Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara

9780099483670Snakes and Earrings is a novella by young contemporary Japanese author which won the Akutagawa prize (a prestigious literary award in Japan). The front of the book states it as a cult-classic in Japan. I can understand why. The book is bold in carrying the darker issues of Japanese youths: body modification (split tongue, gigantic earrings), tattoos, and sadomasochism, to name a few. I was surprised there was no drugs, only lots of beers, and sex. Like many Japanese books, it discusses issues that revolve around loneliness and desperation, the unwillingness to live and the view of death as solution.

I’m not sure if I really “got” it. Their world seemed a bit too far off for me. I was intrigued by the details of tattooing and body modification that the book covers for a bit, but I wasn’t fond of the characters. The setting felt very Japanese, with details like buying hair bleach from a 24-hour convenience store and “companion” job for young girls (they basically need to look pretty and pour drinks for high corporate workers). So the book does have some interesting bits, but the main storyline felt a bit shallow. It reminded me of Banana Yoshimoto’s books. Most probably because the authors were both young and they wrote about young Japanese people and their problems.
Kanehara H

Do prepare for a rough ride. You know how Japan is a world of two extremes? Old and new, reserved and outrageous, polite and crazy. Well, Snakes and Earrings is the darker extreme. The book however, is very short, so most probably it would finish before it disturbs you.

Hitomi Kanehara moved out of home when she was 11 and dropped out of high school when she was 15. She then regularly emailed her stories to her father — a literary professor. Honestly I can’t imagine writing this kind of book and have my dad read it.

I think this book could easily be semi-autobiographical. The back of the book shows her picture with various sizes of earrings on one ear, which the main character has as well. The heroine is also described as “barbie-girl” and has lived away from home since young.

3 stars
2003 (Japanese), 2005 (English), 128 pp

Award
2003 Akutagawa Prize

Also reviewed by
booklit | Book Haven | In Spring It is the Dawn | Bookphilia

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

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(left is my advanced copy and right is the published cover)

Burnt Shadows is a pot mix of everything. Setting in various countries, check. People from different culture who speak different languages, check. Mix them up. Mix them up as much as possible, check. A German has relationship with a Japanese in Japan. The Japanese goes to India and has a relationship with an Indian. They are later forced to live in Pakistan. The sister of the German married an English then move to live in India. Their son is somehow later an American. The Japanese and the Indian has a son who is born a Pakistani who later works for the CIA together with the American.

The novel intends to connect the historical moments of bombing in Nagasaki, the war in India which divided Pakistan, and September 11. Hence the mix of everybody from all these places, told through three generations. Does it work? Err.. I wish it did. Too many things were just too hard to believe. The characters seem to talk and act in the same way and that couldn’t work with all these people from completely different background. A Japanese acts like a Pakistani and a Pakistani acts like an American.

Another major element that kept distracting me throughout the book is a couple of characters who are able to speak 4-5 languages. Being a bilingual who is learning a third language, I know how hard it is to pass as a local no matter how fluent your second language is. The accent shows. A little off tune or pronunciation could easily set you apart from the native speakers.  There is this man who could pass as someone from the same country by just learning the language from a school bus driver. I had problem in believing any of that. He seems to have a superhuman ability to absorb languages and that’s kind of comical. Of course, with this superhuman ability he could go to work with the secret agents of arguably the most powerful country in the world. Just like James Bond.

Then he goes all the way to save a friend who he had a brief friendship with some twenty years ago (Oh yea he’s an Afghan, so that’s another nationality thrown in the mix for you). Risking his own life, his mother’s, and the daughter of a person he owes a lot to. Though some might find this action perversely heroic, I rolled my eyes and said Oh please. I just. Didn’t. Buy it. I found him an incredibly selfish character and completely had no sympathy for him.

I’m sure there are many more examples that nudged me here and there, but I read the book in quite long period of time on and off (at least a few months), so I may start forgetting details in the first parts.

The prose is written pretty well and I admit there were some great moments. But I dislike her style to lead us in believing one thing which ends up to be another. This is emphasized by the feeling of disorientation every time a new chapter begins. Why? I asked. Why disorient reader all the time? I felt like I never knew any of the characters well until the end of the book.

Burnt Shadows is shortlisted for 2009 Orange Prize. While I can somewhat understand why, the book generally left me a bit frustrated. Other people seem to like it more than me so please check the other reviews below for balance of opinions, though the general consensus sounds like the novel is too ambitious and therefore may have failed in deliverance.

