Review: Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman (2018, Portobello Books) by Sayaka Murata and translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori focuses on Keiko, a woman past her prime who has been working part-time in a convenience store for the last 18 years. She is different, to say the least, and her individualism shines through during early childhood. However, every time she “misbehaves” as a child, she is scolded and told that she needs to be “cured” of her eccentricities.

As she gets older, she learns that the easiest way to live in contemporary, capitalist Japan is to adapt to her surroundings and to the people in it. She is “reborn” as a convenience store attendant, the perfect job for a self-effacing cog in society. The mask she wears, however, slowly slips when she meets Shiraha.

Murata’s writing style is clean and darkly comic. I also liked that the author was able to capture the undercurrent of urban life in Tokyo, where the convenience store becomes a microcosm of the artificiality and alienation of everyday life in the mega city. The novel is extremely readable – I was able to blaze through it in a couple of hours before bed.

Have you ever read Convenience Store Woman? What did you think about it?

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Review: Homeland

“He saw him standing on the shore of the Vistula Spit, scanning the sea with his binoculars – ‘When are they going to come and get us?’ – while behind him the refugee wagons rumbled from the east to west and west to east. Jonathan pounded the armrest with his fist and the words kept hammering in his brain – all for nothing! ALL FOR NOTHING! He didn’t mean the death of his mother or of his father, who’d had to ‘bite the dust,’ or the sofa beds his uncle manufactured, but the suffering of all creatures, the flesh lashed to the stake, the calf he had seen bound and gagged, the torture chamber in the Marienburg, the shuffling procession of mankind beneath the condemning sky.
It’s all for nothing, he thought again and again. And: Who’s to blame?” –
Homeland by Walter Kempowski (Granta, 2018)

I’ll be honest. Before I received Homeland from the publishers, I had never heard of Walter Kempowski before. However, the good thing about reading literature in translation is that you discover voices from all over the world, not just from the English-speaking and writing world. The novel was translated from German by Charlotte Collins. In Homeland, the story is set in 1988, pre-Berlin Wall fall. We follow Jonathan Fabrizius, a writer who goes on a press road trip from Hamburg to former East Prussia/Poland and ends up revisiting the homeland he never really knew. A common theme that runs throughout the work is an existential angst associated with the futility of war, violence, suffering, and death. Reading this work, I was also sharply reminded of my short story “Homecoming” in We Mark Your Memory that explores similar themes of identity, homeland, and belonging. He’s definitely a writer I’d like to read more of.

Review: Exterminate All The Brutes

Exterminate All The Brutes is written by Swedish author Sven Linqvist. It was originally published in 1992 and in 2018, it was translated by Joan Tate and published by Granta Books. This collection of essays include travelogue-style entries on the author’s journey through the Sahara while he researches the social, political, and economic context of the world of author Joseph Conrad. It recounts the theories that were the rage around the time he wrote Heart of Darkness.

In particular, this book delves into the European attitude to the “inferior races,” summed up in Kurtz’ horrible but pithy statement, “Exterminate all the brutes.” The author also intersperses his historical research and reflections with snippets from his personal life including childhood memories and dream-like sequences. Although at times his ruminations can appear disjointed and fragmented, overall, the book offers rich historical details regarding European imperialism on the African continent, particularly how they justify their rapacious and cruel behavior with reference to the “white man’s burden” to civilize the uncivilized world. It’s great critical reading, especially in the world we live in today.

Have you ever read it? What did you think?

Review: Jokes for the Gunmen

Palestinian-Icelandic writer, poet, translator, and journalist Mazen Maarouf has written a strange and unsettling collection of twelve short stories. It’s called Jokes for the Gunmen. Although originally written in Arabic, it’s been translated into English by Jonathan Wright and published by Granta Books this year. Many of the stories show how the human psyche can become twisted and distorted during wartime. “I was known as ‘the grasshopper’ on the grounds that my father was also a grasshopper, since grasshoppers always jump and never attack.”

This quote is taken from the titular story, “Jokes for the Gunmen.” It’s also the longest in the book, divided into ten short chapters. In this story, when the boy notices that his father is constantly being belittled and beaten up by wartime thugs, he embarks on a mission to earn his father some street cred by getting him fitted with a glass eye like the sahlab seller who no one hassles.

“Matador” is another strange concoction about a boy’s uncle who dreams of becoming a matador in Spain but who can’t even get a visa to go there and beats cows (sometimes to death) at the slaughter house instead. The uncle dies three times only to find that his matador suit can no longer fit him, which adds to the story’s sense of the pathos, unpredictability, and absurdity of life.

“Aquarium” is perhaps the most surreal and most heart-rending of all. A young couple name and keep a blood clot (probably a fetus or not) in an aquarium much to the chagrin of everyone around them.

Many of the stories end abruptly and may leave you scratching your head. However, I think it’s the writer’s intention in these stories to underline the absurdity of war and to reveal how civilians adapt to the weirdness of their wartime living situation.

