Feed on

“To Jake, the word that comprised the relationship between a writer and their spark was ‘responsibility.”  Once you were in possession of an actual idea, you owed it a debt for having chosen you, and not some other writer, and you paid that debt by getting down to work, not just as a journeyman fabricator of sentences but as an unshrinking artist ready to make painful, time-consuming, even self-flagellating mistakes.”

cover plotIn this unusual novel of writers and writing, which evolves into a riveting study of mystery and murder, main character Jacob Finch Bonner is working at a Creative Writing program on the Ripley Campus in Northern Vermont.  He has been successful with his first book, receiving a “New and Noteworthy” mention in the New York Times Book Review.  A graduate of the creative writing program of Wesleyan University, he has been less successful with his second book, and he has not yet even produced a third.  Believing he has “fumbled his early shot,” he is not looking forward to this teaching job and having to pretend he is still a writer.  At a get-together for the newcomers, he is not encouraged by the “utterly ordinary” appearance of most of the potential writers for his class, though one particularly “obnoxious and pretentious” blond man, Evan Parker, espouses a belief that plot is all, that if it’s not a good plot, the best writing in the world is not going to help.

The antagonistic family in Parker's story lived in an old house where the front hall featured pineapples, ironically the symbol of hospitality.

The antagonistic family in Parker’s story lived in an old house where the front hall featured pineapple decorations, ironically the symbol of hospitality.

After his first session with this man, Jake admits to himself that Parker’s writing sample of eight pages is without obvious defects, and he is surprised to feel that Parker may be a natural writer with a relaxed and appreciative relationship with language.  Parker’s story about a mother and daughter who live in an old house in mutual loathing of each other, is one that Parker believes will be read by everyone – and that it will make him a fortune. When Jake eventually hears the whole plot line, he recognizes that it is, in fact, so “out of nowhere and outrageous” that “the worst writer on the planet could not mess up a plot like this.” Everyone will read it.  Unfortunately, Jake also recognizes that “Any ideas he [himself] might have had for another story would, from this afternoon on, suffer the fatal impact of not being the story he had just been told.”

The artist colony in Saratoga Springs, NY, where Jake Bonner was hired as profgram coordinator may have resembled that of Yaddo.

The artist colony in Saratoga Springs, NY, where Jake Bonner was hired as program coordinator may have resembled that of the Yaddo colony.

Two and a half years later, the Ripley Symposium has been canceled and the staff laid off.  Jake is now in an area west of Albany, New York, working on an editing program when he applies as program co-ordinator for an artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs and is hired.  Still lacking inspiration for a new book, he feels like a “deck hand on the Titanic,” all of his potential gone.  Curious about why, after almost three years, he has heard nothing more about Evan Parker and his great novel idea, he looks him up and discovers that not only has he not published his book,  he has died, predeceased by both his parents and a sister, with a niece his only remaining relative.  It is not long before Jake begins to take heart, believing that “every now and then, some magical little spark flew up out of nowhere and landed…in the consciousness of a person capable of bringing it to life,” and that “once you were in possession of an actual idea, you owed it a debt for having chosen you…and you paid that debt by getting down to work…rising to this responsibility.”   He also believes that “if you fail in this grave responsibility, you might well find…that your precious spark has left you.”  He gets to work.

Clifford Irvimg served 17 months in prison for writing a fake autobiography of HowardeHughes.

Clifford Irving served 17 months in prison for writing a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes.

Three years later, Jacob Finch Bonner, author of his brand new book “CRIB,” has sold over two million copies.  The book is still number two on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list after nine months as Number One, it is Oprah’s October selection, and twenty-four hundred people have turned up at the auditorium where he is being interviewed.  When the interviewer asks how he came up with the idea for the plot, he begins to get uncomfortable.  Though he wrote every word himself, he gradually becomes more nervous, then scared, and ultimately terrified that someone may know the original source of the book.  The plights of authors Clifford Irving, who wrote a hoax autobiography of Howard Hughes and served seventeen months in prison because of it; Stephen Glass, who was caught writing fictional “news” stories for the New Republic;  James Frey, who wrote memoirs that were exaggerated or fabricated; Greg Mortenson, who included falsehoods in his books and mishandled donations to a charitable organization; and Jerzy Kosinski, who was accused of plagiarism by numerous journalists, all appear in the author’s thoughts, and when he begins to receive mysterious, anonymous messages from someone who appears to know the real story and its source, he panics.

