The Land of Green Plums

Happy Halloween!

You know what ‘s really scary? How much I’ve neglected my blog. But I’m back!

On to a quickie review:

The Land of Green Plums
Herat Müller

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I’ve been wanting to read something by Herta Müller since she won the Nobel Prize in 2009. I bought this book at least a year ago, and finally got around to it.

The book is about a group of young people growing up in Romania under the communist Ceausescu regime. Much of the narrative is veiled and indirectly stated, much like the coded letters the narrator sends her three friends.

They are under suspicion of something – what is not exactly clear. That’s the point, though. No one is safe, any stray word or joke pointed at the wrong person or interest in anything not sanctioned by the state meant you could be hauled in for questioning – or worse – at any time. Applying for a passport to leave the county was like playing Russian roulette. An “accident” might befall you when you were on the train, or at your hotel, or…

My copy of the novel comes with the text if Müller’s Nobel Prize lecture. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

Some favorite quotes:

“No cities can grow in a dictatorship, because everything stays small when it’s being watched.”

“We looked for things that would set us apart because we read books.”

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Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather

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Ok, bear with me. I’m writing this from my phone, because I am currently internet-less. Which is fitting for this review, because I read most of this book on my phone.

Thursday night I couldn’t sleep, so I downloaded this short story collection to my nook app. I read about half of it before I was able to fall back asleep. I then finished it over the weekend in moments stolen out of my taskmaster-husband’s line of sight. We were moving over the weekend, hopefully for the last time EVER. The house is great, and we’re excited to work on some projects and (eventually) make it totally perfect for us 😀

On to the book!

Gao Xingjian is Chinese by birth, currently living in France. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. This short story collection has six stories. I thoroughly enjoyed the first four. The were short, beautifully written vignettes dealing with longing, loss, remembrances of the past. Great!

The title story seemed, at first, to continue the trend. Then it suddenly veered off into a long, weird, extended dream sequence. Fortunately, it at least somewhat prepared me for what was up next. The last story, “In an Instant,” was just bizarre. And creepy. Nightmarish. All full of imagery about rotting corpses and drowning in slimy water and a bunch more stuff that I’m trying to block out of my brain. *shudder*

I know there a a bunch of bloggers doing the R.I.P. Challenge. Based on the last two stories, which made up a good half of the book, I’d say this would qualify for all the creepiness factor one could want.

Please Look After Mom

Book cover for Please Look After MomPlease Look After Mom
Kyung-Sook Shin
translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

It seems I’ve read several books lately with overlapping themes and plot points. Gone Girl dealt with the disappearance of a wife and a husband who worked as a writer. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? was about a missing wife and mother, told through recreated emails and letters and other documents. Wife 22 wasn’t about anyone going missing, but the wife in question is having an interesting online correspondence with an unidentified online researcher, and they message and email back and forth. Plus the wife is a playwright. In Please Look After Mom, Mom is missing, lost during a train transfer in busy Seoul, South Korea. One daughter is a writer.

A major theme in all of these works is the question – how well do we know those closest to us? Can we know them? If they are absent, either literally or emotionally, do we know enough about them to bring them back?

The first part of Please Look After Mom is told from the perspective of one of Mom’s daughters, Chi-hon. Chi-hon realizes that she always thought of her mother just simply as Mom. She lacked an identity as Son-yo, as a person beyond one who provides for the needs of her family. Chi-hon and her mom do not always get along, in fact, they often clash. They don’t talk all that often. When they do, they often argue. When her mother disappears, Chi-hon is desperate to find her, wanting to make up for the ways that she treated her poorly. This is a common theme as the book progresses. Family took mom for granted, now she’s gone, they are worried they can never tell her things they always wanted to.

Chi-hon’s section was my favorite part of the book. Recently, I’ve been thinking about where my mother was when she was my age. I look back and realize that not only did she have a five year old kid (me!), but she would have been a year into her second marriage. Our lives are so different, it’s really incredible. It seems like there is something about becoming a mother that pushes that role and identity to the forefront, while other aspects of your person fade away. I don’t know if it’s just me getting older, or what, that is making me think about these things. I could also relate to Chi-hon’s struggle to have a cordial relationship with her mother and other family members. I mean, I have to maintain a professional demeanor at work, which I do pretty much without a problem, but get me around a stressful family situation and I can feel myself slipping back into petulant twelve year old girl mode. It’s not cute.

