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Review – Naoko April 19, 2012

Posted by thehypermonkey in 5 stars, Foreign, Literature.
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Naoko

by Keigo Higashino

Heisuke faces a terrible tragedy when his wife is killed in a ski bus accident and his daughter is left in a coma. Only when his daughter Monami wakes up she seems to think she’s his wife Naoko.

This book was described as a black comedy and it was certainly black. There are moments your heart aches for the couple as they try to navigate their way through life in their different roles. Not as wife and husband but as father and daughter. This isn’t your typical Freaky Friday novel with comical twists and turns, there are very serious moments with very serious “what if’s”.

The story is bound for a sad end and you know it. You just don’t know exactly how it ends. The way it did end surprised me though. In fact, this book surprised me all the way through. I was surprised at how well it was written. I was surprised at the life-like turn of events. I was also surprised at how realistically the characters reacted to each chain of events.

As an American debut novel to his much loved The Devotion of Suspect X , this book does not disappoint. It made me take a second look at how I look at love and devotion. I can unequivocally say I loved this book.

Review – Beauty and Sadness April 11, 2012

Posted by thehypermonkey in 4 stars, Foreign, Literature.
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Beauty and Sadness

by Yasunari Kawabata

 The successful writer Oki has reached middle age and is filled with regrets. He returns to Kyoto to find Otoko, a young woman with whom he had a terrible affair many years before, and discovers that she is now a painter, living with a younger woman as her lover. Otoko has continued to love Oki and has never forgotten him, but his return unsettles not only her but also her young lover.

This story permeates with sadness. Like a Greek tragedy, it’s sadness is beautiful in of itself.

The characters are poised with bittersweet longings and with bitterness that seems to poison their very souls. You feel like they want to move on, yet there’s a decided inertia which is a part of the tragedy.

The young Keiko is hell bent on revenge for the sake of her love Otoko. This is despite Otoko’s protestations. This becomes a tragedy as well.

The book was so extremely well written it was easy to get wrapped up in the tale, but it was also pretty intense. I had to put it down every chapter or so to absorb what I had read and let it soak in. This was definitely not a light beach going read.

Review: A Pale View of Hills March 30, 2012

Posted by thehypermonkey in 4.5 stars, Literature.
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A Pale View of Hills

by Kazuo Ishiguro

The story of Etsuko, a Japanese woman now living alone in England, dwelling on the recent suicide of her daughter. In a story where past and present confuse, she relives scenes of Japan’s devastation in the wake of World War II.

This is a tale of a woman who is haunted by the suicide of her daughter. She reminisces on a friendship she had with a woman and her daughter in her past. The end of the book will leave you breathless and wanting more.

I found parts of the book a bit confusing at times and I wondered what it had to do with the story. I promise those of you who haven’t read the book, it all makes sense in the end.

This is one of those books that makes you question your memory and how it colors what kind of person you are. It also makes you question how things will look once many years have passed. Will we want to start removing ourselves from the picture to give ourselves a more favorable view of who we are? Will we have a clear picture of what we’ve done or will we obscure the facts to make ourselves look better? Memory is a funny thing. Ishiguro will make you think and wonder about all of these things and more.

This was my first foray into the writings of Ishiguro but it won’t be my last.

Review: Rivalry – A Geisha’s Tale March 28, 2012

Posted by thehypermonkey in 4.5 stars, Foreign, Literature.
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Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale

by Nagai Kafu

Rivalry tells the story of the return of Komayo to the world of the geisha. Her former patron Yoshioka seeks to ransom her, but Komayo has fallen in love with the actor Segawa. In order to be with Segawa, she seeks the patronage of a despicable character known to her as the “Sea Monster”.

In this tale you are shown the real world of the geisha versus the romanticized version as shown in “Memoirs of a Geisha“. Komayo not only doesn’t want to be ransomed to Yoshioka because of Segawa, she also fears he will grow tired of her and abandon her once his ardor cools. Her one dream is to set up her own geisha house and be self-sufficient.

The politics of the geisha world is intricate and complex yet Kafu makes it easy to understand. I found myself enthralled in this tale as its events unfolded. There was the competition of the other geisha; the jilted geisha that Yoshioka abandoned in favor of Komayo and the other geisha in Komayo’s house were vividly brought to life.

This is not only a tale of the rivalry of the geisha in the novel, it’s also a tale of the rivalry between Komayo’s suitors. The men in Komayo’s life weren’t romanticized. They were very realistic and had very human faults thus making this tale all the more believable. You could see them faltering, lusting, and conniving for position.

In the end, I enjoyed this book a lot and I wished I could have remained in the world of the geisha for a little longer.

Review: Rivalry – A Geisha's Tale March 28, 2012

Posted by thehypermonkey in 4.5 stars, Foreign, Literature.
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Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale

by Nagai Kafu

Rivalry tells the story of the return of Komayo to the world of the geisha. Her former patron Yoshioka seeks to ransom her, but Komayo has fallen in love with the actor Segawa. In order to be with Segawa, she seeks the patronage of a despicable character known to her as the “Sea Monster”.

In this tale you are shown the real world of the geisha versus the romanticized version as shown in “Memoirs of a Geisha“. Komayo not only doesn’t want to be ransomed to Yoshioka because of Segawa, she also fears he will grow tired of her and abandon her once his ardor cools. Her one dream is to set up her own geisha house and be self-sufficient.

The politics of the geisha world is intricate and complex yet Kafu makes it easy to understand. I found myself enthralled in this tale as its events unfolded. There was the competition of the other geisha; the jilted geisha that Yoshioka abandoned in favor of Komayo and the other geisha in Komayo’s house were vividly brought to life.

This is not only a tale of the rivalry of the geisha in the novel, it’s also a tale of the rivalry between Komayo’s suitors. The men in Komayo’s life weren’t romanticized. They were very realistic and had very human faults thus making this tale all the more believable. You could see them faltering, lusting, and conniving for position.

In the end, I enjoyed this book a lot and I wished I could have remained in the world of the geisha for a little longer.

Review – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle March 23, 2012

Posted by thehypermonkey in 3.5 stars, Foreign, Literature.
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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

by Haruki Murakami

In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife’s missing cat.  Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo.  As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria.

I found the pace of this book unevenly paced. Thus, it was quite unsettling. I alternately enjoyed it then disliked it. There were sporadic bits of history lessons inserted into it which I didn’t find particularly find interesting as it was rather dryly put.

Even when there weren’t history lessons being reiterated, there were periods of characters droning on about seemingly pointless matters. I couldn’t see what their monologues had to do with the story. I got rather impatient with the story and I had to put it down several times and read other books in between.

It was still very well written though. I did enjoy the bizarre twists and turns that is the classic Murakami signature. I just think he got a bit carried away in spots.

Finally, the climax of the book didn’t seem connected to the rest of the book. The plot seemed a bit abstract and I liked things to be a bit more linear.

So maybe this was a bit too surrealistic for me in the end. Either way, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did his other books.

Review – The Housekeeper and the Professor March 21, 2012

Posted by thehypermonkey in 5 stars, Foreign, Literature.
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The Housekeeper and the Professor

by Yoko Ogawa

This is a brilliant book about a Housekeeper, her 10-year-old son, and  a mathematics Professor. The Professor sustained a head injury in a car accident and now can only retain 80 minutes of memory. The story is about how friendship can transcend the limits of memory.

What I liked about this story is how Ogawa didn’t name her characters. She just labeled them as “the Housekeeper”, “the Professor”, and “Root”.  Root was the Professor’s nickname for the Housekeeper’s son. Root was the closest  you got to a name for a character. Her character development shone through with a stark crispness that exceeded names.

Contrary to the title, this book wasn’t a romance. The relationship between the Professor and the Housekeeper was purely platonic. The purity of the book was both sweet and poignant.

Ogawa intersperses a lot of mathematics within the pages, but it’s easy for a layman to understand. It also adds to the story. The love the Professor has for mathematics shines through and the fascination that the Housekeeper and her son eventually share with him is evident. You can see how mathematics added to their relationship and made it all the richer.

I read this book in one day as it’s more of a novella. It was still a complete and full in flavor leaving nothing undone. This was one of the better books I’ve read in a long time.

Review – Woman in the Dunes March 20, 2012

Posted by thehypermonkey in 5 stars, Foreign, Literature.
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Woman in the Dunes

by Kobo Abe

 In a remote seaside village, Niki Jumpei, a teacher and amateur entomologist, is held captive with a young woman at the bottom of a vast sand pit where, Sisyphus-like, they are pressed into shoveling off the ever-advancing sand dunes that threaten the village.

** warning this review contains some spoilers**

A Goodreads review said it best it’s a “novel of erosion – erosion of resolve, erosion of morality, erosion of sanity”.

While Jumpei is held captive with the woman at the bottom of the sand pit, he devises every means of escape he can. None of them come to fruition. Ultimately he is trapped with her and slowly admits defeat in an ever winding loop of despair.

He also ends up in a sexual relationship with the woman. This, despite the fact that he has every intention of leaving her the first chance he gets. It’s quite out of character for him which leads to the “erosion of morality.” He also ends up in even worse situations which lends itself even more to the theme of “erosion of morality theme.

It’s not a cheerful book, but it’s a very good book. You are left wondering if there are certain things in life you have no choice but to accept. You are left wondering at the futility of things you cannot change.

So while I can’t recommend this book if you’re feeling down, I do recommend this book as an excellent read if you’re in a mood for a good think. It’s something I think everyone can relate to. I believe we’ve all felt the defeat of static of things things that seem unchanging despite all that we might do. Abe does an excellent job of portraying this.

Review – Supermarket March 16, 2012

Posted by thehypermonkey in 5 stars, Foreign, Literature.
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Supermarket

by Satoshi Azuchi

When Kojima, an elite banker resigns his job to help a cousin manage Ishiei, a supermarket in one of Japan’s provincial cities, a host of problems ensue.  Store employees are stealing products, the books are in disaray, and the workers seem stuck in old ways of thinking.  As Kojima begins to give all his time over to the relentless task of reforming the store’s management, a chance encounter with a woman from his childhood causes him to ask the age-old question: is the all encompassing pursuit of business success really worth it?

Supermarket is a surpisingly fascinating look into the world of, what else, supermarkets. The author goes in depth into the ins-and-outs of what goes on into the business of a supermarket chain. It takes place during the early 1970’s before supermarkets really takes off in the food industry.

I never knew supermarkets could be so interesting! I was entranced by the world of fresh produce and dismayed by the embezzling ways of the employees! I was completely caught up in the schemes of the management!

To say Azuchi makes this story a “modern classic” of Japan is an understatement. He captures the world of the Japanese businessman to the hilt. Their dedication, their devotion, how much honor is at stake.

The author also manages to convey the passion the businessman has for his job. A passion that is unlike any other. Kojima is willing to sacrifice his family, his future for the sake of what’s good for the company and the employees.

Definitely a must read.

Review – Life in the Cul-de-Sac March 13, 2012

Posted by thehypermonkey in 4.5 stars, Foreign, Literature.
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Life in the Cul-de-Sac

by Senji Kuroi

Life in the Cul-de-Sac is considered “one of the most important Japanese novels of the last two decades” and is the winner of the Tanizaki Prize. It’s a series of interlacing stories about families who live in a cul-de-sac. At first the stories don’t seem to be connected but then the connection becomes more obvious even if it’s a bit tenuous at times. It still makes for a strong story as it proves that this is a modern kind of “Japanese floating world” versus the traditional group-ethic.

The families are insulated in their own worlds yet they touch upon each other in meaningful ways. They’re interleaved together in a mesh of humanity that aches for understanding. The women are the strongest voices in the stories. Ultimately they’re the strongest characters in the book.

In “The Door Across The Street”, Shizuko Takigawa needs to keep things unchanged and to stand up for what she wants. In “Night Guest”, Masayo Yasunaga aches to be free of the traditional role her life’s put her in.

Even though the women resonated within me the loudest the men did have a say. In “Toy Room”, you find Fusao Oda aching for days gone by for example.

Each character went through the aches and pains of every day life. Yet many had a nobility and/or a poignancy I found admirable and touching. They were real people going through very real problems and I could relate to them on a very human level.

You can see why this book won the Tanizaki Prize. I hope to read more books by Senji Kuroi. He’s a masterful storyteller.