Category Archives: Grove Press

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata Title: Convenience Store Woman
Author: Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802128256
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 176
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The comfort in the constant. That’s how I have preferred to live life, to be honest. It never happens this way. Not all the time. Not ever, come to think of it. Yet, I have also learned how to turn the change into being constant over a period of time. Isn’t that what it is really? The humdrum of the sameness. The monotony of the constant. The familiar is utmost reassuring if nothing else. But that’s just for me, and rereading “Convenience Store Woman” got all those feelings to the fore, emerging one by one from the shadows, overwhelming me to the point of tears.

I shall try not to get the personal involved in this review. I try, but I do not guarantee. Anyway, back to the book. Sayaka Murata has written close to ten novels (I think) and this is the first time one of her books is translated to English. I read this book for the first time last year. There were too many emotions I was dealing with after finishing it. Most of them were a product of the read. The loneliness, the making peace with it, the awareness of using the familiar as a crutch, the times I had ideas or thoughts I shouldn’t have had – all of these were in sync with the protagonist Keiko Furukura’s way of being. I related so strongly with her (most of her, not all) that I was almost scared of reviewing this book.

August is the month of women in translation. This is my first read of the month and a reread that I enjoyed and loved. So here goes: As the title suggests, the book is about a Convenience Store and a person who works there. Keiko considered herself reborn once she joined the store. Her life is divided almost into two parts – before and after joining the store. She is awkward, she is clueless about how to fit in the world, and she struggles with day-to-day interactions. Yet, beneath the surface there is the Keiko that wants to blend in, wants to feel included, and live life according to the manual – get married, have kids, and get people off your back. Keiko has been made to feel like “damaged goods” throughout her life – by her parents, friends, baby sister, and colleagues. The idea of “change” or “cure” oneself runs deep in the book. It is in a way the plot-point through which Murata mocks the society we inhabit.

The book deals with so many broad questions that people face every single day. I will get to that in a bit. Though the book is set in Japan, it is universal in its approach. Murata touches on loneliness, middle-age, the way we see ourselves against the parameters set by society (marriage, child-birth, job satisfaction, what job you do, whether you fit in or not, and the gender stereotypes set for us from the time we are born), and above all of this the need to belong at a very basic level – that of acceptance.

Keiko and Shiraha (A part-time worker at the store. That’s all I can reveal about him) are so different and of course similar on all counts. Murata’s characters are constantly on the edge, on the brink of falling apart or coming together to save what they can of themselves, and more than anything they are about life being lived in the mundane with pragmatism and ironically hope at the same time.

The translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori is nuanced in every single way, and like I said would appeal to every single reader, in any part of the world. Ginny transports us to the store, and Keiko’s world with a sudden rush as it should be and before you know it, as a reader you don’t want to leave the world created by Murata. For every translation, it must be so difficult to get the exact phrase, the nature of the dream, aspirations, and thoughts of characters down to pat the way the author intended it. The translator also then is nothing but a co-writer of the book in the truest sense of the word.

Convenience Store Woman’s title when read in Japanese is Convenience Store Human or Person and that to me makes more sense. It somehow adds that layer of making it common – of the tonality it deserves even if it is also in the title. But that is something that can be overlooked in a jiffy only because the book is par excellence. It touches all the notes – the awkward ones, the peculiar, the bitingly familiar, the hauntingly real, the one that sets you apart, and achingly wants to be a part of the world at large. This August, it being Women in Translation, please do read this book. You must.

 

The Heavens by Sandra Newman

The Heavens by Sandra Newman Title: The Heavens
Author: Sandra Newman
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802129024
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

The Heavens is the kind of book that gets under your skin only if you allow it to. In the sense that you have to be prepared for it, read it slowly, take in what Newman has to offer, and then be enthralled by its worlds, characters, and their lives. I don’t even know how to categorize this book – what does one call it? Historical fiction? Contemporary? Fantasy? Come to think of it, I shall not call it anything but a novel that will charm, beguile, and leave you a little bit breathless.

I hadn’t realized Sandra Newman had written more books before reading this one. So, long story short: The Heavens is about the power of dreams and what they can do to your world. It is the year 2000. Ben (Debendranath – yes, read the book to find out more) meets Kate and they fall in love. Kate loves love. Ben loves Kate.

Then there is the question of Kate’s dreams that she’s been having since childhood. The dreams where she lives a second life as Emilia – the mistress of a nobleman in Elizabethan England. But what happens when dreams impact reality? Kate begins to understand that her actions in her dreams alter her reality on waking up. Incidents that she doesn’t remember anymore, people she hasn’t heard of, neighbourhoods that have sprung up on their own, and something more is at play which she has to stop, or so she thinks.

In all of this is Ben – always wondering what’s going on with his partner. From a family with its own demons, all he wants is a simple life, and tries very hard to understand Kate and her second life as Emilia. And but of course you have to read the book to find out what happens next – what occurs and what doesn’t. In all of this, Newman introduces their friends – Sabine – free-spirited, gossipy, and absolutely silly (at least to me), Oksana (you just have to read about her), Martin, and José to name a few. The reason I speak of them is they are as integral to the story as Ben and Kate.