3 stars
2009, 369 pp

Awards
Shortlisted for 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction

First line
Later, the one who survives will remember that day as grey, but on the morning of 9 August itself both the man from Berlin, Konrad Weiss, and the schoolteacher, Hiroko Tanaka, step out of their houses and notice the perfect blueness of the sky, into which white smoke blooms from the chimneys of the munitions factories.

Last line
Outside, at least, the world went on.

Quotes

“I love that about the Americans — the way they see certain kinds of craziness as signs of character.” ~ p62

“Heaven lies at the feet of the mother…” ~ p284 (I knew this quote since I was small. Never thought that I would find it in an English novel. It seems to be an Islamic quote.)

“She felt about people who believed in the morality of their nations exactly as she felt about those who believed in religion: it was baffling, it seemed to defy all reason, and yet she would never be the one to attempt to wrestle the comfort of illusory order away from someone else.” ~ p330

“War is like disease. Until you’ve had it you don’t know it. But no. That’s a bad comparison. At least with disease everyone thinks it might happen to them one day. You have a pain here, swelling there, a cold which stays and stays. You start to think maybe this is something really bad. But war — countries like yours they always fight wars, but always somewhere else. It’s why you fight more wars than anyone else; because you understand war least of all.” ~ p345, an Afghan to an American

Also reviewed by

Farm Lane Books Blog | BookNAround | As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves | The Burton Review | APOOO Bookclub | Bibliophile by the Sea | Raging Bibliomania | The Mookse and the Gripse | Bailey’s and Books

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril IV

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25 August 2009 – 31 October 2009

Carl @ Stainless Steel Droppings is hosting the fourth R.I.P. Challenge. I’ve never joined R.I.P. challenge for various reasons. First I have never lived at that part of the world where it’s going windy and gloomy around the time of the challenge so I don’t get that Halloween atmosphere going. Even now it’s actually going warmer in Sydney and I’m waiting for the daylight to go longer and my plants to start growing.

Second, I can never stand scary stuff. As a kid I had a ridiculously vivid imagination that even without reading or watching many scary stories, I could easily imagine monsters coming out of the closet — not the fuzzy and colorful ones like Monster Inc but the real bloody disgusting ones like from hell, and scary spirits with body parts hanging out or chopped in grossly manner.

Then I realized there are many books that count for this challenge that don’t have to be about crazy puppets come to live or serial killers that can go into your dreams. As Carl described, you can go for mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror, supernatural, etc. Even if it’s just slightly spooky and chilly or windy it’s fine (It’s fine right? It is?)

In fact, what I’m reading now is kinda gothic, and my next book in mind could be a good contender.

Carl asked us to share our Reading Pools for everyone to get ideas from each other, which is a great idea! So here’s mine:

  1. Snakes & Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara (reading now, also for Japanese Literature challenge)
  2. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino (the next one I intend to read)
  3. Strangers by Taichi Yamada
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  5. Anything by Poe
  6. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
  7. Anything by Ryu Murakami (I don’t dare reading any of his books so far)
  8. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
  9. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Since the challenge is going only a little over 2 months, I’m aiming for Peril the Second which requires you to read two books, any length, any category. At worst I would go for Peril the Third which requires you to read only one book.

Hope everyone have scary months ahead! *laughing maniacally*

Books I read:

  1. Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara (urban gothic) 3 stars
  2. Strangers by Taichi Yamada (ghost, mystery) 2.5 stars
  3. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (ghost) 3.5 stars
  4. Wicked by Gregory Maguire (dark fantasy) 4 stars
  5. Dracula by Bram Stoker (gothic, vampire) 3 stars

R.I.P. IV Review Site

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

MiddlesexI was utterly mesmerized. I was so sad when the book has ended because I thought I would never find a book like this ever again — which was how I felt when I finished my top 2 books. So this book officially has crept onto my top 3 books ever (in no order).

Middlesex is an epic tale of multi-generational family originated from Greece who later on migrated to America. It spans from 1920s Greece to Detroit in the mid to late 20th century to contemporary Berlin. The omniscient narrator — possibly the most lovable most interesting in fiction novels — is Callie, a girl, who later grows into Cal, a man, as a result of incestuous marriage of her grandparents.

