BOOK REVIEWS

The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami

Considering that Hiromi Kawakami is one of my favourites authors this was a big letdown. The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino lacked the zing that made Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop into such fun and engaging reads. Nishino, the novel’s central character, is a boring creep and I could not for the life of me understand why so many women cared for him.

The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino is divided in ten chapters, each one narrated by one of Nishino’s ‘loves’. The chapters do not follow a linear structure, so Nishino’s life is given to us in an almost fragmented way. The women Nishino loves easily blend together as they all shared the same kind of voice. I did not find them as likeable as the protagonists of Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop and maybe that’s because much of their narrative focuses on the relationship they have with Nishino. Most of them realise that Nishino is bad news who cheats and is emotionally unavailable. Yet, usually after they claim to dislike him, they will confess that they are on the verge of falling in love with him. Alas, because of ‘reasons’, they break up. The Nishino that emerges from these accounts is that of a pathetic and needy man who habitually lies. He has 0 charisma, here are two examples of some of his lines that make his ‘loves’ ‘giggle’: “Girls’ bottoms are always so cool, so smooth—I love them . . .” and “I love women’s breasts,”. Wow…isn’t he a poet?
Nishino is troubled and ‘broken’ and the women he loves pity him for it, hoping that one day he will find a woman good enough to ‘fix’ him (ugh).

minor spoilers ahead
The thing is, Nishino is a shit. He obviously does not care to have consensual sex with his ‘loves’: “I said, Stop, over and over, each time he quietly replied, I will not stop.” and “Hey, let’s have sex right now,” Nishino said. And then, without waiting for my response, he took me roughly.”.
He has sister issues, boo-fucking-hoo. Give me a break. The guy is a massive creep. He jokes to one of his ‘loves’ that he will marry his daughter (who is a child). Was it supposed to be funny? Coming from a guy who then at the age of fifty starts a sexual relationship a woman thirty years his junior?
I also did not care for the whole ‘breast milk scene’ involving Nishino and his sister. Surely that would not be the only way of ‘easing’ her pain (this is the third book I have read this year with weird breast milk scenes and I can safely say that I care little for this trend).

If you are thinking of reading something by Kawakami, I strongly recommend you pick up Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop instead of this.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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BOOK REVIEWS

Old School by Tobias Wolff — book review

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“A true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life.”

Old School presents its readers with a concise exploration of the complexities of writing and interpretation. Tobias Wolff exerts exquisite control over his prose, evoking through his sparse yet vivid language the rarefied world in which his unmanned narrator moves in. Wolff brings to life the youth of the days past and their strive for artistic recognition, capturing the various undercurrents that are at play in their exclusive school.

“[T]he almost physical attraction to privilege, the resolve to be near it at any cost: sycophancy, lies, self-suppression, the masking of ambitions and desires, the slow cowardly burn of resentment toward those for whose favor you have falsified yourself. ”

What seems at first to be an idyllic environment reveals itself as a place for competitiveness since, as our narrator himself points out, “if the school had a snobbery it would confess to, this was its pride in being a literary place”. Most students, our protagonist included, guard their writing efforts with suspicion, and are wary of criticism. The winner of the literary contest held by their school is awarded with a one-on-one meeting with famous writers (Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Hemingway all make an appearance in Old School).

“I never thought about making connections. My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed.”

The protagonist of this novel has mythologised this ‘audience’, attributing to this meeting a sense of sublimity and viewing the writers he admires through the eyes of a disciple. Yet, his grappling with his ‘voice’ and is often influenced by the writing of those he reveres. His desire to win the competition leads to fraying relationships with his roommate, friends, and to a certain extent his relatives.

“For years now I had hidden my family in calculated silences and vague hints and dodges, suggesting another family in its place. The untruth of my position had given me an obscure, chronic sense of embarrassment, yet since I hadn’t outright lied I could still blind myself to its cause. Unacknowledged shame enters the world as anger; I naturally turned mine against the snobbery of others.”

Additionally our narrator is struggling with self-knowledge. Having taken pains to project a certain image of himself, his own class-consciousness alienates him from other students. Soon, his blindsided determination to win tests his already strained relationships and sees him rejecting truth in favour of self-deception.
The narrator’s undoing is not easy to read. Yet, his narration retains this ambivalent quality that I found quite enthralling.
In some ways Old School does for a 60s prep school what Teddy Wayne’s Apartment does for a 90s creative writing course. Both of these books are deceptively slender, and pack a real emotional punch. Both of narrators are ambition driven and their path to self-discovery is treacherous.
If you are interested in a novel with plenty of insights on writing and authorial intent or for a story that chronicles a boy’s troubling self-discovery, look no further.

Some of my favourite quotes

“It had become a fashion at school to draw lines between certain writers, as if to like one meant you couldn’t like the other. ”

“Now they sounded different to me. The very heedlessness of their voices defined the distance that had opened up between us. That easy brimming gaiety already seemed impossibly remote, no longer the true life I would wake to each morning, but a paling dream.”

“Loyalty is a matter of dates, virtue itself is often a matter of seconds.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)
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The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri — book review

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“In so many ways, his family’s life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another.”

In the past few years I’ve read and fallen in love with Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories as well as her book on her relationship with the Italian language In Other Words. Although The Namesake has been sitting on my shelf for the last couple months, when it was chosen as one of the February reads for the ‘Around the World in 80 Books’ group, I was finally spurred into reading it, and I’m so glad I did. The Namesake did not disappoint.

