Review: The Sea and Poison by Shūsaku Endō

The Sea and Poison [1958/92] – ★★★★

The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” (Albert Einstein).

Go where the pain is” (Anne Rice).

Japan, the last months of the World War II. The city of Fukuoka, nestling in the Hakata Bay, has been experiencing air raids for quite some time, and its hospital finds itself stretched to the limits as its never-ending line of mostly dying patients is always at the door, riddled with many diseases, worsened by hunger and despair. But one day is no ordinary day for this hospital. Unbeknown to many, the Second Surgery is preparing for a secret vivisection operation on American soldiers taken prisoners by the Japanese, and the goal is to test the limits of air and saline that can be injected into humans before they die. Those who are involved in the operation are not some evil monsters or serial killers on the loose, though. They are some of the most respected people in the institution, as well as their dedicated supporting medical personnel. Through the perspectives of two interns – sensitive Suguro and cynical Toda, as well as haunted-by-traumatic-past Nurse Ueda, Endō shows us how easily the unimaginable can unfold when conditions are led by war-time nihilism and actions are prompted by apathy, despair, helplessness and self-interest. Based on a true story (see this article), Shūsaku Endō’s book is as intense as it is disturbing, but at its core is still a touching message to always preserve the spirit of humanity and compassion even in the most highly-pressured and hopeless environments.

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Review: Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé

Crossing the Mangrove [1989/95] – ★★★★

Maryse Condé is an award-winning author from Guadeloupe, French overseas region, whose history, culture and tradition takes a centre stage in her book Crossing the Mangrove. In this simple narrative written from multiple perspectives, the usual life of people in one small village of Rivière au Sel is shuttered by the arrival of one handsome and enigmatic man from Cuba – Francis Sancher. Little is known about this talkative stranger, but he soon manages to bring out the very best and the very worst in villagers, being showered with love and hate alike. And, then, his unnatural death raises even more questions than his life ever did. Vividly and poetically, Condé presents to us a small community in one forgotten village torn by passions, jealousy and hopelessness, with its people being as ready to move forward with life as content to settle into permanent inaction. In the process, the author uncovers for us the very soul of Guadeloupe, beautiful, yes, but also as enigmatic, battered and toughened as the spirit of the central character.  

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Review: The Moon and The Bonfire by Cesare Pavese

The Moon and The Bonfire [1949/68/2002] – ★★★★

“You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy”, so a proverb states. The Moon and The Bonfire is a deeply personal final novel by Italian author Cesare Pavese in which he tells the story of Anguila, a successful businessman, who returns from California to his native country Italy after years and years of absence. Never knowing his real mother and father, Anguila grew up in a foster family in one Piedmontese village near river Belbo in the north of Italy. Abandoned from birth and poor, he had to endure a rough childhood that was only somewhat brightened by his friendship with an older boy Nuto and his fascination with the beautiful daughters of his later master. Now, after years of absence, Anguila decides to reconnect with the land he once called home because after all – “there is no place like home”, or is there? Poverty, war and moral degradation had all left their mark on the region that was once Anguila’s whole world and his detailed re-evaluation of the past, spent desires and dashed hopes leads to surprising conclusions.  

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Review: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki

The Three-Cornered World [1906/65] – ★★★★1/2

Thank heaven for all those who, in devious ways by their art, bring tranquillity to the world, and enrich men’s hearts.

In this novel by famous Japanese author Natsume Sōseki (1867 – 1916), a young painter travels the country in search of a source of true artistic inspiration, tying to be completely dispassionate about everything he sees. In his journey “to rise above emotions” and conquer his earthy desires he has the aim to reach the state of total objectivity so that his brush will be able to paint only the “truth” and “bare life”. However, when he stops briefly at a guesthouse of one Shioda in a hot-spring village of Nakoi, he encounters there a woman who may put a stop to all of his pretences to be an unemotional observer and a mere spectator of life. O-Nami is a beautiful and enigmatic young woman who has recently escaped her impoverished husband and may have had an affair with a local Buddhist priest. Intrigued by this woman and engulfed in the sheer beauty of the nature around him, our narrator plunges deep into the very heart of the meaning of art, poetry and life itself. The Three-Cornered World is a gentle novel of deep insights with intimate meditations on life and art, its secrets and manifestations.

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Review: Havoc by Tom Kristensen

Havoc [1930/68] – ★★★★1/2

Franz Kafka wrote: “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” If we take this definition of a book then Kristensen’s Havoc comes out on top. Havoc is now considered a classic of Danish literature and, accordingly to one author, “one of the best novels to ever come out of Scandinavia”. The main character here is Ole Jastrau, a thirty-something literary critic living with his wife and small child in Copenhagen, Denmark, a city that is going through some kind of a political upheaval. Disillusioned with his work and desperately searching for meaning in his day-to-day existence, Jastrau starts to slowly succumb to the rhetoric of his eccentric friends (Catholics, communists and poets) and also to the only thing that starts to make sense in his life – alcohol. Jastrau sees his apartment being taken over by others, his addiction to the popular Bar des Artistes growing daily and his faithfulness to the core moral principles of life crumbling before his eyes. Will there be a limit to Jastrau’s “fall” and humiliation? Can there be hope amidst all the boundless despair? With his razor-sharp prose, Kristensen paints a vivid picture of an ordinary man on a swift ride to hell.

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Review: Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Foucault’s Pendulum [1988/89] – ★★★★

“…the important thing is not the finding, it is the seeking, it is the devotion with which one spins the wheel of prayer and scripture, discovering the truth little by little” [Umberto Eco/William Weaver, Vintage Press: 1988/89: 33].

Trying to review Foucault’s Pendulum is like trying to write with your left-hand (if you are right-handed, that is) – an enormous task which will not probably be very successful. Through one dense, rich and enigmatic narrative, Umberto Eco tells the story of Casaubon (our narrator) and his friendship with two employees of a publishing house Garamond Press – Belbo and Diotallevi. This trio of intellectuals, who are simply in love with all kinds of knowledge, historic mysteries and brainy puzzles, start their own intellectual “game” of drawing connections with seemingly unrelated things using one clever word-processing machine and a suggestion from one Colonel Ardenti which concerns the order of the Knights Templar and perhaps mysterious resemblances. Little do they know that their amassed knowledge will be too diverse and their power of belief – too strong for a game which started on a whim and so childishly. When certain deaths and disappearances occur as they the trio’s search for their ultimate and absolute truth continues, it may be already too late to seek the way out. But is Eco’s story even about that? Perhaps it is about something else too, and about something else, and, equally, about something else. From the intellectual hub of Milan to esoteric, mysterious corners of Brazil, Umberto Eco takes the reader on one uncanny literary journey and presents a narrative which informs, surprises and exhilarates, as it also confounds, exhausts and overwhelms.

