Category: books

“The Nakano Thrift Shop” by Hiromi Kawakami

Hitomi, I . . . I’m not very good at this, I’m sorry, Takeo said softly.
Not good at what?
Everything and nothing.
That’s not true. I’m the one who’s no good at this.
Really? I mean, Takeo said, looking me straight in the eyes for a change. You’re not one for, for getting through life either?

IMG_0404Hiromi Kawakami’s “The Nakano Thrift Shop” is a cryptic character study of the people who inhabit a small thrift shop in Japan. Hitomi, Takeo, Masayo, and Mr. Nakano are quirky, enigmatic treasures just like those found in the shop they operate. Each has a more complicated back story than is visible at first glance.

“These things are old, so you can’t let them collect dust, Mr. Nakano often said. Because they are old, they must be immaculate. But not too perfect. It’s a fine line, a fine line, he would say, chuckling as he passed the duster over everything.”

The characters, too, are imperfect; their flaws are charming, their awkwardness endearing.

Each of the main characters faces romantic complications, and each appears to be ill-equipped to navigate the intricacies of love and sex. For Hitomi, a relatively inexperienced girl who is captivated by her coworker Takeo, love is ultimately uncharted and unknowable.

“This was what made love so difficult. Or rather, the difficult thing was first determining whether or not love was what I wanted.”

Masayo, sister of the shop’s proprietor who is meant to be sage and sensible, herself struggles with a complicated relationship, ultimately letting her lover slip away.

“When you get old and far-sighted, you can’t look your sweetheart in the eye from close up. You need a little distance, so that you can focus on each other. So that your faces don’t look blurry–anyway, you need a little distance.”

I found interesting the decision to present some dialogue within quotation marks and some without. Because this is a work in translation, I don’t know if this inconsistency was a translation issue or an intentional choice. If intentional, what does it signify, this punctuation of some but not all dialogue? This idiosyncrasy is particularly notable because so much of the story is made up of brief snippets of speech. No character speaks at great length and rarely do any speak with particular clarity. Is the presence or absence of quotation marks, therefore, meant to signal importance? To question veracity? Or is it simply an enigmatic trait parallel to those the characters possess?

“The Nakano Thrift Shop” is sweet but not saccharine. The characters are un-extraordinary and irresistible. Kawakami’s writing (and the translation of Allison Markin Powell) is a pleasure-filled puzzle – one in which the solution is beside the point. A true delight.

Thank you to Europa Editions for the complimentary review copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.
“The Nakano Thrift Shop” is released in the United States on June 6, 2017. 

“Kristin Lavransdatter” by Sigrid Undset

“‘[T]is well when we dare not do a thing we think is not good and fair, but not so well when we think a thing not good and fair because we dare not do it.'”

IMG_0417Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, one of only 14 female winners (out of 113 Laureates) to this day. A Nobel Laureate, and yet this bookworm had never heard of her until browsing the complete list of Laureates in dismay at how few women appear. In a token effort to begin to rectify the situation, I approached Undset’s  ‘masterpiece’ – “Kristin Lavransdatter”.

“Kristin Lavransdatter” is the story of a woman’s life in 14th century Norway. Kristin, the prized eldest child of Lavrans and Ragnfrid, is headstrong and open-hearted in a brutal, harsh world where survival is difficult, where social mores are binding, and where women are possessions. It is a medieval story about expectations – societal, familial, personal.

From an early age, Kristin knows what her role is destined to be.

          “‘And you, Kristin – how would you like to offer up this bonny hair and serve Our Lady like these brides I have figured here?’
          ‘We have no child at home but me,’ answered Kristin. ‘So ’tis like that I must marry. And I trow mother has chests ad lockers with my bridal gear standing ready even now.’

Kristin is a mere seven years old when she has this conversation with a friendly monk; she is wise for her years and wise to the ways of the world.

As Kristin matures and interacts more with the world, she is even more aware of the concept of ‘reputation’ and of the social consequences and assumptions tied to her actions.

“Kristin thought how far away the time was when every soul in the parish had been her friend. Like enough all men knew now that she was a bad daughter. Perhaps they knew yet more about her. It might well be that all believed now there had been some truth in the old talk about her and Arne and Bentein. It might be that she had fallen into the worst ill-fame. She held her head high and passed on toward the church.”