Author Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of seven novels and is also a playwright, theatre producer and essayist.

Author Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of seven novels and is also a playwright, theatre producer and essayist.

Great fun to read, the primary purpose of the novel is to entertain while considering the role of plot in the success of any fiction.  Because the plot within this novel, which is responsible for Jake’s astounding success, is the same story which makes this book by Jean Hanff Korelitz so successful, any attempt to summarize that plot would spoil the whole reason for reading it.  It is a meticulously constructed novel which has a love story, several murders, intense relationships, shifts of focus among various characters and generations, and changes of location, and it is hard to imagine any reader becoming bored or tired of the action.  The author is careful to keep the two plot lines from becoming confused.  The story of Jake Bonner, nervous author of the bestseller “CRIB,” and the story within the story which originated with Evan Parker, will, of course, eventually merge, but that merger happens gradually and with plenty of foreshadowing.   Readers like me who take notes in anticipation of writing a review may draw some conclusions about the true source of all the anonymous messages before the book’s actual conclusion, but even when that occurs, there are still enough mysteries to keep a reader involved and thoroughly occupied. Fun to read and filled with real surprises, this is a pop novel which well deserves its popularity.

Photos:  Pineapple decorations are a symbol of hospitality, but that is an ironic symbol in Evan Parker’s story, as the two women who lived together in an antique house “mutually loathed” each other.  https://inthevintagekitchen.com

The artist colony in Saratoga Springs, NY, where Jake Bonner was hired as program coordinator may have resembled that of the famous Yaddo Colony:  https://www.wamc.org

Clifford Irving served seventeen months in prison for writing a hoax autobiography of Howard Hughes, and Bonner worries also about being regarded as a fake.  http://content.time.com

Author Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of seven novels and is also a playwright, theatre producer and essayist.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestion, Mystery, Psychological Study, United States
Written by: Jean Hanff Korelitz
Published by: Celadon Books
Date Published: 05/11/2021
ISBN: 978-1250790767
Available in: Ebook Hardcover


“Now and then on the streets of my neighborhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with.  He always looks happy to see me.  He lives with a friend of mine, and they have two children.  Our relationship never goes beyond a longish chat on the sidewalk, a quick coffee together, perhaps a brief stroll in the same direction…a chaste, fleeting bond.”  – the female narrator.

coverJhumpa Lahiri,  the child of immigrant parents from West Bengal, came to the United States in 1970, when she was three years old, and she spent all her childhood in American schools and universities, eventually receiving several degrees, including a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Boston University.  In 2001, she and her husband moved to Rome, and their two children were born there in 2002 and 2005.  Her literary work, written in Italian in recent years, and translated here into English by Lahiri herself, allows her to have total control over the creative process from her novel’s inception to its publication.  Whereabouts, presumably set in Italy, because of the narrator’s occasional identification as “signora” and her own references to “piazzas and “trattorias,” does not identify any particular country. The author is far more interested in the emotional reactions of the main character, a forty-six-year-old professor of writing, as she responds to the events affecting her.  She is an independent woman, never married, though she has had serious relationships, and she cares about all aspects of her life, to the point that she has even participated in therapy for a short time to try to understand the mysteries of her psyche and her imagined place in the world.  She gives up on therapy, however: “Every session was like the start of a novel abandoned after the first chapter….Unfortunately my childhood harbors few happy memories.”


Author Jhumpa Lahiri

Choosing to tell her story by recreating brief episodes that take place in ordinary locations familiar to us all, the narrator frees herself from the necessity of co-ordinating the events of a plot in order by date.  Instead, the chronology jumps around, and the narrator is spared the need to identify various characters in great detail, since all other characters here are important only as they affect the narrator. As she explains in “In the Office,” “It’s hard to focus here.  I feel exposed, surrounded by colleagues and students who walk down the hallways.  Their movements and their chatter get on my nerves.”  Even “In Spring,” she confesses, “The season doesn’t invigorate me.  I find it depleting.  The new light disorients, the fulminating nature overwhelms.”  When she goes to a three-day convention for work, she does enjoy riding in the elevator with an elderly philosopher – one of the speakers – who smiles but never speaks to her, and she regrets that she has her own event to attend and cannot go to his. Still, since they take the elevator at the same time, morning and evening, she finds that “our tacit bond puts me obscurely at peace with the world.”

