March 2020 Wrap-Up

The Way of Zen [1957] by Alan Watts – ★★★★★

I thought The Way of Zen was a great introduction to the concept of Zen and its origins. The book does not just talk of hard-to-grasp notions within Zen, but also explains the application of Zen to such arts as poetry, painting and gardening. 

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West [1970] by Dee Brown – ★★★★1/2

“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land, and they took it“. Brown wrote a detailed and engaging book showing the history of the American West from the point of view of the Native American population. From Columbus who described native people as “so tractable, so peaceful” [1970: 1] to the battle of Black Rock, Brown’s account is an important read even though emotional as the story is filled with all kinds of injustice that have been committed against the native population. The book shows the bravery of individual American Indian leaders who simply tried to defend their people and land against the onslaught of white settlers and numerous unfair treaties. Native people were caught in the senselessness, savagery and greed of white settlers who were after more productive land and precious metals and who wanted either to convert Native Americans to their own ways, leave them to die in hostile conditions or simply eliminate them leading to hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed through hunger, combat, murder or plagues only in one broad region of the Americas. 

Jude the Obscure [1895] by Thomas Hardy – ★★★★1/2

Hardy’s Tess of the D’ Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd are some of my favourite classic books. In Jude the Obscure, there is Jude, a poor, but good-hearted young man who desires from childhood to pursue academic studies. Instead, he finds himself marrying a sly woman and then becomes drawn to his beautiful and freedom-loving cousin. Hardy’s language is beautiful, but the novel does go in circles a lot before coming and making its point. It could as well have been shortened and its impact would have been as effective. The true merit of the book is probably in its message – the way it emphasises the sad position of simple, kind and intelligent souls in a ruthless and close-minded society dominated by self-interest, cunningness and societal expectations.

Near to the Wild Heart [1943] by Clarice Lispector★★★★1/2

 “…the thing I like most of all in the world…is what I feel deep inside me, opening out as it were…I could almost tell you what it is, yet I cannot…” [1943: 43]. This book is my March contribution to the Latin America Reading Challenge. This very introspective and feminist novel by Lispector (The Hour of the Star) is bittersweet, emotional, intellectual and unrelenting – a journey of self-discovery – sometimes hallucinatory, sometimes disjointed, but almost completely filled with longings and beautiful reflections on life as the character recounts her life from her childhood to her disillusioned marriage. The stream-of-consciousness narrative tries to show what it is like to be a woman and to be alive.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer [1985/87] by Patrick Suskind – ★★★★1/2

For people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath” [1985: 161]. This novel is set in France in the 1700s and tells of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man-misanthrope born with a special gift of smell – he can distinguish thousands of scents. The story tells of his rise in Paris as he takes a job creating perfumes and then details his travels to the south of France. Grenouille decides to make a scent so irresistible that everyone would be subdued to him as he also develops a horrifying obsession for scents of beautiful young women. This morbidly-fascinating book is lush and dark, a compelling exploration of one unlikable anti-hero, even though the middle of the book slightly loses its focus and becomes episodic. 

The Honjin Murders [1973/2019] by Seishi Yokomizo – ★★★★1/2  

This locked-room murder mystery is considered to be a detective classic in Japan and for a good reason – it is entertaining and evocative, paying tribute to the very best detective fiction of the Western world.

An Inspector Calls [1945] by J. B. Priestley – ★★★★

This well-known play by Priestley is an interesting read. A dinner in one middle-class family in London is interrupted by an inspector who calls to report a suicide of a girl that may have links with the family. Can members of this family recover from the shock when secrets of each of them become exposed one by one? The play is satirical and tries to show the hypocrisy and the well-hidden sins of the middle class as the inspector threatens to unearth the unimaginable. The play does rely on preposterous turns of events, and I imagine it would have been a fresher and cleverer story when it was first written in 1945. Today’s audience is no longer surprised by the absurd and even expects to confront the unexplained, the clever and the different to be entertained.  

Masks [1958/83] by Fumiko Enchi – ★★★★

She has a peculiar power to move events in whatever direction she pleases, while she stays motionless…she’s like a quiet mountain lake whose waters are rushing beneath the surface toward a waterfall…The secrets inside her mind are like flowers in a garden at night-time, filling the darkness with perfume“. Inspired by The Tale of Genji [1008], this novel by a female author is a portrayal of one charismatic older woman having a strange and seemingly manipulative power over a younger one. Two friends Ibuki and Mikame both crave attention of beautiful Yasuko, but in their way stands seemingly cold and enigmatic Mieko, her mother-in-law. Very soon in this novel we are in the realm of spirit possessions, erotic longings, psychological manipulation, Noh masks, tales of revenge and family secrets. What western authors would have left towards the end, Enchi throws in the middle to bewilder her readers as they confront the strange and the subtle. Masks is an effective story for the most part, though its individual parts are probaby better than the overall result.  

The River of Consciousness [2017] by Oliver Sacks – ★★★1/2

I love all books by Oliver Sacks, but this one did give me a pause. This book seems to be Sacks’ essays on various topics and touch on everything from Darwin’s findings to the speed of neural activity. He often refers to his previous work in this book, as well as to the works of Sigmund Freud, William James and Christof Koch. It is still a thought- provoking read if you have time, but nothing truly memorable.