Undset has clearly set out to create a moving portrait of a woman’s life in this time and place, but in doing so, she employs various men as foils, men whose explication brings greater understanding of Kristin herself. Among the most powerful of these portraits, is that of her father; after all, it can be no coincidence that the book’s title highlights the patriarchy of the time, symbolized clearly in the use of patronymics. Lavrans is a father extremely strong and proud, feared and respected, the picture of masculinity in a world that doesn’t value the feminine – and yet he is smitten with his daughters, a gentle bear lavishing love and tenderness on these girl-cubs.

“Marriage – they had wedded him, almost unasked. Friends – he had many, and he had none. War – it had brought him gladness, but there had been no more war – his armour hung there in the loft-room, little used. He had turned farmer. . . .  But he had had his daughters – all his living and striving had grown dear to him, because by it he cherished them and made them safe, those soft, tender little beings he had held in his hands.”

“Kristin Lavransdatter” is stereotypically historical fiction. Its vocabulary, its pacing, and its conflicts are inextricably bound to its time. Its value is doubtless universal, but its audience is likely very specific. This book may be a hard sell and, in truth, it was a hard sell to me; I read it mostly out of a sense of obligation, of bookish duty. Though it is the first in a trilogy, the likelihood that I will seek out the remaining volumes is miniscule. That said, however, I am so glad that I tackled this book, and I am grateful that I came away with a strong sense of medieval life in Scandinavia, of historical fiction as a genre, and of feminist ideas in a work of fiction nearly 100 years old and set centuries ago.

“Cork Dork” by Bianca Bosker

“They epitomized what I found endlessly intriguing about the sommeliers, which was the fact that they united extremes of personality – devoutly studious and unrelentingly sybaritic – I’d rarely seen in combination. Given the sheer quantities they drink and the late hours they keep, I had expected them to be extravagant party animals. But instead, they were meticulous, even scholarly, about their hedonistic experiences and their customers’, as though Daniel Webster and Keith Richards had spawned a new race (that, like the two of them, was also largely white and male). …
          There is something strangely conservative and old-fashioned about sommeliers that can make them – even the women – seem like little old men trapped in twentysomethings’ bodies. In addition to dressing like they’ve raided Jay Gatsby’s closet, they spend much of their time thinking about the past, mulling over the traditions of a five-hundred-year-old chateau, or mooning over a particularly warm spring thirty years ago. The poise they maintain while serving infuses their manner with a formality even off the floor. They are every parent’s dream: perfect posture, good eye contact, precisely enunciated full sentences.”

IMG_0399Former executive tech editor of The Huffington Post Bianca Bosker has her geek credentials in order. In an heroic and bacchanalian feat of participatory journalism, she decided to build up her wine chops, as well. Bosker fully immersed herself into the world of wine and wine snobs, shadowing sommeliers, interviewing scientists, joining elite tasting groups, and drinking a dizzying amount of wine, all in an effort to decide for herself – what’s the big deal about wine?

“Since embracing the world of wine, I’d plunged into tasting groups, competitions, distributor dinners, Master Sommelier boot camps, wine societies, wine clubs, wine auctions, and wine study groups. I’d dissected cadaver heads and lugged cases down ladders and eaten dirt and probably done irreparable damage to my tooth enamel. I’d been driven by a desire to understand what made cork dorks tick, what came with a more sensory-aware existence, what it was that made wine so endlessly fascinating, and which aspects of the bullshit-prone industry were meaningful.”

As Bianca Bosker explores every avenue surrounding the complicated and often elitist world of fine wine, she narrates her story with hilarious self-deprecation, glorious wit, and a nerdy quirkiness that is absolutely charming.

“For a field that’s ostensibly all about pleasure, the current generation of sommeliers, or ‘somms,’ puts themselves through an astonishing amount of pain. They work long hours on their feet late into the night, wake up early to cram facts from wine encyclopedias, rehearse decanting in the afternoons, devote days off to competitions, and dedicate the few remaining minutes to sleep – or, more likely, to mooning over a rare bottle of Riesling. It is, in the words of one sommelier, ‘like some blood sport with corkscrews.’ Another called what they feel for wine a ‘sickness.’ They were the most masochistic hedonists I’d ever met.”

Master Sommeliers, Bosker discovers, are indeed a breed apart. Their finely honed skills, their encyclopedic knowledge, and their extreme unction are often transformative.