Opera House where the speaker gets tickets to operas, symphonies, and dance performances for the season.

Opera House where the speaker gets tickets to operas, symphonies, and dance performances for the season.

Dividing the novel into forty-six short episodes, some only a paragraph long, others up to three or four pages, the narrator talks about her life –  On the Street, In the Bookstore, In the Pool, In the Sun, At the Cash Register,  At the Coffee Bar, etc.  Strikingly, she reveals three episodes from
“In My Head.”  The first talks about solitude as her “trade,” different from her mother, who has always been afraid of being alone, and she believes that now, in old age, her mother would like to “extinguish our mutual solitude,”  something the speaker refuses to do.  She illustrates this determination in “At the Ticket Counter,” at a spectacular theatre from the 1800s, where she has gone to get tickets for the next season of operas, symphonies, and dance performances.  She changes her seats for the different performances to appreciate the “different points of view,”  reserving only one ticket for each show.  She has vivid memories of her father, who introduced her to the theatre and who wanted to take her to one play as an early birthday present, a play she never was able to see because he became ill with flu and passed away, for which her aunt reminded her that “There’s no escaping the unforeseen.  We live day by day.”


The speaker’s favorite stationery store changes into a luggage store during the year, and she is nonplussed about what to do.

The second “In My Head” talks about the unraveling of time and the fact that sometimes she just cannot get up and out of the house, afraid that she will forget something crucial, an episode that makes her nervous about the day.  That nervousness is shown that evening when at a dinner for eight people she argues with an opinionated woman about a film under discussion, eventually insulting this female guest and creating a scene from which she returns home mortified.  This scene is very different from “At the Stationer’s,”the place from which she has always bought her notebooks, folders, page markers, and printer paper, one of her favorite haunts and where she knows the owners.  This day, however, the only things in the windows are suitcases, and “the store looks hideous…bereft of character.”  When a young couple enter looking for suitcases, they clearly get pleasure from their search, and are satisfied by their eventual purchases:  She wonders if their bond will deepen,  and as she does, “The suitcases turn, for a few seconds, into enormous books: they’re swollen volumes lacking titles, lacking meaning, collected in a library for monsters or for idiots.”  Obviously, not her kind of place anymore, as she has no need for a suitcase, or monstrous books, for that matter.

Child playing tree-stump game, which the speaker despised as a frightened child.

Child playing tree-stump game, which the speaker despised as a frightened child.

The final “In My Head,” episode refers to her childhood at school when she hated recess though her friends were euphoric, celebrating their activities with short cries and “spontaneous exaltation.”  The game she particularly hated involved crossing the gaps between tree stumps, an activity at which she had limited skills and in which she was terrified of falling into the “empty space” between them.  The turning point in this self-centered and unproductive life occurs shortly after that when she house-sits for friends and takes care of their dog.  She has often wondered if there was a chance that she could form a relationship with the husband of the family, a question answered emphatically for her by the end of the stay and her work with the dog.  Shortly afterward, she learns that she has won a fellowship which will require her to leave her apartment, her community, her family, and her friends and move to another country for the duration.   Readers are challenged to decide what she will do, evaluating how ready she might be to leave and take on a new life, whether she is capable of finding some kind of personal fulfillment, and if she is capable of forming genuine, caring new relationships.  She and her life are, and will continue to be, challenging, no matter what she decides.


Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.john-adams.nl

San Carlo Opera House in Venice, which might be similar to the one that the speaker visits to buy tickets to shows, operas, and dance performances.  http://www.visitnaplesitaly.com

A luggage store has replaced the speaker’s favorite stationery shop:  https://www.lcct.com

The tree-stump game, which the speaker despised as a frightened child:  https://modernparentsmessykids.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, India, Italy, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Jhumpa Lahiri
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 04/27/2021
ISBN: 978-0593318317
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Damon Galgut–THE PROMISE

“The two detectives have seen it all before. This murder?  This one is nothing. You should’ve been with me only last week. Oh boy, things I could tell you.  Any reason will do. South Africans kill each other for fun, it sometimes seems, or for small change, or for tiny disagreements….and from each one, concentric rings of pain ripple out in all directions, perhaps forever.”

