Bullet Train (20 Books of Summer #3)

Kimura was an alcoholic. But, when his six year old son was pushed off the top of a department store building by a student, he became sober and determined to do anything possible to help his son who lay in the hospital on a respirator. Now he is held hostage on the bullet train by the student who pushed his son.

Lemon, who likes Thomas the Tank Engine, and Tangerine are two idiots who were given directions to rescue Minegishi’s son while bringing the ransom money in a small black suitcase. They were to rescue the boy, and bring back the ransom money, which seemed simple enough to them. Except, one of them put the suitcase of money in the luggage compartment, and when he went to retrieve it discovered the case is missing.

Nanao, who professes perpetually bad luck, wrestles a man named Wolf on the train. Nanao tries to protect himself as the train unexpectedly lurches, and Wolf’s neck twists. Suddenly he is dead, and Nanao props him up in a seat as though it will appear he still lives.

Such is the opening of the novel, a rapid-fire chain of events where men interact and each one’s plan is thwarted. Then, I learn of the background behind each story, and what seemed like trite action from a film becomes more meaningful.

It seems that each one is held by the power wielded over them by the ruthless Prince Satoshi, or just the Prince. A young schoolboy, with features making him seem soft and almost feminine, he is actually the most evil character of them all. He has no conscience and actually enjoys both manipulating and hurting others.

The Prince turns to looks out the window, just as a Tokyo-bound Shinkansen hurtles past in the opposite direction, so fast it’s nothing but a blur. The whole train trembles. He feels a quiet thrill at the overwhelming speed and force. Against a giant metal object traveling at more than two hundred kilometers an hour, a human being would be powerless…And I’m just as dangerous. I may not be able to move at two hundred kilometres an hour, but I can destroy people just the same. A smile appears, unbidden.

Although the book read more like an action film than a novel, I found myself intrigued. I had to read on to discover the connection between these men, and the powerful rich Minegishi who had hired them. I read to see if the Prince would reign or succumb to power stronger than his.

(A photo I took of the Shinkansen while in Tokyo, 2018.)

Kotaro Isaka is a bestselling and award-wining writer who is published around the world. He has won the Shincho Mystery Club Award, Mystery Writers of Japan Award, Japan Booksellers’ Award, and the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize. Bullet Train is his US debut. It will be published by Abrams Books on August 3, 2021.

The Brothers Karamazov “But then there are the children…” (Thoughts on Part 2)

I have never lived in a hermitage such as Dostoevsky describes, a secluded religious retreat with little more than a cot, table and a few decorative icons. But it appeals to every part of my being: the simplicity, the quiet, the solitude. However, I could not pray on my knees for an entire day, and I wonder if two pounds of bread for three days would be enough sustenance for this greedy girl.

As Alyosha leaves Father Zosima’s cell, he is reminded by Father Paissey that “…the science of this world, having united itself into a great force, has, especially in the past century, examined everything heavenly that has been bequeathed to us in sacred books, and, after hard analysis, the learned ones of this world have absolutely nothing left of what was once holy.” Perhaps, Alyosha wonders, the advice that Father Paissey gives him is exactly what Zosima has bequeathed to him on his deathbed.

For Part II continues with almost endless examples of how our world has “nothing left of what was once holy”. Alyosha sees schoolchildren with rocks in their pockets, taunting and throwing them at a boy named Ilyushechka. He apparently had defended his father, whom his classmates had nicknamed Whiskbroom for his beard, which Ivan used to pull him out of a bar and beat him in the street. Now, knowing that Alyosha is Ivan’s brother, Ilyushechka throws rocks at Alyosha, too.

Katerina gives Alyosha two hundred crisp double notes to take to this home, concerned for the family’s well-being after their father suffered at Ivan’s hand. At first, the father is most grateful for the money; he goes into detail how necessary it is for his family’s well-being. But when Alyosha tells him there can be even more, the father’s pride interferes. He trods upon the bills, and tells Alyosha almost ecstatically that he will not take them. Alyosha leaves with the two bills and a terrible bite on his finger from the son.

