Thursday, December 12, 2019

Mail Bag and Some Short Reviews

It's not like I have bought lots of books - mostly e-books - since the last of these posts, but it's always fun to write them up and publicize reading goals that rarely come to fruition.

The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky
For several years now, I've been planning on making a dive into Russian literature. In addition to the Bulgakov and Gogol I owned, this meant Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, as well as a few anthologies. I set out on this project with Mikhail Lermontov's novella, A Hero of Our Times (1840). For all sorts of reasons, laziness paramount among them, I let the undertaking slip to the wayside.

Some years later, a review of Eugene Vodolazkin's Laurus  (2015) prompted me to pick it up. It's about a holy fool and his life and journeys across 15th century Russia and the Holy Land. Thanks to some good college classes and independent reading, my knowledge of Russian history is fair, but, still, the book looked a little daunting. 

To rectify my feeling of inadequacy, after investigating good histories of Russian culture, I bought James Billington's monumental, The Icon and the Axe (1966). Now, four freakin' years later, I'm about done with it. It's a dense, heavy book and every time I read a chapter or two I found myself putting it down. Russia's history is intense and I found myself overwhelmed and turning back to fantasy and crime fiction for some relief. Billington's main idea is that for over a thousand years, the icon (Orthodox Christianity) and the axe (the state) have been the two great poles around which Russian culture have revolved. According to Billington, Russia - as a nation, as its people, as an idea - has endeavored to find its way for centuries. Where, if in anywhere, does Russia fit into the West?; is autocracy the natural state of things?; what place does Orthodoxy really hold? Though written half a century ago, these questions seem as pertinent as ever to what's still the largest country in the world. Six hundred pages of text are followed by nearly two hundred pages of notes and bibliography. I could spend the rest of my life reading nothing but other books and documents pointed to in The Icon and the Axe's notes.

Delving into the great trends in politics, the arts, philosophy, and religion that have shaped Russia, this is one of the deepest and most thrilling works of history I've ever read. Seeing the sweep of Russian history over the centuries, it makes the current weakened state of the land and the craven nature of its government seem less terrible. While, nothing in its past compares to the malignancy of Soviet rule or Stalin's murderousness and Hitler's genocidal assault, the plight of contemporary Russia under Putin seems little compared to the setbacks the land has suffered (and recovered from) over the centuries.

That's a long winded way of writing I might have my "Russian project" back on track. I've actually picked up Dostoevsky's novella, Notes from Underground. It was written largely as a critique of the utopian thought flooding Russia at the time. So far, I'm liking it quite a lot. Described as one of the first existentialist novels, it opens with this wonderful bit of miserableness:
I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don't consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can't explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "pay out" the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don't consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well--let it get worse!
Best known for his later novels - Crime and PunishmentThe IdiotThe PossessedThe Brothers Karamazov - he was also short story writer. I figured if I'm going to take a crack at this whole Russian thing, I might as well get a bunch of those, so I did. As to be expected from the Modern Library, it's a sturdy little hardcover with a good foreword. I'll probably read one or two, but I doubt I'll read the whole thing before any time soon.

They Return at Evening (1928) by H.R. Wakefield

I lay the blame for buying this one at the feet of Keith West. He posted a nice write-up of Wakefield this past October. Along with M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood, he's one of the great ghost story writers. It was more than enough to prompt me to pick up a copy of this collection.
I'd already spent the first part of the Halloween season reading The Shub Niggurath Cycle edited by Robert Price. It kicks off with a series of classic horror tales from the early 20th century so I was primed for the sort of stuff Wakefield wrote. I ended up reading a few, including his most famous story, "The Red Lodge," and they're really good. It's usually noted that he's a good bit gorier than James and, from what I've read, that's definitely true.

The Fisherman by (2016) John Langan

I've been looking at this for a long time and finally pulled the trigger this past summer. I read his The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013) collection and liked more of its stories than I didn't.

The Fisherman is part of a series of connected stories set in New York state. Langan, a professor by trade, is a literary horror writer, which is a fancy way of saying his storytelling is complex and a little self-aware (though, in a very good way). Two widowers bond over fishing and get drawn into old stories of ghosts and monsters. The contemporary story folds in on itself, becoming part of an older, bigger one. Like Laird Barron, without a hint of Lovecraft pastiche, Langan's story takes place in a hidden and inimical universe. Those foolhardy enough to search out its secrets risk death and worse.

