BOOK REVIEWS

Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

“It’s my belief that everything in this world has its own language. We have the ability to open up our ears and minds to anything and everything. That could be someone walking down the street, or it could be the sunshine or the wind.”

Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste is a gentle and life-affirming novel (novella?). The book’s central figures are discriminated against because of their pasts: Sentaro is a middle aged man who works at a dorayaki shop has a criminal record; Tokue, an elderly woman, had leprosy as a teen and was subsequently forced into exile in a leprosarium. Sentaro is unenthusiastic about his job and future, seeming resigned to a life of despondency. This changes when Tokue begins working alongside him. Although Sentaro is initially reluctant to let Tokue work with him he changes his mind once he tastes her delicious bean paste. Tokue’s dedication to this culinary process earns his respect and loyalty but the shop sees an increase in customers. However, gossip about Tokue’s disfigured hands threatens Sentaro’s newfound happiness.
As the cover and title suggest this was a very sweet read. While the tone of the story was by no means schmaltzy, there were times in which the narrative struck me as a bit too fluffy (i.e. not particularly deep). Sentaro is a fairly simple character and to be honest I didn’t find him nearly as half compelling as Tokue. The narrative does shed light on how harmful stigmas can be as well as providing information relating to the history of leprosy in Japan.
I do wish that Tokue had remained the focus of the narrative as Sentaro and the schoolgirl (who was an entirely forgettable character) were very dull by comparison.
Still, even if this isn’t a particularly complex or thought-provoking story I do think that it will appeal to fans of The Housekeeper and the Professor as it has a similarly tranquil atmosphere.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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Dove mi trovo (Whereabouts) by Jhumpa Lahiri

Dove mi trovo, which will be published in English as Whereabouts next spring, is the first novel Jhumpa Lahiri’s has written in Italian. Having read, and deeply empathised with, Lahiri’s In Other Words—a nonfiction work in which she interrogates her love for and struggles with the Italian language—I was looking forward to Dove mi trovo. Although I bought this book more than a year ago, during my last trip to Italy, part of me wasn’t ready to read it just yet. A teensy-weensy part me feared that I would find her Italian to be stilted. As it turns out, I should have not second-guessed Lahiri.

This novel consists in a series of short chapters, between 2 to 6 pages long, in which we follow a nameless narrator as she occupies different spaces. The titles of these chapters in fact refer to the place—not always a ‘physical’ one such as in the case of the recurring ‘Tra sé e sé’ chapters (an expression that for the life of me I cannot translate in English)—she is in or thinking of. She’s on the street, in a bar, a restaurant, a museum, her apartment, by the seaside…you get the gist. The novel takes place during a single year, and our narrator will often remark on the current season. She’s a solitary woman, and although she’s deeply aware of her loneliness, she’s not burdened by it. It is perhaps because she’s alone that she can get lost in her surroundings or in her thoughts. Even in those occasions where she interacts with others—who also remain unmanned and are referred to as her former lover, her friend, a professor, etc—she remains a lonely person. By seeing the way she interacts or navigates certain spaces, we learn more about her. Ultimately, however, she retains an air of mystery.
One should not approach this novel hoping for a plot-driven novel. Dove mi trovo is very much about language. Lahiri’s Italian is crisp and deceptively simple. There are observations or conversations that are rendered with clarity, and there are passages that convey a sense of disquiet. While I can’t say whether Lahiri always articulated phrases like an Italian would, I didn’t notice any Englishism on her part. I loved the way Lahiri articulated her phrases and the correct if démodé terms she used.
While Lahiri’s ‘Italian voice’ differs from the one in her English works, Dove mi trovo is the kind of quietly reflective and deeply nostalgic novel that I would happily revisit time and again.


MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars


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Man of My Time by Dalia Sofer

“After nearly a decade of delirious revenge, rations, war, and death, we saw the world in shades of blood.”

In Man of My Time Dalia Sofer makes a fascinating and unsettling inquiry into morality. The novel is centred on and narrated by Hamid Mozaffarian. When Hamid, a former interrogator for the Iranian regime, travels to New York he reconnects with his younger brother, Omid, who he hadn’t seen or spoken to since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. As the day passes Hamid finds himself looking back into his past, tracing his history with his family and his country.

“The point is that in the autobiography there is a time-honored tradition of redemption and repentance, which is a concept dear to all: towbeh for Muslims, teshuvah for Jews, penance for Christians—who doesn’t appreciate a good metamorphosis story, a passage from wickedness to virtue? Even the contemporary secular tale, say, of the disillusioned drunk or the wayward hustler, hasn’t escaped this familiar trajectory, of darkness to light, anguish to liberation.”

