There were such beautiful children in my class while I was still teaching. Harini, Tanvi, Shruti, Surya, Janav…When I read this novel set in a basti (a collection of huts) in India, I could envision their faces quite clearly. I could even envision the difficulty of living in their community: dirty, close to a huge rubbish heap, with street vendors selling spicy foods or chai teas, and kind neighbors.
When a child goes missing, a young school boy named Jai decides he will become a detective. After all, he has seen plenty of them on a television show called Police Patrol, and he has read about them in books. He knows what to do. And so, he enlists his friends Pari and Faiz to help him.
The novel is told through his childish eyes, full of innocence and hope, determined that he can make a difference. But, the children keep going missing, and no one but those who live in the basti seem to care. Not the ones in the hi-fi buildings where his mother works for a rich boss lady, nor the mayor who seems more concerned about his missing cat.
There is much to think about here, within these pages, about poverty. About innocent children. About Hindus and Muslims distrustful of one another, unable to get along.
But, it is the ending that I will never, ever forget. I have carried it around in my heart all day, and I do not have sufficient words to express the pain I feel. It is almost as if I have lost a member of my class, or worse, my own family.
SPOILER: Jai’s sister is the last person to go missing. Despite searching throughout the basti, in every hidden corridor and behind every darkened door, she is never found. None of the missing children are found, for they have been sold into human trafficking, or slayed for their organs. It is hard to believe that such atrocities can and do exist, and I applaud Deepa for giving us such a beautifully written novel which brings into the light an unspeakable evil.
I read The High-Rise Diverslowly, absorbing every nuance of a strange world…which really, is not so strange after all. For I can easily imagine the control given over to cameras and tablets, the control given away by citizens even though it first may have been given willingly.
The novel begins with an image, a picture of a beautifully fit young woman, who is going to dive from the skyscraper upon which she stands. It seems an impossible feat and yet she leaps, twirling and spinning and dancing in the air, over the audience who watches her with outstretched arms. And then, a split second before she hits the pavement, she suddenly swings upward once again.
This opening shows how very fragile her life is. Although her lover, Aston, makes his living photographing her, and she affords them their lovely apartment from the efforts of her diving, it could all be destroyed in an instant. If she fell, for example. Or, if she decided that she wanted to break her contract.
Hitomi Yoshida watches Riva, the diver. She watches Riva continuously, and she takes notes on how Riva sits, what Riva eats or drinks, what Riva says. She even watches Riva and Aston in their bedroom and reports all of these observations to her boss, Hugo M. Masters. It is Hitomi’s responsibility that Riva does not give up her contract.
When Hitomi observes a biofamily on a blog she has discovered, she is so won over by the family’s warmth, largely due to the son who posts of his happiness, that she hires the son to make an intervention for Riva. Although he comes into Riva and Aston’s apartment, he does not make the changes that Hitomi anticipates. Soon, there are changes in Hitomi’s life as well, changes that are unexpected, unwelcome, and out of her control.
Great distinctions are made throughout the novel between the city (where these people live) and the “peripheries.” Those peripheries are dark, and have people stuffing their mouths with unhealthy food, and seem to be a most depressing place to live. But is the alleged grandeur of the city any better? If you don’t fulfill your contract, your housing is taken away. You must live in the bottom of a building, rather than an upper floor, where darkness abides. You must be under constant scrutiny and gain constant approval. Your biomother is in the peripheries, and you must click the mother option on the parentbot app if you seek comfort. Your whole life depends on your performance, your compliance, and your willingness to serve society.
It is a terrifying premise to me, because it does not seem so fantastical. “Let the chaos unfold, Ms. Yoshida,” a stranger tells her. And that is exactly what I feel we are doing in the real world today: letting the chaos unfold, with very little power to stop it. Although this is a novel of science fiction, I find it to be almost prescient. Its premise is endlessly fascinating.
The Wild Geese is one of the most elegant, subtle love stories I have read. It is one of those pieces of classic Japanese literature which lead you into thinking not much is going on until you finish it, and find yourself unable to think of little else.