cover promise galgutMasquerading as a family saga, The Promise is also a depiction of the various crises in the history of South Africa, especially in the past thirty years.  The Swart family – Ma, Pa, Astrid,  Anton,  and Amor – are white descendants of the Dutch and Afrikaner Voortrekkers who settled in rural areas of South Africa in the mid-1800’s as an escape from the British control of the cities of colonial South Africa.  Many created large farms in the relatively unpopulated rural areas and ran their farms as their own fiefdoms.  The past hundred years have led to significant changes, however.  Now, with a growing population and an independence movement leading many of the country’s indigenous inhabitants to demand justice, including the total abolition of apartheid, the tensions and uncertainties across all spectrums of everyday life are palpable.  Author Damon Galgut, himself a life-long resident of Pretoria, has lived through these issues, and his family connection to the South African judicial system has made him particularly sensitive to the legal issues in addition to the moral and philosophical ones.  By focusing on the lives of a family of five characters from two generations, Galgut presents not just the big, obvious issues of race, and the poverty which comes from lack of opportunity,  but also those issues which evolve from within the characters’ personalities, including their often significant personal weaknesses.

The Swart family are descended from the Dutch Africaaners who participated in the trek from the cities to the rural countryside in the mid-1800s.

The Swart family are descended from the Dutch Afrikaners who participated in the trek from the cities to the rural countryside in the mid-1800s.

Divided into four parts, each of which involves the death of one person connected to the farm, the novel, told by an omniscient and often mysterious narrator, opens with the death of Rachel – “Ma” – the mother of Astrid, the oldest child;  Anton, a nineteen-year-old assigned to army service; and Amor, a thirteen-year-old girl who has been away at school and who refuses to believe that her mother is really dead.  Her aunt believes that there is “something wrong” with Amor, who was struck by lightning and hospitalized for two months when she was six.  As Amor rides home from school, the driver must take into account some trouble in the townships and a State of Emergency “hanging over the land like a dark cloud.” The entire family, seriously dysfunctional on both sides, is at the farm when Amor arrives, each bringing personal concerns with them.  Of major concern to the family is the fact that Rachel, Amor’s mother, had been brought up Jewish, but had converted to her husband’s Dutch Reformed church during the marriage, then returned to Judaism as her death approached, and her Jewish burial will not be familiar to the family. Of significant importance also is the fact that it was Salome, the aged servant who “came with the house,” who also took care of Rachel for most of her illness, and Rachel, in gratitude to Salome, has made her husband promise to give Salome the small three-room house in which Salome has lived for the many years she has worked for the family.  Amor overheard the promise, one now denied by her father and everyone else who hears of it.

President Nelson Mandela congratulates S. Afr. Capt. Francois Pienaar for the team's win of the World Cup for rugby in 1995.

President Nelson Mandela congratulates S. Afr. Capt. Francois Pienaan for the team’s win of the World Cup for rugby in 1995.

Part Two, “Pa,” takes place in 1995, almost ten years later, and much change has taken place.  Nelson Mandela is President of the country, and residents are moving to new places and exploring new lives. The Rugby World Cup semifinals are being held in Pretoria, and people of all races are enjoying the excitement.  In the Swart family, Astrid has married, though unhappily, and is the mother of two children, living in Johannesburg.  Anton who killed a woman and went AWOL from the army years ago, is now unemployed and living with a girlfriend.   He and his father have not spoken for ten years, and Anton is not sure whether he can overcome the lasting resentments to go to the farm in Pretoria for his father’s last days. Amor has been living her own life in London, having learned that “if you want to move forward it’s best not to look back.”  One new concern to the three siblings is the recent donation their father has made for a conservative, evangelical church to be built on property which has always been “theirs.”  No one except Amor has any plans yet to honor their mother’s earlier promise regarding a house for Salome.

Amor decides to live in Durban where she gets a job as a nurse in an HIV unit.

Amor decides to live in Durban where she gets a job as a nurse in an HIV unit.