The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier [2019] by Ian Urbina – ★★★

In part due to my legal background, I am very interested in international crimes at sea, especially in piracy and trafficking. However, Urbina’s book is not what I expected. He employs a relaxed and personal approach to telling about bad actors at sea, emphasising how blurry watery boundaries and murky offshore laws create perfect opportunity for crime. Those offshore activities include ship thefts, what-would-be illegal abortions, illegal fishing, trafficking, kidnapping and slavery. States hardly have the means to tackle trafficking or overfishing at high seas, and, thus vigilante, non-for-profit organisations try to tackle this issue. Urbina’s quotes at the start of each chapter could not have been more random, and although I applaud his intention to draw attention to this important topic that remains underreported, his account remains sensationalist, repetitive, too long and filled with too much unnecessary detail. Perhaps this book needs less film references and what sailors like to read at sea and more rigor. It is very likely that a textbook on this topic would be more interesting than the author’s “exciting and adventurous” journalism that never arrives to any proper conclusion. 

Secret Rendezvous [1977/79] by Kobo Abe – ★★★

I previously enjoyed both Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes [1962] and The Face of Another[1964], and I thought Secret Rendezvous was the weakest of the three. The premise here is still delightfully surrealist, absurd and intriguing: a husband wakes up to find his wife missing – she was unnecessarily taken as a patient from her home to a hospital. The husband starts to search for his missing wife and finds the world growing stranger as his search deepens. Secret Rendezvous is an extension of Kafkaesque nightmare filled with strange erotic instances and human experimentations (not to mention a person there who thinks he is a horse!). The problem with Secret Rendezvous is that the readers of today are no longer as perplexed and fascinated by mass video surveillance and even strange erotic practices as they undoubtedly were when Abe wrote his book.

Melmoth [2018] by Sarah Perry – ★★1/2

Unfortunately, this book is my biggest disappointment of the month even though I loved Perry’s The Essex Serpent [2016]. In Melmoth, Helen Franklin works in Prague and uncovers a manuscript about other people’s encounters with Melmoth. She is forced to confront her own past. It seems like this book wanted to be two different things at once – a gothic “shock” thriller and an evocative novel about coming to terms with one’s past, largely failing in both due to confused cross-purposes. 

This month I also talked about three aspects of the Japanese culture that fascinate me and about religious paintings that show the biblical scene Annunciation to the Shepherds. How was your reading month of March? Have you managed to read any exciting books (in your confinement, shall I add) that you want to share with others? 


21 thoughts on “March 2020 Wrap-Up

  1. Looks like you had a pretty great month overall with the goodies outnumbering the disappointments by a big margin! I’ve seen The Inspector Calls in the theatre and while the details are blurry now I distinctly remembering not being as impressed by it as its reputation had led me to expect. As you say, maybe it worked better when it first came out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad you agree with me on An Inspector Calls. I imagine we as today’s audience have seen now too much material that critiques society and have also seen the eerie and the unexplained overused in “clever” films, so in this respect the play did not really age well.

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  2. Wow, it looks like you’ve had a great month! I’m glad to see you enjoyed Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Jude the Obscure, as both are on my TBR. I’m also adding Perfume to my list after reading your paragraph about it. Happy reading for April. 🙂

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  3. Great post, and I’m glad you had a mostly great month! I love your concise write-ups about each book. I’ve had Jude the Obscure, Perfume, and Masks on my TBR for awhile now, so I’m compelled to pick them up. Especially Masks—I didn’t know it was inspired by the Tale of Genji. I’d be very interested to read your thoughts on that should you ever plan on writing a review. 🙂

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    1. Thanks! I think the beginning of Masks is the strongest and then one may slowly lose a bit of interest as the story shifts its focus, but it was still a sufficiently compelling read and – very Japanese, of course 🙂

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  4. Good to see that Hardy’s novels are amongst your favourite classics. It makes me want to read his works even more. I know you said, Jude the Obscure was not quite on par, but 4 1/2 stars is not bad. Impressive list for March by the way!

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    1. Oh, absolutely. I compare Jude the Obscure with Hardy’s other novels and find “faults” – but if you compare Jude with most other books it is great – what language, what character study! Simply amazing.

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  5. Gosh Diana you have been very busy with reading. I love your books I haven’t read any of these so I am really looking forward to reading them. Particularly Alan Watts – the Way of Zen. Bury my heart at wounded knee- I have wanted to read this for ages, it looks to be very sad indeed, but an important book. As I was reading this review I was coincidentally listening to Native American music

    It is really beautiful, soothing and good background music.

    Stay warm and take care of yourself xx

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  6. Perfume. I have heard mixed things about this book, although it also sounds like a worthwhile read from what you are saying.

    Melmouth – I think you mentioned this in another post and said it wasn’t as good as her other book the Essex Serpent. I won’t bother with this one I don’t think, based on what you’re saying.

    Kobe Abe, I haven’t read any of his books but your reviews of his work are very exciting and fill mewith anticipation. Once the libraries are open or the book shops open again I am going to find them!

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