Sunday 28 June 2020

Before the Coffee Gets Cold - Toshikazu Kawaguchi (2019)

Rating: Mediocre

I've read quite a bit of Japanese fiction and I love the spare, poetic prose and the unique narrative forms that are often employed by many Japanese authors. Before the Coffee Gets Cold looked promising, with an intriguing time-travel premise. In a small, very old Tokyo cafe you can sit with a coffee and travel back in time, but you can only stay as long as the coffee remains warm, and if you don't drink it before it gets cold then you are trapped in time. It turns out that there is much more to it than that, but unfortunately it also turns out that this novel is fatally flawed. Firstly Before the Coffee Gets Cold very obviously suffers from having been adapted from a play and then translated into English. The prose is stilted to the extent that I could almost be willing to believe that it was written by a wooden post. The first section - 'The Lovers', is frustrating to read due to a great deal of hesitant and fragmented dialogue, one dimensional characters and, to be frank, a flirtation with sheer narrative tedium.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold does improve gradually, with some reasonably believable emotional scenes between husband and wives, two sisters and, lastly, a mother and child. The main characters are fleshed out slightly more, but the dialogue remained very stilted, resulting in a low ceiling for sympathetic connection with the characters and their various travails. One intriguing character, who is a ghost, forever trapped somewhere in-between the past and the present (I assume...), but occupying the very seat that allows time travel, could have presented an opportunity for some fascinating narrative possibilities, however she was underused and remained merely a narrative device. I'm certain that performed as a play the novel's themes of fate, tragedy and the healing opportunity afforded by a change of attitude, would have come across much better, but as a novel it totally fails to convince.

Sunday 21 June 2020

Charles Bukowski - Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews & Encounters 1963-1993 - Edited by David Stephen Calonne (2003)

Rating: Excellent

Most regular readers of this blog would be aware of my love for Bukowski's writing. I've read most of his most important works, but I also have quite a few books like this one laying around, in this case for about a decade! Sunlight Here I Am is a great idea executed well; a collection, in chronological order, of interviews with Bukowski, ranging from his very first interview in 1963 and ending with his very last in in 1993. Calonne notes that while this is not all of the interviews with Bukowski, it features many of the best ones. It's a beautiful book, well laid out and featuring drawings by the man himself and a selection of photographs not seen elsewhere. From the first interview there comes a realisation that Bukowski is fully formed, already displaying his perceptive and blunt point of view, holding forth regarding the highs and lows of his life so far and the nature of poetry. There is a definite pattern across all thirty six interviews, the interviewer notes Bukowski's reputation (often followed by an admission as to their trepidation meeting him), Bukowski talks about his past (this aspect becomes repetitious - an unavoidable inherent flaw) and then there is a fascinating discussion that varies depending on the era the interview takes place.

What emerges out of all these interviews is that both Bukowski is as you'd expect him to be, but also there are plenty of surprises even for the hard core Bukowski fan. The fact that Bukowski was such a booze-hound coupled with his disdain of following any cultural trend meant that I was amazed to discover that he smoked grass quite regularly and that he tried LSD and magic mushrooms on a number of occasions. Although his thoughts regarding sex and women are more sophisticated that his detractors would have you believe, his views on politics and philosophy is typically blunt, as is his tendency toward misanthropy. Generally it's a real treat to read Bukowski in full flow and he pretty much provides great copy on most occasions. Along the way you also discover what he thinks of other past and contemporaneous writers, that he felt that his balls were the biggest going around, that he admired Frank Zappa, but regarded both Paul McCartney and John Lennon with disdain; that he hung out with Sean Penn who brought his then girlfriend, no other than Madonna herself, around for a visit! Bukowski notes that when he intimated that Madonna was pretentious Penn bristled with anger but backed down when Bukowski said that Penn knew deep down that he could take him (resulting in Bukowski liking Penn even more...). Such highlights mean that Sunlight Here I Am is well worth tracking down for any Bukowski fan, not only because it is pure Bukowski, but also for the unique insight it provides into one of America's greatest writers.