Jews with Swords: Gentlemen of the Road – Michael Chabon

The gentlemen of the road are an odd couple, the thin, pale, Zelikman, a physician with his needle-like sword and the dark, burly Amram, a former soldier with his ax named “Defiler of Your Mother.” Their dissimilarity fuels their performances, spectacular duels over, say, a hat, that incite heavy betting; such moments offer opportunities for the canny and unscrupulous.

Other than destroying Zelikman’s favorite hat, everything was going according to plan until they are found out by Filaq, a Khazar youth. Filaq is not interested in exposing their confidence game, but turns out to be on the lam, hunted by agents of Buljan, the new Khazar Bek who had killed his predecessor, Filaq’s father. Owing partly to their natural heroism and partly to the need to retrieve Zelikman’s horse, Hillel, the gentlemen of the road follow Filaq all the way to Khazaria where they find themselves at the heart of a revolution that they have no claim to.

Gentlemen of the Road is a fun adventure story spun out with Chabon’s linguistic flourish. It holds certain positions when it comes to revolution and equality and gender, but does so with a light touch. In the afterward, Chabon explains that he wanted to write a story in a time and place where Jews could wield swords (hence the Khazars, a tribe of nomads who allegedly converted to Judaism), but even this central aspect to the story is not essential to the plot. These are mostly Jews who are not particularly driven by their Judaism.

The sum is a pleasant enough story, but one that is fluffy and insubstantial. It was a good palate cleanser from the emotional power A Tale for the Time Being, but not nearly approaching the level of the other Chabon novel I’ve read, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

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Next up, my partner asked me to finish reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books so that she can talk with me about them, so I’m now reading The Year of the Flood.

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

“That’s an interesting idea,” he says. “I’ve always thought time was a little bit iffy, myself.”

Ruth is a novelist living on a remote island in British Columbia with her husband Oliver and their cat she calls Pest. She is struggling to find words for her latest book, a memoir, when she finds a curious package washed up on shore after a storm. The Hello Kitty lunchbox contains the diary of a teenage girl from Japan tucked inside the covers of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, along with assorted other mementos. Suspecting the diary to be detritus from the 2011 tsunami, Ruth begins to read only to discover a mystery.

The diary belongs to Nao. She grew up in Sunnyvale California during the dot-com boom, but when her father’s company laid him off they returned to Japan where she was an outsider, brutalized psychologically and physically by classmates and totally without friends. Making matters worse, they went from affluence to poverty, her father attempted suicide, and Nao fell in with call girls. She declares her intention to kill herself, too, but only after telling the story of her great-grandmother, Yasutani Jiko, a 104-year old “anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun of the Taisho era” and whose son was a multi-lingual philosophy student conscripted into being a Kamikaze pilot during World War 2.

The confluence of events causes Ruth to fear for Nao’s life and she begins an obsessive search to find this person who doesn’t seem to exist anywhere online. Things don’t add up about about how the diary arrived on the shores of the island, and there are questions about the timeline between the chronological hints that Nao gives and the urgency that Ruth feels. The only available leads are in the diary, so Ruth has no choice but to keep reading.

A Tale for the Time Being largely unfolds in alternating chapters between an annotated translation of Nao’s diary and Ruth’s hunt. Woven into the narrative is both explicit and implicit commentary about time. Ozeki invokes both Quantum Mechanics and Zen moments, the different speeds of real life and the internet, and balancing the pace of life in New York and Tokyo with an island in the Pacific Northwest and a dilapidated Buddhist monastery. Finding the strength to accept, forgive, and adapt to the flow of time is, as Nao might say, an important superpower.

Similarly, there is commentary about life versus the written word. All three main female characters wrote books that reflect something personal: Nao’s diary, Jiko’s semi-autobiographical novel, and Ruth’s memoir that she is struggling to write. Ruth is taken by Nao’s self-presentation of her suffering, struggles that may well be accurate, but A Tale for the Time Being, a novel by Ruth Ozeki, blurs the line between the fiction of the novel and the memoir that Ruth is struggling to write.

These words are insufficient to express how much I enjoyed A Tale for the Time Being. There are scenes that are difficult to read, particularly with how poor Nao suffers, but these moments of suffering are balanced by moments of wisdom and serenity. I had a few issues with the plot points transitioning to the final resolution and thought that some of the symbolism came across as overwrought, and yet the beauty, the pain, and the relationships left behind a trail of emotional devastation that left me wanting to sit zazen and meditate. I have finished four novels so far in 2018 and A Tale for the Time Being is easily my favorite, an early front-runner for my top reads of the year.