Review: My Enemy’s Cherry Tree

“She’d photographed the roses in the vase on the table, neighborhood children, the busy florist, and the park, emptied of visitors, all snapshots, all highlighting her loneliness during my absence. I could tell that the camera had failed to expand her horizons. Instead, her lens had actually exposed the narrow confines of our life.”- My Enemy’s Cherry Tree by Wang Ting-Kuo

My Enemy’s Cherry Tree is my first introduction to Wang Ting-Kuo and Taiwanese literature. Wang Ting-Kuo began writing when he was eighteen but stopped momentarily when his father-in-law gave him an ultimatum to give up the writing life or his daughter. He eventually returned to writing after starting his own construction firm.

The award-winning My Enemy’s Cherry Tree is the author’s English language debut. This edition is translated in English by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin and published by Granta Books. It’s the story of a young couple, an unnamed protagonist and Qiuzi, and the trajectory of their relationship. Life seems to be looking up when the protagonist is asked to move to Taipei to oversee a huge construction project, Qiuzi is happy for him but the separation begins to reveal the cracks in the marriage.

A complication occurs when they buy an apple green enamel kettle that leads to Qiuzi winning a camera. The story starts slowly but gradually picks up pace as Ting-Kuo delves into the characters’ internal landscapes against the urban backdrops of Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung and the sleepy beach settlement of Haikou.

The fiction has a dreamy quality and is a perfect rainy day/coffee shop read.

My Goodreads Challenge 2018

Unlike previous years, this year I actually did it. I was able to complete my Goodreads Challenge for 2018 and with time to spare! You got that right – 52/52 books read.

The Complete List

  1. The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada
  2. Exterminate all the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist
  3. The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
  4. Cantora by Slyvia Lopez-Medina
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. What I Talk About When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami
  7. Botchan by Natsume Soseki
  8. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
  9. Twenty Four Eyes by Sakae-Tsuboi
  10. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
  11. Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto
  12. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
  13. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey
  14. Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide
  15. The Second Penguin Book of English Short Stories edited by Christopher Dolley
  16. Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
  17. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
  18. The Penguin Book of English Short Stories edited by Christopher Dolley
  19. Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
  20. The Izu Dancer And Other Stories by Yasunari Kawabata and Yasushi Inoue
  21. We Mark Your Memory: Writing from the Descendants of Indenture edited by David Dabydeen, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, and Tina K. Ramnarine
  22. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
  23. Listen and Learn: 101 Japanese Idioms by Senko K. Maynard
  24. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr., E.B. White
  25. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
  26. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  27. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
  28. The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  29. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  30. Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki
  31. Oh Happy Day by Michelle Ragoonanan-Ali
  32. ‘Til the Well Runs Dry by Lauren Francis-Sharma
  33. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  34. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  35. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  36. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
  37. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  38. Ghana Must Go: A Novel by Taiye Selasi
  39. Consuming Cultures: Globalization and Local Lives by Jeremy Seabrook
  40. Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler
  41. The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth by M. Scott Peck
  42. The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Rabindranath Maharaj
  43. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  44. The Swinging Bridge by Ramabai Espinet
  45. Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat
  46. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo
  47. Tata and the Big Bad Bull by Juleus Ghunta
  48. The Scent of the Past: Stories and Remembrances by Wayne Brown
  49. The Old House and the Dream by Joy Rudder
  50. Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan by Bruce Feiler
  51. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
  52. The Writer and the World: Essays by V.S. Naipaul

Highlight: We Mark Your Memory

First and foremost, I read We Mark Your Memory: Writing from the Descendants of Indenture, a first-of-its-kind literary anthology that also features my first ever published-in-a-book short story, “Homecoming.” Not many people know about indentureship which took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It involved mass migration of Indians from the subcontinent to far-flung places in the then British Empire to work on the sugarcane plantations.

The collection unites storytellers, poets, and essayists from the Caribbean, Canada, Fiji, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, South Africa, the UK, and the US. This is a collector’s item for anyone who is interested in how diasporic Indians wrestle with questions of identity, nationality, and culture in the contemporary, post-indenture world.

Favorite First-time Reads for 2018

Since I’ve completed the challenge, bookstagrammers have been asking me to pick my favorites. Here are my 8 favorite first-time reads in 2018:

  1. The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
  2. Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto
  3. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
  4. Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
  5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
  6. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  7. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  8. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Rereads for 2018

Out of 52 books, I reread 10 books from my childhood, adolescent, and young adult reading experiences:

  1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  2. The Swinging Bridge by Ramabai Espinet
  3. The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Rabindranath Maharaj
  4. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  5. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  6. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
  7. The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  8. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey
  9. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
  10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Favorite reread in 2018: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Are you also taking part in the Goodreads Challenge 2018? Share your progress so far in the comments!

7 novels about the immigrant experience

Immigration is on everybody’s minds these days. Countries are now locking down borders, letting in certain nationalities and keeping out the rest. In a globalized world, this can seem strange but that’s how it is. These books explore the consequences of uprooting yourself from your homeland to put down new roots in a different country.