“Despite his lofty pronouncements, Morgan, as well as many of the other somms I would come to know, was not without a sense of irony. He knew how ridiculous his job could appear to a casual observer – a glorified, overpaid waiter with a drinking problem. Or, even less charitably, a sycophant sponging off the rich and powerful, hawking wines for their price as much as their quality. Morgan was aware that what he was doing was not exactly saving the planet or rescuing orphans. But he had pushed through the self-awareness to the other side. It was only wine the same way that a Picasso is only paint on a canvas and Mozart is only vibrations in the air.”

By the end of her tale, Bosker herself is transformed.

“Sensations no longer waft by unnoticed and unrecorded. Instead, they are grasped, explored, and analyzed. They evoke curiosity, critique, associations, appreciation, and feelings of repulsion or ecstasy or sadness or astonishment. They enlighten and they inspire. They become a memory, and they slot into the library of experience that makes up our understanding of the world. Far from smell and taste being primal, animalistic senses, it turns out that learning to cultivate them engages, in a literal way, the very part of us that elevates our reactions, endows our lives with meaning, and makes us human.”

“Cork Dork” is exceptionally well-researched, delightfully funny, and eloquently written. Chock full of rare experience and positively nerdy facts, “Cork Dork” is highly readable and interesting from first page to last. Bosker is a delight to read, and her book will leave you thirsting for more.

Thank you to Penguin Books for providing a complimentary Advanced Review Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.

“Harmless Like You” by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

“She just needed to find somewhere clean and clear to think. She would find a way of loving that didn’t maim. Then as soon as she was worthy of these people, she’d come back.”

IMG_0395In her debut novel, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan spins a complicated story about Yukiko, the daughter of Japanese immigrants who has only known life in America. As a young woman in the New York City of the late 1960s, Yuki is silent and adrift. She feels utterly invisible, unseen by and unconnected to those around her. Her parents welcome the chance to move ‘home’ to Japan, but Yuki is unsure. As unsettled and lost as Yuki feels in New York, as much as she aches at her ‘otherness’, she resists the idea of a move to Japan – one that wouldn’t really be a return, but a new beginning, another challenge to find her fit.

“Yuki had visited her grandparents once, and while she’d befriended their dog, she couldn’t do anything right for the humans. How many languages had four conjugations for My name is Yukiko, one for each level of politeness? And who knew that being too deferential could be considered a form of rudeness? Yuki was a chizubaga – enough to make a Japanese person sick and still inauthentically American.”

“To her father, America was a snare. It was as if each time he said the Pledge of Allegiance, America’s rope tightened, and now he was finally about to struggle free. She didn’t want to hurt him. But she didn’t want to return to a country of offerings to the dead.”

Amazingly, Yuki convinces her parents to let her stay in America and live at her friend Odile’s apartment. Odile lives with her bohemian mother in a world without structure or limits. It is a world Yuki covets and yet one in which she is even more at sea, more other.

“The apartment was a nation with its unique barbarisms. Yuki told herself that Odile would be just as lost if the situation were reversed, but it was a lie. In Rome do as the Romans, but everywhere else the Romans had made damn sure the locals did as the Romans. Odile contorted the world to her will.”

Odile, whom Yuki follows unquestioningly, slinking in her shadow and blending into the background, is explicitly the goal, the ‘ideal’ American in Yuki’s mind. Her life force, her unbending, unapologetic personality, are irresistible to Yuki, even though their friendship is clearly toxic.

Yuki is a main character with detailed plot points but little depth – not as in superficial, but as in flat, hollow, enigmatic. She exhibits minimal personality. Her struggle to be seen by the world is vividly replicated in the reader’s struggle to see her. “Harmless Like You” is all about Yuki’s lifelong difficulty connecting emotionally to the people and the world around her. The reader endeavors to decode Yuki, learning in tiny flits and sparks about this enigmatic character. Buchanan alternates her trail of breadcrumbs between narrating young Yuki’s life and shadowing Yuki’s son Jay as he seeks to know the woman who abandoned him as a baby.

“Harmless Like You” is a rare treat – a character study in which the main character, despite never fully coming into focus, is immensely compelling. Yuki’s disquiet is visceral, and the entire novel conveys a sense of otherness that is profound and permanent. Buchanan’s prose is often serene and still, leavened with brilliant barbs of sarcasm and wit. A delightful, touching debut.