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I am between books for the few hours during which I am writing this, having just finished Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road this morning. The short version is that it was a good reprieve from the emotional power of A Tale For the Time Being.

The Pale King – David Foster Wallace

‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘—by which I mean, of course, latter adolescents who aspire to real manhood—gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism…’

‘Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.’

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.

At the time of his death in 2008, David Foster Wallace was working on a new novel, a book to rival Infinite Jest. The Pale King is a posthumous publication of that incomplete story.

The author’s “forward” (actually chapter 9) informs us that this is an absolutely true vocational memoir of the things that happened to trainee David Foster Wallace at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria in 1985-6. Most basically, it presents the awkward situation young David found himself in on his first day of work when he is mistaken for a much more senior, and therefore valuable, David F. Wallace due to transfer to the center the following day. As a result, David receives insights into the inner workings of (and benefits from) the institution far beyond the typical new recruit. Interspersed with the narrator’s experiences are interludes introducing a wide range of characters (used broadly) that make up the staff of the Regional Examination Center.

Beyond the loose plot formed by the mistaken identities, The Pale King is not a book with a strong plot. There is a lingering sense of doom, perhaps formed by the threat of technology, or perhaps the threat of institutional reorganization, or possibly an internal power struggle…or all three. At the same time, the book creates a series of absurdist character studies that shape interrogate the trauma of early lives that would lead people to choose a life of tedium.

Having read much of Wallace’s oeuvre, I would not be surprised if he was trying to bore the reader toward a state of euphoria (as happens to one of the characters), but the unpolished organization, as well as disorienting chapters some of which use no names, is something else and made the book difficult for me to to follow. These problems were most obvious in the first half of the novel, which does it further disservice.

It is impossible to read The Pale King without looking at it with respect to Infinite Jest. The Pale King shows Wallace’s voice, attention to detail, expansive vocabulary, and style. Where IJ examined addiction, PK takes on tedium. Despite its incompletion, I can see the potential in PK. It shows some hints of the time that it was written, but the setting as a “memoir” creates the potential for a story that is more timeless than IJ‘s near future, and the repeated assertion that modern world is an endless morass of bureaucracy is spot on. If anything the evolution of clickbait social media and the turn to video actually underscores the point being made in the novel. And yet, I have a strong preference for IJ, which I thought was funnier and connected with in a more meaningful way such that I believe my opinion would have held true even if PK were complete.

In my writeup of IJ, I said that it is not a book for everyone. The same goes here to an even greater degree. There are moments and there are scenes, but in its current state, this is not an all-time great book.

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I am now reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and absolutely loving it. This semester has me swamped, but I am hoping to carve time to write about other topics soon.

Quiet – Susan Cain

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking has been on my radar for a while, but never rose to the level of my seeking it out. Then it came into my household and now in early 2018 I picked it up as part of my initiative to read more non-fiction.

The premise of Quiet is simple: US culture in business and school idealize and valorize extroverts, but somewhere between one third and one half of all people are introverts. People with introverted personality types are at risk for depression, anxiety, and neutered career prospects, Cain argues, but this is because the gifts that introverts can bring to the table are misapplied or overlooked at best, and smothered at worst.

“Different, not better,” could be the book’s motto. In tracking through studies about performance, she is careful to point out that intelligence is roughly evenly distributed between introverts and extroverts, but that the personality types a) function best in environments with different types of stimulation and b) at different types of tasks. Neither is “better” than the other, and, Cain argues, both function better in situations where there is a symbiosis of the two (she cites, for instance, Jobs and Wozniak and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as particularly effective partnerships). Thus the flaw in the modern corporate environment is a failure to appreciate the needs and skills of employees. In these moments, Cain’s background as a consultant shows through.

Cain works through three bodies of evidence to make her case. She first examines the evolution in American culture exemplified by Dale Carnegie as a way to explain where the extrovert ideal comes from and how it shapes American life. Second, Cain lays out in approachable terms the (relatively) recent scientific findings regarding personality and character types to explain how the traits develop and how they affect performance under various conditions. Finally, she offers a bevy of personal anecdotes and conversations with people she knows to demonstrate living examples of the psychology and of the suggestions for how to thrive as an introvert. The last category, particularly the successful ones, are seemed designed to be uplifting to potential introverts—their equivalent of the Tony Robbins seminar Cain attends and feels deeply uncomfortable at. These were usually the least interesting part of the book, in my opinion.