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Mini-Review: The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati

The Tartar Steppe [1940/2018] – ★★★★1/2

First published in 1940 and translated from the Italian by Stuart Hood, this novel is about young and idealistic Giovanni Drogo, a newly appointed Officer to Fort Bastiani, an obscure mountainous place near the country’s frontier. Drogo is excited about his first posting and hurries to his destination eagerly wanting to put to the test his soldiery skills, valour and discipline, as well as begin his new life. However, what awaits him is the unexpected: “the desolate steppe…which had mystery, but no meaning”, where “people [have] no knowledge of time” and where “everything [speaks] of renunciation” [Buzzati/Hood, 1945/1973: 22, 72, 82]. Fort Bastiani is a place in the middle of nowhere where no enemy has been seen since time immemorial. Drogo soon feels rebellious, then depressed and lonely, and is finally completely enchanted by nothingness. The Tartar Steppe is a masterful and subtle work which echoes the best work of Franz Kafka. It is a story about the traps that time lays to a man, about dashed hopes and missed life opportunities, and is a profound meditation on prisons that reside in the recesses of our own minds, in our beloved habits and dear ideals which we can never seem to cast aside no matter how nonsensical they may start to appear.

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Review: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

A Lost Lady [1923] – ★★★★1/2

Her eyes, when they laughed for a moment into one’s own, seemed to promise a wild delight that he had not found in life. “I know where it is”, they seemed to say, “I could show you!“….She had always the power of suggesting things lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring” [Willa Cather, 1923: 136, 137].

I was impressed with Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop [1927], which I read in spring, and have now decided to try out another book by her. I ended up liking A Lost Lady even more than Death Comes for the Archbishop. The novel’s location is Sweet Water, a town in the “American West”, which is one of the hubs of the transcontinental railroad business activity. Marian Forrester, the young wife of successful Captain Daniel Forrester, holds a fascination for the entire community of Sweet Water, from the most hardened, aging businessmen to the children of local grocery men. Mrs. Forrester only comes to town to stay for her summer holidays, but her name is well-known and her coming is eagerly anticipated, especially by young Neil Herbert, the nephew of Judge Pommeroy. Mrs. Forrester is, indeed, “bewitching”, the very definition of charm, grace and sophistication, “belonging to a different world”, “with a glance that made one’s blood tingle” [Cather, 1923: 38]. Amidst challenging times for the community, with financial hardship in sight for everyone, can Marian Forrester and her “elegant” world of principles survive? And then, who Mrs. Forrester really is? A Lost Lady may not be a classic book with a fully fledged plot that spans hundreds of pages and unforgettable twists, but probably that is where its charm lies – in its deceptively simple, beautifully-written story that reveals slowly its quiet character study that, in turn, has the ability to provoke and move.

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Review: Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig

Letter from an Unknown Woman [1922]★★★★★

The opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference. This novella by an Austrian author, which was adapted into a major film of 1948 directed by Max Ophüls and starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan, tells the story of a man who receives a strange letter one morning penned by one unknown-to-him woman. What this woman tells him is something much more than a mere confession. It is a soul-searching, gut-wrenching effort at personal liberation, a last cry to be finally understood in life and one fearful culmination of a life lived with one endless hope, a fruitless succession of attempts at happiness and one final tragic resignation. R. is a handsome man and a celebrated novelist who always had a lot of affection from women. The unknown woman is a dreamy and impressionable person from a much more modest family. What ties them together? From his point of view: three, very brief life episodes which can be counted by mere hours and which he forgot the moment they happened. From her point of view: absolutely everything, including three most important moments in her life, her whole world-view and the very point of her existence. Stefan Zweig wrote a powerful, sincere and moving account of one unrequited love and close examination of a person on the very fringes of another person’s life always looking in, hoping in vain to become a full-time participant.

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Mini-Review: Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

Tuesday Nights in 1980 [2016] – ★★★★

I would like to thank Cathy at 746books for recommending this book to me after I compiled list 7 Great Novels Revolving Around Visual Art. Tuesday Nights in 1980 presents New York City’s art scene of 1980. At the centre are three people whose destinies collide in the background of creative bohemia filled with liberties of all kinds, boundless artistic inspiration and ambition, and spurs of unusual creativity: James Bennett is a misunderstood person and a renowned art critic who has synaesthesia, a condition which means that he experiences ideas, people and objects as colours or a combination of colours; Raul Engales is a “free spirit” and up-and-coming Argentinean artist who left behind in his country one past better not recalled; and Lucy Olliason is a girl from Idaho who has just recently arrived to NYC and is open to everything and anything. Evocatively, even if exaggeratedly, Molly Prentiss captures in her story the thrill of being young and artistic in NYC, which itself starts to undergo many changes. Amidst obsessive art-making and pleasures of falling in love, there are also a transitory nature of success, creative doubts and personal tragedies.

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Review: Fires on the Plain by Shōhei Ōoka

Fires on the Plain [1951] –  ★★★★1/2

This book review is my second contribution to the Japanese Literature Challenge 14 hosted by Meredith at Dolce Bellezza. Winner of the prestigious Yomiuri Prize, Fires on the Plain details the experience of a Japanese soldier in the Philippines during the last months of the World War II (the Leyte island landing). This sometimes gruesome and traumatic, but vividly introspective and unputdowanable novel full of conviction is filled with psychological and philosophical insights. Drawing from his own experience of the WWII, Shōhei Ōoka wrote about the degradation, futility and meaninglessness of war through the experience of one injured and stranded soldier who gets suspended between complete despair, increasing apathy and little choice, but to commit war crimes, on the one hand, and glimpses of hope and religious visions, on the other. Plagued by contradictions and irrational thoughts, Private Tamura finds himself psychologically distancing from war horrors around him, as Ōoka makes a powerful statement on one situation where such concepts as morality or rationality no longer seem to have any meaning. Fires on the Plain is probably one of the most important anti-war novels ever written.

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Review: The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

The Scapegoat [1957] – ★★★★1/2

In The Scapegoat, two complete look-alikes switch places and we follow the Englishman John as he reluctantly takes the place of seemingly wealthy but troubled Frenchman Jean de Gué. Previously somewhat shy and leading an uneventful life, John is unexpectedly thrust into the very limelight of life, acquiring a big family overnight, but also overbearing responsibilities and a failing business. As this is a Daphne du Maurier book, this is no ordinary tale of switched identities. In this tale, we step into an atmosphere that is haunting and unsettling, into a strange château peopled by still stranger people whose complex relationships and buried secrets first puzzle and then “liberate” our protagonist. Blending wonderfully the surreal and the realist, Daphne du Maurier created a fascinating psychological situation, a deep and intricate central character study and vivid minor characters, while touching on such themes as the nature of identity, the unpredictability of the human nature, the meaning of a family and the importance of forgiveness. With du Maurier, readers know that they are in the safe and confident hands of a master who will deliver something subtle, unsettling and over and above their expectations.

