Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin

May 20, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 1967

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Rosemary and Guy are a newly-wed couple looking for a place of their own to move into and eventually build a family in. Rosemary in particular has her sights set on The Bramford, a classic apartment building with all the charm and romance of Victorian detail. Somehow, as luck (or un-luck, depending on how you look at it) would have it, an existing tenant of one of the apartments passes away, leaving Rosemary and Guy with the opportunity to view and put down an offer.

They get it, of course, and quickly make plans to move in and redecorate the place. Rosemary is excited about this, and shares the good news with Hutch, a father-figure she adored and had immense respect for. Hutch, however, is less than enthusiastic, telling her tales of past “accidents” that seemed to happen at the Bramford at a rate much too high for comfort.

Despite this, Rosemary decides to move in anyway. After all, these stories were just rumours, surely, pure coincidences. In this day and age, who still believes in stories like this?

Rosemary then meets a young girl, Terry, who lives just next door. Terry used to be homeless, she tells Rosemary, but the kind elderly couple, Minnie and Roman Castevet, took her in and was most kind to her. Very soon after that, though, Terry commits suicide by jumping off the building. This upsets the young couple, of course, but this tragic incident is also what introduces them to the Castevets.

A dinner or two later, Guy starts to enjoy spending with their neighbours, and although Rosemary finds it odd in the beginning, she writes it off as Guy finally finding the father-figure he never had growing up. Also, it was good news all around, with Guy landing more acting jobs than he ever has, and Rosemary getting pregnant with their first baby.

But the feeling that something is not quite right doesn’t leave Rosemary alone. There is a background hum somewhere in her head that perhaps this is not what pregnancy is supposed to be like, that perhaps her relationship with Guy has changed somewhat, that her neighbours are simply too accommodating and helpful to be normal.

But her doctor tells her that all pregnancies are different and unique. Guy tells her that he’s simply preoccupied with rehearsals and shows, now that he’s finally getting somewhere and becoming “someone”. And who in their right mind would refuse kindness from anyone?

In the introduction that Chuck Palahniuk wrote for this edition of the book (2011, by Corsair), he writes:

And reading the first two thirds of this book, “Rosemary’s Baby”, you don’t know whether to laugh or to worry. To admit fear would be to lose face and risk being branded as a superstitious rube.

It was a real battle.

For Rosemary, it was a battle in her head, whether to believe what she could see, or what she could feel. Who she could believe, and who she couldn’t. Whether to listen to her gut, or to believe that things like that don’t happen anymore.

For me, it was also a battle. But it was a slightly different one. It felt like I could see everything that was coming. I could see everything that Rosemary could see, but with the benefit of not being her, not tied down with her commitments and beliefs. I could believe what she couldn’t bring herself to, and yet I didn’t want to. Could it be possible? Surely that was the only explanation, but was it believable?

And despite knowing what I knew, and believing what I believed, I also wanted to believe what Rosemary believed—that it simply couldn’t be so. But as the story unravels and Rosemary can no longer ignore truth, what Chuck Palahniuk says at the start of his introduction comes back quite starkly: The Enemy Is Everyone.

Shit.

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A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

May 16, 2019 § 2 Comments

First published in Swedish in 2012
Translated into English by Henning Koch in 2013

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Ove is fifty-nine.

He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s torch.

When we first meet Ove, he’s trying to buy an iPad. It quickly becomes obvious that he doesn’t belong in this world of technology—he calls the iPad an O-pad, and insists that the salesperson should throw in a keyboard, too.

He’s grumpy, he never smiles, and he kicks things to make sure they are still rooted in their spots like they are supposed to be. It seems that he isn’t friendly with any of his neighbours, and he follows signs and instructions to a fault. He comes across almost as an obsessively disagreeable old man, hell-bent on being irritable and unforgiving.

And in his own mind, surely no one can blame him. He believes that he’s surrounded by idiots who cannot and will not read signs that are clear as day, and clumsy people who can’t even reverse a trailer in proper fashion.

What has happened to the world that no one cares to be proper anymore?

At first, I wondered how it was possible to warm up to this man. But very very soon, he became my favourite person in the world. He was honest, not only to himself, but to the world around him. He was straightforward and frank, so adamant about living the right way.

And yet, he was trying to die.

I don’t know if bittersweet or sad is the better word to describe the overall feeling of the book. It’s a story about Ove and how he deals with all that grief after the love of his life dies. It’s also a story about Ove and Sonja and the life that they had, about how this woman had been his everything, and how everything was just enough.

People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was colour. All the colour he had.