Newman’s writing reminded me of Alain de Botton’s style to begin with, till I got used to her voice and it was only her writing that mattered. Her prose strikes you in so many places – the struggle of Kate and whether or not she is losing her mind. Newman makes you believe in both worlds equally – in both characters – Kate and Emilia. Not for once did they strike me as the same person, till of course dreams and reality merged.

There is also a surprise element of who she meets in the year of the plague in England. The technicalities of time travel are spot-on – they never bog you down as a reader. In fact, you want to know more about that era and what transpired. What I loved the most is that Newman gets to the point. There is brevity in its 272 pages and no rambling at all.

The Heavens could also not be for all. It worked for me on several levels – of love, friendship, dreams, and what may come in the future. But it may not work for you if you are the sort of reader who wants to find meaning and purpose in everything you read. Sandra Newman is one author whose works I will be devouring a lot more.

 

The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

The Parisian by Isabella Hammad Title: The Parisian
Author: Isabella Hammad
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 9780802129437
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 576
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Hands down, The Parisian is one of the best books I’ve read this year and its only mid-March. But I can say this with utmost assurance. I do not normally read historical novels but The Parisian is an exception I am glad I made. It would have been a lost opportunity had I decided not to read this book. Plus this book is not only historical, but also psychological in nature, which makes you want to read it even more.

This is a debut and I couldn’t believe it. Hammad writes with such assurance and elegance, that no reader can believe that this is her first work. Anyhow, now to the plot. The book opens at the time of the First World War. Midhat Kamal, a young Palestinian from Nablus is forced by his autocratic father to study medicine in Montpellier, France. There, he stays at the home of a professor at the college, Docteur Molineu, who is extremely warm to him. While studying, Midhat falls head over heels in love with Molineu’s daughter, Jeannette. And this is where all troubles begin.

When the war is over, he returns to Nablus and begins to rediscover his homeland, deciding to work for his family’s clothing business. He focuses then on the old, and forgets France, as though it was just something that occurred in a different lifetime. He marries someone he doesn’t even know, has children, and his life is pretty much on track, till something occurs and his world blows apart.

This is where the political and personal merge in the novel and from hereon are my favourite parts of the novel. Hammad’s writing is lucid, and yet complex. She doesn’t spoon-feed the reader. She throws crumbs – you have to follow it, and learn more about the time, the conflict, and some resolutions concerning the timeline in which the book is set.

The Parisian deals with so many issues that one time that sometimes it becomes difficult to follow everything at once, but if you persist and read back and forth, the book is a treasure. There is the question of personal identity,  cultural identity, again given the time it is set in the idea of politics and the self, family to be placed at the helm or not, and a nation on the brink of struggling for independence. Phew! There is needed a lot going on, but not once does Hammad stray from what she wants the reader to feel while reading the book. The element of suspense and intrigue also makes you want to turn the page sooner than you know.

The writing is indeed of top-form. Yes, there are a lot of colloquialisms  but that helps you learn something new and that worked for me. And all of this is told with such clarity and well-constructed prose that it is nothing short of joy to read this novel. The Parisian is a novel that questions, gives answers as well, makes you think beyond your comfort zone, and does all of this with great warmth and tenderness.

Koolaids by Rabih Alameddine

Koolaids by Rabih Alameddine Title: Koolaids
Author: Rabih Alameddine
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802124142
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Personal
Rating: 5/5

When you write a book about AIDS and what it brings in its wake, is not an easy task for sure. Rabih Alameddine jumped to the scene and was well-known right after “An Unnecessary Woman”. The book just jumped at readers and they I think too notice of him then. Of course before that, there was “Koolaids” and some more books that he had written but this discussion is about “Koolaids”.

I wonder if being sane means disregarding the chaos that is life, pretending only an infinitesimal segment of it is reality.

To me reading “Koolaids” was a harrowing experience. Why? Because I am gay and I didn’t know how to react to a book on AIDS, and what it takes in its wake. I cannot for the life of me imagine something like this happening to me or my loved ones, so whenever I read something like this, I am completely overwhelmed by it.

Death comes in many shapes and sizes, but it always comes. No one escapes the little tag on the big toe. The four horsemen approach. The rider on the red horse says, “This good and faithful servant is ready. He knoweth war.” The rider on the black horse says, “This good and faithful servant is ready. He knoweth plague.” The rider on the pale horse says, “This good and faithful servant is ready. He knoweth death.” The rider on the white horse says, “Fuck this good and faithful servant. He is a non-Christian homosexual, for God’s sake. You brought me all the way out here for a fucking fag, a heathen. I didn’t die for this dingbat’s sins.” The irascible rider on the white horse leads the other three lemmings away. The hospital bed hurts my back.

“Koolaids” is about men who love men, men who suffer by loving men and men who cope as their worlds fall apart and changes around them. It is a fresh new voice (then when the book released) and is very different from his other books. It details the AIDS epidemic through the 80s and the 90s and with that the angle of the Lebanese Civil War that accounts for the book.

The characters are plenty – they love and dream in fragments. As a reader, I just gave in to the book without trying to make much of it in the first fifty pages and when I started, I was too entranced by the language and over all plot to care about the writing.

“Koolaids” is what it is – a gritty and real book on what it takes to go on living in the face of death and how to sometimes just give in, knowing that nothing can be done now. It is stories such as these that deeply affect us and our lives.