October 2019 Wrap-Up

The Memory Police [1994/2019] by Yōko Ogawa – ★★★★★

This book is the one that surprised me the most this month. I found myself enchanted and slightly disturbed by Ogawa’s world of disappearing objects. It was very interesting to read about the uncertainty and characters’ determination to live normal lives despite the disappearances and the Memory Police’s harassment.

The Face of Another [1964] by Kōbō Abe – ★★★★★ 

Kōbō Abe’s unusual book proved to be a great read for me. When a scientist in this story becomes facially disfigured, he vows to become “normal” again and have a face to fit into the Japanese society again. Abe explores the mental torment of someone who no longer sees himself as part of a society, making insightful observations on the power of personal transformation. 
Continue reading “October 2019 Wrap-Up”

Review: The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa

The Memory Police Book Cover The Memory Police [1994/2019] – ★★★★★

They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time…when somebody says your name for the last time” (Banksy, re-quoting Ernest Hemingway). Yōko Ogawa (The Housekeeper and the Professor [2003/08]) wrote The Memory Police in 1994, and it was translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder in 2019. In this beautiful dystopian book, our young female character works as a writer on one curious island – there, things sometimes simply disappear from time to time, and with those “disappearances” come another interesting element – people soon forget these things completely, how they looked and what they felt like. For them, these things simply cease to exist. The enforcement of the memory erosion is the task for the special Memory Police, that ruthlessly detects and investigates any traces of disappearing objects, as well as hunts people that are still able to remember them. When one man, R, a book editor, is in danger of being caught for remembering disappeared things, our lead character vows to do everything in her power to save him from a terrible fate. The Memory Police may share some themes related to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Orwell’s 1984, but, in its spirit at least, it is a different book– it is filled with quiet, reflective moments and has its own special, eerie atmosphere. The premise may start with one absurd situation, but it soon transforms into something very heart-felt, as its characters try to make sense of one weird world that is slowly becoming devoid of one essential meaning. At the heart of Ogawa’s novel is the importance of memory and its preservation, which remains at the core of our history and our state of being conscious, free-willed and emotionally-complex beings. Continue reading “Review: The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa”

Ten Books On My TBR I’m Avoiding Reading

I spotted this meme at Kath Reads (it was created by The Broke and the Bookish), and decided to also post my answers to it. We may be avoiding reading certain books on our TBR lists for a variety of (rational and not-so-rational) reasons. We may feel that we simply must be in the right mood for certain books or have enough time in our planners to finish really heavy tomes. Below are ten books from my TBR list which I have been avoiding reading because (i) they are too big and/or complex; or (ii) I receive conflicting messages whether I would love them; or (iii) I want to love them, but I am afraid I will not (for example, because I loved an author’s previous work), etc.

I. 2666 [2004] by Roberto Bolaño  

The sheer size and complexity of 2666 mean that I keep avoiding reading it. Bolaño’s last book is 1126 pages’ long, and its themes are manifold. It talks about ongoing murders of women in one violent city, but also touches upon the World War II, mental illness, journalism and the breakdown of relationships and careers, among other themes – a monumental work, in many respects.

Continue reading “Ten Books On My TBR I’m Avoiding Reading”

The Mystery of the Nazca Lines, Peru

nazca lines
The geoglyph of a hummingbird (hermit)

Since Halloween is the time to celebrate the unknown and mysterious, I thought I would talk about one of the greatest mysteries in South America. The Nazca Lines are a series of geoglyphs or large land designs made by pre-Inca settlers (the Nazca people) in the Peruvian desert. The designs, made between 400 BC and 10th century AD, stretch around 200 square miles, and include straight lines and geometrical figures. The most astounding of the designs are around 70 giant (up to 370 meters in size) designs of animals and plants (as well as some unrecognisable figures). Some of the well-known depictions are that of a hummingbird (hermit), a monkey, a spider, a heron, a dog, a tree and a flower, but there are also designs of human hands and a “giant”. Continue reading “The Mystery of the Nazca Lines, Peru”

Review: The Face of Another by Kōbō Abe

The Face of Another Book Cover The Face of Another [1964] – ★★★★★

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” (Kurt Vonnegut). 