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Review: The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary

The Roots of Heaven (Les Racines du ciel) [1956/57] – ★★★★1/2

The Roots of Heaven, the winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, is set deep in the wilderness of Africa just after the WWII when the complex geopolitical situation meant a world on the brink of an explosion from the collusion of different interests, values and opinions. In this world, amidst all the criticisms levelled at colonialism, cries for African independence and still fresh horrors of the Nazi regime, there emerges a candle of “hope” in the form of one idealistic Frenchman – Morel, whose passion for the protection of elephants soon reaches mythical proportions in the region around Chad. He soon gathers around the most unlikely champions to ban the slaughter of elephants, for example Minna, a woman who suffered much during the Fall of Berlin, and Forsythe, an American who was dishonourably discharged from the army. Morel, equipped only with the belief that his cause will attract public sympathy, faces a lot of adversaries, such as the reality itself, as well as numerous people who hunt for business, pleasure and trophies. Because of his eccentricities and naïve outlooks, Morel is soon converted into a symbol of dignity and liberation, even though his enemies are already closing in on his noble campaign and it is far from certain what will be the real consequences of his increasingly drastic actions. Through Gary’s dense narrative and second-hand accounts, we can piece together a powerful story about the resilience of the human spirit and the power of one unshakeable belief, all coming from the author whose own life was probably more illustrious than any fiction he wrote.

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Review: Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburō Ōe

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids [1958] – ★★★★1/2

Kenzaburo Oe’s debut should remind of Lord of the Flies [1954] by William Golding, but, undoubtedly, the author had other inspirations too. In his first book, the Japanese Nobel Laureate tells of a group of boys from a reform school that get stranded high up in forested mountains and forced to confront hostile villagers, the possibility of a plague, starvation and inhumane conditions. As the boys take matters into their own hands, their boyish desire to play and youthful confidence/hopefulness clash violently with the necessities posed by the war and traumas experienced by the most desperate. The boys finally realise that they have to choose between truth, principle, loyalty and compassion, on the one hand, and their own lives, on the other.

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Review: Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb

fear-and-tremblingFear and Trembling [1999/2001] – ★★

Belgian author Amélie Nothomb (Sulphuric Acid) is known for her short, thought-provoking books that often shock, but Fear and Trembling misses the mark. In this story, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, a young Belgian woman starts working for a prestigious Japanese company Yumimoto and soon finds herself overwhelmed: she is delegated meaningless, absurd and increasingly demeaning tasks, while her relationship with her immediate supervisor Fubuki Mori undergoes drastic changes – from deep admiration to extreme hate. While Nothomb’s deadpan satire on corporate culture works at the start of the book, her attempt to shockingly satirise the Japanese culture and the difficulty of the westerner to integrate into it is completely misguided. Thus, with Fear and Trembling, what starts as an intriguing and delicate satire soon turns into something bewildering, unfocused and ignorant, a strange, barely-hidden polemic on traditional female roles and Japan with some very needless and overly-shocking episodes.   Continue reading “Review: Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb”

Review: The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker

the Detour Book CoverThe Detour [2010/2012] – ★★★★

This is a book by a Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker, whose previous book The Twin [2006] won the International Dublin Literary Award. The Detour (also known as Ten White Geese), translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, is about a Dutch woman who moves from her country and starts to live alone on a farm in rural Wales. Some of her nearby neighbours are badgers, cows and ten white geese whose number declines rapidly and mysteriously the longer she lives on her rented farm. Equipped with a poetry book by Emily Dickinson, the woman seems to be on the run from her past, trying to either delay or solve her immediate problems by seeking refuge in an unknown and isolated location. Her peace is soon disturbed by those with curiosity and inquisitiveness. With elegance and delicacy, Bakker draws on the nature in his book to shed light on the mystery that is this woman and her past, with his book becoming a quiet and poignant exploration of loneliness, pain and human connection. Continue reading “Review: The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker”

Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

A15Zne-lCL Melmoth [2018] – ★★1/2 

First, I would like to say that I loved Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent [2016], its historical context, its beautiful prose, its main character, its plot – it read (almost, perhaps) like a modern classic, and it was a very enjoyable experience. Melmoth is Perry’s third book in which she focuses on the legend of Melmoth the Wanderer as it is seen through the eyes of modern-day characters living in Prague. In this story, Helen Franklin is a forty-something-year-old woman living in the Czech Republic in 2016 and working as a translator. She strikes up a friendship with one “posh” couple Karel and Thea, and it is through them that she reads a mysterious manuscript that details the confessions of certain people who allegedly had an encounter with Melmoth or Melmotka (a lonely woman who once denied the resurrection of Christ and is doomed to wander the Earth forever bearing witness to the humanity’s cruelty). The obsession with the manuscript soon makes Helen confront her own past. Even though there is an attempt made by the author to make this book deep and philosophical by touching upon such issues as sin, guilt, regret and atonement, these messages never get across in a compelling manner, and, overall, the book feels dull and very contrived. As in The Essex Serpent, Perry uses one intriguing and spooky legend here as a bait to entice her readers into picking up this “Gothic and unsettling” book only for those readers to then discover that they, instead, have been served with merely a collection of sad personal historical accounts that the author never even managed to bring convincingly together to make her final important point on history, witnessing and responsibility. Continue reading “Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry”

Review: The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe

the silent cry The Silent Cry [1967/1988] – ★★★★★

Since I am participating in the 13th Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza, I am now reviewing this book by Japanese Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Ōe. In The Silent Cry, we are presented with the early 1960s and Mitsu, a disillusioned husband to an alcoholic wife and a father to a child who is now in an institution. Mitsu sees his life changing when his estranged brother Takashi arrives from America and together they travel to their native village in Shikoku, one of the main islands in Japan. There, they find that there is a shift in local power and one rich Korean magnate is proposing to buy what remains of Mitsu and Takashi’s land inheritance – their storehouse. Reluctantly, Mitsu finds himself drawn into a complicated political situation of the village, while also realising that Takashi starts to wield the unprecedented power over the village inhabitants. The Silent Cry is a slow-paced descent into one kind of a nightmare where the violent history of the village is about to be re-enacted and other grim discoveries made as the relationship between the two brothers takes an unexpected turn. Full of uneasiness and foreboding, The Silent Cy is a subtly powerful work that masterfully evokes the unsaid, the forbidden and the terrifying, getting us close to the real Truth and to the final Hope. It really becomes one of those books you do not have to enjoy, but to simply experience and live through. Continue reading “Review: The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe”

Review: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

the fishermen book review The Fishermen [2015] – ★★★★

The things my brother read shaped him; they became his visions. He believed in them. I have now come to know that what one believes often becomes permanent, and what becomes permanent can be indestructible.”

