Review: Cuba Then, Cuba Now

books, Caribbean, Cuba, Jamaica, travel books

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Firstly, I found Cuba Then, Cuba Now, the title of the Vintage Short by travel writer Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, to be a bit misleading. It promised reflective essays on Cuba – then and now, but the bulk of the book spoke about another Caribbean island, Jamaica. In fact, Cuba Then, Cuba Now included many excerpts from Shapiro’s first book, Island People: The Caribbean and the World.

Shapiro’s three chapters on Jamaica certainly brought the island alive with keen observations of its people, history, and culture. I liked that the narrative voice was attuned to Jamaican patois, particularly the brand spoken by its Rastafarian community.

The introduction and the chapter on Cuba, however, somehow didn’t make much of an impact on me as a Caribbean-born reader and writer. That said, I enjoyed reading this title and would really like to read Island People next.

Disclaimer: I received this book as a digital Advance Reader Copy (ARC) from the publishers in exchange for my honest review.

Have you read it?

Getting nostalgic over Anne of Green Gables

books, Canada

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The last time I read Anne of Green Gables, it was 1994. Wet, Wet, Wet’s Love is All Around Me was on heavy rotation and Friends and My So-Called Life debuted on local TV stations in Trinidad and Tobago. You could only imagine my delight when I spotted a battered copy of the exact edition I owned on the library shelf at my local library in Japan. When I spotted the cover, everything just came swimming back to me and I knew that it was due for a reread.

At first, I was amazed that I was able to get through such a dense book. The words were so quaint and tightly packed together on each page. Also, upon rereading I realized that there were a lot of foreign vocabulary words I probably glossed over, particularly when author LM Montgomery described the flora of Prince Edward Island.

But as I continued to read Anne, I chuckled aloud (yes, I really did) at her talkativeness, her flubs, her antics, her hot temper, her predisposition for romanticism, her weakness for puffed sleeves, and her gift for expression in terms like “bosom friend” and “kindred spirit.” She is truly a character, as we like to say in the Caribbean.

Have you ever read Anne of Green Gables? What’s your verdict?

 

Review: The Last Children of Tokyo

books, Japan

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Published by Portobello Books in 2018 and translated by Margaret Mitsutani, The Last Children of Tokyo (also published as The Emissary) by Yoko Tawada is speculative fiction that imagines what can happen in an ageing society that is affected by a major environmental catastrophe.

The story is set in futuristic, dystopian, environmental wasteland Japan that has once again retreated into self-isolation, cutting itself off from the rest of the world. Things are so bad that foreign words are banned and people get into a lot of semantic arguments. There are food shortages in Tokyo even though food is produced abundantly in Okinawa.

In this post-catastrophe world, great grandparents outlive their great grandkids. Tawada focuses on the relationship between Yoshiro and his great grandson, Mumei. The grandfather’s care is palpable, particularly how he fusses over what the boy can and cannot eat. However, things get weird when the author starts shifting from one narrative perspective to the next.

Deeper into the chapter-free story, more characters are added but Tawada does not deal with them in as great depth as how she handles Yoshiro and Mumei. The plot starts well but then meanders into some strange direction and by the end of the story, I was so confused.

Meandering plot aside, Yoko Tawada is a skilled writer who clearly loves to dabble in word play. Also, her writing is distinctive from the spare, minimalist style of her literary peers like Sayaka Murata and Hiromi Kawakami. I think it may have to do with the fact that she writes in both German and Japanese and lives in Berlin rather than Japan. She is also able to satirize Japanese culture and language and use this story as a cautionary tale of what could happen if Japan behaves in an increasingly insular and environmentally destructive manner in the future.

Bonus: the book recently won the US National Book Award for Translated Literature.

Review: Strange Weather in Tokyo

books, Japan

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Strange Weather in Tokyo (2014, Portobello Books) by Hiromi Kawakami and translated by Allison Markin Powell starts with the informal reunion of Tsukiko and Sensei, her former high school Japanese teacher, at a bar in the city. The narrative slowly traces the development of their relationship from friends to something more than friends. In this novel, Kawakami, like Sayaka Murata in Convenience Store Woman, is able to pin down the ennui, loneliness, and alienation single people of all ages face in urban Tokyo. A good read, although sometimes, I found the narrative focused too much on quotidian details.

Review: Convenience Store Woman

books, Japan

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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?