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Category Archive for 'Book Club Suggestions'

Note: Hiromi Kawakami was WINNER of the Tanizaki Prize, Japan’s highest literary prize, in 2001, for her novel called, in English, The Briefcase.  She was also the WINNER of the Akutagawa Prize for the best literary story published that year. “I don’t dislike Mr. Nakano, I thought to myself. There are plenty of people in […]

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A purple swamp hen from the famed mural of Pompeii is the speaker of the first story in this collection of short stories by Penelope Lively. As the hen describes, the garden was unlike anything any of us have ever known, hosting “fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm – and that’s just Quintus Pompeius, his household, and his associates.” And, the hen states, the humans were far more imaginative than the fauna, which “simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction.” Clearly establishing the satiric tone of this and many other stories in her new story collection, her first in almost two decades, author Penelope Lively continues to prove that great writing – elegant, precise, completely attuned to nuance, and committed to using exactly the right word and not one word more – still exists for lovers of fine prose. She further shows that fine writing need not be stuffy or effete, that humor is an integral part of life, and that satire may be more effective in conveying ideas than polemics and criticism. Best of all, she shows that stories, though short, may convey big ideas and that collections of stories may represent different times and different forms and still develop a broad thematic unity within the collection.

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Serialized simultaneously in two newspapers in Tokyo and Osaka in 1918, this short novel found a ready audience in a country already well familiar with Edgar Allan Poe, and author Tanizaki added some twists of his own, making his novel even more attractive to his audience – it is far more psychological, even twisted, and more obviously sexual than Poe. Romantic, even gothic in its approach, it is a tale which entices the reader through the speed of its narrative, moving so quickly that Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” is intensified – the reader wants to get on with the excitement of this wild story and does not want to be bothered much about the obviously bizarre (and unrealistic) circumstances which make the excitement possible. The atmosphere and tone of the novel is set when the narrator, Takahashi, recalls a telephone call he received from his friend Sonomura, who asks him to come to his house immediately. Takahashi, a writer, has been up all night, working on a deadline, and is not able to travel to Sonomura’s right away. He is nervous about the call, informing the reader that mental illness runs in Sonomura’s family, and that he has concluded that “This time…Sonomura really had been stricken with lunacy.” Sonomura, quoted in the opening lines of this review, tells Takahashi (and the reader) that he knows, for sure, that at one o’clock that night, a murder will take place in a certain part of Tokyo. He does not know exactly where, but he wants to go see it happen. He also wants Takahashi to be there with him.

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Julie Lekstrom Himes, in Mikhail and Margarita, writes an enthralling companion book honoring one of her favorite novels, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. In HImes’s novel, Mikhail and Margarita, Bulgakov himself is a sympathetic main character. Himes, like Bulgakov, a physician and writer, has traveled in Russia, and has spent a year doing research for this book, and seven years writing it. The resulting novel, remarkable in its ability to bring author Mikhail Bulgakov and his times fully to life for the reader, recreates Bulgakov’s “thoughts” so effectively that the reader feels as if the author has inserted actual autobiographical commentary. The story of a romantic triangle, the novel stars features Bulgakov himself; Margarita, an attractive younger woman; and Ilya Ivanovich, an official in Stalin’s dictatorship. Many overlaps with Bulgakov’s own novel, this novel develops at an extraordinary pace, both thematically and dramatically. Serious, well developed, and consummately literary, this is one of the outstanding books of the year.

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An award-winning Israeli screenwriter and WINNER of Israel’s Sapir Prize for best debut fiction, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen may find a much larger audience with this new novel, her first one to be translated into English. Critics have been busy trying to describe her work, with many calling it literary fiction because of the excellence of the prose style and the complex development of her themes. Others, however, carried away by the action and its consequences, have described it as a thriller. And, since Gundar-Goshen is a clinical psychologist using this novel to explore the ways in which some people can sometimes suppress feelings of guilt, if given enough motivation to do so, the novel may also be described as an intense psychological novel. The opening lines instantly establish the mood and tone. Eitan Green, a young doctor in Beersheba, Israel, having completed his night duty, is relaxing as he drives his SUV at high speed in the Negev desert, enjoying the sense of freedom and the beauty of the moon. Suddenly, he strikes an Eritrean pedestrian, and he knows within minutes that the man will die. He briefly considers what will happen to him when he reports the death to the police, considers that he will probably get a few months in jail, and realizes that that sentence will end any chance of his doing surgery in the future. Another possibility is all too clear, however. “He couldn’t save this man. At least he’d try to save himself.” As Eitan returns home, he must reconcile what he has done with what he has always believed – and live with it and the consequences. Then the widow of the man shows up and makes him an offer he cannot refuse…

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