Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Makioka Sisters - Junichiro Tanizaki (Japanese)
I was fully engrossed in the lives of three Japanese women. This long book moves slowly, in prose that’s simple and smooth, accumulating depth by an accretion of detail, much of it about mundane matters. The sisters are quite different; one is happily married, one is looking to be married (which makes up the bulk of the action – finding Yukiko a husband) and the other is single but “liberated.” The book has a gentle, melancholy mood, though the harsh aspects of life are not avoided (a near-fatal case of food poisoning, after eating sushi, is depicted in appalling detail). The last sentence, which refers to Yukiko having diarrhea as she travels to her wedding, is a perplexing ending. Tanizaki seems to have a hidden agenda, which may add to the novel’s weightiness. Depth, weight: this book has the substance of a major work. Written during WWII, it’s as if the author turned in sadness from the atrocities being committed and went back in time, to tell about the daily lives of people he knew. *

Loitering with Intent - Muriel Spark
This book has interest for a writer, since it’s concerned with Muriel Spark’s first attempts at creativity. It has a pleasant air to it, a look back at a carefree time of youth and hope. Yet the plot is unwieldy and frivolous. I was surprised that Loitering was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It was published long after Spark had written the fine novels which never received that honor. In this slight book she’s not competing with the young woman she once was, she’s just remembering her.

The Folded Leaf - William Maxwell
Very atmospheric, muted, dreamy. Rather beautiful and strange. It’s mostly mood and character. The personalities of the two very different boys are drawn in great depth. Their unlikely relationship is believable, probably in part because Maxwell leaves it inarticulate; you’re made to sense a bond. The problem with the book involves plot. In the last third Maxwell introduces characters and situations that need to be resolved. But these elements are not convincing, nor is their resolution. Still, this fault is outweighed by the mood the book evokes in the beginning, one so strong it stays with you. *

Vacant Possession - Hilary Mantel
The weaknesses won out over the strengths. Mantel is one of those writers who, I suspect, is capable of writing something I would like very much; this, the first book by her that I read, wasn’t it. She goes in for the bizarre, but she left me lagging behind. I couldn’t relate to or understand many of her characters, so I lost interest in them. Also, the ugliness of their lives is mind-numbing. She ends the book with a scene that I found inexplicable. What happened? The fault was mine – I hadn’t paid much attention to the complexities going on. Or was it Mantel’s fault, for not holding my attention? The ending left me with a final annoyance.

2 comments:

j. m. said...

Incredible depth. You have a real insight to books you read. They make me want to take them up & see for myself. Why aren't you getting paid for this??? Any website or magazine or even a paper would be lucky to have you riding/writing their columns.

Phillip Routh said...

Thanks for the thumbs up, j.m. (I like your photo: a slice of pie, a scoop of ice cream, and a no-doubt-sweet beverage -- a happy man!)
There's an element of vanity in my starting this blog -- a belief that there's worth in my opinions. But my aspirations are low (high aspirations get you into trouble). Most of the books I review are off the beaten path, and it would please me if people would become interested in reading some of them.