Archive for the ‘Literature Month’ Category

I wanted to start this month by reading some history. So I read Max Hastings‘ book on the Korean War.

The Korean War was probably the first war in the Cold War era when Western and communist forces clashed on the battlefield. It is not as famous as the Vietnam War, and it is mostly forgotten today. But though the Vietnam War has passed on to history and legend today, with the country filled with bustling cities with tall skyscrapers like any other East Asian city, the fires of the Korean War are still smoldering today, with North Korea and South Korea being two separate, distinct countries, with tension brewing in between. So I thought it will be a good idea to read this book and find out how it all started.

One of the problems I had while choosing to read a particular history of the Korean War was this. Most history books which are available in English today are written by American or British historians. Occasionally, we might find a French or German book in English translation, but otherwise this is it. (There are lots of books on Indian history in English by Indian historians and writers, but that is a unique case, and so I’m going to ignore that for the purposes of our discussion.) So, because of this, a typical history book in English is going to have a British or American bias. Of course, historians try to be neutral, and try to provide the relevant facts, with objective analysis, but the bias always creeps in. For example, a typical British or American version of the Korean War could go like this – “The army of the evil Chinese empire, joined together with the North Koreans and tried to take over the whole of Korea. The heroic American army intervened with the help of friends and helped the South Korean people. In a furious war waged between the armies of the free world and of the communist totalitarians, the noble armies of the free world triumphed. That is why we have a democratic, free South Korea today, which is one of the biggest Asian economies, while totalitarian North Korea is poor and primitive.” This is the kind of history which is peddled by the international press, and media, and this is the history which most of us are aware of. So I was worried that a history of the war by an American or British historian would be a version of this. Maybe a sophisticated version, but still very similar to this.

So, what about Max Hastings’ book? How good is it? There is good news and bad news.

The good news first. I thought that the context that Hastings gave to the war with the background into Korean history of that period and how the Japanese occupied Korea and how the division of Korea into the North and the South happened – this is very well done. I learnt a lot while reading this. The actual war is described from a Western perspective, but to be fair to Hastings, he doesn’t hesitate to criticize the decisions by American leaders and military personnel. (He mostly treats British leaders and army personnel softly with kid gloves, which is very interesting 😊)  Occasionally he also describes things from a Chinese perspective, based on his interviews with Chinese veterans. There are many stories of heroism and valour and sacrifice during the war, mostly of the American and British and other UN soldiers, and occasionally of the Chinese soldiers which are very inspiring and moving to read. There is considerable space given to the American General Douglas MacArthur and his role in the war and how his decisions impacted events. It made me want to read more about MacArthur. The only things I know about him are that he was famous, he was featured in an American postage stamp, and he was suddenly dismissed by his President Truman. MacArthur looks like a fascinating, larger-than-life character, whom people loved or hated, but couldn’t ignore. I hope to read more about him. This is the good news.

Now the bad news 😊 The North Koreans are mostly treated as a mass of homogeneous, evil people, who are ruthless and barbaric. Though there is a lot of description of individual American or British soldiers, there is no mention of an individual North Korean by name. Except for Kim Il Sung. The North Koreans are regarded as a primitive, evil horde who are uncivilized and the author probably feels that they deserved what was coming to them. The Chinese soldiers are also mostly depicted this way – as an evil horde who keep on coming and fighting in the night. The Chinese get slightly better treatment though – individual Chinese soldiers are sometimes mentioned and the author is able to interview them and we learn their stories. One of the reasons for this could be that North Korean veterans of the war would have been inaccessible to Western correspondents, as their country was closed and continues to be closed to outsiders today. The same would have been true with respect to Chinese veterans, but there was a thaw between the Chinese and the West in the 1970s, which continued into the 1980s, when Hastings wrote this book, and so he would have been able to speak to some of the Chinese veterans of the war. But, inspite of this small silver lining, it is hard to ignore the fact that the North Koreans and the Chinese are treated as barbaric, primitive, evil hordes, who are out to destroy the beautiful freedom created by Western countries.

So, the book describes the Western perspective of the Korean War. It is detailed from that perspective. We get the occasional Chinese perspective. But the perspective from the opposite side is mostly simplistic or missing. But we can read the book against the grain, look at the author’s conclusions and try to see things from the opposite side. It is lots of hardwork, but it is interesting and rewarding. I do agree with the overall conclusion of the author though – that the American and UN intervention in Korea was good and South Korea is a thriving country today with a booming economy and it is a global leader in popular culture because of that. (Though why the Chinese didn’t take North Korea under their wing, make investments there and make it into a thriving economy, the way the Americans helped South Korea – why this didn’t happen, we’ll never know. What is the purpose of keeping North Korea closed and stuck in a Cold War era time warp? It doesn’t help anyone, including the North Koreans and the Chinese.)

I found Max Hastings’ book on the Korean War very informative and insightful, inspite of its limitations. I loved what Max Hastings said in his introduction to the book – “It is properly the business of a new generation of historians to correct the errors which have inevitably emerged over the past three decades, in light of updated statistics and declassified material. Authors addressing the subject anew must review and challenge my judgements as they see fit.” That is what a good historian says – that history is open to new interpretations as new facts emerge in the future, and his version is neither definite nor final. This made me like Max Hastings.

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

This story made me cry.