This debut book, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015, is set in a quiet neighbourhood of Akure in Nigeria in the 1990s and centres on four young brothers (Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin) whose lives change when their father gets a job transfer to another city and they hear a prophecy made about the death of one of them. Though the parents plan a big future for each and every one of their sons, they soon have to confront unimaginable horrors as the brothers take their fishing nets and hooks and head down to a local river. Steeped in local superstition and African folklore, The Fishermen explores the relationship between brothers from an interesting perspective, and, although it may be dragging its narrative for its first half, by the end, the book strangely redeems itself to become a story with a purpose and a conviction. Continue reading “Review: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma”

Review: Amulet by Roberto Bolaño

Amulet Book CoverAmulet [1999/2006] – ★★★★★

“…those who can see into the past never pay. But I could also see into the future and vision of that kind comes at a high price: life, sometimes, or sanity” [Roberto Bolaño, 1999/2006: 64]. 

Last year I had a goal to read a certain number of books by Asian authors (see my YARC), and so, this year, I set myself a similar goal, but, this time, I will travel to another part of the world and try to read as many books as possible by Latin American authors. I will begin my Latin America Reading Challenge with a short book by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño (1952 – 2003) titled Amulet. In this vivid “stream of consciousness” account, our narrator is Auxilio Lacouture, a woman from Uruguay and the “mother of Mexican poetry”. She works part-time at one university in Mexico City and at one point realises that her university (National Autonomous University of Mexico) is being surrounded by an army (event that happened two months before the infamous Tlatelolco massacre of 1968). Auxilio finds herself alone and hiding in the lavatory of the university as the army rounds up the staff and students. At that point she starts to recall her own past, talking to us about her dedication to nurturing the artistic talent of others. As time passes and her hunger and exhaustion increase, her account becomes increasingly hectic and imaginative. Amulet is an unusual novella with one unusual narrator at its heart, which is also strangely compelling as it tries to tell us the truth of the situation in the country and the state of Latin America’s literary talent and tradition through an unconventional and slightly dreamlike voice. Continue reading “Review: Amulet by Roberto Bolaño”

Review: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

The Blazing World Book CoverThe Blazing World [2014] – ★★★★1/2 

This longlisted for a Man Booker Prize book traces the story of Harriet Burden, a small artist and once the wife of an eminent art dealer Felix Lord. Through the statements from Burden’s family, close friends and acquaintances, we get to know the story behind Burden’s decades-long experiment to hide behind three male identities in the production of her art. Burden chose to create art and pass it as works by someone else, thereby, exposing the anti-female bias in the art world, but also the subconscious perception that male artists are much more brilliant than their female counterparts. The Blazing World is bursting with creativity, intelligence and originality. It touches on many philosophical and psychological issues, while also debating the nature of art, the process of its creation and human perception. At the heart of the story is one misunderstood individual whose depth and intellectuality may just signal her doom. This unusual book invites us, readers, to be archivists, observers, art critics, judges and psychologists, but above all, it invites us to look at the situation as human beings, trying to understand the feelings and thoughts of another.  Continue reading “Review: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt”

Review: The Face of Another by Kōbō Abe

The Face of Another Book Cover The Face of Another [1964] – ★★★★★

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” (Kurt Vonnegut). 

After enjoying The Woman in the Dunes [1962] over the summer, I have now read The Face of Another by the same author (translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders). In this story, which is narrated through three notebooks (diaries), we are told of a scientist who gets facially disfigured while conducting an experiment in a laboratory, and struggles from then on to fit into the society with his disfigured face. He manages to make a mask that is indistinguishable from a real face, but soon finds out that his problems have only just began as his personality also starts to change. There is something from Frankenstein [1823] in this novel, something from Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde [1886], something from The Invisible Man [1897], something from Steppenwolf [1927], and something from Franz Kafka and Ernesto Sabato as well, resulting in this novel being a psychologically and philosophically delicious journey into the dark recesses of one increasingly damaged mind.  Continue reading “Review: The Face of Another by Kōbō Abe”

Review: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World Book Cover 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World [2019] – ★★★1/2

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” is a shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2019 book by the Turkish-British author Elif Shafak (The Architect’s Apprentice [2013])). In this story, Tequila Leila is found dead in a trash bin on the outskirts of Istanbul, but her mind keeps working for another ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds, during which time we are introduced to Leila’s childhood, her meetings with the- dearest-to-her people, and, finally, to the events leading up to her death. As Leila’s mind starts to race through her life events, we get to know Istanbul and its dark history, as well as the plight of the most marginalised people living within the city walls. Shafak’s “mind-slipping-away” concept is intriguing, and she does try to make her book as evocative as possible. However, the second half of the book is nowhere near as interesting as the first half, and the prose is sometimes sentimentally-inclined and even pretentious. There is this feeling when reading this book that the “mind-slipping-away” element is a gimmick introduced by Shafak to get our attention so that we can finally read what she wants us to understand: that Istanbul has had many faces through history, and that there are, and have always been, marginalised people living there, especially women, who suffered much and now deserve attention, recognition and, above all, dignity – even after their death.  Continue reading “Review: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak”

Review: Mysteries by Knut Hamsun

Mysteries Book Review Mysteries [1892] – ★★★★

Is there any way of knowing? There are so many strange things between heaven and earth, beautiful, inexplicable things, presentiments that can’t be explained, terrors that make your blood freeze” [Knut Hamsun/Gerry Bothmer [1892/1971: 161].