Part Three, “Astrid,” shows continued changes, including violence in the cities in the early twenty-first century.  Thabo Mbeki is now President for his second term.  The three siblings, who have little in common, now have even less contact with each other.   Astrid has converted to catholicism and is having an affair, while Anton, working on a book that never ends, is piling up bills and may have to sell some farm land.  Amor, now thirty-one and never married, is working as a nurse in an HIV unit in Durban, a conscientious and sensitive person.  A murder in the family brings the remaining family back to the farm, and Amor again reminds the family lawyer of the promise made to the now elderly Salome.   Unfortunately, “That particular stone never seems to find a resting place, no matter how often it’s turned,” Amor learns.  Part IV involves another family death, a land claim against the farm, and a resolution of sorts for the surviving family.

South African author Damon Galgut

South African author Damon Galgut

The Promise straddles genres as it focuses on the emotional problems of the Swart siblings’ lives, some of them exacerbated by the behavior of their parents.  It also focuses generally on the social and cultural milieu of South Africa from the mid-1980’s to the present, as it moves from a strongly white-dominated government to a more democratic one which recognizes the contributions of all cultures and their importance to peaceful society.  The author recognizes that change is happening and that peace is possible, but he does not lecture the reader, preferring to present facts regarding the changes and letting the reader see some of the results, both good and bad.  As Amor reviews her own life, she concludes, darkly, “You’re a branch that’s losing its leaves and one day you’ll break off.  Then what?  Then nothing.  Other branches will fill the space.  Other stories will write themselves over yours, scratching out every word.  Even these.”


PHOTOS: The photo showing a reenactment of the Voortrekkers to the countryside of S.Africa in the 19th century is from https://za.pinterest.com

President Nelson Mandela is shown congratulating S. Afr. Capt. Francois Pienaan for the team’s win of the World Cup for rugby in 1995, a huge event in the country. https://www.nytimes.com

A S. African hospital in Durban where Amor decides to make her career may be found here:  https://bhekisisa.org

The author’s photo appears on http://umuzi.bookslive.co.za


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, South Africa
Written by: Damon Galgut
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 04/06/2021
ISBN: 978-1609456580
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“On that morning of October 3, 1940, Hettie Quin knew she was lucky to be there, at the docks of Belfast, assisting with the elephant’s arrival….A young elephant [was] being maneuvered through the air.  A crane and a system of chains and pulleys elevated the animal from the deck of the moored steamship.  The elephant’s trunk coiled up and then unfurled like an opening fist.”

cover elephant belfastWatching the arrival of Violet, a young, three-year-old elephant from Ceylon, purchased for the Bellevue Zoo in Belfast, Hettie Quin looks forward to getting to know this new star of the zoo.  She “had never seen so many people at the docks: it was as if British royalty or a famous screen actress were among the steamer’s passengers arriving that morning.”  A twenty-year-old with no interest in pursuing any of the traditional roles for women in 1940, Hettie has set her sights on becoming a zookeeper, and she quickly zeroes in on Violet with her attentions.  The elephant, who is relatively untrained and tense after her long voyage, will need some special help settling in.  Hettie has tended or cared for penguins, bears, a sea lion, polar bears, monkeys, lemurs, camels, and birds, on some level, but Mr. Christie, the owner of the zoo, refuses to consider her for the role of zookeeper for the elephants, or for Violet, in particular.  She is anxious to improve her status at the zoo for several reasons, among them the fact that she is anxious to earn a higher wage so that she can find a room in a boardinghouse downtown and move out of her mother’s house.  Her family is breaking apart, with her father gone most of the time and her mother suffering from “the miseries,” and Hettie has no interest in becoming involved in all the drama at home.

Belfast Zoo, built in 1934 at the Bellevue Gardens. The Grand Staircase leads up the hill from the gardens to the zoo.

Belfast Zoo, built in 1934 at the Bellevue Gardens. The Grand Staircase leads up the hill from the gardens to the zoo.