“Suk Bun Yoon, the fourteen-year-old schoolboy who had twice escaped from Seoul under communist occupation, was living with the remains of his family as suppliants upon the charity of a village south of the capital in the spring of 1951. A government mobilisation decree was suddenly thrust upon the village: twenty able-bodied men were required for military service. Suk’s family was offered a simple proposal by the villagers: if the boy would go to the army in place of one of their own, they would continue to feed his parents.

An American army truck bore him and the other bewildered young men first to Seoul, and then on up the dusty road towards the front. They spent a night in an old station warehouse, where they were given chocolate and a can of corned beef. It was the first meat the boy had tasted for six months, and was impossibly rich. He was sick at once. Next morning, after five hours on the road, he and a cluster of others were deposited at the camp of the Royal Ulster Rifles. He was not to be a soldier, but a porter under military discipline. He found himself joining a unit of some forty porters attached to the battalion. His first job was to carry a coil of barbed wire up to the forward positions. It was hopeless. He was too young, and too weak. The corporal in charge took pity on him. He was assigned to become a sweeper and odd-job boy at the rear echelon. Yet life remained desperately hard. Each night, the porters were confined to their hut, yet they were sometimes awakened amid the sound of the gunfire to carry ammunition or equipment forward. One day, they found themselves hastily ordered back to a new position. Suk scarcely understood what was happening, beyond the confusion of retreat. Gradually, he and the others understood that there had been a battle, and heavy casualties. Around half the porters had disappeared, captured or killed.

After the battle, the porters’ conditions seemed to improve. Suk became more accustomed to the life, and determined to educate himself. As he learned a little English, he questioned the soldiers incessantly: What was the longest river in the world? Which was the highest mountain? How was England governed? Since in later life he became a professor of economics, this experiment cannot be considered a complete failure. The soldiers called him ‘Spaniard’, because he had a reputation for hot temper. Yet when the Ulsters were relieved and he found himself attached to the Royal Norfolks, conditions deteriorated again. He was caught scavenging for food, roughly handled, and sent for a spell in a barbed-wire cage. He was then sacked from his job as a porter at battalion headquarters, and sent to the pioneer platoon, where he spent several more months.

‘I was very homesick,’ he said. ‘By February 1952, I was on the verge of a mental breakdown. The only letter I had sent to my family was returned undelivered. I was missing them desperately.’ That month, he was given leave to Seoul. He reached the capital determined not to go back to the front. He contacted some of his old schoolmates, and in April was able to arrange to return to school – a school without books or desks. His only asset was a strong command of the English language which he had acquired on the hills behind the Imjin.”

This happened hours after the war ended and the armistice was signed. It made me smile  It also made me sad at the meaningless futility of war.

“When dawn came, men on the UN line peered out across the silent valleys between themselves and the Chinese. In many places, little clusters of bold spirits slipped forward through the wire and the minefields, searching with intense curiosity for their former enemies. What did they look like, these strange creatures who had been glimpsed only momentarily through binoculars, or as screaming shadows in the darkness of an attack? The same curiosity possessed their enemies. On the low ground between positions, there were stilted little encounters. The Chinese passed over beer and bottles of rice wine. UN troops offered chocolate and cigarettes. Some Chinese made it apparent that they were as delighted that the war was ended as the Westerners. But these meetings could scarcely be called fraternisation. They were impelled not by fellow-feeling for the enemy, but by the same impulses that would provoke any earthman to inspect visiting aliens.”

Have you read Max Hastings’ book on the Korean War or any other book on the Korean War?

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I discovered ‘Confessions‘ by Kanae Minato by accident. The plot was very appealing and so I picked it up.

The main character in the story is a teacher in middle school. One day her young daughter is found dead in the swimming pool behind the school. The verdict of the police is that she had drowned. But the teacher discovers that two of the students killed her daughter. She plans her revenge. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

When I started reading the book, I thought it would be a revenge thriller. I love a good old-fashioned revenge thriller, in which the good character plans a long, deep revenge on the bad guys and pulls it off. Who doesn’t love this kind of revenge thriller? But after I read the first part of the book, which stretches to around 50 pages, I realized that the story was mostly done and dusted. I wondered what the author was going to do in the next 200 pages. There was only so much you can do, when things are mostly done and dusted. It looked like the author had written herself into a corner. But Kanae Minato is smart, of course. If a simple reader like me can see this, then as a writer, she can see this much in advance. When I was wondering what was going to happen next, Kanae Minato does the Rashomon thing, and tells the story from different points of view. She takes the story forward from where the teacher left off, and we are able to see what transpires from the perspective of different characters. We are also able to delve into their past. This makes the book more than a revenge thriller, more than a regular crime novel. Before long, we start questioning the nature of good and evil, and we ask ourselves whether we can really tell whether someone is good or bad, or whether there is even such a thing. This makes the book complex and fascinating! The ending is surprising and I didn’t see that coming!

‘Confessions’ is a fascinating crime novel and revenge thriller, but it is also much more than that. It was a gripping read from the beginning to the end. Japanese writers are famous for their dark thrillers, and this is one of the good ones.