The more I read about him and the life that he could no longer share with Sonja, the more I wanted to crawl into the pages and hug him. But I also knew that Ove was not one who would tolerate complete strangers coming up and physically manhandle him. So I kept my distance, as much as I could. I tried to not pry, to ask questions when it wasn’t yet time for me to know the answers. I let him tell me his story, at a pace he was comfortable with. I waited for him to drop hints and reveal other parts of himself.

I felt my heart cry more and more every time he made his way to Sonja’s grave.

“I miss you,” he whispers.

 

Confessions Of Love – Uno Chiyo

April 17, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in Japanese in 1935
Translated into English by Phyllis Birnbaum in 1989

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Yuasa Jōji is an artist, and he has just returned from abroad. Now, he lives with his wife and child, though not in the way one would expect a husband to live with his family—he lives upstairs alone, while his wife and child live downstairs. They rarely speak, unless there is someone at the door for him, and his wife comes up to get him.

Jōji then goes on to live his life, the way he thinks he wants to. He roamed the streets and spent time with his friends, all the while looking at the pretty girls and women surrounding him. One day, he gets a note on his desk, a note from a woman he has never met, saying that she would like to meet him. He ignores this message at first, but the notes arrive daily without fail, so he finally succumbs to curiosity and goes to see this woman, Takao.

Very soon after they meet and spend the night at a hotel room, the woman goes missing. Jōji does not believe that he has any responsibility to bear in this case, but when two of Takao’s friends come to meet him over this matter, he changes his mind. He will take some responsibility and attempt to look for her, if only because he is completely enchanted by one of her friends, Tsuyuko.

The fire that drives his feelings for Tsuyuko is obvious. His passion is overwhelming, dictating his every move, decision, and thought. This does not bother him, instead he feels that it is natural for him to feel so strongly for this young woman, for she is the love of his life.

As is with all love stories so full of passion and uncommon sense, they are met with challenges and obstacles from the word “go”. Is it so impossible for them to be with each other? Is that too much to ask?

Told entirely from Jōji’s point of view, the story is a whirlwind. The author does not linger on the emotions that clearly calls the shots in Jōji’s life, but instead tells us what he does in response to the feelings that are beating so hard in his chest. From those actions, we glean what we can of his feelings. And those feelings are strong and powerful, for how else could we explain his compulsion and complete disregard for logic and common sense?

Does he understand fully the consequences of his actions? Maybe, but they don’t matter to him. What matters is his very urgent and immediate need to see the love of his life, to be with her, to never leave her side.

It is a love story that perhaps in today’s world is all the more impossible, taking into consideration how we place value in suppressing our emotions, and keeping “sane”. For to love, the way Jōji loved, is perhaps a little crazy. But somehow, despite our efforts to be “sensible”, we have in our hearts the potential to love the way Jōji did. And in all honesty, isn’t that the best way to love?

Wabi Sabi – Beth Kempton

April 8, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 2018

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“It’s a lot of fluff.”

That was what I told my dad when I was about 60 pages into the book. I casually left my bookmark where it was, and passed the book to him so that he could have a go at it. I said what I said as a sort of warning, because of what I understand of my dad’s reading preferences, this didn’t seem like a book he could fully immerse himself in.

If I felt it was a lot of fluff, chances were, he would find it slightly unbearable.

Surprisingly, that was not the case.

He finished the book in less than a week, and when I asked him what he thought about it after, he held the book in his hand, paused for a moment to really think about it, and said to me, “I thought it was quite sensible.”

Not quite the reaction I was expecting. So I thought to myself, maybe I was too quick to judge. Maybe I should continue reading the book and see where it takes me.

The entire title of the book is “Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom For A Perfectly Imperfect Life”. The author, Beth Kempton, attempts to explain the concept of wabi sabi to us, and on page 4 itself, this is what she writes:

As I’ve said, trying to articulate a definition of wabi sabi is a tricky endeavour. It’s a bit like love—I can tell you what I think it is and how it feels to me, but it’s only when you feel it for yourself that you really know.

And that, for me, rather sums up the book in its entirety quite well. It is about trying to explain something that is supposed to be personal and intimate, something innate in our beings, something that means different things to different people.

When I got to about page 120, my brother saw me reading the book and asked what I thought of it.

“It’s a lot of fluff.”

That was still what I thought of it. It was a lot of fluff. Much more than what I’m used to. But I could see where my dad had a point. It was sensible. For much of the book, I felt like I knew what she was talking about, like I understood why she was espousing what she was.