Like so many works of Japanese literature, the reader enters the story and leaves, with little resolution. We are free to decide what we will about the beautiful mistress of a usurer, and her subsequent scorn of him, who makes eyes at a handsome young university student. Every day he passes by her window, and soon, he is taking off his hat with a little bow.
She longs for him. She makes plans to invite him to her home while her master is away on business. And we wait, wondering if the master will come early; wondering if the university student will come to her home at all.
Things have a way of taking unexpected turns, just like the innocent goose at the end of the story. It is suddenly killed with a deftly thrown rock while napping, as the rest of the flock flies away. Free.
I will not stop thinking of this piece for a very long time.
I haven’t been to The Dial in person yet. I’m sure that now Biden is president, and people are comfortable resuming their normal lives again, I will be able to go soon. But, I found them while playing on my iPad one night, and I signed up for their Book of the Month, in which an “undercelebrated” book is delivered (with free shipping!) on the last Saturday of every month.
I can’t tell you how much I look forward to the arrival of the book each month. It is always a surprise, a book specially chosen by their staff, and so it is unbeknownst to me until I open it.
This month’s selection is New Peopleby Danzy Senna. It seems quite timely, even though it was published in 2017:
ABOUT NEW PEOPLE
Named a BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, VOGUE, TIME MAGAZINE, NPR and THE ROOT
Named A 2017 BEST SUMMER READ BY
Vogue • Elle • Harper’s Bazaar • Glamour • Buzzfeed • In Style • Men’s Journal • Bustle • Ms. Magazine • Pop Sugar • Newsday • The Millions • Time Out • Bitch • CNN’s The Lead • The Fader
“[A] cutting take on race and class…part dark comedy, part surreal morality tale. Disturbing and delicious.” –People
“You’ll gulp Senna’s novel in a single sitting—but then mull over it for days.” –Entertainment Weekly
“Everyone should read it.” –Vogue
From the bestselling author of Caucasia, a subversive and engrossing novel of race, class and manners in contemporary America.
As the twentieth century draws to a close, Maria is at the start of a life she never thought possible. She and Khalil, her college sweetheart, are planning their wedding. They are the perfect couple, “King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom.” Their skin is the same shade of beige. They live together in a black bohemian enclave in Brooklyn, where Khalil is riding the wave of the first dot-com boom and Maria is plugging away at her dissertation, on the Jonestown massacre. They’ve even landed a starring role in a documentary about “new people” like them, who are blurring the old boundaries as a brave new era dawns. Everything Maria knows she should want lies before her–yet she can’t stop daydreaming about another man, a poet she barely knows. As fantasy escalates to fixation, it dredges up secrets from the past and threatens to unravel not only Maria’s perfect new life but her very persona.
Heartbreaking and darkly comic, New People is a bold and unfettered page-turner that challenges our every assumption about how we define one another, and ourselves.
And so now, if you’ll excuse me, I will be set to read this afternoon, with the snow falling outside of our windows and the chocolate chip cookies cooling on the counter.
I can picture the café with its windowless room in sepia tones, the three clocks all pointing to different times, and the aromatic coffee coming from a silver kettle, pouring slowly into the cup of the person who is sitting in that seat. The seat which is usually occupied by a woman in a white dress, who is destined to sit there forever, a ghost of her former self.
She didn’t follow the rules, apparently. The rules which state that if you want to go to the past, you are allowed to do so if the person you want to see has been to the café before, if you realize that you will not be able to change the present, and if you finish your conversation before the coffee grows cold.
The steam from the coffee shimmers as you gradually shift from the present to the past. And, there are a few people who wish to do exactly that. One wants to know why she didn’t stop her boyfriend from leaving for America. Another wants to give his wife a letter in a brown envelope, which he has been carrying around for quite some time. A third longs to meet with her sister, from whom she hid, before she was in a car accident; the fourth longs to see the face of her daughter…
What would you want to change, who would you want to meet, for one last time?