Though weaved with history and cultural information, the story couldn’t be more intimate. Jeffrey Eugenides has a way to make even the most minor character matters, as if you know their deepest secrets while nobody else does and you feel so much for them. He definitely has become one of my favorite authors. His writing is exceptionally good. I was surprised of how so so well written it was. The imagery was vivid, cinematic. At a few points I felt like I was watching a movie (often ala Persepolis).

Middlesex is a story of immigrants, family, and coming-of-age of an intersex person. The main character who has a double role as the omniscient narrator was a new technique to me. Often the narrator has to keep some distance from the main storyline. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it. Cal tells us the intimate details of his grandparents’ secrets, his parents’ inner thoughts, and even her own birth:

“As sperm meets egg, I feel a jolt. There’s a loud sound, a sonic boom as my world cracks. I feel myself shift, already losing bits of my prenatal omniscience, tumbling toward the blank slate of personhood. … Again the sperm rams my capsule; and I realize I can’t put it off any longer. The lease on my terrific little apartment is finally up and I’m being evicted. So I raise one fist (male-typically) and begin to beat on the walls of my eggshell until it cracks. Then, slipperly as a yolk, I dive headfirst into the world.” ~ p211

The omniscient point of view is written perfectly. I have no idea how that could work, but it just does. The novel is funny, heartbreaking, unique, alive with pulses and blood running in its vein.Jeffrey Eugenides

“Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness”, “joy”, or “regret”. Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic traincar constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right word to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.” ~ p217

I can’t imagine anyone not liking the book. It’s an absolute masterpiece, in originality and writing. Admittedly it is quite long, but it’s definitely a journey worth taking.

5 stars
2002, 529 pp

Watch the ABC First Tuesday Book Club on Middlesex episode (August 2009, 8 mins 27 secs)
Why Cal’s brother is nicknamed Chapter Eleven

First line
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

Last line
I lost track after a while, happy to be home, weeping for my father, and thinking about what was next.

Memorable Quotes

“No one to love: no love. No love: no babies. No babies: no one to love.” ~ p35

“We Greeks get married in circles, to impress upon ourselves the essential matrimonial facts: that to be happy you have to find variety in repetition; that to go forward you have to come back where you began.” ~ p68

“Pregnancy humbles the husbands. After an initial rush of male pride, they quickly recognized the minor role that nature had assigned them in the drama of reproduction, and quietly withdrew into a baffled reserve, catalysts to an explosion they couldn’t explain.” ~ p109

“… the tiniest bit of truth made credible the greatest lies.” ~ p418

Awards
2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
New York Times Editors’ Choice – Best Book of 2002
Nominated for 2003 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction

Also reviewed by

Save Ophelia | Farm Lane Books Blog | Caribousmom | Books for Breakfast | Trish’s Reading Nook | Incurable Logophilia | Stephanie’s Written World | Shelf Love | Books and other Stuff | Devourer of Books | Reading Matters | Rat’s Reading | My Random Acts of Reading | Lesley’s Book Nook | I’m Booking It | reading comes from writing | The Book Brothel | Bold. Blue. Adventure. | books i done read | So Many Precious Books, So Little Time | And here’s how it happened | Arukiyomi

The Spice of Life Challenge

spice-of-life-challenge

1 July 2009 – 31 December 2009

Rebecca Reads is hosting The Spice of Life Challenge, which I’ve been eying since its conception, but wasn’t sure if I could manage with my other challenges. But what the heck, I love food and I should really not miss a challenge about food related books! It’s a tiny bit late, but I think I have relatively good confidence that I can complete it, since I’ve already read one book since the challenge started. Also the challenge site is one of the best I’ve seen, with one of the best buttons!

There are 4 categories:

  • Cookbooks share recipes so we can recreate delicious meals. I love a good cookbook, and I’m always on the lookout for another favorite. I’d love to hear about your new discoveries! To count a cookbook for the challenge, please share a little bit about what types of recipes it contains, any of the favorites that you may have cooked, and what you liked or not about it. You obviously don’t have to read every page of a cook book or cook every recipe.
  • Nonfiction books are about food in general, including history of any food, cooking and diet guides, and reference books. For reference books, as for cookbooks, you may not need to read every word, including those dense ones that you will be referring to again and again. Sometimes nonfiction books are best read in small bites; keep in mind you have six months to nibble through something!
  • Memoirs, autobiographies, or essays are written by cooks or the everyday eater and are about learning to cook or about cooking or eating in general.
  • Fiction captures the significance of food in our lives by making food a main part of the story. Define this as you will: if food is important to the story, it counts!