Well! Please Look After Mom is a solid book, definitely worth the read.

Manazuru

Book cover for ManazuruManazuru
Hiromi Kawakami
Translated by Michael Emmerich

I loved the beginning of this book. Loved it. It has a sense of dreamy immediacy, which might seem contradictory but, whatevs. Here’s how it opens:

I walked on, and something was following.
Enough distance lay between us that I couldn’t tell if it was male or female. I ignored it, kept walking.
I had set out before noon from the guest house on the inlet, headed for the tip of the cape. I stayed there last night, in that small building set amidst an isolated cluster of private houses, run by a man and woman who, judging by their ages, were mother and son.

Who is following our narrator? What do they want, if anything? When I started reading, I ignored the follower, much like Kei did. She’s wandering around Manazuru, a Japanese beach town. She’s trying to sort through her husband’s abrupt disappearance, which, despite having happened years ago, still haunts her.

Speaking of hauntings, I started to like the book a little less when it’s implied that the things that Kei sees following her are ghosts. Maybe. Very Turn of the Screw-ish. It was off to me that a book so invested in the small realities of human life, eating, sleeping, bathing, would veer off into ghost story territory. But perhaps that’s exactly the kind of story where you should expect to find ghosts. The ghost of Rei, or at least the thought of him, rarely, if ever, leaves Kei. She cannot shake the unease of not knowing what happened to him. Did he really just up and leave her? Is he alive somewhere, or not? Towards the beginning of the book she mentions that he’s been gone long enough for a divorce, not long enough to be declared dead. But she makes no moves towards either resolution.

