We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Colin Marshall, whose most recent contribution to The Quarterly Conversation is an essay on the films of Korean filmmaker Sangsoo Hong.
To read all entries in this series, click here.
Despite the excitement he reliably gins up among his readers, Mario Bellatin, the Peruvian-Mexican author of numerous short, unconventional books, has as yet barely entered the English language. Thanks to the young Mexico City-raised, Los Angeles-based poet and translator David Shook, however, the Anglophone world at least has one more of his categorization-resistant works to enjoy. But first, these Anglophone readers must to accept its title character, a 20th-century Japanese author driven by the trauma of his freakishly outsized nose to write esoteric works up to and including a book in a deliberately untranslatable invented language, as neither real nor fictitious. To their credit, both Bellatin, in the Spanish original, and Shook, in the English translation, somehow make the punishingly passive, borderline academic prose that lays out Nagaoka’s chronology entertaining, perhaps as a result of the contrast between the tone of the language and the utterly ridiculous life story it tells. (You can listen to my interview with Shook, conducted this year, here.)
As commercially viable forms go, the writing of place – or, if you prefer, the less accurate but more saleable label of “travel writing” – strikes me as the most versatile disguise for pure essayism. Peter Hessler, currently residing in Cairo but best known for River Town, Oracle Bones, and Country Driving, a trio of books written out of his years spent in China, here collects pieces composed not just in the Middle Kingdom but urban Japan and rural Colorado as well. Most of these, all driven by the vividly described personalities of his local subjects, originally ran in the New Yorker, which clearly hasn’t discarded its penchant for the long-form essay, nor for commissioning observations of parts lesser-known. How heartening it feels to see a fellow compulsive world citizen given an expansive space to practice his craft. (Incidentally, I also interviewed Hessler, and you can read it here.)
I rarely hear the name of Christopher Rand, another New Yorker contributor – their “far-flung correspondent” who in the 1950s and 60s wrote prolifically from and sought doggedly to understand such exotic locales as Greece, Hong Kong, and Salisbury, Connecticut – brought up these days. Yet every enthusiast of writers of place, so I’ve come to believe after reading his Los Angeles: The Ultimate City, should take the (alas, often considerable) time to read the whole of his wholly out-of-print work. As clear-eyed and observant a city profile as I’ve read, this book captures Los Angeles as the neither captivated nor jaundiced Rand saw it in the mid-60s. Its first sentence finds the Southern Californian metropolis striking him as possibly “the ultimate city of our age,” and everything that follows has provided me with inspiration to write about Los Angeles as I myself see it in the 2010s.
Though he remains untranslated, J.M. Servin sits in my personal top tier of writers on the vast, improvisationally functional, often bizarre capital of American’s southern neighbor. Of the recent English-language books on Mexico City available in English, I would recommend David Lida’s First Stop in the New World, Daniel Hernandez’s Down and Delirious in Mexico City, and John Ross’ El Monstruo, though they all have different aims, and certainly take different forms, than Servin’s. D.F. Confidencial hybridizes, in a manner that may startle readers used to more straight-ahead English-language nonfiction, a study of the literature produced by life as distinctively lived in el Distrito Federal (especially the lurid, sensationalistic crime journalism known as nota roja) and first-hand, seedily immediate accounts of forays into the underside – the pulque bars, the last remaining porno theaters – of a metropolis many outsiders already regard as thoroughly sinister.
Few, inside or outside, regard Tokyo as sinister, but film scholar, cultural writer, and man-about-town Donald Richie made it his mission to plumb its social depths regularly during his nearly six decades in the city. From the time he first came to Japan as a member of the U.S. occupation in 1947 to his death this February, Richie associated not just with the best, brightest, and most respected of his adopted homeland’s society – writers like Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata, filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, and at one point even the royal family – but with the policeman, prostitutes, and sub-proletarians who, by night, roamed Ueno Park near his home. Richie, wrote many astute volumes of fiction and nonfiction on things Japanese, but the 510-page Journals most directly convey the experience of both high and low in a country enduring decades of total transformation by a man not shy about the power of both his intellectual and carnal desires. “Almost unconsciously and over the course of a lifetime,” writes Richard Lloyd Parry in the London Review of Books, “they reveal Richie’s intellectual and erotic compulsions to be a single consistent project” – a revelation so resonant that I read The Japan Journals not just in 2013, but each of the four or five years before as well.