I am an introvert, usually. (Every once in a while a Myers-Briggs test spits back an “extrovert” result.) As such, much of what Cain wrote struck home and I found myself nodding along as she described the way novel and crowded locations can result in absolute sensory overload. I immediately jumped back to the sensation of being in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and any number of parties where I had to excuse myself. Quiet was interesting for this reason, but not life-changing for me because most of the suggestions it gives are things that I already do in my life. Where it was useful, however, was by forcing me to reevaluate my pedagogy in that I am unconsciously falling into habits that reinforce the extrovert ideal under the guise of class-participation. I don’t yet know what I am going to do about this, and most of the suggestions on this front are not particularly well-suited for a college classroom, but at least I came away more conscientious.

Quiet is absolutely a worthwhile read, even if it comes off as a book that could be thrust upon shy people everywhere so as to say “it is okay that you’re shy, there are ways to overcome that.” The book has some virtue in that regard and Cain frequently reiterates that, yes, it is okay–even natural–to be shy. But the more important audience for Quiet is not for introverts everywhere, but for managers, bosses, and teachers everywhere to make them realize that the quiet person who they keep overlooking for promotion or marking down for not speaking up in class can be just as valuable as the person strutting about in the front of the room with his or her bright plumage ready for inspection.

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I also finished reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King last week and intend to write up some thoughts about it, but things have been hectic around here, so we will see. I am now reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. I love it so far, but see the above comment about writing blog posts—I just hope that it is not a casualty of the conditions under which I am reading it.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process – John McPhee

If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?

What counts is a finished piece, and how you get there is idiosyncratic.

Over the past year I have developed an interest in books on writing, academic and otherwise. This is part pretension, part aspiration, and part curiosity as to how books, objects that I have spent my entire life around, come into being. It was around the time this started in 2017 that John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 came out, to general praise. McPhee is a longtime New Yorker staff writer and creative non-fiction teacher at Princeton, experiences which he distills into under two hundred pages of institutional and professional memoir and commentary on the writing process.

Draft No. 4 was born from eight previously published essays on the writing process, though one of its lessons is that there is a difference between articles that appear abridged in pages of a magazine and chapters that appear in a book. Piece by piece, McPhee works through the stages of writing from developing a topic to relationships with editors and publishers, and from the victories of publication to the weeks and months of painful gestation before the first draft is completed. The eponymous “Draft No. 4,” which McPhee describes as the fun part, is final pass where he plays with the choice of words and phrases. Along the way, he offers reflection on the characters at the New Yorker and Time magazine. Writing might be a solo endeavor, but publishing is not.

Each chapter is well-crafted, with a subtle humor and ample examples pulled from McPhee’s career, but the advice was not particularly novel. Writing is hard, copy-editors are your friend, it is better to use a common, concrete word rather than using a thesaurus to sound smart. This last is the sort of advice one would get from Orwell or Hemingway on writing, for instance, but McPhee makes his points not only as a long-time writer, but as someone who teaches writing. The result is masterful, a clever combination of direct explanation, artful example, and epideictic display piece.

My personal favorite chapter was the final chapter “Omission.” The primary lesson here is that while writing is fundamentally a generative process, it is more appropriately one of omission. Writing involves choice: of words most basically, but also subject, point of view, structure. Writing is not a universal medium designed to capture everything, and any attempt to do so will result in fetid muck.

Draft No. 4 is not for everyone, but anyone interested in writing or in some small insight into how the New Yorker works could do worse with this book.

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I read Draft No. 4 as a break from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which I am about 60% of the way through. I’m hoping to finish it soon because I’m excited about a lot of the other books currently sitting on my shelf.

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Civilization has fallen and nature—GMO and natural—is once more taking over. Among the trees and the storms and the wolvogs and rakunks, there are the Children of Crake, green-eyed and naked and innocent. Snowman, formerly Jimmy, has survived the cataclysm that stripped him of the things he is addicted to and now spends his time watching over the Children of Crake and being watched over by them.