1. Brick Lane (2003)

This novel by Monica Ali was one of firsts I read in the genre. Nazneen from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) marries an East Pakistani immigrant living in London and deals with the alienation and cultural clashes that occur in her new adopted homeland.

“You can spread your soul over a paddy field, you can whisper to a mango tree, you can feel the earth between your toes and know that this is the place, the place where it begins and ends. But what can you tell to a pile of bricks? The bricks will not be moved.”

Lahiri(1)

2. Unaccustomed Earth (2008) by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a collection of short stories by master storyteller, Jhumpa Lahiri. It follows her first collection, The Interpreter of Maladies. It deals with more Bengali immigrant/diasporic stories in the US.

 “After Rahul graduated from high school their parents celebrated, having in their opinion now successfully raised two children in America. Rahul was going to Cornell, and Sudha was still in Philadephia, getting a master’s in international relations. Their parents threw a party, inviting nearly two hundred people, and bought Rahul a car, justifying it as a necessity for his life in Ithaca. They bragged about the school, more impressed by it than they’d been with Penn. “Our job is done,” her father declared at the end of the party, posing for pictures with Rahul and Sudha on either side. For years they had been compared to other Bengali children, told about gold medals brought back from science fairs, colleges that offered full scholarships. Sometimes Sudha’s father would clip newspaper articles about unusually gifted adolescents – the boy who finished his Ph.D. at twenty, the girl who went to Stanford at twelve – and tape them on the refrigerator. When Sudha was fourteen, her father had written to Harvard Medical School, requested an application, and placed it on her desk.”

Americanah

3. Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This book focuses on a love story between Ifemelu and Obinze who both migrate from Nigeria to the US and UK respectively. It also deals with their return to the homeland after living abroad.

 “Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

hazycam

4. Open City (2011) by Teju Cole

It focuses on Julius who tries to navigate life and alienation in the Big Apple as a Nigerian immigrant.

 “The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float. Nigeria was like that for me: mostly forgotten, except for those few things that I remembered with an outsize intensity. These were the things that had been solidified in my mind by reiteration, that recurred in dreams and daily thoughts: certain faces, certain conversations, which, taken as a group, represented a secure version of the past that I had been constructing since 1992. But there was another, irruptive, sense of things past. The sudden reencounter in the present, of something or someone long forgotten, some part of myself I had relegated to childhood and to Africa.”

Kiran desai

5. The Inheritance of Loss (2006) by Kiran Desai

This is the second and critically acclaimed novel of Anita Desai’s daughter. It focuses heavily on how immigrants are forced to straddle two worlds, that of their birthplace and that of their adopted homeland.

“He knew what his father thought: that immigration, so often presented as a heroic act, could just as easily be the opposite; that it was cowardice that led many to America; fear marked the journey, not bravery; a cockroachy desire to scuttle to where you never saw poverty, not really, never had to suffer a tug to your conscience; where you never heard the demands of servants, beggars, bankrupt relatives, and where your generosity would never be openly claimed; where by merely looking after your wife-child-dog-yard you could feel virtuous. Experience the relief of being an unknown transplant to the locals and hide the perspective granted by journey. Ohio was the first place he loved, for there at last he had been able to acquire poise –”

6. The Buddha in the Attic (2011) by Julie Otsuka

This story is told by a collective narrator representing Japanese picture brides who went to California in the early 20th century. It strongly reminded me of books that detail the Indo-Caribbean indentureship experience.

“Mostly, they were ashamed of us. Our floppy straw hats and threadbare clothes. Our heavy accents. Every sing oh righ? Our cracked, callused palms. Our deeply lined faces black from years of picking peaches and staking grape plants in the sun. They longed for real fathers with briefcases who went to work in a suit and tie and only mowed the grass on Sundays. They wanted different and better mothers who did not look so worn out. Can’t you put on a little lipstick? They dreaded rainy days in the country when we came to pick them up after school in our battered old farm trucks. They never invited over friends to our crowded homes in J-town. We live like beggars. They would not be seen with us at the temple on the Emperor’s birthday. They would not celebrate the annual Freeing of the Insects with us at the end of summer in the park. They refused to join hands and dance with us in the streets on the Festival of the Autumnal Equinox. They laughed at us whenever we insisted that they bow to us first thing in the morning and with each passing day they seemed to slip further and further from our grasp.”

Sea of poppies

7. The Sea of Poppies (2008) by Amitabh Ghosh

This is the first part of the author’s Ibis trilogy. It focuses on the ship’s journey from Calcutta to Mareech (Mauritius), carrying Indian indentured laborers across the Kala Pani (Black Water).

“How had it happened that when choosing the men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain, the hand of destiny had stayed so far inland, away from the busy coastlines, to alight on the people who were, of all, the most stubbornly rooted in the silt of the Ganga, in a soil that had to be sown with suffering to yield its crop of story and song? It was as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart.”