The Bridegroom Was A Dog by Yoko Tawada

The Bridegroom Was a Dog by Yoko Tawada is enormously strange and wonderfully perverse. Set in an Asian town that feels modern yet classical, the anonymity of the town is what makes the casually bizarre happenings of the story so easy to accept. There is this clash between the traditional value-focused mindsets of the community and the bizarre eccentricities of the central characters. Tawada captures something about human nature that is timeless and seems to have only gotten truer. We are so willing to accept people’s strange qualities, and in doing so pat ourselves on the back for being so open-minded, as long as those qualities remain at a distance, preferably out of sight, and don’t directly involve us. We love to humor belief in the out-of-the-ordinary and fantastic, imagine the world as an exciting and incredible place, but we want our own lives to remain simple and contained within our own determined boundaries. And this describes the various housewives’ reactions to Miss Kitamura and her strange new house guest. The housewives hear from their children about various quirks of Miss Kitamura’s, who is their day school teacher, and are morbidly fascinated by this strange woman, but as long as their children don’t seem negatively influenced by her sporadically strange behavior they are more than willing to explain it away as the product of their children’s active imaginations. But when quiet and pretty Miss Kitamura suddenly has a strange man living with her and seems unwilling and unable to explain her new situation, her strangeness becomes an alarming potential influence on their children.

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The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

My main issue with The Collected Schizophrenias was Esmé Weijun Wang’s reliance of putting on a tough and unemotional front while recounting her horrifying experiences with schizoaffective disorder bipolar type. But yet I feel guilty for this quality of her writing bothering me as much as it did. Wang’s illness has rendered her unreliable emotionally and mentally in the eyes of most people her entire life. She has been misdiagnosed (as bipolar before her psychologist diagnosed her as schizoaffective in a flippant email), and then diagnosed with a condition that many doctors consider unverifiable (late-stage Lyme disease). She has had to make herself appear well and stable to keep people from righting her off as crazy.

I know all these things, yet while reading The Collected Schizophrenias I couldn’t stop wishing that she would stop working so hard to portray herself as tough and composed and embrace the vulnerability she felt during her horrific experiences with hallucinations and involuntary hospitalization. She writes about her journey with her illness like Joan Didion writes about losing her husband and daughter one after the other, but the problem with that is Wang doesn’t give us the painstakingly introspective look into her mind during her experiences that Didion does. This makes sense, Didion wrote about her experiences in The Year of Magical Thinking (focused on the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the illness of her daughter Quintana) and Blue Nights (focused on Quintana’s death) essentially as they were happening. Much of Wang’s experiences she is writing about are over a decade past. And the impression we get is of her writing about them from a distance, not completely detached but definitely distanced from the raw emotion she was feeling at the time. It made me want to scream Let me in! While many memoirs lately bask in the opportunity at victimhood, often not entirely earned, Wang has earned sympathy and understanding yet tries so hard to avoid coming off as a victim. Most of all, though, she has earned the right to be angry – at the illnesses that have made her endure more than most people ever could, and at the fallibility of science and the mental health industry.

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

It is a special satisfaction to finally read a book that has been on your list for as long as you can remember. It’s an even special-er satisfaction when that book lives up to your expectations, as was the case with The Haunting of Hill House. However, now I am faced with the challenge of writing about a book that has been extensively written about by writers far more suited to the challenge than I am (Joyce Carol Oates, Laura Miller, Carmen Maria Machado, Neil Gaiman, etc). I’m going to give it a crack nonetheless, but will keep it brief and to the point.
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The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

With his debut novel, Colson Whitehead follows in the admirable and envy-inducing tradition of taking a subject of interest and creating a whole damn world around it. Whitehead’s topic is, broadly, elevators, and, more specifically, elevator maintenance. He creates a world where elevators aren’t just a convenient mode of transportation that we take for granted until the one we are on stalls for half a second and our entire life flashes before our eyes. No, in the world of The Intuitionist, the creation of elevators in placed comparably next to cars, and the people in charge of making them work are treated with the type of respect architects receive. And Whitehead embraces his story world concept with so much passion and invention that as I ride the elevator to and from my office each day I find my thoughts shifting from what meal I’ll eat next to being aware of just how incredible that box of machinery I’m riding truly is.

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Facing the Bridge by Yoko Tawada

Let me say right off the bat that I absolutely loved Yoko Tawada’s gloriously strange and perverse novella The Bridegroom Was A Dog. I have some specific thoughts on Bridegroom stored somewhere that I will post sometime in the future.