She drifts though life, like she drifts back to the sea.
~~~

Can we talk about the food for a minute? This passage had me ready to plan my next vacation in Japan:

I ordered a set lunch. Horse mackerel sashimi.
The fish wasn’t minced, as it generally is, but sliced into piece as large as the ball of my thumb and served with finely chopped ginger and perilla leaves. The mixture was sensuously moist and slightly chewy – the cook must have let the fish marinate in soy sauce for a time. I finished everything: the soup, a fish-bone stock flavored with miso, and a heaping bowl of rice.

This reminds me of Jeffery Steingarten’s essay about how when he travels he loves eating the local cuisine, but is always craving a juicy burger upon arriving home (to paraphrase something I read years ago and can’t put my finger on at the moment). That is, until he visits Japan and has the most amazing sushi of his life. Then he dreams of perfect sushi after his juicy burger. I can’t say I’d mind experiencing that for myself.
Weekend Cooking: Minding My Manners
Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

August Heat

August HeatBook cover for "August Heat"
An Inspector Montalbano Mystery
Andrea Camilleri
translated by Stephen Sartarelli

It may not be August here in Florida, but it sure is plenty hot enough to identify with this book’s Sicilian summer setting. Actually, I checked, and Sicily averages 84 degree days in August. It was 87 today when I was driving home from work.

Our intrepid detective, Inspector Montalbano, is forced to help some friends find a beach house at the last moment to avoid the ire of his girlfriend, Livia. He promises her that even though he can’t get off of work for vacation, they will spend plenty of time together with no pesky murders to investigate. Who kills anyone in August? It’s too hot to do anything besides eat delicious cold things and swim in the Mediterranean.

Of course, that scenario wouldn’t make for much of a mystery.

Before long, there is indeed a murder, though one that happened several years prior to the present summer. Livia, none to happy about the situation, leaves with her friends. She’s tired of being shoved to the side for a corpse.

Inspector Montalbano is on the case, but can he stay focused in the haze of the sweltering August days, and attention from a young woman intent on charming him into submission?

While I wasn’t enthralled with the gender issues, this would be a good summer read, either on the beach or just visiting in your mind. I did like that the translator provided a little guide or glossary at the end that explained some of the Sicilian context.

Out

outOut
Natsuo Kirino

My first 1 star read of the year!

I’m all for stretching my reading horizons, which is why I decided to read Out for Curiosity Killed the Bookworm’s Made in Japan event. Our lovely host features a fair amount of crime fiction on her blog, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Out  apparently also won “Japan’s Top Mystery Award,” according to its cover.

I don’t really get the mystery here – it reads more like a straightforward crime novel to me. The characters might be confused about who is after them, but the reader never is.

If this book is any indication, crime novels are not my thing. Especially creepy gory graphic rapist crime novels. Thanks but no thanks.

I kept reading because I hoped it would get better, and because I could, for awhile, justify that Mr. Sadistic’s snuff fantasies were recognized to be NOT OKAY. And then the end came. And then I just wanted to throw the book across the room. But I didn’t, because I don’t generally throw books, no matter how bad they are. (I did throw a Philippa Gregory book once, but I made sure it landed in the laundry hamper, amply cushioned by my dirty socks.)

Thoughts on “In Red”

in redIn Red
Magdalena Tulli
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston

Set in fictional Stitchings, In Red is a dreamy, poetic narrative that slides and circles its way throughout the town as if it were an inescapable maze. It’s like Hotel California – people drop dead in the blink of an eye, but the only way to escape if by the chance hot air balloon ride.

People marry, go to war, build and lose empires, give birth, die. There are no main characters besides the town itself, which looms in the background with a malevolent presence.

Because of the shifting focus, you sometimes lose track of who you’re with, but you never forget where you are.

Want more like this? Try:

  • Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck. Like In Red, this is a novella focusing on a town, this time in East Germany. Similar feel, but slightly more linear. (my review)
  • Little Infamies, Panos Karnezis. Interelated stories set in a Greek town. Often bordering on bleak.
  • The North of God, Steve Stern. Dark novella with some magical sprinklings. (my review)

Italia, Islamic Style

Book Cover for Divorce Islamic Style, with cartoon depictions of main charactersDivorce Islamic Style
Amara Lakhous

So this book isn’t really about divorce. It’s about an unsuspecting court interpreter being recruited to help infiltrate a suspected terrorism ring in an Italian neighborhood with many Muslim immigrants. Only Christian, our undercover hero, really isn’t given any training that we’re aware of. He’s told, basically, to make friends with people at Little Cairo, a cultural hub and telephone shop.

Given that it’s a book about stopping a bomb plot, you might expect that it’s pretty serious. Nope. A funny book about terrorists? Maybe funny is going too far, but it is certainly witty. You get the feeling that there is something not-quite-right with Christian’s entry into the spy world. After all, his code name for his handler is Judas.

Christian spends much of his time calling his “family” back home from Little Cairo, chatting with the proprietor, Akram, and trying to navigate life as a supposed Tunisian immigrant. Along the way, he meets the lovely Safia.