I previously enjoyed Knut Hamsun’s book Hunger [1890], which I reviewed in May, and, following the recommendation from CakeorDeathSite, I am now reviewing Mysteries by this Nobel Prize winner. Translated from the Norwegian by Gerry Bothmer, Mysteries begins with the following lines: “In the middle of the summer of 1891 the most extraordinary things began happening in a small Norwegian coastal town. A stranger by the name of Nagel appeared, a singular character who shook the town by his eccentric behaviour and then vanished as suddenly as he had come” [Knut Hamsun/Gerry Bothmer [1892/1971: 3]. Nagel is a total stranger to the little town, but he soon makes an unforgettable impression on its inhabitants, and people are taken aback by his unusual opinions and contradictory nature. But, who is he really? And, what is his agenda in this ordinary little town in Norway? We are taken on a journey into the mind of this eccentric character as he meets a typical-to-every-small-town parade of characters: a local beauty, a town’s misfit/clown and a proud deputy, among others. A journey is probably the word for our experience of this main character because Hamsun was really the author ahead of his time in terms of creating characters that disrupt societal status quo, making this story particularly intriguing, even if uneasy to consider. Nagel is a man of extraordinary visions and eccentric ideas, but what is the real truth here, and what should we really expect? Hamsun is clear that there are no easy answers when it comes to the spontaneity of the human nature or the restlessness of the human spirit. Continue reading “Review: Mysteries by Knut Hamsun”

Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far Field Book Cover The Far Field [2019] – ★★★

The Far Field is a debut book of the Indian author Madhuri Vijay. It tells of a privileged young woman (Shalini) who embarks on a journey from her home town Bangalore, India to the Kashmir region in search of a man (Bashir Ahmed) who was once her family’s friend. While we follow Shalini’s journey into one region filled with political instability and conflict, we are also taken back and introduced to Shalini as a child. When Shalini was a small girl, she and her mother had a frequent visitor in their house while Shalini’s father was at work. Handsome Bashir Ahmed lavished Shalini and her mother with his affection and kindness, and his departure from Bangalore is still something the family cannot accept. Madhuri Vijay describes the location and her characters vividly, trying to make her story poignant, and we may assume that we will be reading a beautiful story of one girl on a redemptive pursuit of a man (Bashir Ahmed) in the mountains of the Kashmir region. However, unfortunately, The Far Field really ends up to be an unrealistic story of much ado about nothing. There is no real mystery to uncover here nor is there any special insight to be gained from the characters. Perhaps, only Shalini’s random actions surprise and even shock, and not in a positive way at all.  Continue reading “Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay”

Review: The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín

The Blackwater Lightship Book Review The Blackwater Lightship [1999] – ★★★1/2

In 1999, Paul Binding from The Independent on Sunday wrote that “we shall be reading and living with The Blackwater Lightship in twenty years”. Twenty years have now passed, and, this year, The Blackwater Lightship by Irish author Colm Tóibín (Brooklyn [2009]) is twenty years old. Therefore, I am taking this opportunity to review this book that was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999. In this story, three generations of women (daughter Helen, mother Lily and grandmother Dora) come together to try to cement their uneasy relationships with each other after Helen’s brother Declan is taken gravely ill as a result of his AIDS diagnosis. Tóibín makes his writing effortlessly beautiful, and there is a special sense of sadness and a desire for redemption permeating this story, with the characters trying hard to accept and forgive each other while they remain united in their shared tragedy. However, The Blackwater Lightship is still rather bland and can be described as “playing it safe”, sometimes veering off from the main drama into other topics (changing societal views on homosexuality and difficulty of finding romance) and according its secondary characters (Declan’s friends) an undeserved place in the story.  Continue reading “Review: The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín”

Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings Book CoverThe Interestings [2013] – ★★★★1/2

Meg Wolitzer is an American novelist known for such books as The Wife [2003] and The Ten-Year Nap [2008]. Her novel The Interestings is also a bestseller which is as impressive. In this book, the central stage first take six teenagers: (i) awkward, but funny Jules, our main heroine; (ii) lovable and charming Ash; (iii) Ash’s handsome, but slightly troubled brother Goodman; (iv) not particularly attractive, but friendly and ingenious Ethan; (v) dreamy and artistic Jonah; (vi) and beautiful and emotional Cathy. How their first summer at an artsy camp Spirit-in-the-Woods and future inter-relationships develop, as they become adults in the fast-changing world, is the focus of this very reflective, character-driven book. The Interestings is almost nostalgic, slightly dreamy, in quality book filled with emotions, longings and reflections, making the reader pose and reflect as they step into the lives of six people who all first long to be better than they are – or, interesting – but whose different life choices, talent, past and backgrounds ultimately determine their place in the world. It becomes harder for them to preserve their feelings of love and friendship for each other, when societal pressures, financial success, lifestyle changes and losses (as well as ensued envy, hurt and disillusionment) start to dictate their lives, attitudes and perceptions, dividing the once close group of friends. Continue reading “Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer”

Review: The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe

Kobo Abe The Woman in the Dunes The Woman in the Dunes [1962] – ★★★★★

In this deceptively simple tale, Kobo Abe paints a quietly disturbing picture of one man who finds himself in an unusual situation when he ventures to look for insects in sand dunes. The man, Niki Jumpei, misses his last bus home upon finishing his one day trip to the dunes, and some local villagers do him a favour and put him up for one night at one woman’s eccentric dwelling at the bottom of a sand pit (the only exit is by a long rope to reach the surface). Jumpei is an entomologist and a school-teacher, a man of science and reason, but nothing could prepare for him for what he is about to experience in his new strange dwelling (which has more complex arrangements that he has ever imagined). But, he will only be there for one night; right? or will he be? The man soon discovers that his innocent trip to the outskirts of one village is about to take a very absurd and horrific turn. The plot may be straightforward, but the merit of this novel still lies in the subtleties and (horrific) realisations – in the consequences which are revealed slowly to the reader (as well as to the character), enhancing the suspense and the final impact. The reader will suspend disbelief when the main character meets a woman and a community he never imagined existed, which prompts him to meditate on the meaning of life, relationships and the human nature. The Woman in the Dunes is Kobo Abe’s existentialist masterpiece.

Continue reading “Review: The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe”

Review: There There by Tommy Orange

There There Book Cover There There [2018] – ★★★★

There There is a debut book by Tommy Orange, a Cheyenne and Arapaho author who has a goal to draw attention to the lives of Native Americans living in an urban setting in the present day US. We follow twelve different characters who all live in Oakland, California and struggle in some form in their lives. From marginalised and criminally-minded Tony Loneman to internet-obsessed and lonely Edwin Black; and from history-inspired Dene Oxendene to poverty-stricken and troubled sisters – Opal Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather, Tommy Orange presents a heart-wrenching overview of the struggles of the people who want to re-connect with their families and their Native American heritage. The characters’ lives are intertwined and there is a feeling like they are all moving towards an explosive finale in the story. The result is a powerful tribute to Native Americans living in big US cities today, trying to make their heritage feel relevant and important, even if Orange’s story as a narrative falls short of its mark because of its overly-ambitious multiple perspectives’ focus, as well as its dissatisfying ending.  Continue reading “Review: There There by Tommy Orange”

Review: Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Bitter Orange Book Cover Bitter Orange [2018] – ★★★1/2 

Bitter Orange is Claire Fuller’s third novel in which she mixes a crime mystery, antique house drama (a hint on a love triangle) and melancholic nostalgia for the past. Her main character Frances feels like she was given a new lease of life when, at the age of thirty-nine, her previously bedridden mother is dead and she is assigned a task to catalogue garden architecture in a semi-abandoned mansion – Lyntons. At the house, she befriends a couple who rents the first floor of the building, and their present relationships and past come head to head to result in something explosive. Bitter Orange is an oddly evocative book, but also an oddly imperfect one. Sometimes frustratingly uneventful and slow, the book’s main fault is still its underwhelming, under-thought and already unoriginal characters, premise and ending. 

