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.

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.