarily an excuse for brilliant, frequently hilarious dialogue and characters who grab your heart when you least expect it. This time out, Jason Keltner and his friends try to protect a rock star’s daughter. This is part of my project of re-reading all of Snyder’s books as I try to answer the following questions: Why didn’t he sell a million copies? Why aren’t there ten more? Why isn’t he rich and famous? Why doesn’t some smart publisher reissue all six? What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

Peony in Love, Lisa See, 5 stars: This is the book of the month, the book of most of the last few months: completely original, often startling, beautiful, lyrical, terrifying, and tough as nails — all in the same book. Set in historical China, this is a story not so much of love as obsession, about oppression, and about literature — the power of the written word to change (and possibly even destroy) lives. Anyone who has read and loved Cao Xueqing’s “A Dream of Red Mansions” (“The Story of the Stone” in David Hawkes’ superior translation) should IMMEDIATELY read “Peony in Love.” Everybody should read “Peony in Love.”

Pyres, Derek Nikitas, 2 stars: I know, I know, it’s up for all sorts of awards and it’s got some bravura writing in it, but I felt the same way about it I felt about Natsuko Kirino’s “Grotesque” a few months back. I wanted to shout, “Give me some air.” And I couldn’t actually like anybody in the book. I pitied a few of them, but that wasn’t enough.

Asleep, Banana Yoshimoto, 4.5 stars: Three long short stories about women who have trouble sleeping, and it’s perfect: perfectly structured, pitch-perfect, perfectly wonderful. If you haven’t read Yoshimoto, I’d start with “Kitchen,” which I’m rereading right now, and go on from there. This one is particularly magical. Yoshimoto hasn’t written anything in years, which worries me since she’s still a young woman.

Zugzwang, Ronan Bennett, 3.5 stars: One in a bunch of books, both fiction and nonfiction, I’ve read lately about chess, which I don’t play. But I love the idea of the game, in sort of the same way I like cosmology: I’m willing to admit that the fragments of it I can grasp are riveting. This is a mystery set in St. Petersburg at the time the Russian Revolution was fomenting. At its center is a Jewish psychoanalyst (this is a period of particularly virulent anti-Semitism), a classical violinist, and a chess prodigy who doesn’t understand anything about life off the chessboard. Lots of good writing and some lively characters, but one too many plot twists for me. This is a complaint I seem to have more often as I get older. Could it — gasp — be me?

5 Responses to “Reading List –January”

  1. John Dishon Says:

    Can you explain specifically how Peony in Love is good for those who like A Dream of Red Mansions? Because I have read Cao Xueqin’s A Dream of Red Mansions (though the unabridges Gladys and Xianyi Yang’s translation. Is Hawke’s translation unabridged?)

    I’m weary of Lisa See because Snow Flower and the Secret Fan felt like watered down Amy Tan, like she was trying to copy Tan’s style/feel yet Amy Tan is 10 times better. Snow Flower was so ho-hum I didn’t even read it all, even though it’s a pretty short book.

    Banana Yoshimoto released Hardboiled and Hardluck (I think that’s the title) last year, the translation anyway. I think it was written in 2005. I like Goodbye Tsugumi.

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    John —

    Haven’t read “Snow Flower” yet, but it’s hard to imagine “Peony”” as watered-down anything. It’s one of the toughest-hearted novels I’ve ever read. And I know Amy Tan well; my wife is Chinese, and the stories Tan tells are true of a great many Chinese families, or at least, they were certainly true of my wife’s.

    The David Hawkes translation fills five very fat Penguin paperbacks — I’d guess 2000-2500 pages in all, so if it’s an abridgment, he didn’t abridge much. I read the Arthur Waley translation years ago but then discovered Hawkes and have now read his translation three times.

    The “Dream,” if you take Cao at his word, is about the girls who make Bao-Yu’s life endurable for a time and who are destroyed, either by life itself or by the decline of the family. Dai-Yu I find much more difficult to take than Bao-chai, but both of them, although they’re brilliantly presented, are a man’s vision of well-bred maidens. Lisa See paints Peony very much in the round, her good points and her bad ones, much less idealized than the girls in the “Stone,” and for me it was as though I’d come across an edition of Cao that had new scenes in it, scenes in which we entered the women’s world from a woman’s perspective.

    I loved See’s book, but I guess that’s obvious. As for Cao Xueqin, he’s one of my Big Three: he, William Gaddis (for “The Recognitions”), and Trollope, for the “Palliser” novels and “The Way We Live Now,”

    And then, of course, there’s Shakespeare.

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    And I forgot to respond about Banana Yoshimoto — the two stories in “Hardboiled and Hard Luck” were published in Japan in 1999, and I don’t know of anything she’s written since, although I could be wildly wrong.

  4. Lisa Kenney Says:

    After you said you were re-reading “Kitchen”, I had to order it. I’ve also been meaning to read “Peony in Love” and with this rave, I’ll definitely have to get to it. Great post!

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Lisa — It’s hard to imagine two books much more different than “Peony” and “Kitchen,” but I loved both of them. “Kitchen” is probably on my list of my fifty favorite novels of the last decade. (My reading decade, anyway — I think the book first came out in the early 90s.)

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