Continue reading “Review: Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller”

Review: Golden Child by Claire Adam

Golden Child Claire Adam Golden Child [2019] – ★★★★

Claire Adam’s debut novel, which is set in hot and exotic Trinidad and Tobago, author’s native land, is a curious mix of a family drama, focusing on twins and parenthood, and a “mysterious disappearance” thriller. Clyde and Joy are typical parents living in southern Trinidad, trying to make their ends meet. Their twin sons – Peter and Paul – may look identical, but, in the eyes of at least one of their parents – they are very different. Peter is a diligent student and is considered to be a new academic star, whereas “that other one” or Paul is deemed “slow”, having a learning disability. When Paul disappears one day, the family has to finally confront their long-standing attitude towards him, as well as his unusual place in the family. Adam’s engrossing debut touches on many themes, including crime and the stresses of parenthood, but, at the core of them all, is a beating heart, an emotion, a special tribute to every child who once thought he or she was not good enough.  Continue reading “Review: Golden Child by Claire Adam”

Review: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho Book Review Idaho [2017] – ★★1/2

Emily Ruskovich’s debut is a strange book. Idaho alludes to some accident which happened sometime in the past in the woods of Idaho. That accident involved a family of four: Wade, Jenny and their two daughters, May and June. Jumping timelines, Ruskovich paints an unsettling picture of one family broken apart. Years after the incident, Wade suffers from memory loss, and it is up to his new wife Ann “to retrace the memory steps”. If this sounds vague and confusing, it is because it is supposed to. Idaho is an almost experimental novel, in which the author uses the evocative language to shed light on the nature of memory, loss, grief and guilt. Though her attempt is admirable, the book is also very problematic: if the beginning is promising, the book soon morphs into a frustrating read, and the ending borders on pointlessness.  Continue reading “Review: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich”

Review: French Exit by Patrick DeWitt

FFrench Exit Book Coverrench Exit [2018] – ★★★

This tragicomedy of manners comes from the author of a Man Booker Prize nominee The Sisters Brothers [2011]. In French Exit, Patrick DeWitt centres on a mother, Frances, a fussy and bossy woman of sixty-five, and her good-for-nothing thirty-two year-old son, Malcolm, who see their fortune fade away after an ill-publicised death of the family provider Franklin Price, once an eminent lawyer in New York City. Once rich and admired, the family of two now face financial ruin and decide to go to Paris, perhaps, for a change of scenery. Frances’s only friend Joan provides an apartment to rent in Paris for them, and the duo of unlikely central characters embark on their French exploit enthusiastically, meeting eccentric characters along the way. This slightly surreal tragicomedy is an amusing enough read, but it is also often somewhat dull, with emotional punch coming too late in this curious book.  Continue reading “Review: French Exit by Patrick DeWitt”

Review: Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Hunger Cover Hunger [1890/1996] – ★★★★★

Knut Hamsun is a Nobel Prize Winner for Literature whose existentialist literary work Hunger predates Franz Kafka’s The Trial [1925] and Albert Camus’ The Stranger [1942]. Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad, Hunger explores the daily life of one lonely and desperate man on the brink of starvation in a large city. Our unnamed narrator is a freelance writer who has one “ambition” in his life: not to die from hunger. He is hard-working and not demanding, with food and shelter being his main wishes. Hamsun explores mental and physical traumas of the character in a masterful work that inspired some of the greatest philosophical fiction authors of the twentieth century, emphasising in his work that the fight to survive in a big city may take a shape of complete absurdity.

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Review: When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head

When Rain Clouds Gather Book Review When Rain Clouds Gather [1969] – ★★★★★

You may see no rivers on the ground but we keep the rivers inside us. That is why all good things and all good people are called rain. Sometimes we see the rain clouds gather even though not a cloud appears in the sky. It is all in our heart” [Bessie Head, 1969: 191]. 

This is a tale of Makhaya, a refugee from South Africa, who desires to build his life anew in a small village of Golema Mmidi, Botswana. There, he meets eccentric Englishman Gilbert Balfour, who would like to revolutionise farming methods to help people of the village. Both men are running away from the past and are in search of wives. However, before both start to live free lives, trying to help others, they have to face and fight political corruption, unfavourable climatic conditions and village prejudice. When Rain Clouds Gather tells an important story of finding hope in the most hostile and dangerous conditions, and can really be considered a modern classic.
Continue reading “Review: When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head”

Review: The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier

Los Pasos Perdidos CoverThe Lost Steps [1953/1989] – ★★★★1/2 

“…we let ourselves succumb to the world of wonder, eager for still greater portents. There arose beside the hearth, conjured up by Montsalvatje, the medicine men who healed the wounds with the magic incantation of Bogotá, the Amazon Queen, Cicanocohora, the amphibious men who slept at night in the bottoms of the lakes, and those whose sole nourishment was the scent of flowers” [Carpentier/de Onis, 1954/89: 144].

Los Pasos Perdidos or The Lost Steps was translated from the Spanish by Harriet de Onis and represents what is believed to be one of the most important Latin American novels to come out in the twentieth century. In this story, our unnamed narrator (believed to be in New York) is sent on a mission to a jungle (believed to be in Venezuela) to discover and collect some ancient musical instruments for a museum. By accepting this request, the narrator has no idea that he is about to embark on one extraordinary journey of self-realisation and self-discovery, which will force him to rethink his previous inculcated beliefs. The Lost Steps is a complex literary work which sometimes slides into being rather metaphysical in nature, but without losing its conviction or power. Carpentier weaves his story in a beautiful, even though enigmatic, language, and the result is a book which puzzles, impresses and astonishes. Continue reading “Review: The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier”

Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life Book Cover A Little Life [2015] – ★★★★1/2 

Once we are lost unto ourselves, everything else is lost to us” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther).

Initially, this Man Booker Prize Nominee is about four friends who try to succeed in New York City after their graduation. Willem is a kind soul and an aspiring actor, JB is a gregarious party-goer and carefree artist, Malcolm is a grounded man, but increasingly disillusioned architect, and, finally, Jude is a brilliant lawyer, but also a man who harbours a secret past which torments him every day and every night. Will friendship and love triumph over the traumas and cruelties of life? This book does depict trauma, distress and violence stemming from the abuse of a child in the past, but, like Yanagihara’s debut, A Little Life is also a beautifully-written and intelligently-constructed novel with significant themes that must have their place in literature. Like the author’s debut, it is sometimes a painfully repetitive read, and Yanagihara drives her main message too torturously in it. However, it is incorrect to view the book as being solely about bad things happening. No person should be defined (or should feel to be defined) by the past trauma that was unfairly inflicted upon them, and the book sends an important message out, becoming a touching and emotional tribute to the power, loyalty and sacrifices of friendship and love, even if that tribute is too thickly wrapped in the pain of our main atypical and mysterious character – Jude St. Francis. 

