Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichy, translated from the Swedish by Nichola Smalley (2021 International Booker Prize Longlist)



When I read novels like this one, I feel so foolish. “Just get a job!” I think. “Quit making stupid decisions!” And then I realize I’ve had parents who stayed together, made a home for my brother and I, and taught us the way we should go. But, the troubled narrator in the novel, Cody, reminds us of this:

You’re an adult but you see yourself as a damaged child. You see yourself as a victim and therefore feel that your right to this hatred, indiscriminate and to be honest pretty vaguely defined is unshakeable. You live fully on the shadow of your parents’ failures, their losses, their blind struggle. You’ve got kids to take care of yourself but you go to pieces, breaking down the moment you start thinking about your own childhood…Your self-image leads to a critical situation in which the most important elements are a paralyzing fatalism combined with an all-eclipsing defeatism.

p. 113

Cody is a cellist, walking down the road with a composer and a drummer, but not listening well to their conversation. Instead, he is reviewing his life, the horrors that he has chosen and endured. In reading Wretchedness, I see so clearly that living a successful life isn’t as easy as “trying hard”. Where do you go when you don’t belong anywhere? When you can’t escape the pull of alcohol and drugs, such that poor choices are all you can make because you’re caught in a vortex of poverty, shame, and despair?

The drugs, the crime, the death. Doing time, filthy mattresses and sofas, the hostels, the psych wards, the memorial gardens. The whole shebang. That life and that death. It’s true. But what does it mean? What do you think it means? Sure. Yeah. You’re right. It’s not some straightforward survivor guilt, if that’s what you were thinking. What I feel is only partly sympathy, empathy, understanding. I also want to smash their faces in. They disgust me.

p. 82

It’s music that gives him the greatest relief, I think. Even if the music described in this book is a heavy, dark, almost oppressive thing. The narrator goes for rap, as well as the work of Giacinto Scelsi and Arvo Part.

Then Christoph Maria Moosmann entered. I turned round, looked up at the organ and could just make him out as he sat down at the manual. He began to play Part’s Annum per Annum and everything seemed to close in, filling with weight and levity, and the room expanded and contracted as though it were breathing, and I breathed with it, and a few seconds after the first chord’s powerful vibrations I breathed out, before holding, lungs empty, for the rest of the minute the chord sounded. Then it ebbed away, and I drew breath, deeply and noisily, much too noisily in the quiet church, as though I’d been underwater and was now struggling up to the surface, up to the oxygen, just as the pause, the silence,was at its most intense, and when those first weak, light, playfully searching notes began to sound I couldn’t help once again thinking about Soot and about that last night, what I’d done, about what I was, about Kiki and Rawna, about that bus, on that roundabout, that circular motion and centrifugal force that pushed me out towards everything with such satanic power.

p. 94-5

There is no simple, straightforward answer for those who haven’t found a place in this world. Certainly they are excluded, yet in many ways, they exclude themselves. Sometimes, the vortex is just too strong to escape.

Thanks to And Other Stories for a copy of Wretchedness to read and review here.

Lady Joker, Volume 1 by Kaoru Takamura

Perhaps one of the best places to start thinking about this complex and intricately detailed novel is with the title: Lady Joker. It seems to imply whimsy and confusion both at once, for whoever heard of a female Joker in a deck of cards? Yet the name refers to just one of the characters who suffers from great misfortune. Lady is the daughter of Jun’ichi Nunokawa, who sits in the stands of the racetrack with her father, turning her head and flapping her arms as she utters incomprehensible syllables. Her favorite treats are cream buns and fruit-flavored milk, as her mother denies her sugar at home.

”By the way, Handa-San. Let’s give our group a name,” Monoi said, “What do you think of ‘Lady Joker’?”

”What’s that? English?”

”The other day, Nunokawa called his daughter the joker that he had drawn. That’s when it occurred to me. If a joker is something that nobody wants, then what better way to describe the lot of us?” (p. 258)

Poor Seizo Monoi. He comes from a tenant farmer family, and now he owns a pharmacy. But the opinion he holds of his life fills me with sorrow:

I never had a future. I didn’t escape anywhere after all. (p. 159)

Such is the despair and hopelessness of Monoi and the friends he gathers around him: a detective working in Criminal Investigation, a credit union employee, a truck driver, and a lathe operator. All of them are horse racing fans. All of them feel victimized by the rich and successful, and decide that they will make those who have made a fortune suffer. Thus begins their plan for revenge.