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

“I suppose everybody wants to be recognized for what they’ve done; everybody wants to be praised. But doing something good or remarkable isn’t easy. It’s much easier to condemn people who do the wrong thing than it is to do the right thing yourself. But even then, it takes a certain amount of courage to be the first one to come out and blame someone else. What if no one else joins you? No one else stands up to condemn the wrongdoer? On the other hand, it’s easy to join in condemning someone once someone else has gotten the ball rolling. You don’t even have to put yourself out there; all you have to do is say, “Me, too!” It doesn’t end there: You also get the benefit of feeling that you’re doing good by picking on someone evil—it can even be a kind of stress release. Once you’ve done it, though, you may find that you want that feeling again—that you need someone else to accuse just to get the rush back. You may have started with real bad guys, but the second time around you may have to look further down the food chain, be more and more creative in your charges and accusations. And at that point you’re pretty much conducting a witch hunt—just like in the Middle Ages. I think we regular people may have forgotten a basic truth—we don’t really have the right to judge anyone else.”

“Weak people find even weaker people to be their victims. And the victimized often feel that they have only two choices : put up with the pain or end their suffering in death. But they’re wrong. The world you live in is much bigger than that. If the place in which you find yourself is too painful, I say you should be free to seek another, less painful place of refuge. There is no shame in seeking a safe place. I want you to believe that somewhere in this wide world there is a place for you, a safe haven.”

“My father remarried the following year. I had turned eleven. His new wife, someone he had known in middle school, was pretty enough but she was also impossibly dumb. Here she was marrying the owner of an electronics store, and she couldn’t even tell the difference between AA and AAA batteries. Still, I found I didn’t really hate her. Mostly because she didn’t pretend: She was fully aware how stupid she was. When she didn’t know something, she just said so. If a customer asked her a difficult question, she would make a careful note of it and then ask my father before calling back with the answer. There was something admirable in this kind of stupidity. I took to calling her Miyuki-san, and the respect was genuine. I never once talked back to her or treated her like an evil stepmother, the way kids on those cheesy TV shows do. On the contrary, I was the model stepchild, finding a designer bag for her cheap on the Internet or going along with her to carry the grocery bags when she went shopping for dinner. I didn’t even mind when she showed up for Parents’ Day at school. I hadn’t mentioned it to her, but she must have heard from one of the other shopkeepers. Anyway, there she was, all dolled up and right in the middle of the front row. When I was at the blackboard solving some arithmetic problem that was too hard for the other kids, she took my picture with her phone, and then she showed it to my father when we got home—but I didn’t mind. To be honest, it made me kind of happy. Sometimes the three of us would go out bowling or to karaoke, and I began to realize that I was slowly becoming as stupid as they were—and that there was actually something unusually pleasant about being stupid. I had even begun to think that I could be happy being nothing more than a member of this family of dummies.”

Have you read ‘Confessions‘? What do you think? Have you read other Kanae Minato books?

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I’ve wanted to read a Junji Ito book for a while. So finally decided to read ‘Tomie‘ which was his first book.

High school students go on a hike up the mountain, as part of a class trip. One of them goes missing. Her name is Tomie. It is later discovered that she is dead, brutally murdered. No one knows who killed her. After her funeral, the students go back to class. Their teacher tells them that they have to be careful as the murderer hasn’t been caught yet. At that point, there is a knock on the door. Everyone looks at the class entrance, and who do they find? It is Tomie! She’s alive and kicking and acts as if nothing has happened! Some classmates feel that the dead person must be a different person and it was a case of mistaken identity. But other classmates seem to know something that we, the readers, don’t. They are sure that the real Tomie is dead. So according to them, there can be only two explanations. One is that the new Tomie is an impostor. The second is that Tomie has come back from the dead. The first explanation is simple and logical. It will probably lead to an old-fashioned revenge thriller. The second explanation is scary and offers delightful possibilities in the telling of the story. Junji Ito being the smart guy, chooses the second one. And we have this beautiful, scary, delightful 750+ page horror manga book.

There are 20 stories in the book. Some of them continue from where the previous story left off. Some of them tell new stories with the characters which appeared before. There are other stories which are independent, and which can be read as standalones. I loved stories from each of these categories, but I loved the standalones more. In some stories, Tomie does bad things or makes people around her do bad things. In other stories, Tomie is the victim and she suffers at the hand of others, and later she comes back to haunt her oppressors and take revenge. I liked the second kind of stories more. There were a few stories which were neither, which was very unusual in a horror book. Some of the third type of stories were very beautiful. Many of the stories were predictable in terms of plot, and relied on the horror aspect to create dramatic effect. Some of them were unusual and surprising though. Some stories seemed to be a nod to other famous horror stories and fairytales.

I enjoyed reading most of the stories in the book, but I loved some more than others. One of my favourites was ‘Little Finger‘. In this story, a few brothers do bad things (won’t tell you more) and call their youngest brother to clean things up. This youngest brother is very ugly. While he is cleaning up his brothers’ nasty deeds, the law comes after him, and he ends up living in a cave. Strange things happen in the cave, and five ghostly women rise from there. Four of them are pretty and one of them is ugly. The pretty ones taunt and torture the ugly one. When this youngest brother sees that, he fights for the ugly one and defends her. This woman falls in love with him. She is a strange being though, and she is not human. What happens after that is told in the rest of the story. It is a very unusual love story. It makes us think of ‘Beauty and the Beast‘.

In another of my favourite stories, ‘Boy‘, a boy is wandering in the beach, when he finds a cave. Inside the cave is a young woman who is in bad shape. The boy brings food and clothes for her and the woman recovers. She treats the boy like her own son and the boy treats her like his mom. But the boy has his own real mother. And this new mother is unusual and may not even be human…

I’ll write about one more favourite story. It is called ‘Waterfall Basin‘. In this story, a travelling salesman comes to a village. He sells a strange package and says that it will bring people happiness. People refuse to buy anything from him. Then, one villager relents, and buys a small package from him. And, of course, only one thing can happen after that. All hell breaks loose. This story made me think of Stephen King’sNeedful Things‘, which has a very similar overall plot, though both these stories are very different in details.

