Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

I have had Katharina Hagena’sThe Taste of Apple Seeds‘ in my bookshelf for a long time. Yesterday I finally took it down and read it. This is the sixth book I read for ‘Women in Translation Month‘.

Iris goes to her hometown because her grandmother has passed away recently. Her mother and her mother’s two sisters, Iris’ aunts, have also come. After the funeral is over, the lawyers come to her grandmother’s place and read the will. To everyone surprise, it is revealed that Iris inherits her grandmother’s house. Everyone leaves sometime after the funeral, but Iris stays on. Iris used to visit her grandmother every summer when she was a child and later as a teenager. She used to spend a lot of time with her cousin Rosmarie, who was her Aunt Harriet’s daughter. So this house carries a lot of old memories for her. As Iris stays in the house, she looks back on the old times, and we get to know more about her mother and her aunts, and her grandmother and grandfather, and their lives and their loves. We also get to know more about Rosmarie and her friend Mira. As Iris reminisces her past, things are also happening in the present. A young man who was a boy once upon a time, and who was a part of her childhood, walks back into her life and sparks fly. But we also get to know that there are some deep secrets in her family’s past and some of them seem to be tragic and some of them seem to be dark. What these secrets are, how they are unfolded, and how they impact the present, form the rest of the story.

I loved ‘The Taste of Apple Seeds‘. Katharina Hagena’s prose is very elegant – there are pauses where she meditates on a particular topic and those passages are such a pleasure to read, and at other places her prose moves the plot at a beautiful, even pace. There are some surprising revelations towards the end, and the ending – is it happy or sad? I am not telling you that. Go and read yourself and find out πŸ™‚ ‘The Taste of Apple Seeds’ is a beautiful, sensitively told story of love and family, the complexity of human relationships, and the occasional unkindness of young people.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“I worked with books, I bought books, I even borrowed the odd one. But read them? No. I used to – oh yes, I used to read all the time, in bed, while eating, on my bike. But it stopped. Reading was the same as collecting, and collecting was the same as keeping, and keeping was the same as remembering, and remembering was the same as not knowing exactly, and not knowing exactly was the same as having forgotten, and having forgotten was the same as falling, and at some point you had to stop falling.”

“Sunday mornings felt different, you noticed this straightaway. The air had a different texture : it was heavier and slowed everything down. Even familiar noises sounded different. More muffled and yet more emphatic. This must have been down to the lack of car noise…Perhaps it was also due to the fact that on Sundays you paid attention to breezes and sounds that you wouldn’t waste a second on during the week. But actually I didn’t believe that, because Sundays felt like this even during the holidays.”

“I always felt secure when I swam. The ground beneath my feet couldn’t be taken away. It couldn’t crumble, sink or shift, couldn’t gape open or swallow me up. I didn’t bump into things that I couldn’t see, didn’t accidentally tread on things, didn’t injure myself or others. You knew what water was going to be like, it always stayed the same. OK, sometimes it was clear, sometimes black, sometimes cold, sometimes warm, sometimes calm, sometimes choppy, but its substance, if not its state of matter, always stayed the same : it was always water. And swimming was flying for cowards. Floating without the danger of falling. My stroke wasn’t particularly beautiful – my leg kicks were asymmetrical – but it was brisk and strong, and I could go on for hours if need be. I loved the moment when I left the earth, the change in elements, and I loved the moment when I trusted the water to carry me. And it did, unlike the earth and the air. Just so long as I swam.”

“Sometimes fabricated stories became true in hindsight, and some stories fabricated the truth. Truth is closely related to forgetting; I knew this because I still read dictionaries, encyclopaedias, catalogues and other reference books. In the Greek word for truth, aletheia, the underworld river Lethe flows covertly. Whoever drank from this river discarded their memories as they already had their mortal coil, in preparation for the realm of shadows. And so the truth was what was not forgotten. But did it make sense to look for the truth where there was no forgetting? Didn’t truth prefer to hide in the cracks and holes of memory?”

Have you read ‘The Taste of Apple Seeds‘ by Katharina Hagena? What do you think about it?


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Marlen Haushofer is one of my alltime favourite writers and her book ‘The Wall‘ is a masterpiece and one of my alltime favourite books. Haushofer was probably well known during her time, atleast in her native Austria, but has mostly been forgotten during the decades since. Interest in her work revived a few years back when a film adaptation of ‘The Wall‘ came out and it was received with great acclaim. But since those heady few months, Haushofer has sunk back into obscurity. I don’t even know whether she is read in her native Austria now.

The Wall‘ was the first book of Marlen Haushofer that I read. I loved it so much that I searched for all of her books which were in print. I found only two more in English translation – ‘The Loft‘ and ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘. I got them both and read ‘The Loft‘ soon. I kept ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ aside for a rainy day. I read the first few pages many times, but refused to go ahead. A few days back I decided that it was time. It was time to take it out and read it properly and enjoy the pleasures and the insights it had to offer.