Before the Coffee Gets Coldby Toshikazu Kawaguchi would have been a good choice for the Japanese Literature Challenge 14 read along. So many of you have read and reviewed it already! I am getting to the party where the coffee is already getting cold, but what a fascinating book it is. If you would like to enter the give-away for a copy of your own, please mention it in your comment below. (U. S. only, please.)
Study doesn’t not engender wisdom,” he continued, his voice stern and challenging. “Analysis does not inspire insight.” He raised his eyebrows, exhorting Charles and his classmates to pay attention. “Only empathy allows us to see clearly. Only compassion brings lasting change.” (p. 14)
This is not my book. It was given to me by my mother, who had received it from a friend. Hence the break in my Japanese reading; I wanted to read it and return it in a timely manner.
My mother and I are constantly discussing why it is that novels written by Christians seem to resemble Harlequin Romances. Not in the way of romance, but in the way of trite. Well-meaning, to be sure, but essentially sitting on your tongue like a meringue which is alternately melting into nothing and making you shiver with its sweetness.
That is why The Dearly Belovedis so special. The two couples within its pages wrestle with doubt, both with themselves and with God. Never mind that the two men are ministers, that one of the wives is a pastor’s daughter. The other one lost her parents in a car accident when she was a child, and she will not believe in God. One of her twin sons is born with autism, and she will not believe in God. But, her doubts, her questions, her reluctance are a remarkable platform on which to build the novel. For what Christian doesn’t question God?
Lily is in stark contrast to Nan, who believes in God with her whole heart and always has. I find myself in her words:
Of all the things she thought she could give up for him (James, her beloved) she could not give up her faith in God. She had pondered this as deeply as her father would have wanted her to, and she had come to the conclusion that her faith was an essential part of the person she wanted to be. Who would she be without God? What purpose would her childhood have served? Whom would she thank for her blessings? How would she understand the workings of the world? How would she accept its mysteries? (p. 61)
It’s not something that you can be taught; faith is something you grab hold of, or don’t. And I love how Cara Wall has shown us in this novel that it is not easy. It is not simple. It is not always clear or straightforward.
God doesn’t always come in visions or dreams, and God rarely comes in certainty,” he (Nan’s father) went on. “God has come to you in restlessness and yearning. God has come to you in questioning. God has come to you as a challenge. It won’t be easy, but it’s a perfectly acceptable calling.
This is said to her fiancé, James, who has decided to become a minister. His uncle sponsors his education through a university in England, and so it seems quite unlikely that he would be sitting for an interview next to Charles.
Faithful, sturdy, unswerving Charles. He was my favorite in all the book, even though I most closely resemble Lily’s nose-in-a-book, headstrong ways. His faith carries him through the most trying challenges, the unbelief that surrounds him especially in his wife, Lily. Charles is given this advice when he is considering marrying her:
Love is the enjoyment of something. The feeling of wanting something deeply, of wanting nothing more. Our love of God is not as important as our faith in God. Love wanes, faith cannot. One can have faith and anger, faith and hate. One can believe deeply and still rail against God, still blame God. In fact, if one can hate God it is a sign of deep faith, because you cannot hate and at the same time doubt God’s existence. (p. 127)
But, no one is prepared for the issues of barrenness or of a child with special needs. No one is the perfect wife or husband, mother or father, friend or minister. They work through their wounds and longing, their sacrifice and fulfillment, growing ever more closely bound together. They become the dearly beloved to one another.
I found this a deeply moving book, able to express far more than one narrow perspective on faith from either the faithful, or the unbeliever.
Breasts and Eggswas not the book I thought it would be. I knew there would be mention of women’s roles, and women’s parts, in contemporary life. I knew it won the Akutagawa Prize and was highly praised by Haruki Murakami. But, I didn’t know we would spend so much time considering identity. Artificial insemination and donor conception. Single parenting and family.
Natsuko Natsume is 38 years old and single. She is a writer, and she begins her story by telling us what it means to be poor. “Maybe you’re poor now. Maybe you were poor in the past. I’m both…“ She lives in Tokyo, while her older sister, Makiko, lives in Osaka. They struggled to raise themselves, as their father left the family, and their mother died when they were girls.