After enjoying The Woman in the Dunes [1962] over the summer, I have now read The Face of Another by the same author (translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders). In this story, which is narrated through three notebooks (diaries), we are told of a scientist who gets facially disfigured while conducting an experiment in a laboratory, and struggles from then on to fit into the society with his disfigured face. He manages to make a mask that is indistinguishable from a real face, but soon finds out that his problems have only just began as his personality also starts to change. There is something from Frankenstein [1823] in this novel, something from Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde [1886], something from The Invisible Man [1897], something from Steppenwolf [1927], and something from Franz Kafka and Ernesto Sabato as well, resulting in this novel being a psychologically and philosophically delicious journey into the dark recesses of one increasingly damaged mind.  Continue reading “Review: The Face of Another by Kōbō Abe”

Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy Book CoverHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis [2016] – ★★★★1/2

Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I’d say “the feeling that our choices don’t matter” [Vance, 2016: 177].

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of a man J. D. Vance, who talks about his childhood (being raised by his single, troubled mother with two children), adolescence and early adulthood, growing up in one of the poorest regions in America. This deeply personal, eye-opening book, which is also both sad and inspirational, provides a glimpse into the Appalachian culture and various (historical, socio-economic, psychological and cultural) circumstances that shape its people. It is about the state of one part of America some would not like to acknowledge fully or whose issues some misunderstand. J. D. sheds away some of the stereotypes surrounding his people, while, at the same time, fairly and bravely acknowledges (people’s) personal and societal responsibilities for many disastrous societal and economic circumstances. This memoir on how class and family affect the poor, as seen through the eyes of one boy raised in one disadvantaged family, is a book hard to forget. Continue reading “Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance”

Ira Levin’s Novels: Ranked

I think it is the perfect time in the year to get cosy in a warm place with one’s preferred hot beverage and read a novel by Ira Levin (1929-2007), an American master of psychological suspense, who was capable of expertly evoking the horror out of the mundane and everyday situations, providing thrills and surprises no one expects. I have always been a fan of his books, which also translate marvellously onto the screen (for example, see Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby [1968] or Forbes’ film The Stepford Wives [1975]). Below are Levin’s novels in the order of my enjoyment of them (meaning that the ranking is not based on any objective criteria, but on my own perception of their merit).

Rosemary's Baby Book CoverI. Rosemary’s Baby [1967]

This is my favourite novel of Ira Levin. It is masterfully suspenseful and completely immersive. In this story, Rosemary Woodhouse is a happily married woman living in New York City with her husband Guy, who is an aspiring actor. Upon moving into a prestigious apartment block Bramford, the couple makes friends with their neighbours next door Minnie and Roman Castevet, an elderly couple. Soon after, Rosemary notices strange, overly-friendly behaviour of their neighbours, and Guy’s demeanour also changes. When Rosemary’s becomes pregnant with her first child, her suspicions escalate also because of her very unusual pregnancy; but are her suspicions simply the result of her active imagination or stem from some fact she simply finds hard to accept?  Continue reading “Ira Levin’s Novels: Ranked”

Halloween Reads: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Book Cover The Legend of Sleepy Hollow [1820] – ★★★★★

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a short story by American author Washington Irving. Drawing inspiration from folklore that dates back to the Middle Ages and which concerns the sightings of the Headless Horseman, Irving wrote a haunting tale of one strange village, ghostly apparitions and unrequited love. At the centre of this tale is Ichabod Crane, an odd and superstitious young man who teaches at a local school in one Dutch settlement in New York State. When he sets his eyes on a local beauty Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a rich local farmer, he does not even imagine yet the competition he has yet to overcome to claim her hand, the competition that stems especially from Katrina’s suitor Brom Van Brunt. Nor does our young hero imagines the extent of the horror that can be experienced by one who is actually confronting the central figure of many horror stories told by a cosy fireplace. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a very memorable short story, largely because of its haunting atmosphere and the early romanticism of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (“The Sorrows of Young Werther” [1774]) that Irving injects into the story to make it more compelling.  Continue reading “Halloween Reads: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson”

Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798 – 1861) was a Japanese painter in the late Edo period specialising in Ukiyo-e woodblock painting (he was a contemporary of Hokusai). Kuniyoshi was known for his very detailed, “full-of-action” woodblock paintings (triptychs), showing the scenes from the Japanese life, mythology (the supernatural, including monsters), as well as the actions of the samurai. Some of his paintings are very graphic and rather violent. Below are three paintings of Kuniyoshi that depict ghosts.