One of the best horror novels I've read in the past few years, as soon as I finished The Fisherman I grabbed a copy of Sefira and Other Betrayals (2019), Langan's latest short story collection. What I've read of it so far is excellent. I'm very happy to have discovered Langan. After finding Laird Barron a few years back, I had no success finding any horror writer whose work excited me as much, but now I have.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981) by Soji Shimada

In Japan there's a genre called "authentic mysteries." It refers to classic Golden Age-style mysteries where the emphasis, at least on the surface, is on intricate, convoluted plots. There's even an association of writers specializing in the style;
the Honkaku (authentic or orthodox) Mystery Writers Club of Japan that gives out regular awards. Unlike Agatha Christie, these writers insist on fair play, an provide all the information a careful reader needs to solve the mystery.

So, this book is totally bonkers. In 1936, an artist killed several women and chopped them up, seemingly to form the alchemically perfect woman. Right after that, he was killed in a situation that can only be described as a locked-room mystery. Forty-five years later two amateur sleuths, Kazumi Ishiokaa Watson-like illustrator and Kiyoshi Mitaraia very Holmesian astrologer, are contracted to solve the crime. 

The first chunk of the book is a mind-numbingly detailed recounting of every jot and tittle of information. No bit of information is left out. There's so much detail I was ready to chuck the book. It was dry going with only the slightest hint of life to any of the characters or emotional weight to the terrible crime being described.
Suddenly, the clues come to an end and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders becomes almost poetic. The characters, heretofore, little more than regurgitators of facts, come alive. The story turns into a sad one of families and the miseries they inflict on themselves. Also, the solution is clever and clear enough that I was thoroughly pissed off I didn't figure it out.

Shimada has written a whole stack of Kiyoshi Mitarai books, but sadly only Zodiac and Murder in the Crooked House (1982) have been translated into English. I'm hoping his English publisher, Pushkin Vertigo, continues shepherding these into translation and print.

A Corpse in the Koryo (2006) by James Church

This both depressing and reassuring novel is set in North Korea, its protagonist one Inspector O. The inspector is a square peg in a land of round holes who has managed to wedge himself into place. Only partially because of his abilities, largely because of the heroic reputation of his grandfather from the old days of fighting the Japanese and during the revolution. Against his active efforts, O becomes involved in a contest between criminally-minded factions within North Korea. When a foreigner is found dead in Pyongyang's showplace hotel, the Koryo, it's clear Inspector O's own life might be at stake. He's never sure whether he's a pawn, a catspaw, or just a fool.

Some reviewers on Amazon disliked the plot's lack of clarity and Inspector O's lack of control over events. I liked these two aspects very much. James Church is the pseudonym of an American intelligence officer with years of Far Eastern experience. In his telling, something that such limited reports that escape the Hermit Kingdom, North Korea is a stifling, completely bureaucratized state where the ruling powers act with brutal impudence.

I called the novel depressing because the picture it paints of North Korea and the lives of its 25 million benighted citizens. I also called it reassuring, too. Despite the threats and temptations faced by Inspector O, he never gives up his humanity. As suffocating, as all-encompassing, North Korea's government is, life still exists in the country, even if only in the cracks.

I can see these books joining the ranks of William Marshall's Yellowthread Street and Colin Cotterill's Doctor Siri mysteries as my favorite crime series. It's sort of funny that all three feature Asian characters and settings (North Korea, Hong Kong, and Laos) and are written by English-speaking white guys. I wonder, also, what's the nature of genre writing in North Korea and Laos? Is it like the old Soviet Union where only socialist realist writing, thick with class consciousness and unending lecturing, is allowed? Whatever. A Corpse in the Koryo is a good book and I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.


  1. I'll gladly take the blame for that one. :) Glad you liked it.

    And I'll return the favor. I bought THE FISHERMAN when the ebook was on sale a few years ago but never got around to reading it. I'd toyed with picking up SEFIRA but held off until I knew more about it. Your favorable comparison of Langan with Laird Barron was enough. I really like what I've read of Barron's work, so I'll give Langan a try.

  2. Thanks, again, Wakefield's great. It also started me down a rabbit hole of classic ghost stories.

    Langan's shorts are as consistently gut-punching as Barron's, but they're still quite good. The Fisherman is better than The Croning (which I liked very much).

  3. Of Japanese mysteries, I've read the work of Edogawa Ranpo and The Inugami Clan by Seishi Yokomizo. Ranpo was a pulpish writer influenced by Poe. The Inugami Clan was the only work of Yokomizo's published in English (but I could be wrong.)

    1. Matthew, Seishi Yokomizo's The Honjin Murders has just been released by Pushkin Vertigo

  4. I've only read one of two Ranpo stories and liked them. Yokomizo sounds great

  5. Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Ranpo collects most of his more famous stories. Yokomizo is worth searching for. The Inugami Clan is a somewhat Gothic classical mystery. Unlike many classical mystery writers in the States or Britain he deals with sexual themes. (Though not in a too explicit way.)