The first book in the MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake is at its heart an origin story—for the Children of Crake and for the state of the world that Snowman is now living in. This story unfolds through a contemporary storyline and Snowman’s flashbacks to his childhood and early adulthood when his name was Jimmy. In the present, Jimmy is a prophet for the Children because he actually knew Crake, a mythic and godlike figure to them. In the past, Jimmy and Crake were friends, one an artist in a world that does not value it and the other an arrogant, brilliant scientist determined to solve the world’s problems by playing god if need be. Oryx is their shared obsession, an oriental girl sold into slavery and exploited in pornographic films who flits in and out of their awareness since they first put eyes on her at the age of 14.

I found Oryx and Crake simultaneously brilliant and disappointing. Atwood imagines into being a frightfully realistic world where there is a stark divide between the haves and the have-nots. The haves live gated compounds, lauded for their intelligence and given the advantages of technology and genetic modifications that give them the world. The have nots live in pleeblands, dirty, diseased, and judged inferior without the opportunity to prove otherwise. Competition between compounds is fierce, with corporate espionage and sabotage the norm as scientists develop new genetically modified animals, sources of meat, or treatments to “improve” the lives of humans. This dystopic vision is not particularly novel, but it is effective for its completeness. What is new, I think, is the Children of Crake, who, both in the novel and inside the story, are a return to prelapsarian society. (Appropriately, the second book in the series is The Year of the Flood).

Why, then, do I call the book disappointing? Part of the problem for me was Jimmy. Snowman/Jimmy had a rough childhood and never really fit in among the geniuses at the compounds, but what mostly stands out about him are his negative qualities: his relationships with women and his obsessions that cause him to float along, caught up by the things going on around him. Not liking him here is not the problem—very few of the characters in the books are genuinely “likable”—the problem is that I didn’t find him compelling. Other characters viewed through Jimmy’s characters were consistently more interesting, while the main thing that makes Jimmy interesting is the fact that he survived.

My second issue with Oryx and Crake is its pace. The book features a lot of lead-up to an abrupt resolution. This pace makes a certain amount of sense within the narrative, but it also means extended periods with Jimmy in isolation of other characters, going on an adventure that showcases more about the world and leads toward that conclusion, but not really being interesting in its own right.

I should be clear here: my disappointment largely stems from my high expectations for Atwood’s novel. Oryx and Crake has its moments and the world is compelling enough that I expect to read the remainder of the series, but fell short of her best.

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I am now reading David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom.

In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. to awaken them is to reveal that they are en empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

I do not want to raise you in fear or false memory. I did not want you forced to mask your joys and bind your eyes. What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness.

The first book I completed this year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letters to his son, a memoir examining issues of race in America. Coates recounts his experiences growing up in rough neighborhoods in Baltimore, his awakening at “the Mecca” (Howard University), his years of writing about racial issues, and the losses he suffered along the way.

Between the World and Me is an angry book, but also a fearful one, and fear is the source of much of the anger. Coates appropriately focuses on black bodies and how, whether through slavery, limitation, incarceration or, particularly recently, police brutality, those bodies are destroyed. If, as he argues, the government is the “legitimate” authority of white America, the police represent the force, the killing edge of that authority, a blade that is often wielded against black bodies. This violence is often racial, but it is not exclusive to white people. It deputizes members of minority communities, making them complicit in the ongoing racial violence.

I read most of Between the World and Me in Washington DC, including a brief stint outdoors sitting between the Capitol and the Library of Congress—one building built by slaves and another that uncritically commemorates Thomas Jefferson. The overall appearance of the Capitol and its accompanying monuments would likewise be much different were it not for other racially constructed legacies such as the white-washing of the polychromic appearance of classical antiquity. Reflecting on these issues is not sanitizing history, but the first steps in grappling with it in search of a better future.

There are points at which it is possible to disagree with Coates and he admits but does not address how many of the same things he talks about apply to other minority groups. But this is a memoir, not a history of race in America, and Between the World and Me is all the more powerful for it. This should be mandatory inclusion for any civics reading list and my only regret is how long it took me to get around to finally reading it.

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Earlier this week I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a book that is as immersive in its dystopic vision as any of Atwood’s other work I have read and yet fell short of her best in its achievement. I am now reading (and am somewhat baffled by, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King.