The artwork in the book is very interesting – it changes in style depending on the way the mood of the story changes. When the plot moves, the artwork is simple and straightforward. But when the situation gets intense, and scary things start happening, the artwork is intricate and detailed and is beautiful and also gives us nightmares at the same time. Have shared some of the pages from the book, below. Have avoided the more scarier ones.

From the story ‘Moromi‘ – Part 1
From the story ‘Moromi‘ – Part 2

I enjoyed reading ‘Tomie’. I loved the stories in which Tomie is the good person and suffers at the hand of bad guys and later comes back to haunt them. Of course, these stories are not as simple as I’ve described them, but I loved them. I don’t think I’d have loved this book as much, if I had read it when I was younger. I remember reading Charles Burns’Black Hole‘ many years back. It was too dark for me and gave me nightmares and I never went near his books again. ‘Tomie’ is ten times more darker and more scarier. Being older and wiser now (or maybe the mind has become numb, after watching series like ‘Game of Thrones’), I could resist the impact of the violent scenes, and appreciate the beautiful scenes. Luckily, the last few days, while I was reading the book, I didn’t get any nightmares. It would have been scary to hear Tomie’s whisper in my dreams and then feel someone prodding me, and then get up in the middle of the night to see Tomie sitting next to me laughing in a nasty way. Doesn’t mean that it won’t happen tonight and Tomie won’t step out from the pages of the book into the real world. But I hope and pray it doesn’t happen. Please pray for me.

I read in Junji Ito’s afterword to the book that he used to work in a dentist’s office during the day, and work on ‘Tomie’ during the night. It is interesting to contemplate on – that he was a regular guy with a regular job, but when the sun set and he came home in the evening, he dreamt of terrifying fantasies and put them in this book to scare us. Life is always surprising!

Junji Ito is one of the legends of horror manga. There are two more famous books of his – ‘Uzumaki‘ and ‘Gyo‘. I’ve heard Junji Ito fans saying that ‘Uzumaki’ is their favourite. I’m hoping to read that, the next time I feel brave enough.

This book is not for everyone. If you are not a horror fan and you find these things scary and they give you nightmares, please stay away from this book. But if you are a horror fan, this is 750 pages of pure pleasure. Go read it now.

Have you read ‘Tomie’? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Junji Ito book?

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Time for the next Natsume Sōseki book 😊 This time it is ‘Botchan‘.

Our narrator Botchan has just graduated in mathematics. He gets a job as a maths teacher in a school in a remote town. He is a person who makes casual, spontaneous decisions, and so accepts it. Though he has always been a city boy and has lived in Tokyo all his life, he doesn’t think too much about the challenges he’ll be facing. When he lands in the new town and the new school, interesting things start happening. People gossip about him behind his back. There is the internecine politics, of course, which is always there in every school, and teachers try to plot and stab behind each other’s backs. There are good people too, of course, and they help our Botchan. What happens in this small town and how Botchan navigates this forms the rest of the story.

‘Botchan’ is very different from the other Sōseki novels I’ve read till now. It seems to be based on Sōseki’s own experience as a teacher in a small town. There is a focus on the events and the plot throughout the book. Our narrator Botchan has a sharp sense of humour and he makes us laugh many times. There is a woman called Kiyo who works as a maid and a governess in Botchan’s house till he leaves to go to work. She treats him as her own son, and their relationship is depicted beautifully in the book. There is a landlady who comes in the second part of the book and she’s also a fascinating character. Botchan’s fellow teacher and friend, whom he calls ‘The Porcupine’ is also one of my favourite characters from the book.

I enjoyed reading ‘Botchan’. It is a great place to start for readers who are new to Sōseki, and for readers who are intimidated by his contemplative works like ‘The Three-Cornered World’.

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

“…when somebody treats you to something and you make no effort to decline it, whether it’s a dish of shaved ice, a cup of sweet tea, or whatever, well, it shows the kind of respect and goodwill you have for that person. The sense of gratitude that you feel in your heart when you accept a favor from someone, which you could easily have avoided by paying your own way, is a form of giving back that goes beyond anything that money could buy. I may not have the kind of title or position that will impress people, but I’m still a free, full-grown human being. And when such a person finds you worthy of respect, you should consider it something more precious than a fortune in gold.”

“Of course, I’d been involved in my share of pranks myself when I was in middle school, but when they asked me whether I was the one who did it, I would never, ever try to weasel out of it. If I did it, I did it, and if I didn’t, I didn’t; that’s all there was to it. No matter how much mischief I was involved in, I still had my honor. If you’re just going to lie your way out of the punishment afterward, well, you shouldn’t have done anything to begin with. Mischief and punishment go hand in hand – it’s knowing that the punishment comes with it that makes it fun to dare to do the mischief. Did they really think that there was some low-down country out there where people could play tricks and then claim immunity from the consequences?”

“I had already come to the conclusion that I wasn’t the kind of person that anybody could like and it didn’t bother me at all if people treated me as if I was just a block of wood, which only made me wonder all the more why Kiyo fussed over me the way she did. Sometimes when she was in the kitchen and nobody else was around, she would praise me for having what she called ‘a fine, upstanding character.’ I had no idea what she meant, though. I figured that if I really had such a fine character, other people should be treating me a little better. Whenever Kiyo said something like that, I’d tell her that I couldn’t stand being flattered. Then she’d say that it just showed how fine my character really was, and gaze at me adoringly. She seemed to be taking pride in some version of me that she’d created all by herself. There was something almost creepy about it.”

