Monday, April 16, 2018

Banana Yoshimoto - Goodbye Tsugumi

Publisher: Grove Press
Author: Banana Yoshimoto
Translator: Micheal Immerich
Title: Goodbye Tsugumi

I had heard good things about Banana Yoshimoto's first novel Kitchen. It took me a long time to get hold of it. As the book was too expensive for me at the time, I scoured the net for a free ebook. I was not disappointed.

I have just started exploring Scribd. These days I like to check if the book is available on Scribd before I rush to buy it from other sites. I have noticed Scribd has a fair number of books by Asian authors. In fact, I was drawn to this app as it had books on which some K-series were based.  These are usually web novels in Korean and it is next to impossible to find them translated. Translators usually go for renowned works of fiction not pop art that feeds television series.  Yet there are some fans who translate these web-novels, bless their souls, and their compilations are on Scribd.

Back to Banana Yoshimoto, I wondered if she had written any books after Kitchen and checked in Scribd. Right enough, she has written several novels two of them, besides Kitchen, are on Scribd. I sent up thanks to the Book God who often sends me great books to read and dived right in.

Maria lives in Tokyo with her mother and father.  Whenever she faces hardships, she consoles herself by saying, 'This is not as bad as the things Tsugumi did.' To explain this phrase, she reminiscences about the time she spent in a little seaside village before she moved to Tokyo. Her mother was then mistress of a man who lived in Tokyo and was waiting for a messy divorce to finalize to legally claim his beloved and their daughter.

Maria's mother works at an Inn in the village which belongs to her sister and her husband. They have two daughters, Yoko and Tsugumi. Tsugumi, her youngest cousin is sickly.  She is not expected to last very long. Her illness has made her evil. She likes playing nasty pranks on everyone and speaks roughly with her sister and her cousin. Maria finds it hard to love Tsugumi, and finds it hard to hate her. They have developed a bond with each other despite the wayward behavior of Tsugumi. Most of the novel is about one summer that Maria spent with Tsugumi after she moved to Tokyo with her parents.

It is a coming of age novel. There is an undercurrent of imminent loss running through it, as Tsugumi is not expected to survive long. The loss is expected but has not happened yet as the three cousins live each day fiercely, savoring it.

The language is achingly beautiful, especially when it describes nature. What mars this beautiful prose is the colloquialisms used by the translator for the dialogue between the sisters - words like gonna, hey, wanna seem rather out of the place and made me grit my teeth. It is hard of course, to translate a book in another language faithfully, but I do wish the language had been neutral and not something an American Teenager may spew.

Yoshimoto's novels are quite short but intense. There are no extra add-ons and that enhances the focus on the subject.  I look forward to reading more offerings by the author. 

Monday, April 09, 2018

Maeve Binchy - Nights of Rain and Stars

Publisher: Orion
Author: Maeve Bincy
Title: Nights of Rain and Stars

We have several lovely ways of finding new books. Sometimes we find books by idly browsing through library shelves, leafing through some pages and deciding it is good to be taken. Sometimes through the book columns in newspapers and magazines. Sometimes through book clubs or book groups that you are members of. Sometimes you are gifted books that you fall instantly in love with. This book was posted on the Instagram page of my friend @eternal_fernweh. I liked what she wrote about the book and bought it immediately on Amazon.

It took me a while to get to it though. That is because this book triggered memories of other books that I had been searching for since long. I renewed my search and finally found them. So after I was done reading one of them, I turned to this. Like my aforementioned friend wrote I loved the way Maeve Binchy weaves everyday lives into lovely stories. With this book, Binchy joins the ranks of authors on my list who I want to read again and again. She ranks right there with Ruskin Bond, Anne Tyler, Alexander McCall Smith.

One one day Andreas spots a boat burning in the bay. He was busy in his restaurant high in the hill and not able to do much but look. He was joined by Thomas, Elsa, Fiona, Shane and David who had come to eat in his restaurant. Looking together at the tragic incident, too far to help, makes them feel a strange sort of solidarity.  In this little Greek village of Aghia Anna they keep running into each other. This is not exactly by design, it is such a small place that they cannot help it, more than that, they want to meet each other again and again. They find themselves mentored by Vonni, an Irishwoman who has lived in this place for the past thirty years.