Ilium – Dan Simmons

Earth has changed dramatically since the Lost Age. The few remaining “old style” humans live in communities or estates that are connected by faxnodes and protected from the roaming dinosaurs by the omnipresent, but ultimately mysterious voynix. Surrounding earth are the fabled cities of the Post-Humans, who exist not unlike gods to the old styles who remains. Aside from distractions like parties and fornication (learning to read is a preoccupation of a single person), old styles lose themselves in the spectacle of the “turin-shroud”—a visual device with exactly one show: the Greeks and Trojans slaughtering one another on the plains of Ilium.

At the foot of Mons Olympus on Mars the Trojan War is nearing a climax. Events so far have unfolded basically as described in the Iliad. Achilles has raged at the injustices heaped upon him by Agamemnon and the gods have continued to scheme against each other while using Trojans and Greeks as their playthings. Amidst the carnage and camaraderie flits Thomas Hockenberry, one among many scholics—revivified Homeric scholars who have been equipped with technology that allows them to possess the bodies of Trojans and Greeks as they study the events. The gods wield enormous power, but they are not omniscient; in contrast, the scholics know the future, at least in theory. Then Hockenberry gets entangled in one of the many divine schemes.

Meanwhile, Orphus and Mahnmut, two moravecs (self-replicating, intelligent robots from the region outside the asteroid belt) have joined a mission to Mars, where spiking levels of quantum activity are threatening the stability of the solar system. Lovers of Shakespeare and Proust, neither is prepared to be attacked by what appear to be Greek gods on chariots. The deities destroy their ship, kill the other members of the expedition, and leave them to complete the mission alone.

Ilium uses three plot lines to resolve two loosely-connected narrative threads, one on Earth, one on Mars.

On Mars, Hockenberry is tasked by Aphrodite to kill Athena, but takes the tools she gives to go on the lam, afraid of the consequences of his action. A scholar rather than a fighter, he nonetheless finds himself embroiled in further schemes with both the Trojans and the Greeks as he tries, desperately, to survive. This quest therefore aligns him with the moravecs, as all three of them are doing their best to topple the gods on Olympus.

On Earth, a small group of old-style humans are likewise on a quest, in equal parts to steal knowledge from the gods and to learn what it even means to be human anymore. Although they had begun to rediscover long lost skills such as casting bronze, the humans are aided in their quest by Savi, an ancient Jew who missed “the final fax” and exceeded her allotted century many times over, and by a primitive warrior calling himself Odysseus and looking like the character of the same name in the Turin drama. The old-styles seek to enter a city of the Post Humans that orbits earth, but are unprepared for either the demons or the truths that they will find there.

Much like Simmons’ other novels, particularly Hyperion, Ilium is an incomplete story—this time, at least, he is a working from a template. The book answers, or begins to answer, many of the key questions is raises, exploring questions about the intersection of the past and the future, relationship to the divine, and humans and technology, but never reaches a final conclusion. It works well here, offering a deeply immersive setting where unknowable questions are part of the experience.

As for the Trojan War, I largely like the approach taken. Simmons literally embodies Hockenberry and the other scholics around the critical scenes, and even makes at several points the meta-observation that this would be a dream come true for many Classics scholars. After all, who would not want to have sex with Helen? The person whose body is occupied disappears, so the main characters from the Iliad largely appear in their own skin and many men are killed after becoming disoriented when the scholic leaves. In this way and others Simmons weaves together the incongruities and accidents of the Iliad, the prestige of some of the classic translations, and a human perspective. Some of the leaps he makes such that, for instance, cafe scenes in Troy may as well be a cafe scene set in 1920s Paris, struck me as a little bit hokey, but taking this section of the larger picture and fitting it into a story of evolution, technology, and civilization that emphasizes the way in which all of the above are dependent on constructed mythologies served as a nice counterpoint to the other narratives.

I have a long history with Ilium in that I picked it up probably in 2005, not long after it was originally published. It has remained in my collection every since, surviving several purges despite just one spectacularly failed attempt at reading it. I am glad that I decided to keep it around.

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I have one more in the overly-delayed backlog of posts on things I read, for Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, with my post being an unholy mess of a draft. My first book of the new year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

The Book of Words – Jenny Erpenbeck

I slide my hands across the white letters on the fence boards, there’s a spotlight shining on them, and my father reads aloud: Silence is health.

The girl has a mother and a father, a wet nurse and a friend. She knows other people, too, obviously. Her grandmother, the gardener, her piano teacher. She is not allowed to go outside alone and she can hear cars backfiring, or are those gunshots?