Have you read ‘Botchan’? What do you think about it?

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After reading my first Natsume Sōseki novel and loving it, I decided to read another. I decided to pick up ‘Kokoro‘.

In ‘Kokoro’, a young man meets an older man at the beach. Before long they have a conversation. The young man feels a kind of magnetic pull towards the older man. He calls him Sensei. And soon Sensei becomes like a mentor to him. But Sensei seems to be a mysterious person. Something tragic seems to have happened in his past. Which he refuses to reveal to his new protégé. The story starts like this. What happens after this and the events which unfurl and the past secrets which are revealed form the rest of the story.

‘Kokoro’ means ‘heart’ in Japanese. This story is about the complexities, the contradictions, and the unfathomable depths of the human heart. It is a tragic, heartbreaking story of love, of friendship, of betrayal.

I enjoyed reading ‘Kokoro’. It was very different from ‘The Three-Cornered World’ (‘Kusamakura’). Reading ‘Kokoro’ made me realize that my first impression was correct, that Natsume Sōseki is my guy, that he’s my favourite Japanese author of that time.

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

“I may be simply repeating what has always been known, but I do believe that for love to grow there must first be the impact of novelty. Between two people who have always known each other, that necessary stimulus can never be felt. Like the first whiff of burning incense, or like the taste of one’s first cup of saké, there is in love that moment when all its power is felt. There may be fondness, but not love, between two people who have come to know each other well without ever having grasped that moment.”

“You said just now that there was no one amongst your relatives that you would consider particularly bad. You seem to be under the impression that there is a special breed of bad humans. There is no such thing as a stereotype bad man in this world. Under normal conditions, everybody is more or less good, or, at least, ordinary. But tempt them, and they may suddenly change. That is what is so frightening about men. One must always be on one’s guard.”

Have you read ‘Kokoro’? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Natsume Sōseki novel?

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I’ve wanted to read ‘The Three-Cornered World‘ by Natsume Sōseki for a long time. I finally got around to reading it.

An artist is walking on a road through the mountains. He is there, because he wants to paint peacefully in solitude. It starts raining and he takes shelter in a small roadside shop. An old woman there offers him a cup of hot tea. While it rains, the two have a conversation. The artist asks about any place nearby where he can stay. The old woman tells him about a nearby inn. Later when the rain stops, the artist departs and sometime later reaches the inn. The inn is run by an old gentleman, and his beautiful, mysterious daughter. What happens after this forms the rest of the story.

This is just the story told in the book. But this is not what the book is about. When I finished reading the first page of the book, I was amazed. After reading the next few pages, I knew. That this was no ordinary book. And this was no ordinary writer. While reading those first pages, I got the same feeling of awe that I got when I had read some of my favourite writers and books – like Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’ and ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’, the finest pages in Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain’ and ‘Joseph and his Brothers’, Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’, Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’, and ‘The Moon and Six Pence’, Nicole Brossard’s ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’. I nearly highlighted every passage and every sentence in the first few pages. John Updike once said – “My reviewing habit, hard to break, was to quote extensively; just as the impossibly ideal map would be the same size as the territory mapped, the ideal review would quote the book in its entirety, without comment.” I found this true about my favourite books, about the most beautiful books I’ve read. I wanted to highlight every line, I wanted to quote every passage. That is what happened when I read ‘The Three-Cornered World’. I thought the beauty will stop flowing at some point and there will be a break somewhere – no one can sustain this kind of magic forever. But Natsume Sōseki defies all expectations and delivers a whole book filled with exquisite literary and artistic beauty.

Out of all the classic Japanese writers of the 20th century, writers who wrote before 1970, my favourite till now was Yukio Mishima. Mishima-San’s prose is beautiful, and though his stories are mostly dark, I read his books for his prose. But now after reading this book, I realize that Natsume Sōseki, has waltzed past Mishima-San to the No.1 position. I’ll always have a soft corner for Mishima-San, and will always love and admire his work, but I think Sōseki-San has gone to the top spot in my favourites list now. I think that if we consider 1970 or thereabouts as the end of a particular era in Japanese literature, Natsume Sōseki was the greatest Japanese writer of that era. Of course, this is always debatable, as this era had some of the greatest literary stars in Japanese literature – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki, Fumiko Enchi, Kobo Abe, Osamu Dazai, Kenzaburō Ōe. But I’ll stick my neck out and say that Natsume Sōseki was the finest of them all.

Don’t take my word for it though. If you haven’t read ‘The Three-Cornered World’ yet, please go and read it. And tell me what you think.

Natsume Sōseki published his first book ‘I am a Cat‘ when he was 38. In the next 11 years, he published many books which went on to become classics, and he was regarded as the greatest Japanese writer of his generation. He died when he was 49, leaving an unfinished manuscript, which was later published as ‘Light and Darkness’. In such a short literary career which lasted just 11 years, he shone brightly like a star. He didn’t live to see the horrors of the 20th century (good for him), but it is heartbreaking that he died so young, with many more years still left in him.

‘The Three-Cornered World’ is a beautiful meditation on art and beauty. I loved it. It is one of my favourite books of all-time.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite excerpts from the book. It was so hard for me to choose one, and so I’m sharing the first page here. Hope you like it.