“We are supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves?” Ivan asks. How is this possible, when man is so despicable? Ivan goes on to enumerate countless horrors done by man: girls being whipped by their fathers, babies being tossed into the air and caught on bayonets, a five year old locked in an outhouse overnight by her mother, a young shepherd forced to tend for the sheep without food or many clothes, and when he grows up he becomes a monster.

It does not seem to me, as I read Dostoevsky, that the condition of our world has changed very much over time. Consider this quote from the talks and homilies of the Elder Zosima near the end of Part II:

The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says, “You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest of men. Do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them” — this is the current teaching of the world.

It was true then. It is true today. We have not fully discovered the solution which Zosima proposes:

Obedience, fasting and prayer are laughed at, yet they alone constitute the way to real and true freedom: I cut away my superfluous and unnecessary needs, through obedience I humble and chasten my vain and proud will, and thereby, with God’s help, attain freedom of spirit, and with that, spiritual rejoicing!

Amen and amen.

I am reading this with Arti, of Ripple Effects. Please do join the read-along if you wish. Part III will be discussed on July 3; Part IV and the Epilogue is scheduled for July 24.

Our Public Library Has A New Policy

The library staff put these fliers in the last three books I’ve checked out like it’s a good thing. No more fines! Now there is no reward for responsibility, and carelessness is reinforced.

It has been no small laughing matter that I incurred fines when I was a child. Perhaps you’ve read my lament about losing Toby Tyler and the Circus, the months long search for it, and the fine my mother ended up paying. I was so ashamed that I didn’t need any punishment. When it finally turned up, years later, between the wall and my bed, I didn’t even feel joyful. I’m still rather upset about that book.

When my son was in high school he had a fine for something like $500.00 due to all the CDs he’d left in his car for months and months. I’m sure some were probably lost, too. Remembering my experience with Toby, I thought he should ask the library if we could replace them. “No,” they said. They also would not agree to a deal in which we paid half. So, the Christmas money from his grandparents went to the library that year.

Both of our experiences were uncomfortable. I clearly remember each one, although they were thirty years apart. But, they taught us something! We learned that we needed to care for what was not our own. We learned the value of time and honoring a due date. We learned that there were consequences for irresponsibility.

Now the library is saying, in essence, “Don’t worry if you accrue fines! Now you can return your books whenever you please.” Here is how the back of the flyer explains their new policy:

Naperville Public Library is no longer charging fines for overdue items. Those who do not return materials on time will have their accounts locked after seven days rather than accruing fines. Once an item is returned, the account will be unlocked.

This new policy will allow for:

* Increased flexibility for our customers.

* Equitable access to resources.

* Better customer service.

* A continued commitment to responsibly utilizing Library resources.

Every day I wake up wondering what new policy will replace the old. And, when I discover what it is, I rarely find a plan that promotes morality, or responsibility, or personal accountability. It seems that things are just made “easier” for everyone, and that cannot be a good thing. My mother has a fabulous saying. “Education is expensive,” she says, and it is! We learn when things are hard, as this great quote reiterates:

“Nothing worth having comes easy.”

-Theodore Roosevelt

Silly library, what are you teaching?

The Shadow Jury’s Winning Book for the International Booker Prize 2021

We have read a lot of books since the International Booker Prize 2021 Longlist was released on March 30. “We” being the Shadow Jury comprised of Tony, Stu, David, Oisin, Vivek, Areeb, Frances, Barbara, and I. The books weren’t always easy, or comforting, or even necessarily fiction. But, they were all interesting in their own way and certainly reflective of societal issues today. I would say they reflected some political issues, but my fellow members felt that was extreme. At the same time, we agreed that perhaps it was fortunate for the official jurors that Minor Detail did not make their shortlist with the strife going on in Israel again, still, even now.