Ostensibly set South America, probably during Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War” between 1974 and 1983), The Book of Words follows the interior life of an unnamed girl. Her consciousness awakes gradually and her thoughts become more complex making it apparent that the book is built around the stories about the world that adults tell to children.

The Book of Words is a short book light on plot to put into a synopsis, particularly if one wants to avoid revealing the occupation of the girl’s father. Instead, there are the themes. First, the relationship between a child and the adults who answer her questions and teach her about the world. These relationships form the cornerstone of the book because it shapes how the girl interacts with people such her father’s friend the doctor who treats her when she has a fever and the woman she witnesses being dragged onto a bus by two men. She is shielded from the horrors of living under a repressive regime, until she is isn’t.

In short, The Book of Words is a powerful novella with a brilliant and subtle character development over the course of its 90 pages. Erpenbeck’s decision to anonymize the girl at the heart of the story universalizes it and places the emphasis on the visual imagery of the stories she is told, such as the saint who died crossing the desert and the snow-capped mountains that she has never seen. She lives in the world of the stories that she has been told, which she passes on to her friend who has stories of her own. The Book of Words floats through a dreamlike state before reaching a gutting a conclusion.

This is the third of Jenny Erpenbeck’s books I have read (all in translation, but hers are high on my list of books I’d like to try in German). I loved The End of Days, but was unmoved by the story collection The Old Child. In my opinion her stories felt underdeveloped, but, then, I often have this reaction to short stories. I had no such problem here. The Book of Words reaffirmed my love of Erpenbeck’s prose and I am looking forward to reading more.

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I am still running behind on writing about books I’ve read, having finished and developed opinions about Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer and Dan Simmons’ Ilium. I am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

The Master of Go – Yasunari Kawabata

Set in Japan 1938, The Master of Go is a dramatic recounting of a title match between an unnamed Master who has never lost a ranked game and an up-and-coming challenger, Otaké. The game is timed, but with an unusually long allotment and the final move of each session being sealed before the judges, the other player being left in the dark until the start of the next session when the stone is placed on the board and play resumes. This cycle lasts for months, with the master being in poor health and the challenger having family responsibilities. Behind the semi-rustic setting of the matches, the casual gambling on games of chess and other competitions, and the solemn rituals that govern play, however, is the underlying tension created by tradition colliding with the modern world.

This underlying tension being played out along two avenues, both in the game itself and in the match as a calm center in the midst of a larger world–both stated (newspapers such as the one the narrator works for sponsoring Go tournaments), and only alluded to (the Japanese invasion of Manchuria) were, to me, the strongest elements of The Master of Go. The personal tension between two stubborn Go players provided the immediate drama, but it could have been left with just two marginally likeable characters. Framing the match in the larger context gave depth to the description of the game as a battlefield and pathos to the suffering of the Master.

Ultimately, however, my appreciation of The Master of Go was limited by my inability to grasp the nuance of the game itself, which features prominently in the narrative. The book was originally written in Japanese and, based on the way in which Kawabata talks about Go in the novel, I suspect that he assumed his readers would have at least a basic understanding of the game. Given this limitation, I found myself more interested in the historical match and the players on which The Master of Go. For instance, although Kawabata presents the Master as a traditionalist who opposed change, Hon’inbo Shusai (Hoju Tamura) had a scandalous reputation. While at the game board, he abused the adjournment privileges by calling the game at a time that allowed him to consider his next move or, sometimes, abandoning games before completing them…particularly when there was a chance he might lose. Away from the board, he had many rivals, one of whom alleged that he sold his title of Hon’inbo for cash. A rather different picture than the one painted by Kawabata, who used this famous match as an opportunity to ask another set of questions.

I enjoyed moments of The Master of Go, and Kawabata’s prose worked for me (much like a lot of the other Japanese literature I have read, actually).In the end, though, I was unable to appreciate it as much as I would have like. I suspect that there is a Nobel-worthy story in there, provided only that the readership has the background necessary to appreciate it.

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I have been slow in my reading for the past few months just because life has been busy and I have been even slower about writing about what I have managed to read. I am still working through my thoughts of Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer and just finished reading Dan Simmons’ Ilium. I am still planning to do write ups of these books, but I also might change the format of these posts or abandon them altogether in favor of some other type of blogging. The problem with doing this, of course, is that requires time and energy that I don’t have to spare at the moment, so we will see. This afternoon I started reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s novella The Book of Words.