Kuniyoshi Painting

I. Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre

The background story to this macabre print has is that there was once the war-lord Taira no Masakado (living in the 10th century) who was killed after he started a rebellion against the court at Kyoto. The daughter of Taira, Princess Takiyasha (who was also a witch), was devastated that her father was killed and the rebellion proved unsuccessful. Thus, she (positioned to the left in this print) magically summoned the ghosts of the dead rebellious soldiers of her father by reading through the magical scroll. The ghosts she summoned then took the form of one giant skeleton (Gashadokuro). On the foreground of the print, one can see the remaining plotter, as well as the leading warrior Oya no Taro Mitsukuni, trying to subdue the ghostly rebellion once again.  Continue reading “Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts”

Katsushika Hokusai: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese painter during the Edo period best known for the work he created after the age of sixty. His most famous woodblock prints completed in the prevalent style of Ukiyo-e (“Picture[s] of the Floating World”) are a series of paintings Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (among which is The Great Wave). In 1831, Hokusai began a series of prints titled A Hundred Horror Stories (Hyaku-monogatari). Traditionally, Hyaku-monogatari denotes a game whereby people gather to listen to and tell ghost stories. Below, are three of the five surviving paintings in that series, presenting some of the well-known ghosts from the Japanese folklore. 

Okiku Ghost HokusaiI. A Woman Ghost Appeared From a Well (The Mansion of the Plates)

This is the depiction of the aftermath of the death of Okiku, a story that first appeared as a play Bancho Sarayashiki [1741]. There are a number of versions to this story, and in one of them, there was a beautiful servant girl Okiku who worked for Aoyama Tessan, a samurai. The samurai wanted Okiku as his lover and tricked her into believing that one of the ten invaluable Delft plates have been lost in the household. Normally, this would result in the servant’s death, but Aoyama stated that he would not hurt Okiku if she agrees to become his lover. When Okiku refused, he killed her by throwing her down the well. The Okiku ghost depicted by Hokusai comes from the well with the purpose of tormenting her murderer, sometimes screaming after counting to nine, or trying to find the final tenth plate. Hokusai painted Okiku as was customary at that time in painting ghosts: pale faces without lower limbs.  Continue reading “Katsushika Hokusai: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts”

Review: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World Book Cover 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World [2019] – ★★★1/2

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” is a shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2019 book by the Turkish-British author Elif Shafak (The Architect’s Apprentice [2013])). In this story, Tequila Leila is found dead in a trash bin on the outskirts of Istanbul, but her mind keeps working for another ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds, during which time we are introduced to Leila’s childhood, her meetings with the- dearest-to-her people, and, finally, to the events leading up to her death. As Leila’s mind starts to race through her life events, we get to know Istanbul and its dark history, as well as the plight of the most marginalised people living within the city walls. Shafak’s “mind-slipping-away” concept is intriguing, and she does try to make her book as evocative as possible. However, the second half of the book is nowhere near as interesting as the first half, and the prose is sometimes sentimentally-inclined and even pretentious. There is this feeling when reading this book that the “mind-slipping-away” element is a gimmick introduced by Shafak to get our attention so that we can finally read what she wants us to understand: that Istanbul has had many faces through history, and that there are, and have always been, marginalised people living there, especially women, who suffered much and now deserve attention, recognition and, above all, dignity – even after their death.  Continue reading “Review: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak”

Gabriel Yared: The English Patient

My favourite film composer Gabriel Yared (1949-) is 70 years old today, and I am taking this opportunity to pay tribute to him by sharing his musical masterpiece below. Born in Beirut, Yared gained his law degree before switching to music composition while studying in France. Apart from The English Patient, Gabriel Yared is also known as a composer for such films as Betty Blue, Camille Claudel, The Talented Mr Ripley and Cold Mountain.