The book was “nice”. And again, this was something I am simply not used to in the books I typically choose to read. (And as I’m writing this, I’m starting to wonder, why is it I tend to choose books that lean towards the “darker” side? What does that say about me?)

Yet at the same time, I also felt like all this is old news. Kempton was telling me things that I could feel deep down that I already know, and have always known. Why I know those things, I cannot tell, but I know that I know them.

The forest does not care what your hair looks like. The mountains don’t move for any job title. The rivers keep running, regardless of your social-media following, your salary or your popularity. The flowers keep on blooming, whether or not you make mistakes. Nature just is, and welcomes you, just as you are.

And what surprised me the most, was when I finished the book and closed the covers, I sat there with the book on my lap for 15 minutes. It was near midnight, my parents had gone to bed, and the only sound I could hear was the ticking of the clock on the dining room wall. I could feel myself going through everything Kempton shared in the book, from recognising our flaws, to knowing when to walk away, and learning to pace ourselves.

And I knew that the book was not there to teach me something new. It was there to remind me of something buried deep down in my heart.

Penance – Kanae Minato

March 31, 2019 § 2 Comments

First published in Japanese in 2012
Translated into English by Philip Gabriel in 2017

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Someone, a young woman, writes a letter addressed to Asako. We don’t know who she is, not yet, but she and Asako obviously share knowledge of a dark history—a murder that had occurred in a small country town when she was only 10 years old. A murder that she had witnessed. A murder that has followed her around for the past 15 years. A murder that was never solved.

The murder of her friend Emily.

She was not the only person who was there when that incident happened. There were five of them that day—herself and Emily, and three of her childhood friends, Maki, Yuka, and Akiko. They were playing by the pool at their school when a stranger had walked up to them, someone in work clothes, and asked them for help in checking the ventilation fan for the changing rooms. Being the good children they were in that small country town, they all offered to go. But the man sized them up and said that he only needed one, or the changing room would be too cramped. And he chose Emily.

This incident affected all four girls, and now, 15 years later, four separate incidents spark their memories of that one fateful day, and they recall what had happened then, and how they had continued living their lives in the after.

Like Minato’s first novel Confessions, this novel is also written in the same manner, where each chapter is a new voice, telling their version of the story. And also much like ConfessionsPenance also had about it a cool, eerie aura to it. In fact, both books had so many similar qualities to them, it almost felt too easy to get trapped into a corner where I would be tempted to compare the two books.

If I did that, I would say that Confessions is the better novel. And indeed, that was my first impression after I finished the last word on the last page.

However, considering Penance on its own, I think this book was much less about finding out who the murderer was, than it was about how people could react and be affected in such different ways. It felt like a little study of character. It was as if the book was the answer to the question, “If a friend is assaulted and murdered, how would it affect you? Where would you end up?”

Some parts felt forced, and there were moments when I felt like maybe Minato hadn’t really thought it all out. And at times it felt slightly repetitive, which, I understand, is to be expected considering that they were all tracing back to the same incident in their individual memories.

Yet it was also fast-paced. It was compelling. It got me hooked, got me turning the pages. And it got me thinking, what book would Minato come up with next?

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Read as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12.

It’s my last book for the challenge, which ends today. I came into the challenge a little late, but I’m extremely glad that I still decided to join. I managed to read SIX books for this challenge, a majority of which I thoroughly enjoyed. And starting the year with Japanese authors has gotten me back into my reading groove. Always an excellent thing.

This does not mark the end of my reading translated Japanese works, though. I’ve still got a few titles lined up, which I’m hoping to get to in the next month or so. But now that the challenge is over, it also means that I will consciously be picking out titles not written by Japanese authors.

I’m excited to see where else my reading journey will take me this year.

One True Thing – Anna Quindlen

March 25, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 1994

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Ellen had returned to her family home in small town Langhorne from New York for what she had planned to be a brief visit. Her two younger brothers had also come back from their summer jobs. It seemed like a simple, normal family gathering.

Only it wasn’t. Their father sat them down and told them the one thing that would change their lives forever. Their mother had cancer.

Ellen didn’t know how to respond. She was just making her way as a bright, young, eager writer for a magazine in New York, and she knew she had potential. Everyone knew it. How could her father tell her to move back and care for her sick mother at such a crucial time in her career?

Ellen was never close to her mother. In her eyes, in her heart, she was always her father’s daughter. Since she could remember, she had always worked to live up to her father’s very high expectations, to get his approval. It wasn’t something that she had felt particularly pressured or stressed out about. In fact, it felt perfectly normal. After all, who didn’t want to be excellent? And to be acknowledged by someone as excellent as her father, well, that’s the only sensible thing to aspire to.