“Artists will tell you they don’t draw objects. They draw the way light falls. The puppet strings that jerk our emotions are woven of photons. The power of moonlight is famous. March morning light stroking your wife’s face can end a fight. A headachy, halogen glare can start one. We need light. Without it, we get melatonin deprivation, our immune systems crash, our internal rhythms get lost. In long, dark, northern winters, people shoot themselves in the head.”


“Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea

          “We all live in this world but do not really experience it, seeing only what we can tolerate and ignoring the rest.”

IMG_0391When “Girls of Riyadh” was first published (in Lebanon in 2005), Rajaa Alsanea (رجاء الصانع‎) faced immediate fame and rancor in her home country of Saudi Arabia and throughout the Arab world. In this debut work, Alsanea tells the story of four young women – Gamrah, Michelle, Sadeem, and Lamees – exposing the inner world of young upper-class Saudi women as they come of age, navigate tradition, and try to forge their own romantic and professional lives. The narrative is framed as serially-released, anonymous emails (this is pre-blog, nascent-internet territory) which share the inner struggles and outward foibles of four well-educated, privileged women in a society where education and privilege only allow women to rise so far. 

“All Michelle wanted was to hear that she had been accepted in one of the schools [in California] so that she could bundle up her belongings and turn her back on a country where people were governed – or herded – like animals, as she said to herself over and over. She would not allow anyone to tell her what she could and could not do! Otherwise, what was the point of life? It was her life, only hers, and she was going to live it the way she wanted, for herself and herself only.”

“The Girls of Riyadh” contained frequent reference to Saudi Arabia being culturally and politically unique even within the Arab sphere, but included neither explanation nor instance of how this was so. Perhaps the writer assumed a familiarity with Saudi culture, though given the book’s presentation as an exposé, as a damning airing of family business, a more thorough explication of the nuances and key characteristics which distinguish Saudi society would have made this story more engaging and meaningful, particularly to foreign readers allowed this rare glimpse at a veiled world.

“The Girls of Riyadh”, at least in English translation, was not particularly exceptional on the merits of its writing alone. Similarly, in a western culture where boundaries are constantly called into question, where popular culture in all media continuously test the limits of social mores, the stories contained in “The Girls of Riyadh” can seem mild-mannered, even quaint. It is important to recognize that what may seem to a westerner to be benign and slightly banal anecdotes were considered shocking, rebellious, and incendiary to many in Alsanea’s home country. Where this work excels is as a barrier-breaking act, as a courageous effort to give voice to the voiceless. As a window into this world for outsiders and as a platform to the world for insiders, “The Girls of Riyadh” has political and cultural import that outshines it’s composition and makes it an important work of art.



“The Vision of Emma Blau” by Ursula Hegi

“Had he known how the Wasserburg would seduce and corrupt him and his family, Stefan Blau would have taken the train back to New York that day, but to detect rot is often impossible in its early stages: it starts beneath lush surfaces, spreading its sweet-nasty pulp, tainting memories and convictions. It entangles. Justifies. But what Stefan saw that summer afternoon was only the splendor of the Wasserburg as it would be the day he would finish its construction.”

IMG_0374“The Vision of Emma Blau” is the story of German immigrant Stefan Blau, his family, and the family’s legacy (and curse) – a mammoth apartment building, named the Wasserburg, in Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. Stefan comes to America as a 13 year old boy, all on his own. As he scrapes and dreams his way into adulthood, he opens first a restaurant and eventually the Wasserburg, an apartment building of his own design, straight out of his dreams. Stefan’s first two wives die during and shortly after giving birth to his children, a fact which shakes the already stolid Stefan and pushes him further along his path of pragmatism and cold remove.

“Once, in the bleak morning hours, after Stefan had paced through the house, he entered the rooms of his children, and when he found them both asleep as of course they would be at that time, it struck him as such incredible faith – sleeping here like that – faith in him, that he was overwhelmed by the sum of their future needs. He felt as though he were the only person awake in the town, perhaps even in the world, and he suddenly knew that his next wife would be here entirely for his children’s sake – not his; that he would not kill another woman with his seed.”

It seems Stefan invests not only his time and energy into the Wasserburg; it is now the only object of his love and affection. Ursula Hegi creates a family portrait composed of characters with one prominent family trait – the habit of pining for the unattainable, of loving an ideal at the expense of reality. This is a story filled with wanting characters, people who are never content and who love most that which can never love them back.