Halfway through the novel the perspective shifts from these unfortunate friends to the kidnapping of Kyosuke Shiroyama, the president and CEO of Hinode Beer. We never hear exactly which of the five have taken him to a hideout, fed him fruit-flavored milk and cream buns, or released him with the demand for two billion yen while holding the beer itself hostage. But, we know that he is personally involved with more than one scandal.

The first stems back from 1990, when his niece’s boyfriend was interviewing with Hinode Beer. He had gone through several interviews successfully, until it was determined that he came from a Buraku background. Suddenly, he was told he would not be considered for employment within the company, and a few days after that he died in a car crash. To make matters worse, the young man’s father later committed suicide by stepping in front of a train after submitting a tape documenting Hinode Beer’s discrimination.

The second scandal involves the Okada Association, which is a group of corporate extortionists.

Through the working class, and executives, the police force and media, author Kaoru Takamura brings to her readers a Japan which is complicated and often corrupt. The disenfranchised working class who commit a crime seem no better (or worse) than the corporate executives who commit crimes in their own, more subtle, ways. Neither Americans, nor Japanese, are above the horrors of discrimination, crime, or the search for power.

From the publisher, SoHo Crime: “Since its Japanese publication in 1997 Kaoru Takamura’s sublimely detailed epic of crime and decline has pushed beyond the stigmas surrounding genre and shattered the Japanese literary glass ceiling. Lady Joker, Volume One is a novel about the sweeping dissatisfaction felt by those left behind by a culture whose new god finds no sacrifice too insignificant, no cost-cutting measure too inhumane, and no individual indispensable. Spurned and ostracized, driven to grief and desperation, the criminals at the heart of this groundbreaking heist story want what society has denied them: belonging. Dignity. Power. Revenge. They will purchase this with fear and outrage and pay whatever it takes.”   

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from the Russian by Sasha Dugdale (2021 International Booker Prize Longlist)



Although In Memory of Memory is listed in Google under the genre of Biography, and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions with a white cover (which means nonfiction, typically an essay), it has been longlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize. And that does not disappoint me nearly as much as Annie Ernaux’s book, The Years, which had been shortlisted for the prize in 2019. In fact, I was hooked on In Memory of Memory from the very beginning, in which the author describes her aunt’s diaries.

Notebooks are an essential daily activity for a certain type of person, loose-woven mesh on which they hang their clinging faith in reality and its continuing nature…Break open a notebook at any point and be reminded of your own reality, because a notebook is a series of proofs that life has continuity and history, and (this is most important) that any point in your past is still within your reach.

“Exactly!,” I thought. Maria is getting exactly at what I have felt about all the journals I’ve kept since I was five years old and couldn’t spell Winnipeg when I went there with my grandmother. It didn’t stop me from recording our trip though, and I will never forget studying the Golden Boy so that I could write of him in my little leather book.

Written in the margins of my Midori, as weekly tasks, I will often find the words: Sort! Minimize! Purge! You would think I had learned my lesson when I threw away all the photo albums and letters my first husband wrote me, as if by throwing them away I could erase the subsequent pain at his death. Instead, all I did was erase those years of my life.

…far too often my working notes seem to me to be heaped deadweight: ballast I would dearly love to be rid of, but what would be left of me then?

Stepanova knows, what it has taken me many decades to learn, that what we have written down, what we have saved, what we collect is who we are; these things document our history.

She even hints at what Marie Kondo emphasizes, perhaps too heartily, that things ought to be gotten rid of if they no longer are useful or “spark joy.”

Paradise for the disappearing objects and everyday diversions of the past might simply exist in being remembered and mentioned.

Maria Stepanova says that she began writing this book when she was ten; the second time she started to write it, she was sixteen. She is the sort of person to whom I can so personally relate, the one who needs to record ‘ “selected impressions”: details, assemblage points, the turns (our) conversations took, the phrases (we) used.”

In Memory of Memory takes us through journals and photograph albums, visits to family homes, objects, and memories. In looking at Maria Stepanova’s memories, I am forced to look at mine, and perhaps the very inaccuracy of what we recall turns this book from nonfiction into literature. It certainly tells a story, at any rate, about “the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.”