Continue reading “Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara”

Review: The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

The Twin Book Cover The Twin [2006/2008] – ★★★★

The Twin, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, is that type of a book which should not work, but somehow it does. It should not work because it is too introspective and has the drama and suspense which are way too subtle. In this book, Helmer van Wonderen is a fifty-seven year old man who is living on an isolated farm in the Netherlands, carrying for his aging father. His identical twin brother Henk, a farmer, died many years before, forcing Helmer to return home to work as a farm hand, helping his father. When his brother’s ex fiancée Riet arrives to the area, bringing her unruly son with her (who is also named Henk), Helmer is forced to confront his painful past, as well as his choices in life. The Twin may be a very “slow” novel, but where it lacks in pace, it makes up for in atmosphere and landscape descriptions. It also has barely perceivable emotional resonance that can be felt in the main character’s words and actions. 

Continue reading “Review: The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker”

Review: Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

Sweet-Bean-Paste-cover Sweet Bean Paste [2013/2017] – ★★★★★

The aroma seemed to leap up at him, as if it were alive, racing through his nose to the back of his head. Unlike the ready-made paste, this was the smell of fresh, living beans. It had depth. It had life. A mellow, sweet taste unfurled inside Sentaro’s mouth” [Sukegawa/Watts, 2013: 33]. 

This book, translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts (see also the film trailer here), tells a story of Sentaro, a middle-aged man who spends his time unenthusiastically selling dorayaki, a kind of pancake filled with sweet bean paste, to customers at the Doraharu shop, while consuming alcoholic drinks in his spare time. When an elderly woman Tokue approaches his shop and asks to work there, Sentaro first thinks it is a joke. However, Sentaro also tastes the bean paste cooked by Tokue and he is amazed by the flavours she can produce. What follows is a touching human story filled with the passion for food and the importance of appreciating small pleasures in life. Sweet Bean Paste is also so much more than a book about Japanese culinary delights and culture. It is a quietly beautiful book with the message of coming to terms with history, accepting people and recognising their talents no matter how small they may appear. Each person can contribute something to this world if others are willing to listen, learn and accept. 

Continue reading “Review: Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa”

Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Drive Your Plow Book Cover Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead [2009/18] – ★★★★1/2 

This book by Olga Tokarczuk (the winner of the International Booker Prize Award for Flights) was translated from the Polish in 2018 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. In this story, an eccentric elderly woman Janina Duszejko recounts a series of murders happening in her small village near Kłodzko, Poland. Her neighbour’s death follows that of other hunting men in the vicinity, and suspicions begin to mount. Janina has her own unusual theories about the murders, and these involve animals. But, is she really a new Polish Miss Marple? Tokarczuk did not just write a detective story – her book combines existential philosophy, animal rights and village politics (small people vs. big power) theses, unchangeable horoscope arguments and literary (William Blake) references to produce one of a kind story whose main narrator steals every other page with her insightful and often bizarre observations. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a strange literary concoction, but also an atmospheric and intelligent one. 

Continue reading “Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk”

Review: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the Trees CoverThe People in the Trees [2013] – ★★★★1/2  

The People in the Trees is a debut novel of Hanya Yanagihara, a writer now best known for her second book A Little Life, a 2015 Man Booker Prize nominee. The People in the Trees is partly an anthropological travelogue, partly a jungle adventure mystery, and party a covert character study, having enough disturbing elements to make its readers feel uncomfortable and even indignant about the content. However, these do not make the book any less masterful. Beautifully-written, The People in the Trees reads for the most part like a memoir/diary detailing Dr Norton Perina’s travel to an isolated Micronesian island country in the 1950s to find and study a “lost tribe”. He did so alongside a talented anthropologist Dr Tallent (who is himself a mystery) and Tallent’s colleague Esme Duff. The mysteries Perina uncovers on the island are shockingly significant, revolutionising what is known about science/medicine and having to do with immortality. Yanagihara fuses pseudo-factual scientific writings with some fantastic elements to rather impressive results, and it all would have been rather delightful and pleasing if the content were not also so devastatingly horrific. The only thing that lets this ambitious book down is that Yanagihara cannot quite manage to strike a balance or make a smooth transition between the book passages that detail the implications of Perina’s island discovery and later elements which deal with Perina’s own character insights.

Continue reading “Review: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara”

Review: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

Moth Smoke Cover Moth Smoke [2000] – ★★★★1/2    

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist [2007] is one of my favourite novels. Therefore, I had high expectations prior to reading Hamid’s debut book Moth Smoke [2000]. These expectations were met. In Moth Smoke, Darashikoh Shezad or Daru is a hash-smoking banker living in Lahore, Pakistan who rekindles his friendship with his childhood friend Ozi, who is now an influential and rich man living under the protection of his equally influential, but corrupt father. Daru also realises that he is attracted to Ozi’s wife Mumtaz, and, among his friends is also a shady character Murad Badshah, who sometimes acts as his drugs supplier. After Daru is fired from his job, his societal divide from influential and rich Ozi grows even further, and he finds himself on the dark path towards immorality and crime. Moth Smoke is a fascinating, eye-opening journey into Lahore’s criminal underbelly, which makes observations on the societal class divisions and east vs. west mentality conflicts. But, it is also so much more than that: it has an experimental structure and style (with at least four unreliable narrators); employs symbolism and fable-like story-telling; and becomes a book about the limits of morality, friendship and love, while also exploring the nature of guilt and the malleability of truth.  Continue reading “Review: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid”

Review: Please Look After Mother by Kyung-sook Shin

Please Look After Mother Cover Please Look After Mother [2008] – ★★★★  

“To you, Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother” [Kyung-sook Shin, 2008/11: 27].