“Going up a mountain track, I fell to thinking.

Approach everything rationally, and you become harsh. Pole along in the stream of emotions, and you will be swept away by the current. Give free rein to your desires, and you become uncomfortably confined. It is not a very agreeable place to live, this world of ours.

When the unpleasantness increases, you want to draw yourself up to some place where life is easier. It is just at the point when you first realise that life will be no more agreeable no matter what heights you may attain, that a poem may be given birth, or a picture created.

The creation of this world is the work of neither god nor devil, but of the ordinary people around us; those who live opposite, and those next door, drifting here and there about their daily business. You may think this world created by ordinary people a horrible place in which to live, but where else is there? Even if there is somewhere else to go, it can only be a ‘non-human’ realm, and who knows but that such a world may not be even more hateful than this?

There is no escape from this world. If, therefore, you find life hard, there is nothing to be done but settle yourself as comfortably as you can during the unpleasant times, although you may only succeed in this for short periods, and thus make life’s brief span bearable. It is here that the vocation of the artist comes into being, and here that the painter receives his divine commission. Thank heaven for all those who in devious ways by their art, bring tranquillity to the world, and enrich men’s hearts.”

Have you read Natsume Sōseki’s ‘The Three-Cornered World’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Temple Alley Summer‘ by Sachiko Kashiwaba by accident. The cover was enchanting, and I thought it was a manga book. After getting it and looking inside, I discovered that it was a regular book. I was mildly disappointed at the beginning, because of this, but as I continued reading, my disappointment melted away, because the book turned out to be what I had thought at the beginning – enchanting.

Kazu gets awake in the middle of the night and he sees a girl wearing a white dress coming out of one of the rooms in his house which has the family altar. She then opens the door and leaves his house. He has never seen her before. He thinks she is a ghost. The next day at school, he sees the same girl in his class. Everyone seems to know her except him. Kazu is puzzled with this mystery. Then when Kazu and his classmates are doing a project on their town, they discover that an old map shows a mysterious temple in his street. When Kazu tries to find out more, Kazu unwittingly ruffles a few feathers and some elders turn up at his house, trying to find out why he is doing this project. It looks like they are hiding a secret. Soon, a mysterious story from an old magazine turns up and before long, real events and fantasy and the mysterious story all start to merge together, while a mysterious lady with a black cat tries to stymie Kazu at every turn…

I loved ‘Temple Alley Summer‘. I read it in one breath. I know it is just the second book of the year, but I think it will end up as one of my favourites at the end of the year. The whole story is gripping and enchanting, the characters are charming, and the ending of the story is perfect. Sachiko Kashiwaba is one of the great writers of children’s literature from Japan, and after reading this book, we know why. This is the first Sachiko Kashiwaba book to be translated into English, I think. The next one, ‘The House of the Lost on the Cape’, is coming out in September. I can’t wait!

I always love discovering new Japanese food through Japanese stories. These were the two things I discovered through this book.

Manjū – “Manjū is a traditional Japanese confection. Of the many varieties of manjū, most have an outside made from flour, rice powder, kudzu, and buckwheat, and a filling of anko (red bean paste), usually made from boiled adzuki beans and sugar. Manjū is sometimes made with other fillings such as chestnut jam. In Hawaii, one can find Okinawan manjū that are made with a filling of purple sweet potato, butter, milk, sugar, and salt, but the most common filling is bean paste, of which the several varieties include koshian, tsubuan, and tsubushian.”

Takoyaki – “Takoyaki is a ball-shaped Japanese snack made of a wheat flour-based batter and cooked in a special molded pan. It is typically filled with minced or diced octopus (tako), tempura scraps (tenkasu), pickled ginger (beni shoga), and green onion (negi). The balls are brushed with takoyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce) and mayonnaise, and then sprinkled with green laver (aonori) and shavings of dried bonito (katsuobushi)”.

They both sound delicious 😊 I want to try them one day.

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

“Listen, Kazu. Everyone says that humans are equal, but we don’t all get the same chances in life. You know that, don’t you? You’re a big boy in fifth grade. Some people are born healthy, and others are born with illnesses and disabilities. There are beautiful people who get adored by everyone, and people of fine character who never get any credit due to their looks. Some children get good grades without studying, while others study like crazy for nothing. Plenty of things in this world are not fair and equal, Kazu. But one thing is the same for everyone, Kazu. Not only on the surface, but through and through. It affects the smart people, the rich people—no matter what they do, they cannot get more of it than their due. Do you know what I’m referring to? Time, Kazu. Time is the same for everyone. Men, women, young people, old people—everyone. A day is a day. An hour is an hour. Time is the one thing applied impartially to all humans, and to every living creature.”

Have you read ‘Temple Alley Summer‘? What do you think about it?

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I unearthed this gem recently when I discovered a box filled with books at home. There used to be a beautiful event called ‘Dickens In December‘ hosted by Delia (from ‘Postcards from Asia’) and Caroline (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) and  I loved participating in that. I thought I’ll do my bit to revive that and so picked this biography and read it.

Charles Dickens : A Life‘ is a 400-page biography of Charles Dickens. It describes how Dickens was born in a poor family, how he had to even work in a boot polish factory when he was a kid, how he rose up from those depths, became a journalist, and then became a novelist, and then a literary legend. By the time he was done, he was one of the greatest writers of the 19th century (Tolstoy called him ‘THE’ greatest writer of the 19th century – warm praise from one master to another), an amazing achievement by someone who didn’t even finish school.