Nowhere Ending Sky‘ is the story of a girl called Meta. When the story starts, Meta is around two-and-a-half years old. We see the world through her eyes, as she views grown-ups including her parents as giants, she loves the barrel in which someone keeps her for a while, while they work in the farm, she loves the tree, the big old stone, the dog, her house. As the story progresses, we get introduced to new characters – Meta’s uncles, aunts and grandparents, her neighbours, the people who work in her home, the casual visitors who turn up at her home. At some point Meta’s mother gives birth to a new baby and now Meta has a baby brother. Initially she is jealous of him, because now her mother ignores her and gives the baby her full attention. But one day, Meta is able to see the situation from her mother’s point of view and after that day she is not jealous of her baby brother anymore. We get to see how life is in the farm, the pleasures that it offers and the challenges that it provides. We get to see how the change of seasons initiates a new set of activities in the farm and results in the arrival of new people. We get to know about Meta’s relationship with her father and mother and how different they are – her father is a dreamy type who is nostalgic about the past while her mother is a practical type. We also get to know how Meta’s uncles and aunts are very different from each other but how they all love her in their own ways. We get to know about how Meta and her dog love each other and trust each other. There is even a white hen in the farm which the other hens ignore and Meta is kind to that hen and it gets attached to her and keeps following her everywhere. There are more things in the book, but I’ll stop here.

I loved ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘. One of the things I loved about the book was the point of view from which the story is told. We see the world through the two-and-a-half year old Meta’s eyes at the beginning of the book, and we become two-and-a-half years old while reading it. And as Meta grows up every day and week and month and year, and as her perspective about the world and her relationship to her surroundings and the people around her changes and evolves, we continue growing up with her and see the world in new ways. This transformation of perspective is gradual and natural and is not rushed or forced. It is beautiful and we don’t even realize that it is happening. But after we finish reading, say, fifty pages of the book and then go back and check the first page, we realize that things have changed so much, but when the change was happening and we were in the middle of it, we were not aware of it. Only a master can pull this off and Marlen Haushofer does it so beautifully and elegantly. Haushofer’s prose is beautiful and charming. She is a beautiful soul and it shows in every sentence of the book. You will know why when you read it. There are so many beautiful passages in the book and I couldn’t stop highlighting.

How does ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ compare to Haushofer’s other two books, ‘The Wall‘ and ‘The Loft‘? It is hard to tell. I loved them all and they are all very different. ‘The Wall’ will probably be my favourite out of the three, but now after reading ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘, I am not very sure, because this is equally beautiful as well.

Nowhere Ending Sky‘ starts when Meta is around two-and-a-half and ends when she is probably in her early teens. The ending is beautiful and poignant, because lots of things have changed since the beginning and Meta is not a baby anymore, and her relationship with the world has changed. The ending was heartbreaking for me. It was heartbreaking because while Meta mourned the passage of her childhood, I mourned the end of the last book of my favourite writer. It is sad that all good things have to come to an end. It is sad that there won’t be any more new Marlen Haushofer books. There is one novel, one novella and a collection of short stories of hers in German, which are still not available in English translation. I hope someday one of the translators decide to translate them into English. Till then, this is it. I am so thankful that there was a writer called Marlen Haushofer and she lived in the 20th century, and she was a beautiful soul, and she wrote these beautiful, sensitive books. I am so happy that I discovered her books and I am so glad that I loved them. I am so sad that the party is over now. One of these days, I’ll take down all the three Haushofer books I have and read them again, slowly, and enjoy the beauty of each sentence. But right now, it is time to mourn the end of an era.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“The best thing about Father’s stories is that they keep changing imperceptibly all the time. He is incapable of telling the same story twice in the same way, and this creates a kind of web that spreads out in all directions. Nothing is fixed and therefore nothing is boring. Meta could go on listening for ever, and for quite a while now she herself has in fact been helping to spin the web. She makes suggestions, promotes and demotes officers and troops. Unpopular figures are flushed into oblivion and nobody cares a hoot. Sometimes her imagination runs away with her, and then Father gently takes another tack. One evening, for example, she transfers the whole regiment to Beluchistan, simply because she likes the name; he doesn’t contradict her, he just leaves the fact hanging there until she forgets about it. He always maintains that nearly everything sorts itself out if you give it time. And it is important to remember this.”

