Category Archives: 2020 Reads

Once and Forever: The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa by Kenji Miyazawa. Translated from the Japanese by John Bester.

Once and Forever Title: Once and Forever: The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa
Author: Kenji Miyazawa
Translated from the Japanese by John Bester
Publisher: New York Review Books Classics
ISBN: 978-1681372600
Genre: Mythology, Folktales, Folklore
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

The month of May is also a slow one. A slow reading month. But this one was worth the time spent on it. Two dozen tales of joy, innocence, whimsical, sometimes tragic – but all deeply rooted to Japanese folklore and connected to the flora and fauna of the land.

Miyazawa takes you through a range of emotions with these tales. Whether it is the cautionary tale of “The Restaurant of Many Orders” to the heartlessness of “The Spider, the Slug, and the Raccoon”, Miyazawa had me enthralled and wanting more with every turn of the page.

I don’t think I’ve read something like these tales before. It isn’t about them being magical. But it is about holding your own as well in the face of the traditional ways of life. Most tales are also drawn from Buddhism which I loved. For instance, “A Stem of Lillies” which does incorporate the many images from the Lotus Sutra.

Once and Forever is a book that will stay for me for a long time. It is so underrated and I’m glad that New York Review Books decided to publish these tales. Read it. Lay your hands on it.

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations by Pico Iyer

A Beginner's Guide to Japan - Observations and Provocations by Pico Iyer Title: A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations
Author: Pico Iyer
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
ISBN: 9780451493958
Genre: Travel, Nonfiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Everything that Pico Iyer writes has this quality of sublimity to it. It uplifts you in the true sense of the word and that’s what was needed in such times, as I picked up this book on observations and provocations on Japan by an author who should definitely be read more.

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan is Pico Iyer’s in a way tribute to the country, after living there for almost thirty-two years and counting. It is as playful as profound a book on the customs, traditions, and brief yet arresting glimpses into Japanese culture.

Iyer describes how the Japanese live in Japan, and how different the rest of the world is from them. From simple things such as greeting someone to nudity not being a taboo but being asked to express one’s feelings is rather offensive. The book is also a bundle of contradictions, given the country that is being spoken about – but the Japanese seem to enjoy their contradictions and things done or said for convenience.

I loved the outsider view that Pico Iyer gives the readers. He doesn’t claim to be an insider, even though he has married a Japanese, and has lived there for the time that he has. Yet, he looks at the country and its people from a certain distance, never wanting to be one of them, happy to be observing from the margins.

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan is a perfect book to understand the country and its people. Pico Iyer gives us a next to complete picture of its hypocrisy and magic, the honesty and the precision, its food, and manners, and somehow even the pointless obsession with perfection at times seems alright. Japan is not a country to so easily be put in words and yet Pico Iyer tries hard and the result is a wondrous book – neatly classified, never losing its sense of humour and evocativeness of language.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

The Brief and. Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders Title: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
Author: George Saunders
Publisher: Riverhead Books
ISBN: 978-1594481529
Genre: Dystopian Fiction, Cyberpunk Science Fiction, Satire
Pages: 134
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders is a book that cannot be categorized. It is a dystopian novella, a science fiction read, a satirical take on our times, the 21stcentury Animal Farm in a way, and perhaps more.

Written in 2006, almost fourteen years ago, this novella is still so frighteningly prescient. We are living it in a way, in almost every country. Most countries of the world today have their own Phil, and their reign isn’t brief.

The country in the book is called Inner Horner, large enough for only one resident at a time. There are citizens who wait to gain entry, and these citizens fall under the rule of the despot Phil, which further leads to mass chaos and hysteria.

The novella is funny (intentionally I guess, at the same time making you see the mirror), dark, and in no way, you will not think about it after you’re done. The so-called people in the story are human in their actions, but maybe not in their appearance. They resemble machines, so maybe Saunders is making multiple points at the same time.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is for sure a quick read and a political allegory that we are perhaps a part of without realizing it. It is the kind of book that will jolt you a bit and makes you also look at the on-goings in the book from a distance by removing the human element. It is a book that delivers its message if you want to see it. Coupled with some lucid illustrations, this book blends the elements of the surreal and fantastical with great ease, making for a highly introspective read.

The Milk of Dreams by Leonora Carrington

The Milk of Dreams by Leonora Carrington Title: The Milk of Dreams
Author: Leonora Carrington
Publisher: New York Review Children’s Collection
ISBN: 978-1681370941
Genre: Children’s Books
Pages: 56
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

The Milk of Dreams by Leonora Carrington is such a strange book – even though it is for children. The short stories are odd, have a fairy tale quality to them, and are surreal to the hilt.

These stories aren’t the usual fare that authors serve up for children. They are dark – with children’s body parts missing, some sewed back, and a story also of a vulture getting stuck in gelatin. Carrington read these stories to her children, and that’s how they came to be. In fact, the illustrations in the book are also from the ones that she made on the children’s bedroom walls.

Humbert the BeautifulThis book is bizarre, and at the same time delightfully odd and silly. I was captivated by all of it – the drawings, the prose that was crazy, and the nonchalance of it all, in the sense of it being read to kids. There is John, who has wings for ears, and “Humbert the Beautiful”, and my personal favorite being “The Horrible Story of the Little Meats” – a fantastic fairy of a woman who doesn’t like kids, and ends up feeding them bad meat, to then do what she wants to.

The Milk of Dreams - Image 3

The Milk of Dreams is a read that is short and yet stays with you. I could reread and reread it some more. Maybe this time I will pay more attention to the illustrations as well. All said and done, it is the kind of book that could be read easily in less than an hour and like I said, go back to once in a while.

Brother & Sister: A Memoir by Diane Keaton

Brother & Sister - A Memoir by Diane Keaton Title: Brother & Sister: A Memoir
Author: Diane Keaton
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0451494504
Genre: Memoirs, Autobiographies,
Pages: 176
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3/5

I finally got a chance to read Diane Keaton’s memoir of herself and her brother. It brought out a lot of emotions in me as a sibling. This book is of course about the love she has for her brother Randy, but it is also about the love that doesn’t see after a while, the kind that is oblivious to what is going on with the other.

The book starts off with them being an ordinary family – one big sister, one little brother, Mom, Dad, and some more siblings, all in the middle-class California of the 50s. Things are obviously fine on the surface – the picnics, the family trips, the camps, and such as the other side beings to reveal itself. Of how things go wrong – when you grow up, do not keep in touch, become involved in your respective lives, how the brother is diametrically opposite of his sister, and how he lives a life that isn’t considered “normal”.

Brother & Sister is a book about relationships, and how mental health illness and alcoholism can be and is a real threat. This is also seen through the scrapbooks, journals, letters, and photographs kept by Diane’s mother – it is almost a progression of sorts.

Brother & Sister isn’t about judgment as much as it is about trying to understand someone you love so deeply, about what went wrong with them, why did the relationship suffer, and perhaps a way to piece it all together. Sibling relationships aren’t easy at all. But the idea of perhaps confronting demons and deep-diving into the family history to understand relationships and people makes this book so readable, relatable, and extremely relevant.