So, what was on the official shortlist? These six books pictured above. Our own shortlist was quite comparable, with the exception of two. We replaced The Dangers of Smoking in Bed and The War of the Poor with Wretchedness and Minor Detail. Many of us considered The Dangers of Smoking in Bed incomparable to the quality of writing found in Enriquez’ earlier collection, Things We Lost in The Fire. One of our “problems” with The War of The Poor is that a mere 112 pages can hardly be substantial enough to qualify as a prize winning novel.

Here are some of highlights from the perspective of the Shadow Panel:

  • We declared our tenth Shadow Winner this year.
  • Our choice is only the second winner, after Jon Kalman Stefansson’s novel The Sorrow Of Angels in 2014, not to appear on the official shortlist.
  • Our shortlist has books from Fitzcarraldo Editions as number one and number two. In fact, four out of the last five Shadow Winners have been published by them.
  • We were able to meet twice, via Zoom, to discuss each novel. It was fascinating to me to finally be able to put a face with these blogging friends who gathered from Australia, England, India and the U.S. to share our love of literature and the International Booker Prize books.

Of the six books listed on our shortlist, the Shadow Jury used the following scoring system: 10 points for our favorite, then 7, 5, 3, 2, 1 down to our least favorite. Coming in with the top choice for four of the Shadow Jury members was the book we chose, and only one person did not have it listed in his/her top three. What was that book? The novel the Shadow Jury feels most deserving of the International Booker Prize 2021 is Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

For me, there was no other novel amongst the thirteen which carried the quality of writing, the impact of story, and the deep irony of title; really, is there such a thing as a minor detail within our lives? The least little thing seems to carry a major impact.

The breakdown of the scores for our shortlist is as follows:

  • 6th place: Wretchedness (25 points)
  • 5th place: At Night All Blood is Black (31 points)
  • 4th place: The Employees (37 points)
  • 3rd place: When We Cease To Understand The World (39 points)
  • 2nd place: In Memory of Memory (52 points)
  • 1st place: Minor Detail (68 points)

(I would like to point out that another personal favorite of mine was The Pear Field, which made neither the official, nor the Shadow Jury, lists. But, I loved it. I would also like to give a huge thank you to Tony, of Tony’s Reading List, as he led us through our decision from the beginning to the end. And now, I look forward to streaming the award ceremony on YouTube (or Facebook) at 12:00 noon in Illinois.)

The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith (Books 1 and 2 of 20 Books of Summer)

It’s a little odd to spend so much time with Tom Ripley. I alternate between being awed by his cool level-headedness, able to think his way out of any incriminating situation, and dismayed by his detachment from people. From women especially.

It seems that Marge, with her “gourdlike figure”, especially annoys him. I can’t help but think Tom is attracted to Dickie Greenleaf, whose father has sent Tom to Italy in order to bring home. Marge and Dickie are living a most comfortable life, by the sea, the only two Americans in Mongibello. They have seafood, and wine, and lazy hours to spend in the sun until Tom Ripley arrives and takes it all away. He inveigles himself into Dickie’s life, and before long, the two are living together, planning trips to Naples and Rome without Marge.

Tom lives in apparent envy and loathing, both vying for attention in his relationship to Dickie. He tries on Dickie’s suits, his shirts, and longs for the two rings on Dickie’s hand. It is somewhat surprising, then, that he drowns Dickie and abandons the boat they were on, spending the rest of the novel evading detection from Marge, Mr. Greenleaf, the police, and almost from Freddie (a most obnoxious friend of Dickie’s). I almost became confused myself trying to follow the leads and the responses Tom gives in explanation, for he does not readily falter.