They are all running away from some trouble back home. Thomas, from California, finds himself unable to share his son with his divorced wife and her new husband.  Everyone can see that Shane is a prize cad except his loyal, kind and loving girlfriend Fiona.  They have taken off from Dublin because, as Fiona endearingly believes, no one understands Shane. David, from London, is on the run from parents who expect him take over his father's business.  Elsa is absconding from Germany. She is in love with her boss but finds the relationship stifling. They are here to hide, rest and heal. But what is Vonni's story? What made her leave Ireland and live here?

There is much to discover in this lovely little book. Life in a tiny Greek village is so endearingly described that you wish you could pack your bags and go there immediately.

I wish I could call the book charming. It is charming but it is much more than that. It is an insight into people. The problems that the characters face in this book (indeed in life as well) are not merely bad bits of luck doled out by fate.  They are karma, results of the actions of these people. Their problems are not solved by fixing fate, but fixing themselves. They have learn to make amends, give up, return, accept offers of love and wait.  It is a feel good book, but makes you think about how you have to work to make yourself feel good.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Hope Mirrlees - Lud-in-the-Mist

Publisher: Collins
Author: Hope Mirrlees
Title: Lud in the Mist

It is curious how some books stay in your minds despite being largely forgotten.  All you remember is how impressed you were by the book, some details lingering, teasing you. I have often tracked down half forgotten books, aided by a few keywords. In case of this book, I remembered it was about straight laced folks in a town beset by fairy influence.  One by one, its citizens fall prey to the lure of fairies. Along with these plot lines I remembered a phrase 'blackish canary' used in the book.

After several failed attempts to locate the book based on plot, I typed the words 'blackish canary' in inverted commas in google and wrote 'book containing phrase'.  My search landed squarely on the amazon page of Lud in the Mist  almost as if the book wanted to find me too. A quick read of the plot of the book made me go 'Yes Yes Yes'.

I was surprised to find that the book was published first in 1926, not so surprised to find that it is a classic in the fantasy genre. More about the book after a quick plot outline.

Lud is a prosperous merchant town located between the rivers Dapple and Dawl in the state of Dorimare. The elite of Dorimare are a small group of merchants. They are conventional people, creatures of habit. The Mayor of Lud is Nathaniel Chanticleer, a man addicted to habit who loathes adventure. His familiar and humdrum life is disturbed by strange happenings. First his son admits to having eaten fairy fruit. He tries to control the situation with the help of the doctor, Endymion Leer. But things get out of hand when the students of Primrose Crabapple's finishing school run away to fairyland after consuming fairy fruit. Nathaniel Chanticleer is forced to forgo his staid ways and think out of the box to get the youngsters back.
The best description of the book I found was in this quotation ascribed to David Lanford and Mike Ashley,  "a moving book, shifting unpredictably from drollery to menace to a high poignancy that sticks in the mind".
Like all great fantasy novels, this is also an allegory perhaps, referring to the necessity of being receptive to new ideas and art. Nathaniel Chanticleer is opposed to change and like most of his upper class, fears any disturbance in his way of life. Fairy fruit that addles the mind and makes people dance is not even mentioned by them.

I found it to be a delightful mix of the droll and fantasy, almost like it was a mix of The Well at the World's End and Pickwick Papers. To get to the bottom of the fairy influence, Chanticleer has to exhume a murder case that is decades old. Which makes it a mystery also.  This mixes in well with the comic and fantasy elements of the book. The fictional world that Mirlees recreates is no less delightful than Narnia or the Middle World.  Do take a moment to consider that Lud in the Mist preceeds both, Narnia Chronicles and Lord of the Rings.

It is a magnificent book which must be on the list of all fantasy fiction readers.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Anne Tyler - A Spool of Blue Thread

Publisher: Random House LLC
Author: Anne Tyler
Title: A Spool of Blue Thread

You can trust Anne Tyler to spin stories about people who are commonplace and unremarkable. If you pass them on the streets you will probably not give them a second look. Yet such a novel makes you pause and think about the wealth of details that make up each life. An old person has decades of stories behind him. If you had time to ask, you will find out that every person has some interesting bits of story to relate.