“What can it be like, never to have been born? She closed her eyes tightly, shuts down as many senses as she can – sight, taste, hearing – and remains motionless. But she is still there : her tummy rumbles, her heart beats and there is a red sort of curtain affair behind her lids. She must make herself smaller, shut herself even tighter. Rolled into a ball, her mouth pressed against her knees, she does her best to achieve a state of never-having-been-born. The red behind her eyelids fades, her arms and legs go numb, her tummy falls silent and her heartbeat slows. She has never been born. There is nothing uncomfortable about not being in the world; you don’t feel anything at all. Then slowly she comes to life again. Her ears are the first things to open, and they hear the wasps buzzing in the roof beams. Next her nose catches the smell of the flour sacks on which she is lying; on her tongue she can taste saliva; and when she opens her eyes the whole world comes flooding back. She is there again, delivered up to the assault of noises and sights and smells. This not-being-able-to-fend-them-off is what life is…’You ought to be grateful,’ Mamma always says, but for the first time Meta starts to doubt it. She is not grateful; she is alive, and that’s all there is to it. Sometimes it’s nice, often it isn’t, and always it’s a big oppression.”

“What grips her most is not so much the actual stories as the wealth of fascinating new words she learns from them. Just the words, not the meanings – she is in fact careful not to enquire too closely into meanings in case a fuller explanation should rob them of their mystical power. At one point she comes across the phrase ‘his voice rang with a note of triumph’, and spends the rest of the day in a trance, just musing on it. Triumph, triumph, what a dark, proud, shapely word; its meaning is not important; one day it will fall into place like everything else she hasn’t yet learnt, and in the meantime the word will retain all its magic. She is convinced that to discover new things, all you have to do is to get your words in the right order. All magicians know this, and it is the basis of their power. She would like to gain this power herself one day, but at present she is afraid of it and decides to put off working magic until she is older : she might, for instance, pronounce a wrong word by mistake and awaken some terrible monster, and she is too young and weak for that. No, for the moment her task is merely to swallow the words – not difficult because she has always had a desire to swallow things she likes – and wait for her time to come. Fortunately reading is a way of gobbling up things you love for which there is no punishment.”

Have you read Marlen Haushofer’sNowhere Ending Sky‘? What do you think about it?

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This is the fourth book I read for Women in Translation Month. I discovered Parinoush Saniee’sI Hid My Voice‘ when I was browsing in the bookshop. The story told in the book goes like this.

The story starts with twenty-year old Shahaab celebrating a party in his home. He finds the noise and the attention too much and yearns for some solitude and goes to the terrace. While enjoying some quiet time there, he looks back on his past. When Shahaab was a four-year old boy, he couldn’t speak. His parents worried about him and took him to specialist doctors. The doctors said that there was nothing wrong with him physically. His father and relatives suspect that he might have psychological problems. But his mother always backs him and defends him. We hear the story from Shahaab’s perspective and so we know that he is smart and he can think. But because he doesn’t speak, the outside world thinks that he is dumb. Because Shahaab is quiet he is bullied. He sometimes takes revenge on his bullies. Sometimes he does nasty things because someone hurts him or his mother, emotionally, or when he mistakenly assumes that someone has hurt him or his mother. Because people around don’t understand him, they just assume that Shahaab has some serious psychological issues and he has a mean streak. His own father feels that way.

What happens to Shahaab? What kind of challenging times does he have to go through in the middle of people who don’t understand him? Is he able to survive the bullies? Is he able to speak, in the end? The answers to these questions are revealed by the end of the book.

I loved ‘I Hid My Voice‘. It is a beautiful portrait of modern day Iran. It is a beautiful love letter to the Iranian family, the relationship between parents and children, husband and wife, daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, between siblings and cousins. Parinoush Saniee’s prose is simple and spare and moves the plot along smoothly. There are no long descriptions and philosophical ruminations. I loved most of the characters in the story, especially Shahaab, his imaginary friends Asi and Babi, his mother Maryam, his cousin Fereshteh, the kind strangers Karimi and Soudabeh who take care of Shahaab when he gets lost, Shahaab’s aunt and Fereshteh’s mother Fataneh, and most of all Shahaab’s grandmother Bibi. These are all the nice characters. There are the not-so-nice characters who have their part to play, and there is Shahaab’s father Nasser, with whom Shahaab’s relationship us complicated. That complexity is described beautifully and insightfully throughout the book. ‘I Hid My Voice‘ is a beautiful love letter to a boy without a voice and how the kindness of family members and strangers help him find full and glorious expression to his voice.

I am so glad I read ‘I Hid My Voice‘. I was waiting to read a book set in contemporary Iran which describes everyday Iranian life. I had my heart’s fill. Now I can’t wait to read Parinoush Saniee’s other book ‘The Book of Fate‘.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Back then I didn’t understand why I wanted to swear so badly, but I felt it was a great way for getting even. You didn’t need to be powerful or big and strong to use bad language, you just needed to know how to speak, to open your mouth and say something to make the other person mad. Words could be powerful. If you used the right word at the right time you could make people fume with anger without having to break or destroy anything. It was as if those words had been invented for small, weak people like myself.”