With that out of the way, I can now say that I got nothing out of Facing the Bridge. The three stories that make up the collection are meandering and gratingly abstract. Actually, that’s not exactly true. I quite liked “The Shadow Man” in spite of it’s jarringly abrupt ending that felt as if Tawada ended it simply because she ran out of steam with the narrative. It follows Amo, a young African boy who is kidnapped and brought to Europe and takes refuge in literature and eventually becomes a scholar. In a parallel story line centuries in the future Tamao is a foreign exchange student living in Europe and struggling to find any connection to his new surroundings. Their circumstances are vastly different, but the ways they are forced to manipulate their personalities in order to live in places where they are both physical and cultural outsiders is fascinating. But while Amo both ages and intellectually matures in his part of the narrative, Tamao drifts aimlessly and nothing much happens to him.

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The Curfew by Jesse Ball

It’s crazy to realize that I read Jesse Ball’s debut novel Samedi the Deafness a year ago. I remember reading it and being infected by his style. Finished it in three days (only that long because I read it during the work week), and on finishing it immediately wanted to go and write my own novel in the same style, and read the rest of his work one after the other.

Neither of those things happened. Not even slightly. I wrote no novels, and a year later I only just now read my second book by him – his third, The Curfew. Why did this happen? All I can say is that life never fails to get in the way of plans. Over the course of the year it took me to finally crack another book of his, Jesse Ball has been on my mind frequently. Originally I was going to read his second novel, The Way Through Doors, then I was going to jump ahead and read the book that seems to be considered his masterpiece, A Cure For Suicide. I even bought a copy of two Paris Review issues featuring short fiction of his, which reminds me that I did read his story “Archon LLC,” which I remember being short, fascinating, and very Kafkaesque. I didn’t ever read  “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr” and I have no clue why not.

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“Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick” (edited by Jonathan Lethem)

While technically the Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick  isn’t the first book of Dick’s I’ve read, that would be The Man in the High Castle around three years ago, it does allow me to feel as if I can properly cross him off of my literary blind spots. Not that I’ve read even a fraction of his work, the dude was damn prolific, but I have now read the stories that inspired arguably the two most famous adaptations of his work outside of Blade Runner. Those stories being “The Minority Report” which inspired a film and TV show both titled Minority Report, and “We Will Remember It For You Wholesale” which inspired two separate film adaptations, both titled Total Recall. 

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Philip K. Dick’s Humanoid Robots & Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons

Recently I’ve been reading the Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, edited by Jonathan Lethem. Dick has been a writer who has long been on my reading list. A few years ago I read The Man in the High Castle, but nothing sense.

For a writer as prolific as Dick was, it has been a challenge to decide on what to read first. I’ve been jumping between Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, and A Scanner Darkly, as well as couple of lesser known works that have received praise by writers I respect. But while Dick has many novels placed in the pantheon of SF fiction, his short stories have inspired equal, if not superior, amounts of fascination from Hollywood. Minority Report, Total Recall, The Adjustment Team, and Next are among the films spawned from Dick’s stories, and then there is the recent Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, an entire anthology show of Dick adaptations. Continue reading “Philip K. Dick’s Humanoid Robots & Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons”

Tender (Stories) by Sofia Samatar

Separated into two parts, “Tender Bodies” and “Tender Landscapes,” the first half of Sofia Samatar’s short story collection Tender is the strongest. Of the first ten of the twenty total stories, “Selkie Stories Are For Losers,” “Honey Bear,” and “How I Met The Ghoul” are the best, with the other seven have their own flashes of greatness.

“Selkie Stories” and “Honey Bear” take place in worlds much like our own. The former tells a touching coming of age story of friendship/romance and loneliness that is grounded in reality in all ways except the existence of Selkie’s, mythological creatures that take the form of women by shedding their skin, but return to their seal form once it is returned to them. In the latter, there is a sense of ominousness from the beginning: a mother, daughter, and father are on a road trip where everyone seems on edge. But the feeling could be explained away by marital problems, and health issues, and over-protection of their young daughter. But then there are checkpoints they must cross and the mother and daughter seem strangely elated by their dreary beach destination. And then a terrifying encounter on the beach reveals that the world the story is taking place in is nothing like our own. Samatar has written a monster story where the monsters are a constant reminder of innocence lost, and asks if the memories and love that remain are worth the inevitable horror. Continue reading “Tender (Stories) by Sofia Samatar”