When Makiko comes to visit her younger sister, she is focused on having a breast augmentation. Her make-up is thick, her body is excessively thin, her skin is gray and drawn, but she believes that larger boobs will make her beautiful. Her daughter, Midoriko, will not speak to either her mother, or her aunt. She writes everything on a pad of paper, or in her journal.
Writing is the best. You can do it anywhere, as long as you have a pen and paper. It’s free, too. And you an write whatever you want. How sweet is that.
While I agree that keeping a journal is a marvelous tool to sort one’s thoughts, or keep one’s memories, I couldn’t understand why Midoriko would not speak out loud until I came to this section of her journal:
So I got in another fight with Mom, over money. This one was way worse than the last one. In the middle of everything, I asked, why’d you even have me? I asked myself that all the time, but it’s a horrible thing to say out loud, I know…I thought it would be better if we didn’t talk for a while. I mean, we’d just end up fighting again, and I’d say something mean. (p. 58)
Buried within this quote is the beginning of the theme which Meiko Kawakami establishes throughout the novel: “Why’d you even have me?” In other words, why do parents have children?
While Makiko wishes to have her breasts enlarged, Natsuko longs for a child. Centered around this longing are great moral dilemmas. Does she have the right to bring a child into the world as a single mother? How will the child feel not knowing who the father is, or worse yet, finding out the father they thought was their father was actually not? An even bigger question is, “Is it fair to bring a child into the world, not knowing what kind of pain or disability the child may encounter?”
Meiko Kawakami explores these questions throughout the novel’s plot and within the character’s conversations. Yuriko and Aizawa are two people who discuss the reality of being conceived through donor conception with Natsuko.
“You’re betting that the child you bring into this will be at least as happy as you’ve been, at least as fortunate as you’ve been, or, at a minimum, that they’ll be able to say they’re happy they were born. Everyone says life is both good and bad, but the majority of people think it’s mostly good. That’s why people go through with it. The odds are good. Sure, everyone dies someday, but life has meaning, even pain and suffering have meaning and there’s so much joy. There’s not a doubt in your mind that your child will see it that way, just like you. No one thinks they’ll pull the short straw. They’re convinced everything will work out fine. But that’s just people believing what they want to believe. For their own benefit. The really horrible part is that this bet isn’t yours to make. You’re betting on another person’s life. Not yours. (Yuriko, p. 276)
But, Jun Aizawa has come to terms with the origins of his birth. I loved the realization he makes toward the conclusion of the novel:
I’d been spending all of my time trying to find my father, thinking that was my only hope of discovering who I was. I thought that if I didn’t know him, I couldn’t know myself…Maybe there’s some truth to that, but now I have a sense of what’s really at the heart of it. I realize what’s been bothering me all along, ever since I heard the truth, is that I never got to tell my dad, I mean the dad who raised me, how I felt….I wish I could’ve found out earlier, when he was still alive. I would’ve told him that it didn’t change the way I felt, that he was still my dad, as far as I was concerned.” (Aizawa, p. 320)
Some quotes I found particularly intriguing, which perhaps we could discuss:
“I was young once, but I was never pretty. When something isn’t there, inside or out, how are you supposed to seek it out? (p. 41)
“Start judging people by their genetic profiles, and pretty soon you’re seeing them like handbags, ranking them like brands.” (p. 147)
“Who has the right to have a child? Does not having a partner or not wanting to have sex nullify this right?” (p. 219)
Did you like this novel? Do you agree with the decision Natsume ultimately made? Do you have any thoughts that I did not bring up in this post? I’m eager to know of your reactions to this novel.
The story of three women by a writer hailed by Haruki Murakami as Japan’s most important contemporary novelist, WINNER OF THE AKUTAGAWA PRIZE.
