the books of january 2019

DORIS LESSING 《The Golden Notebook》
my much postponed read of this totemic classic turned out to be a blessing; the world of these women would have seemed impossibly chaotic, their minds hyperbolic and personalities impossible, in my past of having loved literature but not knowing enough to be challenged by it. doris lessing has created, here, a legacy for women once thought impossible, who will themselves into reality and unreality, who are variant, difficult, brilliant. the feminism of today will seem foreign to those fighting then, yet the ever-persistent notion of self-doubt and contradiction rages for as long as there are battles to fight. and there is something that remains unchanged: to be, as women, we must know ourselves beyond the standards held by our society. we must be unflinching in self-examination, in scrutinizing our hypocrisies, our expectations, our fragments. in this, lessing is unafraid. the golden notebook is a book worthy of women. yesterday, today, tomorrow.

GEORGE OPPEN 《Selected Poems》
george oppen, a master of the line break, of patience, of the sky in increments. it has been a wonder to see his poems in different forms, how the infamous of being numerous mutated and grew and became glorious. to start days with a coffee and these light-footed, tender-hearted lines of noticing, gives such sweetness to the state of being wakeful.

AKIYUKI NOSAKA 《The Cake Tree in the Ruins》
if I didn’t know better I would call it heartless. in these japanese stories from the last days of WWII, there is no mercy. yet in these stories of war and murder and starvation there is no bitterness, either. how is this possible? nosaka ascribes to his characters the status of myth; we are not wrecked from these stories because, despite that they are incredibly painful, they take on the form of tales told to the child, so that the child may learn, may do better. a mother floats away because she has turned into a balloon. a soldier starves to death without ever realizing the war has ended. a whale falls in love with a submarine, and it is this love that tears him to pieces.

VIET THANH NGUYEN 《The Refugees》
the portrait never coheres. for refugees, immigrants, expatriates— in a world we define by nationhood there is no knowing a place still enough for our many selves to become one. in these subtly brilliant stories we live inside and beside memory, as people who reckon with multitudes of identity, some more shameful, some more vacant, some further and further away.

SAKUTARŌ HAGIWARA 《Cat Town》
the father of japanese modernist poetry is attractive in the way many moody, quiet men are attractive. there is the intense suspicion and expectation that behind the sullen facade there lies a universe of tumult and depth. enclosed in these poems there is, here and there, that universe.

SEI SHONAGON 《The Pillow Book》
and here is a woman who sees. with the delicacy and grace the heian period demanded, the woman of this work collects herself from the world around her. at a time when poetry was so revered it gives such pleasure to see an artist and a thinker escape the rigidity of a canonized craft, and sei shonagon does so with a self-assuredness that renders her beauty irrelevant.

PANKAJ MISHRA 《Age of Anger》
today, if you are not angry, you are not looking. mishra’s ambitious text links back centuries of philosophy to culminate in an inevitable outburst of rage: today. page after page it appears that we have locked ourselves in this world with our legacies and our learnings, that we build smaller cages for ourselves based on the preceding lectures and manifestos. for lessons that ranged with malleable ideas in history (Voltaire’s love for commerce, Rousseau’s intense belief in revolution), when applied by the rigorous standards of a perplexing and multi-dimensional present, can indeed be twisted to indicate anything; the ideas aren’t new, but have used their place in the timeline to multiply dangerously. within the hierarchy that relies on powerlessness and inferiority, we invent our own enemies.

MASUJI IBUSE 《Black Rain》
the inability to read japanese is especially irritating when it comes to books like these— in certain cases translations must apologize for the inexpressible. in ibuse’s book on hiroshima after the a-bomb, much (like one has come to expect from japan) goes unsaid (a seemingly insignificant passage in the middle of the book suddenly informers the reader that our narrator has died by the end). so it is that such books are always characterized as “restrained”, and one is left wondering if such restraint is merely a symptom of a language that depends on implication. nevertheless, ibuse is profoundly effective at detailing the aftermath of a literary earth-shattering moment in japanese history, and of all the continuations that live on in a world that no longer seems to understand them.

NOÉMI LEFEBVRE 《Blue Self-Portrait》
a slim volume of tremendous will and perspacity combines the categorical values of painting, music, and literature. it is difficult to believe that in few pages one may bore so keenly into the historical inheritance of trauma, and what that effect has on creation. in the ways that nazism continues to haunt the works of german creators, self-interrogation is such a constant companion to the point of grazing, then embracing, absurdity. this book has the pace, the unpredictability, and the urgency of symphony. “it’s a novel without any fiction,” lefebvre has said.

shelly shan

hi, my name is shelly. I do a thing where I make words into unnecessarily emotional composites. I don't know why I'm allowed on the internet, but I like it here.