From the very beginning readers will be aware of Hamid’s dubious morals. To label him as antihero however seems inadequate as Sofer’s protagonist challenges easy definition. He’s capable of betraying and self-betraying, of committing reprehensible acts and of shirking accountability.
As Hamid revisits his childhood we are shown contradictory episodes: at times Hamid seems like a sensitive child who is made to feel ashamed of his own fragility, and then we see the same child becoming obsessed with the “demise” of insects. Hamid’s formative years are shaped by his difficult relationship with his father and by Iran’s growing unrest. As a restless teenager Hamid’s unease towards his father morphs into contempt, and he finds himself projecting his hatred towards his father’s authority towards those who rule the country. He becomes entangled with rebels, agitators, and idealists, and seems eager to prove himself to them. When Hamid’s family flee the country during the revolution, he refuses to go with them.
From mutinous teenager (“there was something consoling about being maligned, having a grievance, and maybe even dying misjudged”) Hamid grows into a deeply alienated man who leads a solitary existence. His wife wants to divorce him, he has become estranged from his daughter, and he has parted ways from the man he considered to be one of his only allies. His cynic worldview and the rancour he feels towards everybody and everything (from every generation to Iranians who live abroad to Western ideologies) give his narrative an unsparing tone.

“We were, all of us, funambulists skywalking between the myth of our ancestral greatness and the reality of our compromised past, between our attempts to govern ourselves and our repeated failures. We were a generation doused in oil and oblivion, the city expanding in steel and glass around us, erasing at dizzying speed the alleys of our grandfathers, hemming us in along the way.”

As Hamid recounts his life-story, his growing disillusionment towards the revolution and his generation becomes apparent. His interrogation into his past doesn’t provide easy answers. There are plenty of instance when Hamid seems to consciously choose to do something he himself considers to be wrong. But we are also shown the sway that one’s family and one’s country have on a man.
Sofer’s erudite writing was a pleasure to read. Hamid’s adroit narration provides us with plenty of shrewd observations about his country and history in general. He analyses his past behaviour and that of others. Hamid offers plenty of interesting, if not downright disconcerting, speculations about a myriad of topics.
Through Hamid’s story Sofer navigates notions of right and wrong, good and evil, judgment and forgiveness. Troubling as it was, Hamid’s narration also provides plenty of incisive observations about human nature. The way he describes the feelings he experiences (love was a sweet interruption in the lonely march toward nonbeing) could also be startlingly poetic.
Yet, while Sofer succeeds in making giving Hamid nuance and authenticity, her secondary characters often verged on the unbelievable. We aren’t given extensive time with any other character, which is expected given our protagonist (Hamid repeatedly pushes others away, from his family to his partners and his daughter: “I heard the sound of my tired breath inside absences I had spent decades collecting, with the same diligence and fervor with which my father once amassed his beloved encyclopedia”). However, the fact that they have few appearances made me all the more watchful of those scenes they do appear in…and I couldn’t help but noticing that the way they spoke at times seemed more suited to a movie. What they said often didn’t really fit in what kind of person they until then seemed to be or their age (Hamid’s daughter speaks in a very contrived way).
I also wish that the story had remained more focused on Hamid’s childhood and that his relationship to his mother could have been explored some more.
Still, this was a nevertheless interesting read. Sofer has created a complex main character and she vividly renders his ‘time’.

“What was to be said? Absence was our country’s chief commodity, and we all had, at one time or another, traded in it.”

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Apartment by Teddy Wayne — book review

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“I’d been happy before just to be his classmate, to learn from him osmotically, but now I grew excited at what this might blossom into, the sort of close, symbiotic relationship I’d hoped grad school would offer and the Hemingway-Fitzgerald complementary pairing I’d always thought necessary to one’s artistic development.”

Set in New York between 1996 and 1997 Apartment portrays the making and dissolution of a friendship. Our unnamed narrator, who is attending the MFA writing program at Columbia, is a rather introverted young man. His father is paying for his tuition and his other expenses while he is staying in his aunt’s apartment (in what amounts to an illegal sublet).
His loner existence is shaken up when he begins to hang out with Billy, a talented classmate of his. Billy, who hails from the Midwest, has only recently gotten into writing and reading. Unlike our narrator, Billy struggles to make ends meet and works as a bartender. Out of a combination of guilt and genuine admiration for Billy and his writing, our narrator offers him his spare bedroom.

“A first sleepover, whether it was sexual or platonic, had a way of making you both more and less comfortable around the other person; you’d jumped a fence of intimacy, but now you saw each other in the blunt morning light.”