“Drawing her coat closer around herself, Emma shivered as she recalled how not being with Justin had often given her more pleasure than having him with her. In her longing for him, she had felt lovely and high-breasted. But as soon as he’d arrived, she’d felt rushed, trying to fill their one afternoon with all she wanted to have with him – while he was unhurried as though they had unlimited time together. Already disappointed, though he hadn’t left yet, she dreaded his departure; but as soon as she was alone once again, she began looking forward to their next meeting when the possibility of anything would be hers. Except it never became more than a possibility.”

The broad span of this saga means that, in addition to other monumental moments in history, it covers both the First and the Second World Wars, a time when being notably of German descent in America was particularly difficult. The author, Ursula Hegi, is herself a German-born American, giving her point of view biographical credentials, and though the immigrant-aspect of this story is in many ways specifically about the experience of Germans in America, the biases and prejudices faced by the immigrant characters ring true for many of today’s immigrants. Their sense of displacement, disdain, and dysphoria  are likely the same for so many displaced persons.

“It made her feel different, made her think how – although everyone carried some difference just by the separation of skin from others – that became magnified when you were an immigrant, when there were more details to set you apart. Language, for one. And then of course the experience of having grown up a certain way. Here is America she felt more German than she had back home. Because here she stood out.”

“‘Did you know that you have an accent’
‘Of course. People in America tell me – ‘
‘No, here. In German.’
She was stunned.
‘Not much of an accent,’ he hastened to tell her. ‘It’s like a different melody almost that runs beneath the language.’
‘A different melody. . . . That means I have an accent in both languages now.’
‘Does it bother you?’
Slowly, she nodded. ‘It marks me. Instead of feeling connected to both countries, I belong to neither one.'”

Ursula Hegi is a superb writer. Her stories are often quiet, her characters achingly subdued. “The Vision of Emma Blau”, while not as powerful as her “Stones From the River”, is another fine piece of writing from an author who brings confidence, grace, and poetry in equal measure. She is an author well worth exploring, and “The Vision of Emma Blau” does not disappoint.

“The morning of his funeral she awoke with red imprints of her fingernails on her palms from clutching her sorrow inside her fists all night. . . . Once she opened her fists, her sorrow was everywhere, in her father’s eyes, in the drinking water, in her Oma’s steps on the floor above her.”

“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

“When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.
          One was the usual birds and bees. Well, I didn’t really get the usual version. My mom, Lisa, is a registered nurse, and she told me what went where, and what didn’t need to go here, there, or any damn where till I’m grown. Back then, I doubted anything was going anywhere anyway. While all the other girls sprouted breasts between sixth and seventh grade, my chest was as flat as my back.
          The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me.
          Momma fussed and told Daddy I was too young for that. He argued that I wasn’t too young to get arrested or shot.
          ‘Starr-Starr, you do whatever they tell you to do,’ he said. ‘Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.'”

IMG_0372Angie Thomas’s “The Hate U Give” is riveting and brilliant. Thomas shares with us Starr, a teenage black girl living in a rough neighborhood of an unnamed city. Starr is both emblematic of enigmatic in her neighborhood. Her parents, together since they were teen parents struggling to survive, grew up in the same neighborhood. Their commitment and loyalty to their community beats strong, but doesn’t blind them to their ambitions and needs as parents. They send their kids to a private school 40 minutes away, where they are among only a handful of black students in a world of white privilege. Starr herself acknowledges that she lives two lives, has two selves, neither of which feels truly authentic or belonging. When Starr is witness to the brutal murder of her childhood best friend by a quick-triggered cop, her parallel worlds are equally upended.

“I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.”

Starr must struggle not only with the expected waves of grief, but with guilt, fear, a sense of displacement, and a growing yearning to speak out.

“The truth casts a shadow over the kitchen – people like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.”

Perhaps Young Adult writing, when done well, really is an signal of a story’s universality, of a story we all can understand. In the case of “The Hate U Give”, Angie Thomas’s plain spoken, YA voice is powerful and approachable. It is no frills, no fancy words writing that is stark, poetic, and true. It communicates clearly and undeniably a terrifying, vicious, and uncomfortable truth about ourselves and our country. Everyone should read this book, perhaps particularly those who won’t, those who resist engaging in the fight or who fail to understand the fundamental reality behind the Black Lives Matter movement.