The Phonebooth at the Edge of The World by Laura Imai Messina (and, give-away of this exceptional book)

A telephone booth in a garden, a disconnected phone on which you could talk to your lost loved ones. Could something like that really console people?

It seems hard to imagine that a phonebooth with no working phone would attract thousands of people every year, people on a pilgrimage to seek what they have lost. To speak to those who have gone before them. It was established in the garden of Bell Gardia, at the foot of Kujira-yama, just next to the city of Otsuchi, which is one of the places most severely struck by the tsunami of March 11, 2011.

Find the site of Bell Gardia, in Japan, here.

Laura Imai Messina has given us a beautiful story of Yui, who lost her mother and daughter in the tsunami, and Takeshi, whose wife died from cancer. Takeshi’s young daughter, Hana, has been mute from grief. The three of them form a bond, though, despite the losses that they have endured in each of their families. Despite the confusion and pain that they have suffered.

What I loved most about this novel, which could have easily slid into despair and sorrow, was its hope. I firmly believe that we are called to joy, and not to abandon hope, in the most grievous of situations. If we do not look for it, surely we are lost. So it was that I found myself recording Messina’s thoughts as I read, which I list for you here:

“And when happiness is a thing, anything that threatens its safety is the enemy. Even if it’s something impalpable like the wind, or the rain pouring down from above.”

“We need to possess joy in abundance before we can bestow it upon somebody else.”

“Perhaps pain is what gives our lives depth, she pondered…”

”…when people disappear from our everyday lives, it doesn’t mean that they vanish completely.”

“Yet, when it came to choosing between fear and trust, Akiko always opted for the latter…Being afraid of life and people only makes you weaker.”

”It was an act of pure faith to pick up the receiver, dial a number, to be answered by a wall of silence and speak anyway. Faith was the key to it all.”

”Grief, Yui had once told him, is something you ingest every day, like a sandwich cut into small pieces, gently chewed and then calmly swallowed. Digestion was slow. And so, Takeshi thought, joy must work the same way.”

This is a beautiful novel, fitting for all of us. For even if we have not suffered the pain of losing loved ones in the tsunami, we surely bear pain of another kind. I like to find ways to solve it in the books that I read, and I have found some of the most gentle, and comforting, strategies within the pages of The Phonebooth At the Edge of The World.

The publisher has given me permission to give a copy away (U.S. only, please). If you would like to be considered for the give-away, please let me know in a comment below.

The Fragile World by Kerby Rosanes…Look at this gorgeous coloring book!

One of my favorite “childish” pleasures is coloring with my Faber-Castell oil-based pencils. It is a great luxury to have the time, although not necessarily the ability, to sit with a book and contemplate the layers of color being laid down to enrich an already beautiful work of art.

I was thrilled that Penguin Random House sent me the Fragile World coloring book by Kerby Rosanes this week. Before I add my own touch to it, I wanted to show you a few of the intricate drawings of fifty-six endangered animals.

Fragile World is a coloring book to savor, exploring fifty-six endangered, vulnerable, and threatened animals and landscapes—from the Tapanuli orangutan to the hawksbill turtle, from the Philippine bay caves to the Baltic Sea. The illustrations are intricate, detailed and unforgettable, both magisterial and whimsical. And the result is a stunning tribute to Mother Nature. Fragile World is a coloring experience that is at once vintage Kerby and unlike any of his previous books.” (back cover)

Fragile World will be available March 16 for $15.00 from Penguin Random House.

Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (“What does it mean to love another person?”)

GoodreadsWhat was on your mind when you wrote Klara and the Sun?

Kazuo Ishiguro: There is usually one big thing behind each of my books and then a constellation of other little things. At the center was this question: What does it mean to love another human being, particularly in an age when we’re questioning whether we can map out everything about a person through data and algorithms? It’s that old question: Is there a soul? Maybe there isn’t anything in there that’s unique that can’t be reproduced. Perhaps we are reducible to just data and algorithms. 

Many of my other books have been about things like that. But the age we’re in, and the age we seem to be hurtling toward, made me look at that same question in a slightly different way.

This is an excerpt from an interview with author Kazuo Ishiguro which was published on Goodreads. And while I appreciate that Ishiguro tried to address the issue of love in an age of “data and algorithms”, for me the book fell short of that. It felt more like he was mechanically ticking off all the boxes for our present day agenda: pollution, technology, women’s independence, and false gods.

Here is a brief summary of the novel: Josie is quite ill. We never know what her disease is, but we know that she becomes terribly weak and needs to rest; we know that her mother has lost one daughter already and is all the more concerned about losing Josie. When Josie sees Klara in the storefront window, she knows that is the one for her. Klara is the AF (Artificial Friend) that Josie wants. But, Josie’s mother wants Klara for something much more. She hopes that Klara will learn Josie well enough to become her daughter if Josie dies.

As if a robot can be a friend.

As if a robot can replace a daughter.

Because the Sun provides its “special nourishment” to Klara, she goes to Mr. McBain’s barn (where she can see it set) to ask the Sun to heal Josie. If the Sun can make Klara strong, she reasons, why can’t it restore Josie to full health? It was bizarre to me, though, to read about a robot essentially praying to the Sun, and then realizing that her prayer was at first unheard because she hadn’t done anything about the pollution caused by a huge machine outside the store where she stood in the window.

It was all very strange, and I could not wrap my mind around a robot taking on human characteristics to such a degree that it could replace humans. I cannot wrap my mind around the idea that humans think they can be God in what they can create. For me, Kazuo Ishiguro did not answer any questions about what it means to love at all.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara (long listed for the Edgar Award, and unforgettable)

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.

The High-Rise Diver by Julia von Lucadou, translated from the German by Sharmila Cohen; a most extraordinary book

I read The High-Rise Diver slowly, 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.

Six Degrees of Separation, Starting With Redhead by the Side of the Road


Because “road” made me think of:


which had an Australian doctor bringing me to:

a novel set in Australia, about a man who must decide between his emotions and his ambitions, which reminds me of:

as Vronsky, and of course Anna, sacrifice everything for love. And because it is a Russian novel written by Tolstoy, I am reminded of:

a classic I have always meant to finish, maybe this is the year? But, the parts I have read reminded me, strangely, of:


because of the war, the manners and etiquette, the passion of each side convinced that they are in the right.

Find the Six Degrees of Separation meme here.

The Wild Geese by Ogai Mori (Japanese Literature Challenge 14)


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.

The Dial…a fabulous bookshop in Chicago

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 People by 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.

Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (A Review and a Give-away)

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 Cold by 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.)

Find more reviews at The Reading Life, Clearwater Daybook, and Real Life Reading.

Congratulations to the winner who is Words and Peace!

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall “Study does not engender wisdom…Analysis does not inspire insight.”

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 Beloved is 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.