When we meet Abby, she is worried about her son Denny. He has just called and told his father that he is gay. Her husband, Red Whitshank, is typically taciturn about it. We learn later that Denny has long been a source of trouble for his family and likely to continue being so. Every time I read a book by Anne Tyler I picture the characters living in a spacious leaf lined house by a quiet road. Here the house is a prominent living thing which grew to life under the hands of Junior Whitshank who built it for others but fell so in love with it that he bought it off the owners.

The wide porch with a swing has seen many pattering feet, this is where Abby sat and swung slowly as she fell in love with Red.  We hear stories of three generations and leave when the house is put up for sale after a death. Abby is the centerpiece of the book and she binds the past present and the future together. All the characters are as flawed as ordinary people are and beg to be loved as they are.

Despite being a story of several generations it does not have the sweep of Searching for Caleb. It remains a story of a family going about their daily lives.  There is drama here, it is not highlighted and thrown in our face, as is the case with many books that seek to thrill its readers. It is merely stated and we are left to smile at it.  Tyler sketches the characters deftly and fills in the color with the times they live in. Junior Whitshank lived in depression and found it difficult to eat properly or provide for his wife. Abby and Red live comfortably with Red's construction business that he inherited from his father. His son Stem has carried on the tradition and managing the firm. His other son Denny is footloose and cannot hold down a career.

The book reminded me why I love Anne Tyler so much. There are readers who may find her middle class tales of ordinary people repetitive and humdrum.  What I see is a town full of people who are same but different. They follow different careers and have different stories. It makes her world so familiar and comfortable for me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Min Jin Lee - Pachinko

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Author: Min Jin Lee
Title: Pachinko

I found this book on my Scribd app.  Scribd app is like a paid subscription to a library which allows you read several books at less cost. I don't have to buy individual books. However, the books on offer are not unlimited, unlike on Amazon where you can get a vast number of titles. I was pointed towards this by a book group on Twitter which goes under #TSBC or #TSBCWedReads run by @TSBookClub. People are asked about the books they are currently reading every Wednesday and one can pick up good tips there.

Pachinko is about a Korean family that migrates to Japan around 1930. Despite their best efforts they find they cannot integrate into Japan. The reason is not poor assimilation on their part.  They are kept apart from Japanese because of deep rooted discrimination against the Koreans.

The story starts in Korea in the picturesque little Island town of Yeongdo near Busan. Sunja is the young daughter of Hoonie and Yangjin. After her father dies, she is busy helping her mother run a boarding house that they inherited from Hoonie's parents. Her life is humdrum but comfortable. Hansu is a businessman whose eye falls on this wholesome young girl. Sunja becomes pregnant and when she tells Hansu about this, he reveals that he is married but offers to keep the girl in comfort.  Sunja is shocked to learn this and rejects him.

One of the boarders at Yangjin's boarding house is a Christian Minister called Isak who offers to marry Sunja to give her unborn son a family name. He is leaving for Osaka soon to join his older brother and his wife and takes Sunja along with him. Sunja's son by Hansu is called Noa who suffers deeply when he learns about his birth. Sunja and Isak have a son called Mozasu who first goes to work at a Pachinko parlour.

Life in Osaka is not easy with the Japanese breathing down their neck and looking down upon them. Many misfortunes befall them but they persevere. Despite being good, hardworking and honest, they find they cannot make a headway in mainstream Japanese life.  They are relegated to ghettos.  The family eventually makes their fortunes in Pachinko parlours which becomes a symbol of the kind of life allowed to them.

Sunja's sons and grandsons achieve academic success they are not allowed into white collar jobs. Noa tries to do it but only at the cost of his identity. He pretends to be a Japanese and cuts himself off from his family. Mozasu's son Solomon finds it hard to work in a proper office even though he holds an impressive degree from a good college. Despite their education and qualification they are elbowed out.

The plot outline looks dull and depressing. It is not a book full of merry happenings but there was never a dull moment. The story proceeds at a breakneck speed, often jumping years to avoid tedium. It was close to 700 pages but I could barely put it down and completed it in 2 days. Like the book I read before this, it was a fast read.