The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from the Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway (2021 International Prize Longlist)

(from Goodreads.com)

Between the wash block and the dormitories there’s a wide green field covered in small pear trees. Everyone, young and old, stays well away. The trees produce pears every year without fail and everyone stays away from them too, for the lovely green field is permanently mired in water. Whether it’s water flooding in from an old broken pipe or rising up from an underground spring, nobody knows. At first glance, the water seeping up through the soil is barely visible. The field looks so enticing, especially to new arrivals at the school, who run out onto the field and then slow involuntarily, ominously, as their feet sink into the waterlogged soil. So the pear trees just stand there with their knotted trunks and tangle of low-hanging branches, alone and forsaken, and every spring they bring forth large, shiny green pears which nobody touches.

Is there a better analogy between these pears and the children who live in Tbilisi at the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children? “Alone and forsaken…which nobody touches.”

Except that isn’t exactly true. Many of them are touched, and more, in all the worst ways. My heart broke for Lela, the eighteen year old who tries in so many ways to be the mother for the younger children who live there. She is especially attached to Irakli, and they frequently go next door to ask permission to use the phone so that he can call his mother, Inga.

It is so tragic to me that Inga dropped him off, with the promise that she will return, but she never does. Every time he asks her when she’s coming, she says something like, “Soon darling!” Until the time he calls and finds she has left for Greece, and the next time he calls the number he found for her home there, an elderly woman shouts angrily that, “Inga doesn’t live here anymore!”

An American couple asks for photographs of the children, which Madonna and Tiniko take. They have decided to take Irakli’s picture, too, even though they usually only take pictures of children who have no family.

‘Where’s Irakli?’ asks Tiniko, looking around. Lela thinks she must have misheard. But no, it appears that Irakli’s mother has chosen Greece over her son and given him up for good. Lela steels herself and walks back to the school, determined to find Irakli and tell him the truth. She wishes she’d said even worse things to his mother. All she can think now is that Irakli needs to know. He needs to know that his bitch of a mother abandoned him and that he had no fucking idea.

Yet, the American couple want him. Lela decides that Irakli must learn some English if he is to go to America, and so she hires Marika, an old friend of hers, to teach him some useful phrases. Hires Marika? How can this girl pay for English lessons with no job? In the only way she knows, by getting five kopecks from Koba for…

John and Deborah come to school to pick him up; he is especially chosen to return with them to America. They have grey hair, and their children are grown up. It seems a most somber situation for Irakli to adjust to: a new home, in a new country, with old parents. Without Lela.

At the airport, Irakli decides to use his newly learned phrases.

John puts his hand back on Irakli’s elbow and turns him around. He looks at him warmly and gives a calm, kind smile. Irakli pulls his arm free and screams, ‘Fuck you, bastard! I kill you! I kill you!

And yet, despite all the horrible ways that the children are treated, I was so glad that they had each other, that they could form a family of their own in the midst of their adversity. Every aspect of the novel, for there are far more characters and stories within this story, touched my heart quite deeply.

Thank you to Peirene Press for a copy of The Pear Field to review.

In which we are kept from harm.

I got my Johnson and Johnson one shot vaccine yesterday at Oswald’s Pharmacy. Some twelve year old, dressed up in nurse’s scrubs, launched the syringe like a spear into my arm. Then, she put her foot on my thigh and used two hands to pull it out. That’s what it felt like, anyway.

I have been lying in bed all day, listening to a gentle rain outside my window, which is the only soothing thing available to me right now. I can’t read. I can’t write in my Midori. My head is pounding, pounding, pounding, while my muscles burn, and my joints ache.

So, that’s how the vaccination is going for me.

But, my son brought me a bouquet of roses just like his father used to do when he was alive. They are so white and pure, a lovely reminder of all that we have which is good, and it is much.

The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

Psalm 121:7-8 (NIV)

At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (2021 International Booker Prize longlist)

“Up to the third hand, I was a war hero, beginning with the fourth I became a dangerous madman, a blood-thirsty savage. God’s truth, that’s how things go, that’s how the world is: each thing is double.”

How ironic that Captain Armand doesn’t want Alfa Ndiaye to cut off the enemy’s hands anymore. “Your way of waging war is a little too savage. I never ordered you to cut off enemy hands! It isn’t regulation…You will content yourself with killing them, not mutilating them. The civilities of war forbid it.”

“Civilities of war.” As if there is such a thing. It was the guilt Alfa felt over the death of his more-than-brother, Mademba Diop, that caused him to bring back the hands of the blue-eyed enemies. Hands that were still attached to their rifles.