My edition from Everyman’s Library contains Ripley Under Ground following The Talented Mr. Ripley. This novel is not so much about Ripley himself under ground, as whom he puts there. The plot revolves around a painter, Philip Derwatt, who no longer exists. Either he has died, or is living incognito elsewhere, but he has left his friends with an art gallery and no more paintings to sell. Hence, Bernard takes up the task of mimicking Derwatt’s art, quite satisfactorily until an American collector notices the difference. He insists that the painting he owns is not authentic, having something to do with the lavender shade that one artist used, but the the other did not.

I found Ripley Under Ground a bit tedious. The tension is there, along with Tom’s psychotic self preservation. But, the novel drags on longer than it should. We know there is fraud in the art world, we know that a body has been buried under ground and how it got there; the problem is that three quarters of the way to the conclusion, we no longer care. We, of course, meaning me.

Belatedly, I now realize that I have begun 20 Books of Summer before Summer officially begins. Perhaps I will be forgiven with The Brothers Karamazov included in my list? Cathy did say it could count for three, so I’ll take that as permission for a head start. 😉

The Brothers Karamazov: “Seek Happiness in Sorrow” (Thoughts on Part 1)

Contemplator by Ivan Kramskoy

Dmitri Karamazov, in his confession to his saintly little brother, represents what I know of the Prodigal Son.

“I threw fistfuls of money around—music, noise, gypsy women…I loved depravity, I loved the shame of depravity. I loved cruelty: am I not a bedbug, an evil insect? In short—a Karamazov!”

But Smerdyakov, son of Stinking Lizaveta, is not a Karamazov. Born in the garden’s bathhouse, he is taken in by Fyodor Pavlovich’s servants Grigory Vasilievich and Marfa Ignatievna.

We are told that Smerdyakov resembles the Contemplator, pictured above. “…perhaps suddenly, having stored up his impressions over many years, he will drop everything and wander off to Jerusalem to save his soul, or perhaps he will suddenly burn down his native village, or perhaps he will do both.”

In Part 1 of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky is giving us impressions of his characters. They are buffoons, like the father, or squandering sons, like Dmitri, or suspiciously silent like Smerdyakov. But, Alyosha? Alyosha believes that his father “is not just a buffoon.” He never remembers an offense. Alyosha is brave and fearless; he determines to live in a monastery under the care of his elder, Zosima, because it “presented him all at once with the whole ideal way out for his soul struggling from darkness to light.”

Another story within the novel involves romance. Both Fyodor Pavlovian and his eldest son, Dmitri, profess to love the same woman: Grushenka. Yet Dmitri is also involved with Katerina Ivanova, with whom he is engaged and from whom, to his great shame, he has taken three thousand roubles. He begs Alyosha to tell her that ‘he bows at her feet.’

The novel is full of scripture, although one wouldn’t necessarily recognize it if one was not familiar with the Bible. Clearly, Dostoevsky wants us to consider scripture, and faith, and purpose as he writes his novel. Here are some of my favorite quotes from Part 1:

“There is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it. A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God’s boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God’s love? Only take care that you repent without ceasing and chase away fear altogether. Believe that God loves you so as you cannot conceive of it: even with your sin and in your sin he loves you. And there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ten righteous men.”

“If anything protects society even in our time, and even reforms the criminal himself and transforms him into a different person, again it is Christ’s law alone, which manifests itself in the acknowledgement of one’s own conscience. Only if he acknowledges his guilt as a son of Christ’s society — that is, of the Church — will he acknowledge his guilt before society itself — that is, before the Church.”

“Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed and with everyone watching…Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.”

“Can there be beauty in Sodom? Believe me, for the vast majority of people, that’s just where beauty lies—did you know that secret?”

“Again I say, do not be proud. Do not be proud before the lowly, do not be proud before the great either. And do not hate those who reject you, disgrace you, revile you, and slander you. Do not hate atheists, teachers of evil, materialists, not even those among them who are wicked, not those who are good, for many of them are good, especially in our time. Remember them thus in your prayers: save, Lord, those whom there is no one to pray for, save also those who do not want to pray to you. And add at once: it is not in my pride that I pray for it, Lord, for I myself am more vile than all…”

It is hard to believe that I read this novel eleven years ago. For it falls on me entirely afresh, and I now eagerly embark on Part II.