Especially in these days when Immigration has become such a bad word globally, it is important to rake up the issue of how the host nation treats its immigrants. Even though the immigrants work hard and are honest, doing jobs that are shunned by others, they are treated sub-par and are never allowed to integrate. Often they wind up creating their own communities within the host nation.  It seems horrific but is true. It goes against the very tenets of humanity.

The book spans decades from 1910 to 1989. It starts from Korea and ends in Japan. The early parts of the book, set in Yeongdo, are breathtakingly beautiful. The author takes care with her characterizations. The life of Sunja's parents is described in detail. Sunja's seduction by Hansu is again well etched, with the author going deep into how Sunja's mind works. Later, the descriptions are not as unhurried and beautiful and story is trotted forward without much detailing.  Of course, if the pace of the book had remained the same, it would have reached nearly double its size. It is reminiscent of the times also. The early part of the twentieth century was unhurried and slow, later life also became fast and shallow.

By all means pick up the book. Do not let the number of pages deter you, reader. They will fly by, I promise.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Ava Dellaira - In Search of Us

Publisher: Farar, Straus and Giroux
Author: Ava Dellaira
Title: In Search of Us

I loved the author's first offering Love Letters to the Dead. I loved this inventive novel and  knew I had to pick up the second book by Ava as soon as it came out. I was already in middle of another book when this landed into my kindle on being launched.  So it took me a few days to get to it.

I started reading the book and felt a little disoriented, I could not really get my mind into it.  I wondered if this book would be a bad follow up to the wonderful first one. But as soon as I reached page 24, I found myself melting into it. I paused and retraced my steps from the first.  This time round I had no problems hooking in.

Marilyn is a single mother who has struggled to raise her daughter, Angie.  She has risen from being a waitress at a local diner in Albuquerque to being a bank manager. She is eager to let her daughter have all the love and care that was denied to her by her mother. When she is sixteen Angie discovers some pictures of her father that her mother had kept from her. This makes her dig around and find out that her father's brother is alive.  She wants to find out more and takes off to Los Angeles to search for her uncle.

One of the first things that occurred to me was that this was a little like Gilmore Girls, with more angst and less humor. There are some similarities of course. Like Lorelai, Marilyn is 17 when she finds herself pregnant.  They are both single mothers trying to raise their daughters without the intervention of their families. But that's where the similarities end. There is nothing open about Angie's parentage.  Marilyn has kept many things from her daughter.

Angie is biracial as her father was an African American. This has often resulted in problems for Angie as people did not immediately assume that Marilyn and Angie are mother and daughter, especially as the father is absent.

The story is told in the voices of Marilyn and Angie, when they were/are at the age seventeen. So we go back in time for Marilyn's story and come back to the present for Angie's. Marilyn's story is about her deep and abiding love for James, her neighbor, who is able to make her forget her miserable life and plan a hopeful future.  In current times, Angie is on the way to Los Angeles in search of her uncle Justin.  She hopes he will be able to lead her to her father James and also provide the missing pieces of her past.

The story is so well crafted and so well told that I was loath to put down the book.  I kept racing through it and completed the book in two days, a sort of a record for me in recent times.  The finale, the reason why Marilyn ran away from everyone when she found herself pregnant with James' child is well worth the wait to find out.  The racism that James and his daughter Angie encountered is heart rending.

I loved the love story of Marilyn and James. Marilyn's feelings of being in love, of being in lust are so well expressed. The best part of this book is the image of these innocent children exploring life and wanting good things for each other.

The present time love story between Sam and Angie was quite unnecessary I feel. Angie wanted to know about her father to feel more complete, it should not have tied up to her inability to open up to Sam. Manny lurking in the background as someone who has a long time crush on Marilyn is a bit of a cardboard cut out. Cherry and Miguel are there for convenience. Angie, Marilyn, James, Justin,  Marilyn's uncle and mother are the well fleshed out characters. They are the ones who are really integral to this beautiful story.

What I did not like so much was the neat wrapping up at the end. I guess I would have liked something left a little open to interpretation. Once the truth was out, the characters should have had a little more flexibility than falling into predictable slots.

I will be thinking about 17 year old, beautiful, full of promise, aspirational couple James and Marilyn cavorting on the beach for a long long time.

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