Safia, or Sofia, is an Egyptian woman in a pretty traditional marriage to Felice. Back home, Felice was an architect, but in Italy, he works as a pizza maker, who has to worry about whether or not it’s haram for him to handle the ingredients required for his job. Safia has a passion for hairdressing, so when Felice told her he expected her to where the veil upon marriage, she wasn’t too happy. Who goes to a veiled hairdresser?

Safia and Felice have been divorced twice. This is where I had a bit of an “aha” moment. I had heard that in Islam you can get divorced by saying “I divorce you” three times. In my head, I always pictured that as a man just saying “I divorce you I divorce you I divorce you.” End of story. In Safia’s case, it’s clear that each of the first two “I divorce you’s” are separate incidents that require family intervention. It’s almost like a call for help, that says hey – something is not right in our relationship. Now, I am in no way extrapolating this one fictional account to a wider applicability, especially since I am so ignorant about the subject. Still, it was pretty interesting to get this perspective.

I really liked Safia. While she’s naive in some ways, she’s also thoughtful and smart and observant. The book switches between her perspective and Christian’s, and I definitely preferred her chapters. They had a much more reflective tone, while Christian’s were a bit heavy on the bumbling non-adventures. Safia is much more an actor, while Christian is acted upon. Interesting take on gender roles.

Bottom line? Fun book, quick read, smart ideas.

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The Devil’s Pool

The Devil’s Pool the devils pool
George Sand
Translated by George B. Ives

With a title like “The Devil’s Pool,” I have to admit I was expecting a story that was a little, well, creepier. Especially when one summary stated, in substance, that Germain is seen as an old guy at nearly thirty, respectable, who would never! make a move on a 16 year old farm girl he is escorting to her place as a shepherdess.

Ah, well. That is what I get when I get caught up in expectations. George Sand was such a boundary pusher in her personal life, I thought maybe she would reveal this lecherous older dude as you know, inappropriate and creepy and rape-y. Ha!

The novella is roughly divided into three parts. The first is a bit of a framing story. Second is the substantive widower-falls-for-young-girl tale. Lastly, there is almost an anthropological examination of the wedding traditions of French peasants, as seen through the actions of our happy couple.

The wedding traditions portion was my favorite. It was completely unexpected, and incredibly detailed, down to songs and calls and responses that were performed during the multi-day festivities. Honestly, it made me want to read a nonfiction account of the goings-on.

So, if you are looking for a short read by a notable author and are interested in French wedding traditions, pick this up. Otherwise, you might want to move along to something else.

Asleep

Asleep Book cover of Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto. Red pillow floating in blue sky.
Banana Yoshimoto
Translated by Michael Emmerich

Asleep is actually three thematically related stories dealing with death, love, and yes, sleep.

In “Night and Night’s Travelers,” Shibami and her family deal with the aftermath of her brother’s death. This is the only story in which the narrator is not also our sleeper. Instead, Shibami serves as the link between two of her brother’s former lovers. Sarah is an American exchange student who had a relationship with Yoshihiro both in Japan and back in Boston. Mari is a cousin who realized she and Yoshihiro were more to each other once he returned to Japan. Mari is sleepwalking through life in her grief. Sarah is married with two children when Yoshihiro dies, but still is profoundly affected by his passing. the two women want to reach out to one another, but never truly make direct contact. Yoshimoto’s sparse, haunting tone makes you wonder what would result should they meet up – hope, or despair?

“Love Songs” was my least favorite of the three stories. Fumi has been hearing a song in her sleep. She connects this music to Haru, a woman with whom she once shared a lover. The two women fought constantly, but had an odd attraction to one another. I enjoyed the exploration of the relationship between these two women, but I felt the rather mystical ending was a bit out of place with the rest of the story.

Finally, “Asleep,” the title story, was the most surreal. Terako is dating a married man whose wife is in a coma. She has given up her job, and spends much of her days sleeping until her boyfriend calls. For some reason, she will wake when his voice is on the other end of the line, but sleeps through any other call. She is also grieving the suicide of her friend and former roommate, Shiori. Shiori had a rather unusual job as a kind of sleep companion.  Eventually, the weight of taking on other people’s dreams became too much for her to bear. Terako feels that she is now doing the same thing. It remains more and more difficult for her to wake, even to take care of her basic needs. It is only after connecting with Mrs. Iwanaga, her boyfriend’s comatose wife, that she is able to slowly climb back to the land of the living.

In each of the stories, there is a physic-like connection between female characters. Mari and Sarah, Fumi and Haru, Tarako with both Shiori and Mrs. Iwanaga. Is there a mystic bond of sisterhood? A tie that exists between women, who share so many similar experiences in this world? I tend not to personally believe in such things, but I certainly don’t mind fiction that makes me think about it.

I am glad that I joined Tony’s January in Japan Challenge, even if I got off to a rather late start. I’ve been wanting to read something by Banana Yoshimoto ever since I heard of her (I mean, with a name like that, who wouldn’t?). Thanks, Tony, for the gentle nudge! I am looking forward to reading more translated books this year, and may have to include another Japanese author or two. The review database certainly gives anyone looking for an entry point plenty of suggestions.

(And this also counts as my first read for the 2013 Translation Challenge. yay!)