Written in an elegantly sparse prose The Namesake tells the story of the Ganguli family. After their arranged marriage Ashoke and Ashima Ganguili move from Calcutta to America. It is in this new, if not perpetually puzzling, country that their children Gogol and Sonia are born and raised.
As Lahiri recounts the story of this family, she also interrogates concepts of cultural identity, of dislocation and rootlessness, of cultural and generational divides, and of tradition and familial expectation. As the title of the novel suggests, The Namesake focuses on Gogol’s fraught relationship with his own name. As the American-born son of Bengali parents, Gogol struggles to reconcile himself with his Russian name. His uncommon name comes to symbolise his own self-divide and reticence to embrace his parents’ culture.

“He wonders how his parents had done it, leaving their respective families behind, seeing them so seldom, dwelling unconnected, in a perpetual state of expectation, of longing.”

Names and trains are recurring motifs in this long spanning narrative. Time and again we read of the way in which names alter others’ and our perception of ourselves. Train journeys provide characters with life-changing experiences: from near misses with death to startling realisations.
Yet, in spite of these fated moments, Lahiri’s novel possesses an atmosphere that is at once graceful and ordinary. The language she chooses has this quiet quality that makes that which she writes all the more realistic. Her most insightful observations into her characters, or the dynamics between them, often occur when she is recounting seemingly mundane scenes: from food preparations and family meals to phone conversations.
In spite of the gentle rhythm of her narrative Lahiri also articulates the tension between past and present, India and America, parents and children, husband and wife. As Gogol grows we read of his love and sorrows, of his hopes and fears, and of his insecurities and his lifelong quest to belong. There are heartbreaking moments of affection and miscommunication, and Lahiri truly renders both the difficulties of acclimatising to another country and of embracing one’s heritage in a world where to be different is to be other.

By observing a characters’ clothes, appearance, or routine, Lahiri makes even those who are at the margin of the Ganguli’s family history come to life. The Ganguli’s first neighbours in America, Gogol’s teacher, who inadvertently cemented Gogol’s hatred for his name, and even Moushumi’s colleague are all vibrantly rendered.
While what Lahiri’s characters’ experience can be occasionally comic, she never makes them into a ‘joke’. In fact, she reserves judgment, and each character, regardless of their actions, is portrayed with compassion.

“True to the meaning of her name, she will be without borders, without a home of her own, a resident everywhere and nowhere.”

Another thing that makes this novel stand out is how much Lahiri leaves unspoken. There are no melodramatic scenes or confessions. At times it is only hindsight that allows a character to realise the importance of a certain moment.

“Somehow, bad news, however ridden with static, however filled with echoes, always manages to be conveyed.”

There is a naturalness and openness to her characters’ impressions. She writes with such clarity of such complex or ephemeral feelings or thoughts that I often had to stop to re-read a phrase in order to truly savour her words.

“For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.”

Lahiri is a master of the trade and in The Namesake she depicts an exquisitely intricate family portrait.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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Loving Donovan : Book Review

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Loving Donovan
by Bernice L. McFadden
★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

The title of this novel is somewhat misleading. While yes, there is plenty of love to be found within these pages, it is almost obscured by the many harrowing scenes that make up most of the novel.
McFadden’s writing is both direct and expressive which made her story all the more vivid. The narrative follows Campbell and Donovan from the childhood to their adulthood. Although we know from the prologue that these two characters will at some point meet and fall in love, most of the novel (say 60%) is focused on their ‘history’. In chronicling their lives McFadden also brings into the picture the lives of their families and friends. The novel presents us with two complex and layered families as well as with a community that is divided by love and hate. There is cheating, jealousies, prejudices, and an array of other things that make their way into these relationships.
While I was absorbed by these characters much of what happens to them is horrifying and not easy to read. Pedophilia and rape mark the lives of many of the characters, and we see just how traumatising their past experiences are and the effect they have in shaping the rest of their lives. While there were many moving and touching moments these were almost obscured by the brutalities that occur throughout the narrative.
I wish that we had seen more of the relationship between Campbell and Donovan. The last section of the novel seemed hurried, especially when compared to the rest of the story. The ending was somewhat unsatisfying and left me wanting more out of the whole thing.

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THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR: BOOK REVIEW

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The Housekeeper and the Professor
by Yōko Ogawa
★★★★✰ 3.5 stars

A poignant and gentle tale of a friendship between a professor (whose memory lasts approximately 80 minutes), his housekeeper and her ten-year-old son, who goes by the nickname of ‘Root’.
The narrative of The Housekeeper and the Professor although brimming with compassion avoids being over-sentimental. There is plenty of kindness and love to be found in this novel. Ogawa’s style depicts with honesty the friendship between an old and vulnerable man and a hard-working single mother. The housekeeper, a good-natured woman, becomes interested in maths thanks to the professor, who prior to his brain injury was a professor of maths. While living in solitude, cut away from the world, he still possess his love for numbers and a knack for teaching.
Nothing eventful really happens, and this is not a plot-driven novel. The narrator recounts this friendship and a particular time of her life in an almost wistful manner. Her reminiscing provides some beautiful observations and some lovely phrases.
As silly as it might sound, there was a bit too much talk of numbers&maths and baseball, so I did feel a bit distanced from the story at times. Nevertheless, if you fancy a quick and moving story, look no further.

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