“Words were not just a series of letters to me. They each represented their own world. Over my years of speechlessness, I’d struggled with each word. I knew the weight and colour of each one and felt its volume. How could I express all the qualities of a word just by writing it? This is why writing in a single colour was difficult for me. I needed all my coloured pencils in order to do homework. I had to write ‘blood’ with a red pencil, and black was a more appropriate colour for ‘death’. I used green for ‘love’ and grey for ‘sadness’. In my eyes ‘Father’ was always an unpleasant brown and ‘Mother’ was a dull yellow, like the sun subdued by dark clouds. For a long time my biggest challenge was using white for ‘kindness’, which was hard to do on a white piece of paper. I discovered the solution after several attempts. I found out that if I drew the outline of the word with black and left it white on the inside, it would still be legible. I carefully wrote each word in a beautiful script using the correct colours.”

Have you read Parinoush Saniee’sI Hid My Voice‘? What do you think about it?

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So what do you do after reading one Banana Yoshimoto book? You read another Banana Yoshimoto book πŸ™‚ That is what I did! I read ‘Goodbye Tsugumi‘. This book came out in Japanese in 1989 – that was in a really different era. This is the third book I read for Women in Translation Month.

The story told in ‘Goodbye Tsugumi‘ goes like this. Maria lives with her mother, aunt and uncle, and two cousins, Yōko and Tsugumi, in a seaside town. Her aunt and uncle run an inn there, and tourists generally come and stay in their inn during summer. Maria’s father lives in Tokyo. He is right now involved in a divorce battle with his first wife. Once things are finalized on that front, he hopes to take Maria and her mother to Tokyo so that they can live together as a family. Maria, Yōko and Tsugumi are close friends, but are very different from each other. Yōko is the nice person, the angel. Tsugumi is the sharp-tongued one. But there is something about Tsugumi. She has a permanent health condition. She falls ill frequently. She hides her physical vulnerability behind her sharp tongue. But behind that sharp-tongued girl, there is a strong person who is fearless, and who has a heart of gold. One day Maria’s father arrives and says that everything has been resolved and Maria and her mother can now come and live with him in Tokyo. Maria and her mother move out. Maria starts going to college. One day Tsugumi calls her and says that her parents are going to sell off the inn and this would be their last summer there. She invites Maria to come and spend that summer with them. Maria accepts. That summer, the last one, turns out to be unforgettable. What happens during that summer forms the rest of the story.

I loved ‘Goodbye Tsugumi‘. Tsugumi is one of the great characters – her sharp tongue, not showing respect for anyone, her readiness to fight for a good cause and go to any extent for it, her sense of humour and her love for pranks, and the way she goes to all lengths to make a prank look real, the way she goes beyond her physical limitations and pain and tries to live life to the full – it is beautiful and inspiring to watch. Yōko is wonderful and one of the nicest people one can meet within the pages of a book. This book is such a beautiful love letter to the joy of friendships. The friendships between Maria and Tsugumi, and Maria and Yōko are beautifully portrayed in the book – they are very different and each friendship is unique in its own way. Kyōichi appears a little later in the book and his relationship to Tsugumi which borders between friendship and love is also wonderfully portrayed in the book. Banana Yoshimoto’s prose flows so smoothly that the pages just fly. I finished reading the book in a day which rarely happens for me.

Most of the story is set in the seaside town and I loved the descriptions of the sea and its surroundings. It made me think of some of my favourite descriptions of the sea. To tempt you with more, I’m giving below a description of the sea from this book and from another of my favourite books, ‘Promise at Dawn‘ by Romain Gary. Do tell me which one you like more.

From ‘Goodbye Tsugumi‘ by Banana Yoshimoto

“It’s a marvelous thing, the ocean. For some reason when two people sit together looking out at it, they stop caring whether they talk or stay silent. You never get tired of watching it. And no matter how rough the waves get, you’re never bothered by the noise the water makes or by the commotion of the surface – it never seems too loud, or too wild…the ocean had always been there, in the good times as well as the bad times of my life, when it was sweltering out and the beach was filled with people, and in the dead of winter when the sky was heavy with stars…it remained just as it was, fanning out around the edge of our town and zooming quietly off into the distance, the tide rising and falling just as it always did, no matter what…And it seemed to me that even if you weren’t actively letting your emotions ride its surface, the ocean still went on giving you something, teaching you some sort of lesson.”

From ‘Promise at Dawn‘ by Romain Gary

“My first contact with the sea was unforgettable. I had never met anything or anybody, except my mother, who had a more profound effect on me. I am unable to think of the sea as a mere “it” – for me she is the most living, animated, expressive, meaningful, living thing under the sun. I know that she carries the answer to all our questions, if only we could break her coded message, understand what she tries persistently to tell us. Nothing can really happen to me as long as I can let myself fall on some ocean shore. Its salt is like a taste of eternity to my lips. I love it deeply and completely, and it is the only love which gives me peace.”