20 Books of Summer…2021

Hosted by Cathy at 746 Books
  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoevsky
  2. Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka
  3. Cain by Jose Saramago
  4. Facing The Mountain by Daniel James Brown
  5. Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn
  6. Madam by Phoebe Wynne
  7. The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsn
  8. We The Living by Ayn Rand
  9. The Foreign Girls by Sergio Olguin
  10. Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly
  11. The Therapist by Helene Flood
  12. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
  13. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
  14. Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith
  15. The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz
  16. Falling by T. J. Newman
  17. The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain
  18. I Is Another by Jon Fosse
  19. The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
  20. Prague by Arthur Phillips

See the sign up post here, to find what others are reading this summer. (June 1, 2021 through September 1, 2021)

Do Join Us!

Just in case you can never get enough of Russian literature, like me, feast your eyes on the small collection of Dostoevsky works above. (With an addition of a matryoshka doll from my friends Carol and Tom.) They normally abide on my Russian literature shelf next to Tolstoy, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Bulgakov, and other lesser known Russian authors.

You may notice a few tabs in my Pevear and Volokhonsky edition which I used a few years ago (2010) in another read-along. But now, Arti of Ripple Effects is hosting a fresh read-along of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and I must reread it with her. Not only do I appreciate her insights into what it is we read together (In Remembrance of Things Past, or Midnight’s Children, for example), I appreciate her pace.

Here is the schedule she has laid out for us:

  • Part 1: May 22
  • Part II: June 12
  • Part III: July 3
  • Part IV and Epilogue: July 24

That is quite feasible, is it not? I do hope you’ll join us, even if, as Tom said, “Didn’t we just read this?” 😉

The Dangers of Smoking In Bed by Mariana Enriquez, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell ( 2021 International Booker Prize Longlist)

I’m not usually a fan of short stories. I like best to be fully immersed in the depth of a novel. But, this collection from Maria Enriquez provides great intrigue. Each story is startling, unexpected, and in its own way, horrific; almost too much to handle if it had been written in novel form.

The first story, Angelita Unearthed, is about a ghost, the rotting corpse of a baby who had died at three months of age. This baby was a sibling of the narrator’s Grandmother, and clearly didn’t like being dug up in the backyard, for it followed her great niece “on her little bare feet that, rotten as they were, left her little white bones in view.” What a contrast this image is, with an innocent baby called Angelita…meaning “little angel.”

The second story, Our Lady of the Quarry, involves a crush of several girls on Diego, a muscled guy who falls for the older Sylvia. When Diego and Sylvia play a trick on the girls at the quarry, a dangerous place named the Virgin’s Pool, the revenge that one of them extracts is much worse.

The Cart tells of an old man who pushed his cart of rubbish, cardboard boxes and whatnot, into a neighborhood where he proceeded to pull down his pants and poop on the sidewalk. Those around him were incensed and reacted violently, all accept for a sweet woman who helped him escape. Before he left, he turned around to give a certain look at all the people except her, and subsequently the rest of the neighborhood was cursed. They found themselves in utter poverty and despair, until they burned the cart…and something that smelled like meat, but wasn’t, on the grill.

There are nine more stories included in this book, which I will not explain here lest I spoil the surprises for you.

I think of smoking in bed, which is not something I do. But, it seems to me to be a pleasure, for those who smoke, which is laced with added danger. What if the bedding catches fire? What if an ash falls somewhere unexpected, and lies there smoldering before erupting in flame? So many things, from a simple pleasure, can go entirely wrong. Such is the case, I think, with each of these stories by Maria Enriquez. Her world is a frightening one to consider, as the most ordinary thing can go dreadfully wrong.

Thank you to Granta for a copy of The Dangers of Smoking In Bed to read and review.