As author S. Kirk Walsh sets the immediate scene in 1940, she also creates a past history for Hettie, who does not have a boyfriend, though she has many male friends.  At the same time that she also creates a past history for Protestant Belfast.  Hettie’s sister Anna, a Protestant, had married a Catholic, Liam Keegan, and Anna had died just three months ago giving birth to their child. Though Hettie has continued to stay in touch with her widowed brother-in-law, his family, and her new niece Maeve, visiting the Catholic neighborhoods is difficult for her, as the IRA, of which Liam is a member, is still active and their hatred of the Protestant British rulers of Northern Ireland is palpable.  With war going on in Europe and the Germans regularly bombing England, shortages of supplies have become noticeable in Belfast, food for the animals in the zoo is becoming scarce, and the possibilities of attacks there are becoming more and more likely.  A few weeks after her arrival, Violet seems scrawnier to Hettie, and Edward, Violet’s young zookeeper, has told Hettie that Mr. Wright, the head zookeeper, has told him to reduce Violet’s food to only half a bale of hay a day, instead of a whole bale.  Other animals also are having their food reduced.  When the young male zookeepers get drafted for service in the war which threatens to break out in Northern Ireland soon, Hettie eventually gets her full-time assignment as a zookeeper, and it includes care of Violet.

Floral Hall at the Bellevue Gardens, where young people enjoyed dancing and concerts.

Floral Hall at the Bellevue Gardens, where young people enjoyed dancing and concerts.

Even with all the political and social complications affecting the lives of the young people of Belfast, they still manage to have some fun.  Dances at the Floral Hall, on the same site as the zoo, and concerts featuring favorite singers there provide some fun and social life.  Naive Hettie soon finds herself sought after by at least two young men, but she has little experience in dating and in judging motives.  And when one date, making unwanted moves in the presence of Violet, finds himself under attack by both Violet and Hettie, all three of them resort to physical confrontation, with Hettie showing her aggression against someone trying to get his own way with her at all costs, Violet actively protecting her zookeeper, and the “suitor” forced to give up the leather crop he’d threatened to use against Violet and resorting to insults against Hettie.

S. Kirk Walsh, debut author of this book. Photo by Erich Schlegel.

S. Kirk Walsh, debut author of this book. Photo by Erich Schlegel.

Author Walsh soon expands the focus to the world at large, and the issue of what to do with the dangerous animals at the zoo if the zoo is hit by bombs becomes critical. The owner of the zoo reluctantly instructs the head zookeeper to put down all dangerous animals.  He plans to send Violet to Sweden, if he can organize it.  The onset of the bombing affects all aspects of life in Belfast and lasts for two days with hundreds of people killed, and massive destruction taking place.  Desperate to protect Violet, Hettie takes personal action to protect her by hiding her somewhere in Belfast where she will not be found – at least until the issue of her deportation can be settled. With Belfast now an inferno, the story of the escape of Violet from the zoo to a hidden sanctuary becomes breathtakingly dramatic, and readers will race through these pages to follow the action, which involves one shocking betrayal and one surprising act of support for Hettie and Violet.  Ultimately, author Walsh resolves the action in surprising ways, and readers, some of whom will be symbolically out of breath from the speed of the last fifty pages, will be able to sit back and contemplate the resolutions, signs of hope, dreams of peace, and a recognition of the universal love and connection which can sometimes exist between humans and the animals they love.

Sheila, the "real" elephant of Belfast, with her real caretaker and her mother, during difficult nights.

Sheila, the “real” elephant of Belfast, with her real caretaker and her mother, both of whom cared for Sheila during difficult nights.

As wonderful as this story is as fiction – and author S. Kirk Walsh makes it a gem – it rises to another whole level when one considers the fact that the crux of this story is not fiction.  In the zoo archives in 2009, a researcher found some surprising photos of a woman in her back yard with a young elephant.  Anxious to find out who the “elephant angel” was, researchers began a search to find her identity.  Eventually, she was identified as Denise Weston Austin, who lived in N. Belfast, a woman who had died in 1997.  Like Hettie, she gave the zoo’s young elephant (named “Sheila” in real life) a place to stay at night during the war, then walked her back to the zoo in the morning. The story went on to become a BBC special, an opera, and a feature film called “Zoo.”  Though the film differs widely from this book, and, perhaps, real life, a link to the trailer is available in the last sentence of  the article in The Zoo, a newsletter from the Belfast Zoological Gardens, the link for which is given at the end of the Photo Credits below.  Additional real-life photos of Sheila the elephant are also shown.  If you liked this book, you will not want to miss them.