At first he was treated with respect, but after the fourth hand he was seen as a “demm,” a devourer of the souls. But, I think it is his own soul which is being devoured. He cannot forgive himself for the way that his friend died. He cannot forgive himself for not taking Mademba’s life when Mademba begged him.

“Ah, Mademba! How I regretted not killing you on the morning of the battle, while you were still asking me nicely, as a friend, with a smile in your voice! To have slit your throat in that moment would have been the last good bit of fun I could have given you in your life, a way to stay friends for eternity. But instead of coming through for you, I let you die condemning me, bawling, drooling, screaming, shitting yourself like a feral child. In the name of who knows what human laws, I abandoned you to your miserable lot. Maybe to save my own soul, maybe to remain the person those who raised me hoped for me to be, before God and before man.”

It is when he tells his story, of his mother going off in search of her father and her brothers, so that Mademba’s family takes him in as one of their own, that we see his tender spirit. I did not expect to be so moved by his story, unable to stop reading until I had finished the novel. Some say it is a story of Black and White, of war, and of a madman who commits unspeakable violence. I say it is the story of a heart which is broken, unable to forgive itself or heal from the losses of those held dear.

“But the truly brave like Mademba are the ones who aren’t afraid of punches even though they’re weak. God’s truth, now I can admit it to myself, Mademba was braver than me. But I know, I have understood too late that I should have said this to him before he died.

At Night All Blood Is Black

An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from the German by Jackie Smith (2021 International Booker Prize longlist)

Quite frankly, I struggled through this book. The writing was gorgeous, the translation superb. But, I find the loss of things like hope, faith, and morals much more tragic than the loss of the Caspian Tiger, or Villa Sacchetti, or the Love Songs of Sappho.

However, there were many beautiful quotes in the Preface which I highlighted and thought of for quite some time. I will leave them for you here:

”Indeed opinions differ as to who is closer to life: someone constantly reminded of his own mortality or someone who manages to suppress all thought of it, and likewise on the question of which is more terrifying: the notion that everything comes to an end, or the thought that it may not.”

“Being alive means experiencing loss.”

”To forget everything is bad, certainly. Worse still is to forget nothing.”

“By writing, as by reading, one can pick one’s own ancestors and establish a second, intellectual hereditary line to rival conventional biological heritage.”

“Writing cannot bring anything back, but it can enable everything to be experienced.”

“How far back could memories be traced? Beyond a certain point, everything disappeared into the fog. The ouroboros, the world serpent, bit its own tail.”

Schalansky undertakes a momentous task in inventorying losses. The only problem, for me, is that I didn’t find the ones she highlighted terribly significant in the scope of what it is that we lose.

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette (2021 International Booker Prize Longlist)

The waves of sand, with their shifting shapes, would not settle until the vehicle had vanished into th distance and the sound of its engine had entirely faded. Only then did the sand drift gradually back onto the hills, softening the sharp parallel tracks left by the vehicle’s tires.

“Softening the sharp parallel tracks left by the vehicle’s tires…” I had to stop reading and make a note: Can we make our presence known for long? It seems to me that right from the beginning, Shibli’s making the point that we are all too easily erased.

The first half of the novel takes place in the arid Negev desert, where an officer and his soldiers are setting up camp. Their primary mission was to “comb the southwest part of the Negev and cleanse it of any remaining Arabs.” The date is August 9, 1949.

We are given clear, almost repetitive, details about the officer. He seems to use a bar of soap, a towel which he hangs on a nail, and water from a jerry can to wipe off sweat and dust at every opportunity. But, in the night he feels a creature crawling on his thigh, and though he flings it far away, he cannot later determine what it was. He only knows that he has a bite, as evidenced by two red dots, which progressively worsens. It turns hot, and swollen, and red, while he in turn goes from shivering to nauseousness to dizzy spells where he can hardly stand.

When he and his soldiers come across a group of Bedouins, they take a girl who has been left alive back to their camp where she is subsequently humiliated by having her hair cut short, then doused in gasoline to guard against lice. She is hosed down with water, naked in front of all the soldiers, and sent into a hut which was to be guarded. Her dog barks, then howls, as her situation worsens with abuse from the men.

Halfway through the novel we are thrust into a new narrative, one from a rather neurotic Palestinian researcher who comes across a particular article, and after reading it, determines to find out exactly what happened to this girl so long ago.

As for the incident mentioned in the article, the fact that the specific detail that piqued my interest was the date on which it occurred was perhaps because there was nothing really unusual about the main details, especially when compared with what happens daily in a place dominated by the roar of occupation and ceaseless killing…a group of soldiers capture a girl, rape her, then kill her, twenty-five years to the day before I was born; this minor detail, which others might not give a second thought, will stay with me forever; in spite of myself and how hard I try to forget it, the truth of it will never stop chasing me, given how fragile I am, as weak as trees out there past the windowpane.

As this researcher drives to the area where the girl had been abused and then murdered, I read (minor?) details that occurred between the first half of the novel and the second. Both narratives contained women splashed with gasoline, a dog barking rather ceaselessly, main characters shivering from cold, or bathing with soap to remove the day’s dust and sweat. These minor details showed, to me, an incredible irony revealed in the novel’s shocking conclusion.

Thank you to New Directions for the opportunity to read and review Minor Detail.

The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author (“There is no power stronger than the power of hope.” 2021 International Booker Prize Longlist)

The Perfect Nine are the daughters of Gikuyu and Mumbi. They must accomplish several tasks with the ninety-nine suitors who have come for their affection. And, their beauty. They must climb the Mountain of the Moon, scoop up some of the white moon and put it into gourds. Then, upon coming to some lakes, fill the gourds with water, mixing it with the moon.

They must get the hair out of the tongue of an ogre; it is this hair that will cure the tenth sister, the one who is crippled and crawls, for her legs are as a baby’s.

Of course, there are losses amongst the men who accompany the Perfect Nine. Some are sucked into soggy ground; some are eaten by crocodiles while crossing the river; some are victims of despair “allowing pessimism to rein in hope”; some do not heed the wisdom of one sister, Mwithaga, when faced with darkness. She says to them, “Have you not learned much from our experiences? You don’t strike unless you can see clearly what you are aiming at.” But, believing they can see with the eyes of men, they plunged into the darkly dark darkness with their spears firmly held. Foolish men; soon there were sounds of their heads being crunched.

The Perfect Nine are brave and wise. They do not back down to a series of ogres who confront them on their journey. Rather, this is the way they think:

We all swore that no matter how many they were,

The ogres of this world were never again going to make us run away,

Because the more we ran away from them or softened them with bribes,

The more they felt emboldened and panted for more.

My very favorite quote, and a theme oft repeated, centers on hope. It is almost Biblical at its core: “We shall not lose hope as intended by the enemy, we resolved.” But, this epic is studded with admirable qualities: hope, courage, love, and family, all working to overcome the trials that befall us in disability, poverty, or hatred. For the upholding of every admiral characteristic I hold dear, I applaud Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o‘s work.

“The Perfect Nine would seem to be the original feminists. I use the quest for the beautiful, as an ideal of loving, as the motive force behind migrations of African peoples. The epic came to me one night as a revelation of ideals of quest, courage, perseverance, unity, family, and the sense of true divine, in human struggles with nature and nurture.” Prologue

Thank you to The New Press for a review copy of The Perfect Nine by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Truly Yours, Baum-Kuchen, and Planner Peace

I have been checking the mail every day with great anticipation. For not so long ago, I sent my new Midori passport notebook to Baum-Kuchen for a personal customization. I wanted my initials and a very important Japanese term embossed on the cover.

When I was up late at night a few weeks ago, my husband asked me, “What are you doing?”

“Filling in my 2022 calendar insert,” I replied, “for my new Traveler’s Notebook.”

“Meredith,” he said, “It’s March. Of 2021.”

He doesn’t understand, of course. That’s why I gave him my old, already gloriously worn in Passport TN, the one I used during our trip to Japan. It’s navy, his favorite color, and I thought he could join me in planning now that he’s retired. Maybe he will, and maybe he won’t, but it doesn’t detract from my utter joy in the notebooks, the inserts, and the filling in of them.

These are the inserts from 2020. There are more than I usually fill, but 2020 was a more than usual year. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve referred to them now that the pandemic seems to be dissipating.

“Mom,” I said this week, “do you realize we started walking together March 20 of last year?”

It’s so easy to refer to an occasion, a memory, an event, or a thought with these little beauties.

My newly embossed cover has wabi-sabi embossed in the center, with my initials down below. What is wabi-sabi? Quite simply, it means finding beauty in the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It is so perfectly suited to the balance I yearn for between control and acceptance. It is a term I want to fully embrace, and now I can with this reminder on the cover of my new notebook.

It is just perfect.