Living in such close quarters however is not easy. The power imbalance between the two of them (which sees the protagonist becoming Billy’s benefactor), their opposite financial situations, as well as Billy’s writing capabilities, put a strain on their bond. Soon it becomes apparent that they also have differing interests and political outlooks.
The unspooling of their relationship is uncomfortable to read. As their awkward chats give way to tense silences, we read with a mounting sense of dread.
The narrator’s discomfort becomes our own. Yet, his caginess puts us at arm’s length. Early on he confesses to Billy that his biggest fear is that no one will truly know him. While this hints at a certain level of self-awareness, our protagonist remains unknowable. His writing too, according to his classmates’ feedback, reflects his reticence to let others see him.
His self-imposed isolation gives way to a perpetual cycle of loneliness and alienation. As he realises that his friendship with Billy is irrevocably damaged, the narrator does the unthinkable.
In spite of the narrator’s unwillingness to articulate his true feelings, I came to care for him. His observations were rendered in a shrinkingly genuine manner, and even if he does not reveal himself to us, or others, we do become familiar with his solitude and with his feelings of not belonging.

“I would never relate to these people after all, they wouldn’t come to know me and no one ever would, and it wasn’t because I was a misunderstood rebel or suffered from some diagnosable pathology; I was an oddball—but not even a ‘classic’ oddball, no, I was an oddball among self-selecting oddballs who had found community with other oddballs, and to be on the outside of mainstream society i one thing, and admirably heroic struggle, but to be on the fringes of an already marginalized subculture is simply lonely.”

With a narrative that is rife with literary allusions and academic terms, Teddy Wayne’s conveys the sheltered yet claustrophobic atmosphere of an MFA program. The narrator and his classmates seem aware that they are active participants in what they define as ‘real life’. Billy’s less than privileged background is what differentiates him from the rest. Yet, the more time he spends at this program, the more self-assured he becomes. There are some great discussions around talent and ambition.
The narrator’s internal monologue also provides some moments of humour. For example, in contemplating a romantic relationship with another writer he makes the following observation:

“Writers were either histrionic or reserved or oscillated wildly between the two poles, all we’d have to talk about would be what we’d composed that day or how we were depressed that we hadn’t produced anything, the whole thing would be insular and incestuous.”

The novel also delves into themes of masculinity, identity, friendship, creativity, and sexuality. Wayne’s depiction of the mid-90s is simultaneously piercing and nostalgic. New York too is rendered in an evocative way.

Written in a propelling style and possessing all the trappings of a psychological thriller without actually being one, Apartment tells a profoundly poignant tale in which the narrator’s namelessness reflects his withdrawn nature.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Everything Inside: Stories by Edwidge Danticat

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“The difference between her and them was as stark as the gulf between those who’d escaped a catastrophe unscathed and others who’d been forever mutilated by it.”

This was such a wonderful and poignant collection of short stories.
In a interview on LitHub Edwige Danticat said that one of the reasons why she loves the short story form is that it allows her “to magnify smaller moments and to linger on these small epiphanies in the smaller interactions that mean so much”, and indeed each one of her stories seems to prolong a particular moment in her characters’ lives.
Given the brevity of her stories Danticat doesn’t wast any words. And yet, while her writing could be described as both economic and simple, her prose also demonstrated a richness of expression that resonated with the feelings and scenarios experienced by her characters.

Through the wide range of her narratives Danticat examines similar themes in very different ways. Within her stories Danticat navigates the way in which bonds are tested, broken, or strengthened in times of crisis. Most of Danticat’s narratives are concerned in particular with the diasporic experiences of Haitians in America, and she emphasises the feelings of longing, loneliness, and displacement experienced by those who are forced to adapt to a new country and a different culture with poignancy and clarity. They are never reduced to the status of ‘outsider’, and while their shared heritage does mean that they may have had similar experiences, each one of them has a distinctive voice and a particular relationships with the countries they currently inhabit.
With seeming ease Danticat imbues her characters with their own history and personalities, so that within a few pages we would feel as if we’d know them personally, so much so that to define them as characters seems almost an injustice.
Within these narratives the ordinary moments that make up everyday life can carry both enlightening and tragic overtones. These stories centre on the characters’ anxieties, hopes, and fears they may harbour for themselves or their loved ones.
In “Dosas” Elsie, a nurse’s assistant, is betrayed by her husband and her own best friend. Months later her now ex-husband calls her and begs her to help pay the ransom for his kidnapped girlfriend, who happens to be Elsie’s former friend. His increasingly desperate calls threaten to disrupt the course of her life.
In “The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special” a woman who has returned to Haiti to run a hotel with her husband is confronted with her own privilege when her young nanny is diagnosed with AIDS; the woman has to reconcile herself with her own misjudgement regarding her nanny’s mother and with her preference for a white doctor over a local one.
In “Hot-Air Balloons” we observe the bond between two young women, one of which has started to work for Leve a women’s organisation in which she witnesses the most brutal aspects of humanity. Still, even when we are presented with these stark accounts of abuse or suffering the story maintains a sense of hope in the genuine relationship between these two women.
Another story that examines the bond between two women is “Seven Stories”. After publishing a short story a writer is contacted by her childhood friend Callie, the daughter of the prime minister of an unnamed island. After her father’s assassination Callie was forced to flee from the island and years later our narrator is invited by her friend who has by now married the island’s new prime minister.