It is time for me to press on with the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge (YARC), and I am continuing with this challenge by reviewing a book by another South Korean author. In 2008, Kyungsook Shin wrote a book Please Look After Mother, which has now sold more than two million copies and gained numerous prizes. Incidentally, the novel was translated in 2011 by Chi-young Kim, a female literary translator who also translated Young-Ha Kim’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself. In this book, grown-up children of a family in South Korea are missing their mother. She disappeared at the Seoul Station while trying to catch an underground train with Father. Mother in this family has always been that unnoticeable centre of love and care to be relied upon at any time, and the book then asks – what if one day this stable and unnoticeable foundation crumbles? Upon the disappearance of Mother in the story, each of the children, as well as Father, are forced to rethink their previous image of Mother, recalling memories of the person they realise they hardly new and should have cherished more. Telling the story from different character perspectives, this book by Kyung-sook Shin is a little gem – insightful, bitter-sweet, moving and, finally, quietly heartbreaking.  Continue reading “Review: Please Look After Mother by Kyung-sook Shin”

Review: I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim

book cover 2I Have the Right to Destroy Myself [1996] – ★★★★ 

This will be my first book review as part of The Year of the Asian Reading Challenge 2019. Kim Young-Ha is a South Korean author and this is his debut novel, which was first translated into English by Chi-Young Kim in 2007. The book is set in Seoul and deals with rather dark and uncomfortable issues. Death is a prominent theme of this little book, and, even though it delivers a curious read, it is also rather shocking and racy at times, so giving a warning is justified. In the story, our unnamed narrator helps his clients to commit a suicide, and we also follow the lives of C and K, two brothers, who compete with each other for the attention of one enigmatic woman – Se-yeon. The author packs many thought-provoking messages into this novel, reflecting on art and popular culture, but also on the nature of truth, loneliness and dying. The enigmatic structure of the book, as well as the ambiguousness related to the identities of the characters in the story, guarantee that the read is interesting, even if morbidly appealing. Continue reading “Review: I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim”

Review: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

hotel du lac book cover Hotel du Lac [1984] – ★★★★1/2 

From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. It was to be supposed that beyond the grey garden, which seemed to sprout nothing but the stiffish leaves of some unfamiliar plant, lay the vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore, and beyond that, in imagination only, yet verified by the brochure, the peak of the Dent d’Oche, on which snow might already be slightly and silently falling” [Brookner, 1984: 7], so begins the short novel by Anita Brookner, who was the recipient of the Man Booker Prize in 1984. Clearly, after such an opening, one would expect a rich, highly-descriptive, beautifully-written observational novel of some insight, and this is exactly what the reader gets. Those who are after some fast-paced action in their books should look elsewhere because Hotel du Lac is a quietly powerful, almost reflective, character-driven novel at the heart of which is one embarrassingly unmarried female heroine Edith Hope, an idealistic writer, who abandons her London home for a holiday getaway to be spent in a respectable hotel-establishment in Switzerland. At the Hotel du Lac, Edith encounters a puzzling-to-her company until she finally meets Mr Neville, a gentleman who may finally help our hopeless heroine to gain esteem and respectability in the eyes of society. 
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Review: The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

the hour of the star coverThe Hour of the Star [1977] – ★★★★★ 

This thought-provoking novella by Clarice Lispector was translated from Portuguese by Benjamin Moser. It is narrated by one man Rodrigo S.M. who tells the tale of Macabéa, an ordinary girl from the northeast, who tries to make ends meet living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The novella is very unusual because, before the narrator gets to the crux of the story, he spends quite some time musing on the task at hand – how to write this story (for example, should the writer undergo some physical transformation before writing?), and whether there is any point in doing so since fiction may never capture the real truth. Despite its short length, the book tells an immersive and emotional story, while the author, through her narrator, also meditates on human existence and the meaning of life.  Continue reading “Review: The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector”

Review: The Time of the Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Time of the Hero [1963] – ★★★★The Time of the Hero

The Time of the Hero (La Cuidad y Los Perros) is a controversial novel written by the Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa. The fictional story takes place in Lima, Peru at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, a military educational establishment once attended by the author. In the story, a group of cadets is trying to steal the questions to the forthcoming chemistry exam, while being involved in a number of other similar “illicit” activities, such as fighting among themselves, bullying younger year groups and drinking. Little everyone knows that one careless action while trying to copy the exam leads to one irreparable tragedy and the shocking cover-up. It is without any doubt that The Time of the Hero is a literary work of great importance. The novel may not be easy or enjoyable to read, but its message is powerful, its themes – timeless, and its simple story is all the more significant for portraying what it means to be human and good in a society where cunningness, forcefulness and competitiveness are encouraged and lauded.   Continue reading “Review: The Time of the Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa”

Review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things Cover The God of Small Things [1997] – ★★★★★

Once in awhile a book comes your way which is so powerful in its message, so inexplicably poetic in its presentation and so wondrous in its understated emotion that you may wonder how come you have not read it yet. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is that book to me. The notable feature of the book is that it is a debut novel which won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997. It takes a cross-generational approach to tell the story, but at the heart of the plot is a pair of twins – brother and sister – seven-year old Estha and Rahel respectively – who grow up in Ayemenem, part of Kerala, India, in the late 1960s. This is a turbulent time to grow up because there is political unrest and uncertainty in the country, and financial and other hardships, as well as all kinds of injustice, are seen as just part and parcel of life. However, the twins are not concerned with the Big Things, and are eagerly anticipating the arrival of their nine-year old English cousin Sophie Mol. Her father and the twins’ uncle Chacko is welcoming his ex-wife Margaret and his daughter to India. At the height of all the excitement, however, everyone is quite oblivious to the dangers lurking just on the periphery of their lives, and these dangers seem to just wait for all the circumstances to conspire in their favour to strike the final blow into the very heart of the small lives of Ayemenem.  Continue reading “Review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy”

Review: A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Pale View of Hills Book Cover A Pale View of Hills [1982] – ★★1/2 

<<This review may contain spoilers>>

Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel is quite a puzzle. In the story, we first meet Etsuko, a middle-aged woman from Japan who is now residing in the English countryside, while her younger daughter Niki lives in London. As Niki comes from London to visit her mother, Etsuko starts to reminisce about her previous life in Nagasaki, Japan. We eventually start to guess that Etsuko’s memory of the suicide of her older daughter Keiko in England is somehow linked to Etsuko’s recollections of her friendship with a strange woman Sachiko and her daughter Mariko at the time that she lived in Nagasaki. This short novel is an easy and, at times, intriguing read, with Ishiguro sometimes making insightful points about Japanese culture and the effect of the passage of time on his characters. However, it seems that this subtle novel also asks too much from its reader. If there was a mystery somewhere in the novel’s midst, then it was not sufficiently elaborated upon or given sufficient space to breathe for the reader to really care; and, if there was no real mystery, then the point of the novel is partly lost. Ishiguro seems to have wrapped his story in too many layers of subtlety, thereby forcing his readers to make a giant leap forward in terms of imagination so that they finally decide to start unwrapping the unwrappable. It is unlikely that there will be a satisfactory meaning or explanation found by the novel’s end. Besides, while the reader may want to delve into possible interpretations of what he or she has just read, there is also the possibility that the interest will be lost half-way through.  Continue reading “Review: A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro”