Library Loot (February 10 to 16)

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Happy Library Loot day! Claire has the link-up this week.

I don’t read books set in Africa much so I’m always glad when reading challenges push me to expand my reading horizons. This is part of the #ReadTheWorld challenge on Instagram. The focus for February is eastern and southern Africa. Also, so far the books I’ve picked for this challenge have been by women writers.

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

A modern classic in the African literary canon and voted in the Top Ten Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century, this novel brings to the politics of decolonization theory the energy of women’s rights. An extraordinarily well-crafted work, this book is a work of vision. Through its deft negotiation of race, class, gender and cultural change, it dramatizes the ‘nervousness’ of the ‘postcolonial’ conditions that bedevil us still. In Tambu and the women of her family, we African women see ourselves, whether at home or displaced, doing daily battle with our changing world with a mixture of tenacity, bewilderment and grace.

The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste

A gripping novel set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.

With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid in Kidane and his wife Aster’s household. Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilize his strongest men before the Italians invade. His initial kindness to Hirut shifts into a flinty cruelty when she resists his advances, and Hirut finds herself tumbling into a new world of thefts and violations, of betrayals and overwhelming rage. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s technologically advanced army prepares for an easy victory. Hundreds of thousands of Italians—Jewish photographer Ettore among them—march on Ethiopia seeking adventure.

As the war begins in earnest, Hirut, Aster, and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia quickly loses hope, it is Hirut who offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor and soon becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms against the Italians. But how could she have predicted her own personal war as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers, who will force her to pose before Ettore’s camera?

What follows is a gorgeously crafted and unputdownable exploration of female power, with Hirut as the fierce, original, and brilliant voice at its heart. In incandescent, lyrical prose, Maaza Mengiste breathes life into complicated characters on both sides of the battle line, shaping a heartrending, indelible exploration of what it means to be a woman at war.

What did you get from your library this week?

Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup

I love it when reading challenges push me to try books I’ve not heard of before. This book was a finalist of the JCB Prize, a book prize celebrating Indian writers. Latitudes of Longing was shortlisted for the 2018 prize, which was awarded to Benyamin for Jasmine Days.

Latitudes of Longing opens on the Andaman Islands, which already for me perked my interest. It made the news a couple of years ago after an American missionary traveled there (illegally) to visit an uncontested tribe known as the Sentinelese. They are one of six native tribes that live on the islands and Survival International termed them the “most isolated tribe in the world”.

Well, at any rate, this book – or at least the first section (novella?) – takes place on the Andaman Islands. Girija Prasad is an Oxford-educated scientist and is newly married to Chanda Devi, who sees ghosts and talks to trees. His work takes him to the islands, which was a former British naval base and penal colony, then captured by the Japanese during the war, and now owned by the Indian government.

I enjoyed reading about their life on the islands, and their growing relationship. The author brings in the environment and nature into the story in a lyrical way.

Unfortunately, while the first section was well told and evocative, the rest of the book didn’t enchant me as much.

Mary is a Burmese woman who works for Chanda and Girija, and she is the main character of the second novella. Her son, whom she hasn’t seen since he was a baby, is a political prisoner in Burma. He has renamed himself Plato. The third section focuses on Thapa, who is Plato’s best friend, and was the one who located Mary in the Andaman Islands. Thapa is a smuggler in Nepal. And his travels lead us on to the final section in the book, which starts out by being set in the remote mountain village. I don’t know if it continues in this setting as I eventually gave it up.

How does a book start out well like that and then result in a book I ended up just skimming through? I’m not entirely sure. I wanted to like it and finish it, but I found myself being easily distracted and bored towards the end. Maybe this was just too ambitious a book? Could it have been improved with better editing? Maybe if it were a novella, just the first section on its own?

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

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Squeezed in one last read for #JanuaryinJapan, a reading challenge on Instagram. I had read Kawakami’s work before in 2018, Ms Ice Sandwich. Although apparently that was published in 2013 (then in English in 2017?). This book, Breasts and Eggs, was originally published in 2019, then in English in 2020.

Kawakami was known first as a musician, then a blogger. If I’m not wrong, this book was written originally as a blog. It tells the story of three women, the narrator, Natsuko, who is about 30 and unmarried. Then there’s her older sister Makiko, who works as a hostess at a bar, and Makiko’s preteen daughter, Midoriko. Makiko, who is about ten years older than Natsuko, had to work to support them when their grandmother died (their mother had died some years ago). 

Makiko has come to Tokyo with Midoriko to get breast enhancement surgery. They still live in Osaka while Natsuko lives in Tokyo. Midoriko is worried about getting her first period. Natsuko wants to have a baby, but without a partner.

I was confused at first, as I had thought I was reading a novella. It turns out that the first part is originally a novella. The second part is about twice that length, and continues the story some 8 years or so later. It thus felt a bit uneven, the way the two parts were slapped together in one book. Sure, the same characters are there, but it just felt off balance somehow. Maybe because it’s mostly Natsuko’s story in the second part? We hardly see Makiko and Midoriko.

My interest in this title was because of the buzz, the startling title (especially for a Japanese novel), and I liked the exploration of topics such as single motherhood in Japan, as well as artificial insemination. Coming from Singapore, a country which still holds strong to its conservative Asian values, I understand how topics like fertility and artificial insemination are still difficult to talk about. And in both countries, the decrease in the number of births are concerning to its governments. Yet in Singapore, IVF isn’t available for single women, or for women over the age of 45. If I’m not wrong, even egg freezing has its restrictions in Singapore, such as requiring a valid medical condition. The result is some women have gone overseas to freeze their eggs.  

Out of all the Japanese novels I’ve read in January, this was the least strange, despite its title. Perhaps the others have been a bit too out there, and maybe I was expecting that bizarreness that didn’t happen. So it was interesting to finish up January in Japan with all the relative normalcy that happens in this book (other than weasels falling from ceilings). 

So Haruki Murakami praised her writing, but when they met in 2017, she discussed the sexism that she saw in his books. (The interview transcript is available here but here is one quote from the interview: 

“On the one hand, your work is boundlessly imaginative when it comes to plots, to wells, and to men, but the same can’t be said for their relationships with women. It’s not possible for these women to exist on their own. And while female protagonists, or even supporting characters, may enjoy a moderate degree of self-expression, thanks to their relative independence, there’s a persistent tendency for women to be sacrificed for the sake of the male leads. So the question is, why is it that women are so often called upon to play this role in Murakami novels?”

It is curious though that the translators (two names are listed on the book) for Breasts and Eggs are male. Would it have been translated differently if they were female? Random thought I know, but it does make me wonder. 

I read this for the Japanese Literature Challenge and the Books in Translation challenge.

Parade by Shuichi Yoshida

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“The me who lives here is most definitely the Apartment Me I created, and by that I mean she’s someone who just doesn’t do serious. The me who gets along well with the other residents (Ryosuke, Koto, Naoki, and Satoru) is Apartment Me… But maybe they’ve also created their own Apartment Selves, too. Which would mean that they, too, don’t actually exist in this apartment. Conclusion? No one is in this apartment.”

Five people. One Tokyo apartment.

Ryosuke Sugimoto is a college student from a small town. Kotomi Okochi doesn’t go out. She spends her time by the phone at the apartment, waiting for her maybe-boyfriend, an upcoming actor, to call. Mirai Soma is an artist who works at an imported-goods boutique and spends her nights drinking (and drinking and drinking). Naoki Ihara is the only one who seems to resemble an adult. He has a job at a film company but also has a strange relationship with his ex-girlfriend. The fifth person only enters the apartment some chapters in. Satoru Kokubo is 18 and at first everyone presumes he’s Ryosuke’s friend but it turns out he isn’t?

Then there is something strange about the visitors, often young girls and old men, emerging from the apartment next door. And there have been attacks on young women on the streets around their neighbourhood.

But really, it’s a story in which nothing very much happens. It’s the daily lives of these four (then five) young people. As I read on, seeing things from each character’s perspective, I realised that they didn’t really know much about each other. They lived together, the girls sharing a room and the guys in another, and they would sometime go out together but there seems to be a lot of disconnect. The use of the different points of view is very effective in this story – the characters reveal their innermost thoughts, as well as their true feelings about their flatmates. Although as much as I followed along with these secrets and hidden thoughts, I was still surprised by how it ended.

“A cowardly college student. A love-addicted girl. A freelance illustrator who likes to hang out with gay guys. And a health-obsessed jogger. If I hadn’t met them there, there’s no way I would ever talk to people like that.”

I found this quite a fascinating read. No way as weird and puzzling as some of the other Japanese novels I’ve recently (I’m looking at you, Earthlings) but it has that sense of alienation and detachment that seems to haunt a lot of Japanese fiction I’ve read.

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

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I hadn’t heard of this book before the movie adaptation, Midnight Sky, came out on Netflix. You might have seen it or heard of it, maybe? It has George Clooney acting and directing.

The movie was ok. It left me with many questions and a general feeling that a lot was missing. But reading the book allowed me to fill in many gaps, especially about Sully.

(I’ll try not to reveal spoilers but will talk a little about the plot. So skip this post if you haven’t seen the movie/read the book yet and don’t really want to know much about it! But come back when you have!).

Essentially the story is about an ageing (ageing in the book, sick in the movie) astronomer, alone in a research centre in the Arctic, after everyone else has evacuated because of a major global catastrophe that isn’t exactly detailed. But he’s lost contact with the rest of the world, and he’s alone, until he comes upon Iris, a young girl who doesn’t say much. What is she doing by herself in this outpost? The other part of the story is on board Aether, a spacecraft on its return trip from Jupiter. Because of this catastrophe, they have not had contact with Mission Control for some time now. And they’re wondering if they can get back to Earth.

It’s a contemplative journey.

However, I was really surprised by the many changes made in the script. Not just Sully – actress Felicity Jones was pregnant during the filming, which resulted in a pregnancy being introduced to the film. Also small things like different characters used, the fact that Augustine wasn’t actually actively looking to talk to Aether (in the book it seems like a coincidence that he picks up their signal), and the way a death and mishap happen. I suppose it was to spice it up and make it more dramatic for the movie audience. Although one of them made no logical sense at all. How can you crash through ice and live through it when you’re out in the middle of nowhere in the freezing subzero temperatures?

But for me, the ultimate difference was that small nuances were lacking in the movie. It didn’t feel like they were all that anxious about being out of contact with Earth. They didn’t explore more about the other characters. Everyone seemed like they were fine with being on the spacecraft – I suppose this also comes from my watching the Netflix space TV series Away in which one of the characters has space blindness, and all kinds of things (too many perhaps) happen to their spacecraft. So the movie was definitely an “eh” and a “meh” for me.

Also, the endings were so different! When I finished the book, I marvelled at how so many small changes were made. And so, while I cannot recommend the movie (except for its cinematography) , I would not hesitate to recommend this book. It was a great read, a reflective one, and a different take on the dystopian novel.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

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“With the coffee in front of her, she closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. It was her moment of happiness. As per his insistence, the coffee had been made from mocha beans with their distinct aroma, which coffee drinkers either love or hate. Those who enjoy the aroma, like Kohtake, can’t get enough of it. In fact, you could say that the coffee picked the customers.”

A book about time travel. But one with limits. It takes place solely in a cafe. And there are very strict rules. There is one particular seat at the cafe that allows time travel. The person cannot move from the seat. And the time traveler must return before the coffee gets cold (and also drink said coffee).

It all takes place in Cafe Funiculi Funicula (if you aren’t familiar, Funiculì, Funiculà is a song to commemorate the opening of the funicular railway on Mt Vesuvius back in 1880). There are a few regular customers of the cafe which is owned by Kei and Nagare, who are married. Kazu, who is Nagare’s cousin, helps out when she’s not at university. Kazu is the one who has to pour the cup of coffee that allows the time travel.

In this book, there are four time travellers in this book – and also another four in a separate book titled Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Cafe (although known as Before Your Memory Fades in Japan).

It was only after reading the book, then reading a review of it that I learnt that this book was originally a play. That may explain why I wasn’t enamoured with the writing. The writing was fine, nothing to shout about, and you have to put aside your doubts about the way the time travel works (why is it only Kazu who pours the coffee? was a constant question for me!). But I really appreciated the thoughtfulness put into how their stories unfolded, the emotions touched on.

It was a slightly quirky, quick read that doesn’t feel like a quick read. It’s a gently told tale. It made me long for a day when I can finally go sit in a cafe and read a book – no indoor dining or even outdoor dining at the moment in California.

It made me think of the days when I worked at a newspaper in Singapore. I worked odd hours. At first, for the online edition, working the early shift, starting around 6am I think? Then later, sub-editing which meant we put the paper to bed and finished after midnight. Also, that meant I had to always work either Saturdays or Sundays, and had a weekday off. All those weird hours meant I would often find myself having time off but no one to hang out with. I would often take myself out to a cafe, sit down with a book, and enjoy a flat white.

Gimme Everything You Got by Iva-Marie Palmer

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I love it when a book surprises me. And this one really did. I honestly wasn’t expecting very much out of it. But this was a fun read that explores first love and also, women’s sports!

It’s set in 1979 in the US. And while I have lived here for some years now, I didn’t know about how Title IX (established in 1972) was set down to establish access to any activity that receives Federal financial assistance, and that includes sports. So in this high school, a new athletics coach arrives to set up a girl’s soccer team.

It helps very much that he is good looking and wears shorts when he’s first introduced to the school. The shorts “hugged his butt like it was a package wrapped by an overachieving Christmas elf”. And lots of girls sign up for the soccer tryouts. Most of them drop out though, not realising soccer means more than standing around and ogling the cute coach.

Susan sticks it out, along with some of her friends. She begins to enjoy the game, and is getting to be quite good at it. But there aren’t many other girls’ teams to play against (they only have one game set up by their coach). She still has this hope that she’ll get close to Coach Bobby. And her infatuation for a teacher may mean that she’s missing out on some more age-appropriate boys.

It was especially interesting for me to learn about Title IX and the attitude that people had towards girls in sports at that time. One of the most amusing moments is when the parent of a boy Susan baby-sits sees her practising and asks if it has affected her menstruation. Oh boy. I suppose this was some kind of old-fashioned way of thinking that sports and exercise affects a woman’s ability to have children? Luckily Susan and her teammates chime in.

Susan is a great character – flawed, definitely, but she learns and grows so much, not just about her attitude towards sports and boys, but also with her relationships with her friends and family.

Gimme Everything You Got was a surprising, funny, fearlessly feminist read!

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

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I don’t know where to begin with this book. Perhaps I should start with, it’s not for the faint of heart. It is intense. It is full of taboos. There is abuse. And so very much more. And there is the way the mind works to handle all this trauma. It is, in its strange way, about survival. Don’t be fooled by that kawaii cover.

The story opens with a young Natsuki, age 11, who is convinced that her stuffed hedgehog is an alien from Popinpobopia. She shares this with her cousin Yuu, who is also her boyfriend, when they meet in the mountains at a family gathering.

(Something happens at this gathering but I don’t want to unleash any spoilers). But after the first two chapters, we fast-forward to Natsuki at age 34. She’s married, but to someone who has a similar mindset, both of them feeling alienated from society, preferring to believe that they themselves are aliens.

“Everyone believed in the Factory. Everyone was brainwashed by the Factory and did as they were told. They all used their reproductive organs for the Factory and did their jobs for the sake of the Factory. My husband and I were people they’d failed to brainwash, and anyone who remained unbrainwashed had to keep up an act in order to avoid being eliminated by the Factory.”

Natsuki and her husband return to the mountains where Yuu is staying and the three of them decide to train to avoid becoming Earthlings, to come up with their own ideas for living on a planet that isn’t their own. And it descends into something shocking and bizarre, that, as I said, isn’t for the faint of heart.

“I want to use the form of the novel to conduct experiments,” Murata once said in an interview. And this is one extremely outrageous experimental story. Yet to be honest, is it really all that outlandish? The trauma that a young girl experiences from the various abuses she suffers, from people who ought to be her defenders, has led her to believe that she’s not of this earth. For who would want to be, if you were in her shoes? And that feeling of being alienated, not fitting into the norms of society, is something many of us can relate to, I reckon, although the three characters take it to such an extreme level.

Earthlings is an uncomfortable read, it’s dark and twisted. It’s not for everyone. I hesitate to say “read this” because I know some are likely to be put off by, well, many parts. But for me, it was something I couldn’t stop reading. It’s way out of the box and unconventional but well, this past year has been anything but ordinary. Maybe I just needed something extremely bizarre to kick off my 2021 reading. Whatever the reason, Earthlings is a book I’m definitely not going to forget.

Reading Challenges 2021

I love joining reading challenges, but I’m usually not very good about finishing them. However, I’ve discovered that keeping track of them on Storygraph makes it easier. So I’m joining a few and let’s see how I do over the year. I’ve picked a few challenges that will help me diversify my reading. 

 

Books in Translation Reading Challenge

  • Conversationalist level (4-6 books)

The Stranger by Albert Camus (translated from the French)

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura (translated from the Japanese)

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (translated from the Japanese)

Schoolgirl by Osamu Dazai (translated from the Japanese)

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata (translated from the Japanese)

 

Back to the Classics Challenge

1. A 19th century classic: any book first published from 1800 to 1899

2. A 20th century classic: any book first published from 1900 to 1971 – The Stranger by Albert Camus

3. A classic by a woman author.

4. A classic in translation.

5. A classic by BIPOC author; that is, a non-white author.

6. A classic by a new-to-you author.

7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author. 

8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title. The animal can be real or metaphorical. (i.e., To Kill a Mockingbird).
 
9. A children’s classic. 
 
10. A humorous or satirical classic.

11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction).

12. A classic play. 
 
 
  1. Read a book you’ve been intimidated to read (The Stranger by Albert Camus)
  2. Read a nonfiction book about anti-racism
  3. Read a non-European novel in translation (Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi)
  4. Read an LGBTQ+ history book
  5. Read a genre novel by an Indigenous, First Nations, or Native American author
  6. Read a fanfic
  7. Read a fat-positive romance (One to Watch – Kate Stayman-London)
  8. Read a romance by a trans or nonbinary author 
  9. Read a middle grade mystery
  10. Read an SFF anthology edited by a person of color
  11. Read a food memoir by an author of color
  12. Read a work of investigative nonfiction by an author of color
  13. Read a book with a cover you don’t like
  14. Read a realistic YA book not set in the U.S., UK, or Canada
  15. Read a memoir by a Latinx author
  16. Read an own voices book about disability
  17. Read an own voices YA book with a Black main character that isn’t about Black pain (Felix Ever After – Kacen Callender)
  18. Read a book by/about a non-Western world leader
  19. Read a historical fiction with a POC or LGBTQ+ protagonist
  20. Read a book of nature poems
  21. Read a children’s book that centers a disabled character but not their disability
  22. Read a book set in the Midwest
  23. Read a book that demystifies a common mental illness
  24. Read a book featuring a beloved pet where the pet doesn’t die

 

Reading Women Challenge 2021

A Book Longlisted for the JCB Prize

An Author from Eastern Europe

A Book About Incarceration

A Cookbook by a Woman of Color

A Book with a Protagonist Older than 50 (Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton)

A Book by a South American Author in Translation

Reread a Favorite Book

A Memoir by an Indigenous, First Nations, Native, or Aboriginal Woman

A Book by a Neurodivergent Author

A Crime Novel or Thriller in Translation

A Book About the Natural World

A Young Adult Novel by a Latinx Author

A Poetry Collection by a Black Woman

A Book with a Biracial Protagonist

A Muslim Middle Grade Novel

A Book Featuring a Queer Love Story

About a Woman in Politics

A Book with a Rural Setting (Earthlings by Sayaka Murata)

A Book with a Cover Designed by a Woman (Gimme Everything You Got – Iva-Marie Palmer)

A Book by an Arab Author in Translation

A Book by a Trans Author (Felix Ever After – Kacen Callender)

A Fantasy Novel by an Asian Author

A Nonfiction Book Focused on Social Justice

A Short Story Collection by a Caribbean Author

Bonus

  • A Book by Alexis Wright

  • A Book by Tsitsi Dangarembga

  • A Book by Leila Aboulela

  • A Book by Yoko Ogawa