“I didn’t have to think too much about this. I already knew. I am the girl—the woman—who is always going to be looking for stability, a safe harbor. I am never going to forget that I can easily lose everything I have, including my life, in one instant. But this is not what I told her. I told her that I was going to be the kind of friend she could always count on.”

The characters in Danticat’s stories are often confronted with impossible choices. Within their realities they are forced to contend against betrayal, illnesses, the devastating earthquake of 2010, medical malpractice, kidnappings, and the risks that come with being ‘undocumented’. They are made vulnerable by their status or haunted by the knowledge that the world can be a terrible place. Still, while there were many moments of unease, the stories always maintain a vibrancy that made them hard to put down. Her characters demonstrated empathy, love, and compassion so that her stories never felt bleak or hopeless.

I can’t recommend this collection enough. These stories were both upsetting and moving, and within each narrative we follow how a certain ‘change’ forces each character to reassess their own existence. The crisis they experience are depicted with subtlety and consideration. Danticat interrogates serious themes (identity, mortality, grief) whilst focusing on ordinary moments. Phone conversations and dinners become the backdrop for larger debates. Her narratives illuminate the complexities faced by those who are born, or raised, in a country that is now in crisis.
A heart-rendering collection of stories that provided me with a lot food for thought and which I will be definitely reading again.

2nd reading:
I have now read it again and I found as compelling as the first time. This may be the first collection of short stories I’ve ever re-read and it surprised by how many details had stayed with me from the first reading.

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars

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Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Even after a third reading I am still surprised by how much this novel resonates with me. A lot readers will start Villette expecting a rehash of Jane Eyre—a novel which I enjoyed but wasn’t particularly taken by—which is a pity given that the narrative of Villette takes its reader through a much more labyrinthine path that the straightforward Bildungsroman of Jane Eyre.

“No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, ant tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven. She is a divine dew which the soul, on certain of its summer mornings, feels dropping upon it from the amaranth bloom and golden fruitage of Paradise.”

From the first few chapters I fell in love with Villette.
Brontë’s writing is so insightful that it is hard not to highlight, or make a note of, every single paragraph. She has a way with words, managing to orchestrate long yet fluid phrases, that beautifully convey the many nuanced feelings and thoughts of her protagonist as well as the different landscapes she navigates. She offers her readers intricate and sharp observations, vivid descriptions, thoughtful asides and complex character studies that struck me for their realism.
Villette‘s plot rests upon its narrator’s interior struggle. In fact, this novel, is all about Lucy Snowe. A study of her psychology and of her shifting sense of self. Yet, even upon a third reading, she remains somewhat unknowable to me as she is careful to keep her feelings in check, and on more than one occasion she refrains from sharing certain knowledge with her readers (speaking of, there is an almost meta aspect to her narrative as she directly address readers and refers to scenes occurred in previous ‘chapters’).
Her self-division

“Oh, my childhood! I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel. About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future–such as a future as mine–to be dead.”

Her unreliability seems a natural outcome of her not wanting to reveal herself completely to us and others, and perhaps by lying to her readers, she can also deceive herself. We never know why she has become so alienated from her feelings but given that even as a child she was self-possessed and quiet observer, it seems that it is merely an aspect of who she is.
This divide between duty and self-fulfilment, reason and feeling, is the main focus of the narrative. Brontë’s Lucy, similarly to her more famous literary sister Jane, is a woman living on the social margins of her society: an orphan with few living relations and or friends, she lacks conventional beauty and the wealth necessary to be respected by society.
Lucy minimises the loss of her family, not wanting to dwell on how this affected her nor on the difficulties she experienced as an orphan, dismissing that period of her life as “a long time—of cold, of danger, of contention”. Her hardships go unheard since “to whom could [she] complain?” and so she grows accustomed to solitude believing that “there remained no possibility of dependence on others” .
The narrative that follows will see her confronted with different forms of femininity and womanhood
which are often embodied in the women she meets in England and in Villette.