And 3 levels of participation:

  • A Taste: Joining the Spice of Life Challenge for “a taste” means that, although you love food and you love books about food, just a taste of food books will satisfy you right now. You’ll read and review just read two books from any of two of the above categories (different categories).
  • A Sampler: Joining the Spice of Life Challenge for “a sampler” means that you want to balance your food book diet with variety, for variety is the spice of life. You will read and review a book from each category for a total of four books.
  • A Feast: Joining the Spice of Life Challenge for “a feast” means that you want to fill yourself with good food books of all kinds this year! You will read and review six to eight books from at least three of the above categories.

I’m joining for A Taste.

Books I read

Nonfiction
Squeamish About Sushi by Betty Reynolds (finished 08/09, rating 4.5 stars)
Main food: Japanese food

Fiction
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (finished 09/09, rating 4 stars)
Main food: Cocktail, party drinks, fruitcake

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (finished 09/09, rating 3.5 stars)
Main food: Christmas feast!

Mailbox Monday – Bookshop Birthday Bash

girl with a pearl earringBasement Book, which is apparently also known as the Evil Bookshop in one of the mailing list I joined — evil as in making you buy books and books because their prices are unbelievable, was having its birthday, so there were lots of heavily discounted books for a couple of weeks. I resisted the temptation to visit for about a week, then I went anyway.

I did get myself a book. It’s Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. I already had a copy — a gently used one from a secondhand bookshop, but still I couldn’t resist the new one I saw. It’s hardcover, special edition, with colored paintings in between the pages. It is so pretty! And it’s only $6.95. Can you believe it?! They’re evil, I’m telling you.

To Love, Honour and Betray

On top of that, since it’s the shop’s birthday, everybody gets a free book for every purchase. If I knew that I would’ve come earlier. The table with free books were almost empty by the time I came. I picked one book that caught my eyes: To Love, Honour and Betray by Kathy Lette. To be honest, I don’t think I would ever read it because I can’t generally stand chicklit. But the cover is quite interesting, so who knows. If you have read it, please let me know if I should.

Mailbox Monday is hosted by Marcia @ the Printed Page.

Squeamish about Sushi by Betty Reynolds

Squeamish About SushiSqueamish About Sushi: And other Food Adventures in Japan is an illustrated “guide book” to eating in Japan. Delightfully drawn and colored in water color pencil, it shows various situations that you may find in Japan, from eating in a restaurant, Japanese style inn (ryokan), to Sumo stadium. From cherry-blossom (sakura) viewing, street food at festivals and traditional market.

Each item is named by its Japanese name in romanji (alphabet) and hiragana/katakana, which is great whether you’ve learned Japanese characters or not. So it acts like a visual dictionary, if you will. Most items are food, including various types of sushi, bento (rice box), yakitori (grilled food on a stick), shabu-shabu (cook your own soup), and more. I literally drooled inside my mouth when looking at the illustrations. I love Japanese food!

More interesting bits include guide to going to toilet in restaurant (change your restaurant slipper–which is given when you enter the restaurant– to toilet slipper before going into the bathroom), guide to using the complex buttons on the toilet bowl (recommended not to use if you’re not sure how), and guide to taking a bath at ofuro (the public bath).

I am quite familiar with Japanese food and culture, so most of the things weren’t really new to me, but I still learned a few things here and there (perhaps about 30% was new to me). I have also just visited South Korea in October last year, and found that it has many similarities with Japan. One in particular is the onsen which is very similar with the one in Japan. I absolutely loved it! Okay so some people found it uncomfortable to walk around in the locker room naked and to take shower/bath in communal place, but I somehow liked that they’re totally comfortable with it. After about 15 minutes it kinda felt natural to me too. The experience was one of the most memorable of any of my foreign trips. I even went to the onsen twice when I was there, because once was just not enough! (I plan to write about the whole onsen experience, but I’ll keep it for later so I don’t sidetrack too much.)

Too bad I’ve already returned the book to the library, so I can’t show you more pictures (couldn’t find more on the internet). But I’ve borrowed another book by Betty Reynolds titled Clueless in Tokyo, which has the same format. So I hope to show you more from that book soon.

4.5 stars
2000, 72 pp

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