The Non-Fiction Book Tag

I read a lot of non-fiction books (see also my list of 10 Fascinating Non-Fiction Books), so I decided to create this tag to draw attention to some fascinating books in the non-fiction genre. As usual, I do not tag specific bloggers and, if you read non-fiction, feel free to participate.

QuietI.  What non-fiction book would you recommend to everyone? 

Quiet [2012] by Susan Cain; introverts will feel at home with this book – more so than with any other book out there. This book is about introversion and how introverts can make a real impact in this world, especially if others differentiate them from shy people and let introverts flourish and achieve things in an environment that suits them best. Modern society is so preoccupied with “fast-business”, “first impressions” and with “immediate, loud success” that there is often no place for the quietness of thought, and deep analysis and insight that come from prolonged thinking and solitude. Our modern, commercialised society also does not seem to concern itself that much with honesty or loyalty (something that can only be seen through long-term relationships – a forte of introverts), but is all about expert communication skills, fast advertising and the “right” kind of external presentation (a forte of extroverts). Susan Cain makes it clear that, unlike in the West, Asian countries regard silence as a sign of deep intelligence, while talking is a sign of that in the West, and makes examples of introverted people who revolutionised the world or became leaders. The thesis of Susan Cain is that introverts have much to offer, including in the positions of leadership, if only others can shed stigma concerning “quiet” people and realise that they too can make an invaluable societal contribution.  Continue reading “The Non-Fiction Book Tag”

Review: The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin

the axeman's jazz The Axeman’s Jazz [2014] – ★★★

This is a debut historical fiction book that fictionalises real serial killer murders that shook New Orleans in 1918 and 1919 and were dubbed the Axeman’s murders. The book is a winner of the 2014 John Creasey (New Blood) Award, and I just could not pass by an opportunity to read this book since it is set in New Orleans of all places, a city that has been fascinating me for a long time and so much I have previously mentioned/talked on my blog about its history, art and notable celebrations. This very atmospheric book follows three people investigating the gruesome murders of the Axeman: (i) a professional investigator Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot; (ii) a nineteen year-old amateur sleuth and secretary at a local detective agency Ida Davis, and (iii) a recent convict and once detective Luca D’Andrea. Each one of them is under pressure to discover the identity of the murderer before anyone else, and the task is not easy since the murderer taunts the police and leaves strange clues behind, such as Tarot cards. Soon corruption in high places, the Mafia and false leads all complicate the case, as well as the most recent strange demand of the murderer: “play Jazz on one particular Tuesday and you will be safe”. Charmingly evoking the atmosphere of one-of-a-kind place in the world which was New Orleans in the early twentieth century, Ray Celestin concocts a worthy-of-a-read crime thriller, even if it is at times slow, overwritten, unnecessarily confusing and wobbly in its logic.  Continue reading “Review: The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin”

The Pumpkin Spice Latte Book Tag

I spotted this tag on Katie Jane Gallagher and Strangely Pop Cultured, and decided to try it because I just could not resist doing an autumn-themed book tag.

Osceola the Seminole Book CoverI. Pumpkin Spice Latte: A Book That Everyone Criticises But Is Actually Delicious:

Osceola, the Seminole by Mayne Reid.

This is a book that some say is only “for children” and “cannot be compared to the works of Jack London or Robert Louis Stevenson”. Well, I have another opinion. This book is THE book of my childhood, alongside other books by Mayne Reid, such as The Quadroon [1856] and The Scalp Hunters [1851]. Osceola, the Seminole has a great sense of adventure and induces warm feelings of friendship and romance. If you liked Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf [1903], then you should also check out The Boy Tar [1859] by Mayne Reid.  Continue reading “The Pumpkin Spice Latte Book Tag”