So which one do you like more? Is it Banana Yoshimoto or Romain Gary? Do share your thoughts.

In a story like this in which the lead character has a permanent health condition, the inevitable happens in the end and the dreaded phone call arrives. As the narrator picks up the phone, and the author pauses with her pen hovering over paper, contemplating on the fate of her lead character, our heart leaps from joy to heartbreak, from agony to ecstasy, as we go through the whole spectrum of emotions, and we hope and pray that the author decides to do the right thing and saves us from heartbreak. What happens at the other end of the phone call? I am not going to tell you that, of course. You have to read the book and find out.

I’ll leave you with two more of my favourite passages from the book.

“Love is the kind of thing that’s already happening by the time you notice it, that’s how it works, and no matter how old you get, that doesn’t change. Except that you can break it up into two entirely distinct types – love where there’s an end in sight and love where there isn’t. People in love understand that better than anyone. When there’s no end in sight, it means you’re headed for something huge.”

“This world of ours is piled high with farewells and goodbyes of so many different kinds, like the evening sky renewing itself again and again from one instant to the next – and I didn’t want to forget a single one.”

Well, that’s it πŸ™‚ I loved ‘Goodbye Tsugumi‘. It is one of my favourite books of the year. I want to read more Banana Yoshimoto now. ‘Kitchen‘ and ‘N.P.‘ are recommended by every Yoshimoto fan I know. I am hoping to read them soon.

Have you read ‘Goodbye Tsugumi‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Banana Yoshimoto book?

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I have wanted to read a Banana Yoshimoto book for a long time since one of my friends recommended it. I got ‘Moshi Moshi‘ as a present from one of my friends and I decided to read it this week. This is my second book for WIT Month.

In ‘Moshi Moshi‘, the narrator Yoshie starts the story by describing the neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa in Tokyo. She quotes a description of Shimokitazawa, that a character gives in a movie. It goes like this :

“The clutter of streets and buildings, which seem to have been left to spread and grow without any thought – they sometimes appear very beautiful, like a bird eating a flower, or a cat jumping down gracefully from a height. I feel that what might seem at first sight to be carelessness and disorder in fact expresses the purest parts of our unconscious.
“When we start something new, at first it is very muddy, and clouded.
“But soon, it becomes a clear stream, whose flow conducts itself quietly, through spontaneous movements.”

Yoshie then describes how she ended up moving there. Her father had died under mysterious circumstances. It looks like he had a suicide pact with an unknown woman who might have been his lover. Yoshie and her mother are shocked and heartbroken. After the funeral is over and things have settled down, Yoshie moves out of her parents’ home into a small apartment in Shimokitazawa. She gets a job in a bistro which is opposite her apartment. Michiyo-san runs the bistro and she is an amazing chef. Yoshie admires her and loves working with her. While Yoshie tries to settle down into her new life, one day her mother walks in. Her mother says that she can no longer live in their family home and she wants to stay with Yoshie for a while. After some initial hesitation, Yoshie agrees. And thus starts a new phase in their relationship when the mother and the daughter start treating each other like friends and roommates. And then things start happening. People who knew something about Yoshie’s father stop by and start revealing secrets. Yoshie starts having a dream about her father. She feels it might be her father’s ghost trying to talk to her. Then a handsome man starts visiting the bistro and tries courting Yoshie.

Is Yoshie able to come out of her grief and get on with her life? What about her mother? How do they handle the secrets that come tumbling out? Is it really her father’s ghost which is trying to talk to Yoshie? Does Yoshie respond to the handsome man’s courting and is she able to find love in her life? The answers to these are found in the rest of the story.

I am glad I read my first Banana Yoshimoto book. I liked ‘Moshi Moshi‘ very much. It is a beautiful, poignant portrait of a family in mourning, how the family members handle grief and the surprising revelations about their loved one, and how they come out of grief and get back to their normal lives, and how their loved ones and kind strangers help them in their journey. It is also a beautiful love letter to food and to the beautiful place called Shimokitazawa. Michiyo-san, the chef in the bistro was one of my favourite characters in the book – she is such a beautiful person who elevates cooking to an art and creates perfection in the kitchen and delivers it on the plate. There is a four-page afterword at the end of the book in which Banana Yoshimoto shares her thoughts on the book and how some of it might have been inspired by her own father and how some of the old, beautiful, traditional places in Shimokitazawa are closing down now. She also talks about how there is a real-life Michiyo-san (her name is Yoshizawa-san) who ran a bistro in Shimokitazawa and how she is still running a restaurant in Tokyo which is doing very well and how her barley salad still tastes of life. Well, if I ever visit Tokyo, I want to meet Yoshizawa-san and try her barley salad. That afterword made me love the book and Banana Yoshimoto even more.