Dickens was a complex person. On one side he was generous to people, particularly his friends and relatives, (and sometimes even strangers, especially poor women who were suffering because they were harassed by the law – the book starts with this anecdote which was very beautiful and inspiring), and helped them and their families when they were in financial trouble. His dad used to frequently get into debt and Dickens repeatedly bailed him out. This pattern got repeated when his brothers got into debt, and later his sons got into debt. He helped them all. If a friend died, he raised money for the friend’s wife and kids, and ensured that they lived a respectable life and didn’t slip into poverty. He loved inviting friends over, he cracked jokes and entertained them and made them laugh and sometimes even staged amateur plays for them. He enjoyed taking long walks with some of his friends and he continued this till the end of his life. He championed social causes and wrote about the plight of the poor in the paper and the magazines that he worked for or which he managed himself.

In my opinion though, the greatest thing he did was that he got the help of a rich sponsor and started a home for women who were sex workers, who wanted to leave their profession and live a normal life. This home offered them training in some skills, quiet time to recover, then advice and help in finding new jobs or migrating abroad. Many of the women who came to this home, went on to live happy, fulfilling lives. Dickens didn’t talk about this, and kept quiet about it. There is a whole book about this called ‘Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women‘ by Jenny Hartley. I want to read that sometime.

But there was also another side to Dickens. Dickens was also a controversial person in some ways. He fought with his publishers who had backed him, threatened to break contracts with them, if they didn’t offer more money, and negotiated his way to a more remunerative contract. He broke up with his friends if they didn’t side with him sometimes. But the biggest thing was what happened when he was around 45. He met a young woman, fell in love with her, and then broke up with his wife, trashed his wife in public, writing bad things about her in the paper. When some of his friends and relatives disagreed with him, he broke up with them. He behaved like an irresponsible prima donna. It affected his physical and mental health and he suffered many ailments, he suddenly aged too fast, and by the time he was 58 he was dead. During that stormy decade, he also wrote ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and one of his finest novels, ‘Great Expectations‘.

It is sad that when Dickens dumped his wife, most of his kids sided with him. The way it typically happens in families when kids side with the stronger parent who has more money and resources, when the gentler parent might be the one who was wronged. Even his wife’s sister Georgina, sided with him. Only his son Charley, in an act of defiance, sided with his mom and went to live with her. Dickens’ wife Catherine comes through as a saint, as she kept a dignified silence, while Dickens raged against her like a madman, in public, in the press, and in his correspondence with his friends. Catherine kept her dignified silence till the end. One of Dickens’ daughters, Katey, finally broke the silence many years after both her parents had passed, and said that she was ashamed that she didn’t support her mom enough and she wanted to do justice to her mom. Her revelations were published as a book called ‘Dickens and Daughter’ which created controversy when it came out and it was trashed by Dickens’ fans.

This book talks about all of this, the good and the bad. Claire Tomalin has done a wonderful job in presenting both the sides and showing us the complexity of Dickens’ personality.

This book is also a great introduction to Dickens’ work. The parts which focus on them are beautiful to read. In my opinion, Dickens’ finest novels, the must-reads, are The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Bleak House. If I can add one more, it might be A Tale of Two Cities, but I feel that this is probably a notch below the other five. I feel that Tomalin’s book confirmed what I thought, though it also raves about Dickens’ other work. I’m intrigued especially by The Old Curiosity Shop. I want to add that to my list and see how it is.

One of my favourite parts of the book was Dickens’ meetings with other great writers of that era, especially those from other countries, like Hans Christian Andersen and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky’s account of their meeting is fascinating. It goes like this –

“In 1862 the Russian novelist Dostoevsky, an admirer of Dickens’s work – he had read Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield in prison – visited him at Wellington Street. Years later he wrote in a letter to a friend a remarkable account of what Dickens said in the course of their conversation about writing. Dostoevsky introduced Dickens’s words with his own :

“The person he (the writer] sees most of, most often, actually every day, is himself. When it comes to a question of why a man does something else, it’s the author’s own actions which make him understand, or fail to understand, the sources of human action. Dickens told me the same thing when I met him at the office of his magazine…in 1862. He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me : one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.”

This is an amazing report, and if Dostoevsky remembered correctly it must be Dickens’s most profound statement about his inner life and his awareness of his own cruelty and bad behaviour. It is as though with Dostoevsky he could drop the appearance of perfect virtue he felt he had to keep up before the English public. It also suggests that he was aware of drawing his evil characters from that he disapproved of and yet could not control.”

One of the sad things I discovered at the end of the book was that many of Dickens’ children didn’t do well. One of his sons was a successful lawyer and he lived a distinguished life, but nearly every other son of his got into debt and died penniless. His daughters seemed to have fared better. It will be interesting to find out whether any of his descendants are alive today.

This book I read is also a beautifully produced edition and it has photographs and portraits of people and sketches of places and buildings which bring that era alive.

I loved Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens. It is beautifully researched and beautifully written. She has written many other wonderful biographies, and I want to read some of them, especially the ones on Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys, and Jane Austen.

Have you read this book or other biographies written by Claire Tomalin? Do you love Dickens’ novels? Which ones are your favourites?