Her mother was a homemaker, a housewife, the exact opposite of what Ellen was, and who she wanted to be. But her father had told her to come home. To leave New York and her career, to come back and care for his wife, for himself, during this difficult time. Who else could do it?

And so she did.

It is under these extreme conditions that Ellen finally gets the chance to really know her mother. To learn about her quirks and preferences. To feel the strength and passion that lie beneath the gentle and forgiving surface. To really spend time with the woman who shaped the home she had lived in for more than twenty years of her life.

And it is a privilege that Quindlen has given us, this chance for us to be there with Ellen during the last months of her mother’s life. We learn what she learns. We feel what she feels. But we get so much more, because we get to reflect on our own lives, what we might be taking for granted, and we get what Ellen doesn’t get. Time to make it right.

Mass murders, earthquakes, floods, fires – all took our minds off real tragedy for at least a little while.

And it is a real tragedy, a very personal one, to experience the slow death of your own body. And for Ellen, watching her mother wither away before her very eyes was heartbreaking. She could finally see just how strong her mother was all her life, how full of energy and love and magic, and it was all disappearing too quickly. If it was that painful for her, how many times more unbearable was it for her mother?

That’s not exactly true, of course. My mother would have cared very much, would have cared that her best beloved baby was assigned a path that might cause him pain and ridicule, that his life might be harder because of it. She would have cared very much about the daughter-in-law she would never have had–quiet, pretty, so dear, she surely would have imagined her–and the grandchildren there would never be. But it was simpler to say that she would not have cared. We made her simpler after she was dead. No, that’s not true, either. We’d made her simpler all her life, simpler than her real self. We’d made her what we needed her to be. We’d made her ours, our one true thing.

The book is about dying, about euthanasia, about living in the after. It is also about living, about letting go of the past, about facing the future. But most of all, it felt to me like it is about being present in the moment, about not only seeing, but feeling, what is right in front of you. To remove our blinkers that we so willingly put on ourselves. To be willing to be wrong, to think about our intentions. To be brave.

To be here. Really here.

Six Four – Hideo Yokoyama

March 18, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in Japanese in 2012
Translated into English by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies in 2016

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The week starts on a very sombre note. Mikami is at the mortuary with his wife, here after travelling a long way from their home. They are tired, afraid. They don’t know if they are ready for this, to know if the child under that white sheet is Ayumi, their daughter who has disappeared from home since three months ago. And when they find out it is not, their relief is short-lived. This dead child is not theirs. But that also means they still don’t know where she is.

Mikami is the Press Officer at the Police HQ of Prefecture D. It’s a relatively new position for him, one that he’s not particularly fond of, having been in the Criminal Investigation Department for the majority of his career as a police officer. He doesn’t have the best relationship with his superior, who seems to not trust him; he doesn’t have strong ties with the media, and it’s about to get worse; and his relationship with his wife is strained, especially since the disappearance of their daughter.

Life, as it is right now, doesn’t seem to be working too well for Mikami. And to make matters worse, his arrogant boss has just informed him that he needs to prepare for a huge press event that’s going to happen in just a week from today, and it has got everything to do with the biggest failure of the police force in history. An unsolved kidnapping that ended with the ransom being paid, the child being found murdered, and the kidnapper scot-free.

The Criminal Investigation detectives have a code name for this case: Six Four.

We follow Mikami everywhere for this entire week. We’re with him when he’s fighting with the reporters in the Press Room. We’re with him when he goes home and finds himself walking on eggshells around his wife. We’re with him when he visits Amamiya, the father of the kidnapped child from Six Four. We’re with him when he’s alone, and we hear all his thoughts, often messy, disjointed, and contradictory.

There’s a lot going on all throughout the story. And because we’re constantly by Mikami’s side, it’s almost impossible to not get caught up with his thought process, his emotions, and his deductions of the things that are happening around him. This means that sometimes, he can get a little repetitive. Other times, he is so self-contradictory that I wonder if he even knows what he’s thinking! And then I realise that I think like that all the time, too. I think one thing, only to contradict myself one second later. I pull myself apart overthinking minute details. And the mild irritation that I feel coming to the surface just dissipates.

Because Mikami has become a real person.

This story is every bit a crime thriller, as it is a study in Japanese police politics. At the same time, it also has a strong human side, a gentle insight into the hearts of parents and their love and attachment to their children. There is heartbreak and loneliness. There is also bravery and solidarity.

There’s a lot going on in this book. And I think Yokoyama did a good job at tying it all together.

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Read as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12.