I had just one problem with the book. This is a spoiler and so please be forewarned. Without revealing much, I found the way the main character overanalyzes and talks herself out of a relationship with a man who looks perfect for her, and talks herself into a relationship with a man who is unsuitable for her – I found that too forced and somehow tacked in. I felt that it didn’t hang in comfortably with the rest of the story.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

Context : This is spoken by Yoshie’s mother to Yoshie

“The main thing I’m careful of is to really take my time when I’m walking. Go slowly, like I used to when I was a student. Because that’s all I’ve got now. Time.
“You know how the flow of time through a day slows down around late afternoon, and then quickens again after the sun goes down? I finally recovered my ability to sense it, recently, and now I can get in touch with that flow each day.
“I can sense the border between when time dribbles on and stretches, like a warm rice cake, and when it suddenly pulls in tight, and speeds up again. I love being able to do that. I look forward to it every day.
“I’d forgotten about it, you know? Even though when I was a kid, I sensed it no problem, even if I stayed inside all day.
“That’s the kind of phase I’m in right now. I want to let myself take in the flow of time again, without having to think or worry about anything.”

Context : This is spoken by Yamazaki-san, a family friend, to Yoshie

“My old mother’s nearly ninety, but each year in spring she still puts up vegetable preserves – cooks them down into tsukudani with soy sauce, sweet rice wine, and sugar. And each year, when I taste that familiar flavour, we both know it could be the last time she makes the spring tsukudani. But that’s just thoughts. When my mother gets a bumper crop of butterbur or prickly ash, she just gets to it, starts cooking, even if it’s hard work. She’s not thinking about what might happen next year. The great thing about the everyday is that we don’t care about next year, as long as the tsukudani turns out good this spring. So I let go, too, and instead of getting maudlin over every mouthful, I just say, Mom, your tsukudani’s so good, it’s the best, I’m so glad I get to eat it again this year, it makes rice taste so good. And I think there’s a case to be made for you finding your appetite for enjoying that kind of happiness.”

I loved Banana Yoshimoto’sMoshi Moshi‘. I can’t wait to read more of her books. Have you read ‘Moshi Moshi‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Banana Yoshimoto book?

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This is the first book I read for WIT Month. I discovered ‘Land of Smoke‘ by Sara Gallardo by accident, while browsing in the bookshop. A beautiful, serendipitous discovery. I have never heard of Sara Gallardo before – she is an Argentinian writer, and this is the first book of hers to be translated into English.

Land of Smoke‘ is a collection of short stories. It was originally published in Spanish in 1977. It has 46 stories. Some of them are short shorts, sometimes they are just a page long, while others are a bit long at around 20 pages. The book is divided into sections, with stories under the same theme grouped together. For example, there is a section where nature – mountains, seas, clouds – plays a big part. There is a section in which the stories are about animals, there is a section about horses, another about trains. I loved this arrangement – it was quite interesting.

I loved the book overall. But I loved some of the stories more than the others. Here is a brief description of some of my favourites.

On the Mountain – This is the first story in the book. A soldier is trapped in a mountain in the middle of a battle. He is injured and he can’t walk. He is saved by another man, who seems to be living there. This strange man, doesn’t talk. Or he doesn’t want to talk. What happens after that? Does the soldier recover? Does this host who saves him talk to him? Who is this stranger who lives in the mountain? And what is this beast which sometimes knocks at their cave in the middle of the night? You have to read the story to find out.

Georgette and the General – A general who goes to Europe, comes back with a French girl, who is his lover. He builds a separate house for her in the middle of nowhere, and visits her often. He is married and has his own family with whom he lives elsewhere. This French girl’s name is Georgette. What happens to Georgette for the rest of her life, forms the rest of the story. It is beautiful, poignant and heartbreaking.

Things Happen – A man who lives in a particular street has a beautiful garden which is the envy of his neighbours. One day morning he wakes up to the sound of water drops hitting his house’s windows. He thinks it is raining. But when he walks to the window to see what is happening, he discovers that his whole house with the garden is floating in the middle of the ocean. Our man thinks that he is either dreaming or he is having a hallucination. So he goes back to sleep. But when he gets up there is no change. His house is still floating in the ocean and the waves are spraying water drops on his windows. It is unbelievable. How did this happen? Is the man able to get off the ocean onto solid land? You should read the story to find out.

But on the island – Two cats explore the city and they end up in the zoological park. There they discover their cousins, the bigger cats the lions. They slowly start understanding the lions’ language. And one day they help one of the younger lions to escape. Are these three – two small cats and one big one – able to enjoy their freedom and live happily everafter? The rest of the story tells us what happened.