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I read Alina Bronsky’sMy Grandmother’s Braid‘ recently, and liked it very much. So I decided to read her first book ‘Broken Glass Park‘. I read this for ‘German Literature Month’ (#GermanLitMonth) hosted by Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life’, which runs through the whole of November.

Sascha Naimann lives with her mom and her younger brother and sister. One day a tragedy happens in her family. Sascha decides to avenge this and kill the perpetrator. What happens after that forms the rest of the story. This is the vaguest of the vague description of the story. You need to read the book to find out more. Don’t want to spoil your reading pleasure by telling you more 

There is good news and bad news. First, the good news. Sascha is a irreverent, fascinating character. She is also the narrator of the story and she doesn’t mince any words, and she calls a spade a spade. It is very interesting to see the world through her eyes. Alina Bronsky’s writing is sharp and cuts like a knife. It is also filled with style and humour. It is a pleasure to read. The pages just fly. I read most of the book today, and I didn’t know how the pages flew by! One of my favourite passages comes in the beginning of the book and it goes like this –

“My name is Sascha Naimann. I’m not a guy, even though everyone in this country seems to think so when they hear my name. I’ve given up counting how often I’ve had to explain it to people. Sascha is a short form of Alexander and Alexandra. I’m an Alexandra. But my name is Sascha—that’s what my mother always called me, and that’s what I want to be called. When people address me as Alexandra, I don’t even react. That used to happen a lot more when I was new in school. These days it only happens when there’s a new teacher.”

I loved the first part of the book, in which Sascha describes the people in her life and what happened and what she plans to do about it. There is a character called Maria who helps out Sascha and her family, who is fascinating.

Now, the bad news. In the second part of the book, Sascha packs her backpack, leaves her home, and goes on a Holden Caulfield kind of adventure, meeting unknown people and sometimes doing crazy stuff. Some parts of this were interesting, but I didn’t like this as much as the first part. I wanted to know more about how Sascha was plotting her revenge and whether she was able to pull it off. This sidetrack into a totally different story felt like a distracting digression. However, if we look at the story as a coming-of-age story, instead of as a revenge story, it looks much better. So probably I was underwhelmed by the second part because of my own expectation.

Inspite of all this, I enjoyed reading ‘Broken Glass Park‘. Mostly because of Alina Bronsky’s writing. I have to say though that I loved ‘My Grandmother’s Braid‘ more.

Have you read ‘Broken Glass Park‘ or other books by Alina Bronsky?

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I’ve wanted to read ‘The Nibelungenlied‘ for a long time, ever since I discovered it. It is a German epic from the 13th century and it has been regarded as the German equivalent of ‘The Iliad’ by some readers. I finally got to read it today. I have two translations of this epic, an old one by D.G.Mowatt, and a new one by William Whobrey. I read the William Whobrey one, while dipping occasionally into the Mowatt one. I read this for ‘German Literature Month’ (#GermanLitMonth) hosted by Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life’, which runs through the whole of November.

The William Whobrey translation

A handsome prince arrives in a land which has a beautiful princess. His desire is to win her hand. The story starts in a fairytale fashion like this. After this, there are lots of adventures, love, romance, friendship, some war in which the good guys win. Then there is jealousy, treachery, betrayal, one of the good characters gets killed, another swears vengeance, and after many complicated happenings, the avenging angel gets her vengeance. But things don’t go according to plan, and nearly everyone is dead in the end.

The D.G.Mowatt translation

I liked the first half of the book, till one of the main characters gets killed. It had all the things I look forward to, in a classical epic – adventure, romance, friendship. The last one-fourth of the book is filled with fighting and violence – it is more bloody than the terrible episodes of ‘Game of Thrones’. Imagine how the situation would be if it is the ‘Red Wedding’ times ten! It is not for the faint-hearted and I found that part hard to read.

One of my favourite parts of the book involved a warrior queen called Brunhild. She gets married, and then this happens.

She said, “My dear knight, let it be. What you were hoping for is not going to happen. You can rest assured that I’m going to stay a virgin until I’ve heard the whole story.”

Gunther was furious at her. He forced himself on her and tore her nightgown, but that remarkable women in turn grabbed a belt, a strong band that she wore around her waist. She made the king suffer with it. She tied up his feet and his hands, carried him to a nail protruding from the wall, and hung him on it for disturbing her sleep. Sex was out of the question. In fact, she nearly killed him, she was that strong.

Then the one who thought he should be the master began to plead. “My dear queen, please let me loose! I know that I can never get the better of you, dear lady, and I promise I’ll never lie so closely beside you again.”

She didn’t care how uncomfortable he was. She was perfectly comfortable in bed, and so he hung there all night until the morning light shone through the window. If he had ever had any strength, there was no sign of it now.

The maiden asked, “Tell me now, Lord Gunther, wouldn’t it be humiliating if your chamberlains found you had been tied up by a woman?”

I laughed when I read that 😆 I fell in love with Brunhild, of course 😊 Who wouldn’t? It is so amazing that the poet who wrote this epic, wrote this scene 800 years back!

Brunhild does some questionable stuff after this scene, but I liked her till the end. I wish there is a story which describes how she became a warrior queen, at a time when women from the royal family stayed inside the palace. That story will be fascinating to read.

I’m glad I finally got to read ‘The Nibelungenlied‘. I won’t say that I loved it, but I liked parts of it, and I’m glad I read it. It was made into a two-part movie by Fritz Lang and  parts of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas are based on this epic. I want to watch them both sometime.

Have you read ‘The Nibelungenlied‘? What do you think about it?

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