“BREASTS AND EGGS took my breath away.”—HARUKI MURAKAMI
Challenging every preconception about storytelling and prose style, mixing wry humor and riveting emotional depth, Kawakami is today one of Japan’s most important and best-selling writers. She exploded onto the cultural scene first as a musician, then as a poet and popular blogger, and is now an award-winning novelist.
Breasts and Eggs paints a portrait of contemporary womanhood in Japan and recounts the intimate journeys of three women as they confront oppressive mores and their own uncertainties on the road to finding peace and futures they can truly call their own.
It tells the story of three women: the thirty-year-old Natsu, her older sister, Makiko, and Makiko’s daughter, Midoriko. Makiko has traveled to Tokyo in search of an affordable breast enhancement procedure. She is accompanied by Midoriko, who has recently grown silent, finding herself unable to voice the vague yet overwhelming pressures associated with growing up. Her silence proves a catalyst for each woman to confront her fears and frustrations.
On another hot summer’s day ten years later, Natsu, on a journey back to her native city, struggles with her own indeterminate identity as she confronts anxieties about growing old alone and childless.
Kawakami’s first novella My Ego, My Teeth, and the World, published in Japan in 2007, was awarded the Tsubouchi Shoyo Prize for Young Emerging Writers. The following year, she published Breasts and Eggs as a short novella, and won praise from Yoko Ogawa and Haruki Murakami. The newly expanded Breasts and Eggs is her first novel to be published in English.
A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2020 Vogue・Thrillist・The Millions・ Literary Hub・Now Toronto・Metropolis Japan
“One of Japan’s brightest stars is set to explode across the global skies of literature . . . Kawakami is both a writer’s writer and an entertainer, a thinker and constantly evolving stylist who manages to be highly readable and immensely popular.”— Japan Times
“Mieko Kawakami lobbed a literary grenade into the fusty, male-dominated world of Japanese fiction with Breasts and Eggs.”— The Economist
“I can never forget the sense of pure astonishment I felt when I first read Mieko Kawakami’s novella Breasts and Eggs . . . Kawakami is always ceaselessly growing and evolving.”—HARUKI MURAKAMI, author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Mieko Kawakami Born in Osaka prefecture in 1976, Mieko Kawakami began her career as a singer and songwriter before making her literary debut in 2006. Her first novella My Ego, My Teeth, and the World, published in 2007, was nominated for the Akutagawa Prize and awarded the Tsubouchi Shoyo Prize for Young Emerging Writers. The following year, Kawakami published Breasts and Eggs as a short novella. It won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious literary honor, and earned praise from the acclaimed writer Yoko Ogawa. Kawakami is also the author of the novels Heaven, The Night Belongs to Lovers, and the newly expanded Breasts and Eggs, her first novel to be published in English. She lives in Japan.
All of the text above is quoted from Europa Editions. I hope that entices you to join Frances (@nonsuchbook) and I, as well as others who said they were interested, to read this book in January. Feel free to post about it during the month, or save your thoughts until the end. Either way, it should be a marvelous read. A marvelous discussion.
Geraldine Brooks wrote this book, but also March, a book I quite disliked for its portrayal of Mr. March as a less than honorable man. In thinking of male characters that I do admire, I think of John Galt in Atlas Shruggedby Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand has written the book I want to read for the #1936Club, We The Living. Because Ayn writes of a time in post revolutionary Russia, another book I plan to read with the same setting is One Night In Winterby Simon Sebag Montefiore.
Because of the horrors of life in Russia, (which make me somewhat fearful of occurring in America: Loss of freedom of speech? Loss of ability to worship? Loss of personal weapons?) I am reminded of the Nobel Prize winning book, Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich.
Another Nobel prize winning book is The Buried Giantby Kazuo Ishiguro. Even though he is British, he was born in Nagasaki, Japan, which brings me to Japanese literature.
Of all the Japanese literature I have read, and plan to continue reading, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami holds a special place in my heart. For it, like Hamnet, contains a mother/son relationship.
This is the first time I have participated in this meme, and it was quite a pleasant task to think of books I love and their connection. Might I add that Hamnet is a most worthy starting point? It was one of my favorite reads of 2020.