A Lawn – We see the world through the eyes of a lawn and it is incredibly beautiful. I cried when I read the last lines of the story.

White Glory – White Glory is one of the great horses of his time, but his master sells him off. While being transported in a train, there is an accident, and White Glory ends up in the wild. What happens after that is glorious and White Glory is magnificent.

CristΓ³bal the giant – CristΓ³bal is a giant-sized person who is also innocent and simple. He wants to find a master to serve. One day he meets a general and requests to serve him. The general gives him an impossible task. What happens after that and the way CristΓ³bal discovers new things about life forms the rest of the story.

White Flowers – A one-page story which describes the life of a normal, everyday person. Very fascinating.

The Great Night of the Trains – There are trains which are put out of service and are abandoned near the tracks. What people don’t know is that these trains have their own lives and personalities and memories and dreams. One day, these abandoned trains all get together and decide to rebel. What happens after that is the rest of the story. It gave me goosebumps.

A Loner – A restaurant closes down. Most people, both the customers and employees, move on. But it affects some of the customers, who are introverts and loners and reclusives, quite deeply. What they do about it forms the rest of the story. This story is a beautiful love letter to solitude and to introverts and reclusives and it stands up there with Emily Maguire’s essay ‘Solitude is Bliss‘. I loved this story so much.

I loved ‘Land of Smoke‘. One of the descriptions of the book is that it is hallucinatory. I think that is a perfect description of the book. I loved the way how sometimes nature plays a bigger role in the story than the human characters. I also loved the way how Sara Gallardo has sometimes told a story from an unusual perspective, making us see the world in new ways – for example, from the perspective of the lawn, the horse, the abandoned trains – it is fascinating. This is a book to be read slowly, lingered on and savoured. I am glad that I discovered a new Argentinian writer who has become one of my favourites now. I can’t wait to read my next Sara Gallardo book.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘Things Happen

“When watering his garden, how many times had he enjoyed watching the ants struggling in the currents from his hose? Now he thought of them differently. Supposing for a moment a sea god actually existed, the Neptune of the ancients the boy joked about on television, wouldn’t he get the same pleasure directing men and their boats as he had spinning the insects, occasionally saving some because of their beauty or harmlessness, in a momentary good mood? Harmless or beautiful from whose point of view? The gardener’s. But doubtless there were others.”

From ‘Phases of the Moon

“It also isn’t pleasant to change horses just like that. A horse is someone you get used to, someone who gets used to you. But to arrive at a human settlement and get permission to leave the tired horse, choose another and free it when you reach your destination because it can return home on its own, is an impediment to the heart’s affection. You can’t even get used to a horse.”

From ‘The Thirty-Three Wives of Emperor Blue Stone

“Old age is a drunkenness. I’ve lost my teeth but influence nourishes me. I plait my white hair. What would be plaited without me?”

“I gave myself up to mystery.
What was it?
A path of darkness
to a land that perhaps does not exist.
I am faithful. I persevere.”

From ‘An Embroiderer

“He told a colleague that as a young man, he had embroidered cloth. But that now there was no difference between the embroiderer and the embroidered, that when embroidering he was embroidered, that the embroidery embroidered him and he the embroidery.”

From ‘A Loner

“Ever since he was young, Frin had invested all the effort many use to get a good job into the opposite, avoiding one.”

Have you read Sara Gallardo’sLand of Smoke‘? What do you think about it? Who is your favourite Argentine writer?

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I went to a play last weekend – or rather it was an event in which a scene or a part of a scene from many plays was performed by one actor. A couple of scenes from two Sartre plays were performed. When I came back home, I had a deep urge to read a book by Sartre. I decided to pick his memoir ‘The Words‘. I had two translations of ‘The Word’. I chose one of them using a homegrown method and read it. More on this later in the post.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote his memoir ‘The Words‘ when he was fifty-nine. But the book covers only the first ten years of his life. In the book, Sartre talks about his grandparents on both sides and how they met and how his parents met, how his fascination for the printed word started at a very young age, how he could read books before he joined school properly. During the course of his memoir, Sartre touches on his relationship with his mother (he says that his mother was like his elder sister and so their relationship was more like that of siblings – it is very beautifully described – the scene which describes how Sartre’s mother read a book to him for the very first time and the transformation that happened to her, and the magic that happened, is one of my favourite parts of the book) and with his grandparents, the history of Alsace-Lorraine and how it was related to his grandparents, his favourite books when he was young, his love for films, how he became a writer and other things. In the second part of the book, Sartre flits between the past and the present, but he mostly stays in the past. The first part of the book is called ‘Reading‘ and the second part of the book is called ‘Writing‘. I liked the first part of the book more, because it had a narrative interspersed with introspective thoughts. The second part of the book had a light narrative and was heavier on introspective thoughts. Normally I would like the introspective part more, but this time, maybe because I was in an annoyed mood because I was upset with something and I wanted to rush through the book, the second part looked harder and I had to plod through. Maybe if I had read it with a calmer mind, my experience might have been better.