“When I looked, my inner self moved; my spirit shook its always-fettered wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I, who had never yet truly lived, were at last about to taste life: in that morning my soul grew as fast as Jonah’s gourd.”

One of my favourite scenes sees our narrator rejecting ideals of femininity in a museum. One painting features a Cleopatra-like figure whose sumptuous body makes our protagonist at ill at ease; the other one demonstrates the traditional life of woman: a young and demure bride, a wife and mother, and finally a widow. Lucy, in the course of this maze-like narrative will demonstrate a headstrong will in that in spite of the concealment of her feelings she remains true to her self.
Her character is so real that I was inevitably drawn to feel what she felt: I wanted what she wanted, for I couldn’t stand to see her unhappy.

“My state of mind, and all accompanying circumstances, were just now such as most to favour the adoption of a new, resolute, and daring–perhaps desperate–line of action. I had nothing to lose. Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past, forbade return. If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save myself, would suffer? If I died far away from–home, I was going to say, but I had no home–from England, then, who would weep?”

The ending is ambiguous and somewhat open-ended yet those last bittersweet pages soften the story’s final blow.
The cast of characters is not necessarily likeable but I grew fond of them nonetheless, Lucy’s banter with a certain professor and a rather spoiled pupil made for some truly entraining scenes. I appreciated how imperfect and sometimes idiosyncratic these characters were as these things made them all the more believable.
This novel is a beautifully written character study that plays around with Gothic and Romantic elements. There is great character development, shifting dynamics between friends and acquaintances, a painfully concealed and unrequited first love, and a series of feverous experiences which blur the line between reality and fantasy…Villette is a compelling portrait of a woman’s shifting individuality.

DISCLAIMER: this novel is decidedly of its time so expect a lot of phrenological references (or viewing someone’s physiognomy as indicative of their character), the majority of Catholics in this novel are definitely a wee bit fanatical, many annoying remarks—usually by men, but sometimes by women as well—regarding women (the weaker sex etc…), a major character owns a plantation in Guadeloupe and no one bats an eye about it (I definitely recommend Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy for those interested in postcolonial sort of retelling of Villette, it is a short but truly captivating read), people from France and Spain are often portrayed as ‘other’, even ‘alien’, and a little girl with learning disabilities is referred to as a ‘cretin’ and some other unpleasant terms.

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

This was quite an epic. This novel follows Cyril Avery and depicts the hardships and misadventures he experiences throughout his life. Adopted by two rather distant parents his views on love and family are, from the very start, somewhat unusual. He falls in love with his best friend Julian, a person whom he admires far too much, and spends the following years lying about who he truly is.
I found this novel to be both funny and heartbreaking. There are many hilarious conversations that carry a subtle sort of humor to them, and Cyril himself can be quite satirical.
The novel gives us snapshots of Cyril’s life; it jumps through time and fills us with we have ‘missed’ as the story progresses. Cyril’s experiences can be painful to read, and I was not happy after one particular tragic scene towards the end…after that…well I simply found that the flow of the story lost a bit of its momentum. It wasn’t quite as engaging as the rest, and it felt a bit repetitive. Nevertheless, The Heart’s Invisible Furies is an absorbing read.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

“She was a monster but she was my monster.”

Despite addressing ‘heavy’ topics, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a fast read.
Earlier this year I read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. For the most part I liked it (I gave it 3 stars) but I wasn’t too taken by it. So I was quite surprised by how much I ended up liking Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? . Although liking perhaps is not the right word. I didn’t like reading about Winterson’s painful childhood and of her more recent ‘troubles’. However, I did think that her words, and story, heartbreaking. I found her memoir to be incredibly affecting. Her words struck a chord. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a poignant and heart-rending memoir that explores love, family, loss, happiness and many other things.

“Love. The difficult words. Where everything starts, where we always return. Love. Love’s lack. The possibility of love.

Winterson’s voice relates here past in a genuine and matter-of-fact way while also being able to make her past behaviours and to make sharp reflections.
Her self-examination is honest. She does not shy away from writing about all of it: the good and the bad, and the downright awful.

“I have always tried to make a home for myself, but I have not felt at home in myself. I have worked hard at being the hero of my own life, but every time I checked the register of displaced persons, I was still on it. I didn’t know how to belong.
Longing? Yes. Belonging? No.

An emotional and contemplative journey that offers many acute observations.

“Pursuing happiness, and I did, and I still do, is not all the same as being happy– which I think is fleeting, dependent on circumstances, and a bit bovine.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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