I am happy to inform my followers that I have completed my Year of the Asian Reading Challenge for 2019. My initial, very modest, goal was to read 12 books by Asian authors in 2019, and I managed to read 15 (coupled with time pressure and my other reading challenges). I know that there is still one month left before this challenge officially expires, but since I do not plan on reading Asian authors in December, I thought I would make an official concluding announcement. My mascot for this challenge was an Indian cobra (corresponding to the level of between 11 and 20 books), and, in 2019, I read authors from the following six countries: South Korea, Pakistan, Japan, China, India and Afghanistan. The books that impressed be the most during this challenge came from the Japanese writers Kobo Abe (The Woman in the Dunes/The Face of Another), Durian Sukegawa (Sweet Bean Paste), Akira Yoshimura (Shipwrecks) and Yoko Ogawa (The Memory Police), as well as from the Chinese-born author Eileen Chang (Half a Lifelong Romance). Below are all the books with the corresponding links to reviews. Continue reading “The Year of the Asian Reading Challenge – Completed!” →
A House Without Windows  – ★★★★
I am progressing with my YARC 2019 with this novel by an American author whose Afghan parents immigrated to the US from Afghanistan in the 1970s. In this tale, a terrible crime shook a small community in Afghanistan – Kamal, a husband and a father of four, has been found murdered with a hatchet plunged into his skull. At the scene of the crime is his wife Zeba who is covered in blood and numb with shock. But, was she really the one who committed the crime? Yusuf, a lawyer from the US, arrives to his native land Afghanistan and is immediately tasked with defending his reticent client Zeba, trying to seek justice in this seemingly open-and-shut case. This is a tale of two families – one traditional Afghan, rooted in its community, and another immigrant, with Nadia Hashimi making observations on the Afghan culture, Afghanistan’s criminal justice system and on the plight of women living in that country, paying a special tribute to their strength and resilience. Continue reading “Review: A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi” →
The Memory Police [1994/2019] – ★★★★★
“They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time…when somebody says your name for the last time” (Banksy, re-quoting Ernest Hemingway). Yōko Ogawa (The Housekeeper and the Professor [2003/08]) wrote The Memory Police in 1994, and it was translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder in 2019. In this beautiful dystopian book, our young female character works as a writer on one curious island – there, things sometimes simply disappear from time to time, and with those “disappearances” come another interesting element – people soon forget these things completely, how they looked and what they felt like. For them, these things simply cease to exist. The enforcement of the memory erosion is the task for the special Memory Police, that ruthlessly detects and investigates any traces of disappearing objects, as well as hunts people that are still able to remember them. When one man, R, a book editor, is in danger of being caught for remembering disappeared things, our lead character vows to do everything in her power to save him from a terrible fate. The Memory Police may share some themes related to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Orwell’s 1984, but, in its spirit at least, it is a different book– it is filled with quiet, reflective moments and has its own special, eerie atmosphere. The premise may start with one absurd situation, but it soon transforms into something very heart-felt, as its characters try to make sense of one weird world that is slowly becoming devoid of one essential meaning. At the heart of Ogawa’s novel is the importance of memory and its preservation, which remains at the core of our history and our state of being conscious, free-willed and emotionally-complex beings. Continue reading “Review: The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa” →
The Face of Another  – ★★★★★
“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  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  in this novel, something from Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde , something from The Invisible Man , something from Steppenwolf , 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” →
The Far Field  – ★★★
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” →
Half a Lifelong Romance [1950/1966/2014] – ★★★★★
“Maybe a love like that came to a person only once in a lifetime? Once was enough, maybe” [Chang/Kingsbury, 1950/2014: 354].
“Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness” (Bertrand Russell).
Half a Lifelong Romance, translated from the Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury, is a modern classic where a timeless story, filled with passion, longing and sorrow, meets fluid and engaging writing. In this story, set in the 1930s, Manzhen, a young girl, forms friendship with her co-worker Shuhui and his friend Shijun; soon after, between Manzhen and Shijun sparks a feeling so innocent and tender that both are left speechless, floating near the island of complete happiness. However, Manzhen’s disastrous family circumstances and Shijun’s own familial duties do not let the lovers get any closer to each other, and, in time, their circumstances only worsen as they try to fight their inner sense of duty, responsibility, family tradition and lack of money to get nearer to each other. Simple misunderstandings, false pride, as well as unexpected betrayals also keep these people’s true happiness at bay. Half a Lifelong Romance is a moving, quietly devastating and exquisite novel that may surprise you with its power (including its dark twist) in the second half. Chang wrote compellingly, engagingly and beautifully, and her story of Chinese family traditions and one love torn apart by circumstances is one unputdownable read. Continue reading “Review: Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang” →
Miracle Creek  – ★★★★
“There are no facts, only interpretations” (Friedrich Nietzsche).
I do not read many legal thrillers or courtroom dramas anymore (through I do read crime and detective stories). My “John Grisham” phase ended many years ago, and since I have a background in law, I tend to avoid fiction which makes me ceaselessly question/criticise legal inconsistencies/mistakes in a book. I had to make an exception with Miracle Creek, because there has been an overwhelmingly positive response to this courtroom thriller and debut book, and I just could not pass by an opportunity to read what has been called “a jaw-dropping, page-turner” of a book. Miracle Creek, is, indeed, not one’s ordinary legal thriller. Angie Kim centres her story around a pressured oxygen chamber or the Miracle Submarine that is used as an experimental treatment device in Miracle Creek, Virginia. The Miracle Submarine belongs to Pak Yoo, an immigrant from South Korea, who tries to do his best in the US so that his wife and daughter can find happiness in this foreign to them country. When a fatal accident happens at Pak’s treatment facility, one leading suspect emerges, but is the case as clear-cut as it appears at first? Soon, secrets, lies, and surprising relations between Pak Yoo’s patients emerge, complicating this seemingly open-and-shut case, as Angie Kim also makes insightful points on cultural divisions, on the issue of using certain experimental, controversial treatments to treat disabled children and on the trials of parenthood. Continue reading “Review: Miracle Creek by Angie Kim” →
The Woman in the Dunes  – ★★★★★
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” →
Shipwrecks [1982/96] – ★★★★★
Yoshimura’s observational novel is fascinating and subtly powerful, uncovering a different way of looking at life.
Shipwrecks is a short novel translated from the Japanese by Mark Ealey. It tells the story of one village in rural medieval Japan, following one boy Isaku, as his family struggles to get food essential for their survival. The village has numerous rituals, but one is particularly eerie: the village does everything it can to summon O–Fune-Sama (the Sea God) or shipwrecks to their coast. This phenomenon is often essential for the survival of the village (since ships carry the necessary food and other commodities), and Isaku and his family are always eagerly awaiting the season when O-Fune-Sama or shipwrecks occur. One day, such a ship does come to the shore where Isaku lives, but will it be a blessing or curse for the village? Those who like books with discernible plot points and fast-paced action should look elsewhere. Shipwrecks by Yoshimura is rather slow and contemplative as it follows day-to-day activities of one village that has one strange, but understandable desire. Continue reading “Review: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura” →
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” →
Please Look After Mother  – ★★★★
“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, Kyung–sook 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” →