The Words‘ is a very interesting book. People have compared it with Rousseau’sConfessions‘ and have called it a masterful work of self analysis. The edition I read was around 250 pages long and it had big font with generous spacing between the lines, giving an illusion that it would be easy going and could be read fast. It was, of course, exactly that – an illusion. It was deceptive. The book demands our attention, invites us to pause at important passages and linger there, and rewards us if we do. There were so many beautiful passages in the book that my highlighting pen didn’t stop working. It is not a regular memoir and it is definitely not a straightforward narrative, and so it is not for everyone. But if you have time and you read slowly and persevere, it will unfold its beauty and secrets and reward you.

Now on the translations. One of them was by Bernard Frechtman and the other one was by Irene Clephane. I was undecided on which one to read. I did a test read of both of them for a few pages and then finally decided to read the first one by Bernard Frechtman. When I highlighted a passage that I loved, I went back to the other translation and read that passage and compared the two translations. It was fun πŸ™‚ In the picture below, the book on the left is the Bernard Frechtman translation and the book on the right is the Irene Clephane translation.

I thought I’ll ask you which translation you liked more πŸ™‚ So I took out some of my favourite sentences from the first few pages, from the two translations, and am giving them below. Do tell me which translation you like more. Do also tell me which you think is closer to the French original.

Sentence 1 :

Translation 1 :

“Around 1850, in Alsace, a schoolteacher with more children than he could afford was willing to become a grocer.”

Translation 2 :

“In Alsace, round about 1850, a schoolmaster, burdened with children, agreed to become a grocer.”

Sentence 2 :

Translation 1 :

“…all his life he retained a passion for the sublime and put his heart and soul into manufacturing great circumstances out of little events.”

Translation 2 :

“…all his life, he preserved a taste for the sublime and turned his energies to elevating trivial incidents into great occasions.”

Sentence 3 :

Translation 1 :

“That lively and shrewd but cold woman thought straight but inaccurately, because her husband thought accurately but amiss.”

Translation 2 :

“This sharp-tongued, lively, cold woman had clear but wrong opinions, because her husband had right but muddled ones.”

Sentence 4 :

Translation 1 :

“She saw nobody, being too proud to court favor for first place and too vain to be content with second.”

Translation 2 :

“She did not see anyone, because she was too proud to covet first place and too vain to accept the second.”

So, what do you think? Translation 1 or Translation 2? Bernard Frechtman or Irene Clephane?

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“What I have just written is false. True. Neither true nor false, like everything written about madmen, about men. I have reported the facts as accurately as my memory permitted me. But to what extent did I believe in my delirium? That’s the basic question, and yet I can’t tell. I realized later we can know everything about our attachments except their force, that is, their sincerity. Acts themselves cannot serve as a measuring-rod unless one has proved that they are not gestures, which is not always easy.”

“The social hierarchy of the theatre had given my grandfather and late father, who were accustomed to second balconies, a taste for ceremonial. When many people are together, they must be separated by rites; otherwise, they slaughter each other. The movies proved the opposite. This mingled audience seemed united by a catastrophe rather than a festivity. Etiquette, now dead, revealed the true bond among men : adhesion. I developed a dislike for ceremonies, I loved crowds. I have seen crowds of all kinds, but the only other time I had witnessed that nakedness, that sense of everyone’s direct relationship to everyone else, that waking dream, that dim consciousness of the danger of being a man, was in 1940, in Stalag XII D.”

“But the fact is this : apart from a few old men who dip their pens in eau de Cologne and little dandies who write like butchers, all writers have to sweat. That’s due to the nature of the Word : one speaks in one’s own language, one writes in a foreign language. I conclude from this that we’re all alike in our profession : we’re all galley-slaves, we’re all tattooed.”

“Middle-aged writers don’t like to be praised too earnestly for their early work; but I’m the one, I’m sure of it, who’s pleased least of all by such compliments. My best book is the one I’m in the process of writing; right after it comes the last one that was published, but I’m secretly getting ready to be disgusted with it before long. If the critics should now think it’s bad, they may wound me, but in six months I’ll be coming around to their opinion. But on one condition : however poor and worthless they consider the book, I want them to rank it above all my previous work. I’m willing to let them run down my whole output, provided they maintain the chronological hierarchy, the only one that leaves me a chance to do better tomorrow, still better the day after, and to end with a masterpiece.”

Have you read Jean-Paul Sartre’sThe Words‘? What do you think about it?

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