PHOTOS.  The entrance to the Belfast Gardens, created as a public park in 1895.  The zoo was added in 1934. http://www.belfastzoo.co.uk

Floral Hall, where the young people could go to concerts and dances.  http://lordbelmontinnorthernireland.blogspot.com

Author S.  Kirk Walsh.  Photo by Erich Schlegel.  https://www.counterpointpress.com

The “real” elephant of Belfast, part of a feature story, about the elephant, Sheila, and her caretaker Denise on nights during the war.  Photos taken at the home of Denise Weston Austin, in Belfast may be found here:  http://www.belfastzoo.co.uk  Scroll to the end of the article for the trailer of a 2018 film based loosely on the story of Violet (Sheila) or click on this link:  http://www.belfastzoo.co.uk/about-us/zoo-history/zoo-the-movie.aspx

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Social and Political Issues
Written by: S. Kirk Walsh
Published by: Counterpoint Press
Date Published: 04/06/2021
ISBN: 978-1640094000
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“She wasn’t worthy of finding happiness.  That was what she felt, day after day, while she listlessly carried out her household chores, or played with the children at her part-time job at the children’s center.  Like a wound healing – naturally, slowly.”

cover kashimadaWinner of Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 2012, “Touring the Land of the Dead,” a novella by Maki Kashimada, has now reached a large American audience for the first time. Regarded in Japan as an avant-garde writer, Kashimada rejects many of the cliches we think of when we regard books by Japanese women as quiet, elegant, formal, and “polite.”  Here Kashimada, translated by Haydn Trowell, sees the world in realistic terms and does not hesitate to depict what she sees as the sad, meaningless lives some people accept as their “due,”  showing their inner turmoil and even rebellion as they try to improve life for themselves and, often, their immediate families.  “Touring the Land of the Dead,” the longer and more emotionally involving of the two novellas in this debut, takes a close look at a one family which, in successive generations, has become less and less successful, reflecting the damage and even bullying imposed on some members of the family by others who take advantage of them.  Taking a close look at Natsuko, the wife of Taichi, a 36-year-old man diagnosed with a neurological disorder a year after their marriage, the author shows her trying to support them both on the salary she earns working part-time at a child care center.

Bullet Train

Bullet Train

For eight years Natsuko has been Taichi’s sole care-giver throughout his seizures, surgeries, hospitalizations, and accidents, to the point that she now believes that she herself “wasn’t worthy of finding happiness.” She does not believe that there is anything special about living for someone else’s sake, “but if it were for anyone else’s sake but his, there would be no need for her to exist [at all].”  Natsuko, however, runs a frugal household, and finally saves enough money for a surprise two-day visit for her and Taichi at a formerly elegant hotel which is now offering a “health retreat.”  Years ago, she visited that hotel for pleasure with her wealthy grandparents, her parents, and brother, but times and finances have changed dramatically.  She and Taichi are able to survive with careful planning, while her mother and brother, constantly trying to cadge money from her, haughtily ignore Taichi, mocking his background and criticizing Natsuko for marrying him.  Boarding the bullet train for their getaway, Natsuko and Taichi head for the retreat, where Natsuko must deal with memories of all the changes from the past, at the same time that she is trying to create a pleasant memory and change of pace for herself and Taichi.

Public foot-bath beside a street.

Public foot-bath beside a street.

During their “escape,” Taichi is excited by a trip to an art museum and spends much time examining and thoroughly enjoying the paintings.  Time at the beach, which follows, adds more pleasure.  Seeing Taichi’s reactions allows Natsuko to start to move out of her broken shell and begin, too, to think about “sharing.” A trip to a foot-bath in front of the bus station adds even more delight to Taichi’s day, eventually inspiring Natsuko to hope she can do something even more special for him, and giving her some real insights into his life.  When he asks what he can do that would be special to her,  she comes to her biggest realization of all.   This novella captures the deep, sometimes hidden, feelings of characters who become very real here, as author Kashimada alternates the lives of Natsuko and Taichi in the present with elements of the past which have prevented Natsuko from learning to treasure what she has.  The novella has become, in the course of the narrative, a belated coming-of-age story for a good woman who has finally begun to understand who she really is and how she can lead a new kind of life.

Azalea Festival, Nezo Shrine

Azalea Festival, Nezo Shrine

“Ninety-Nine Kisses,” the second novella here, features a larger cast in which a family of four sisters, all unmarried, face changes in their relationships with each other when a young man named S enters their lives at the Azalea Festival at the Nezu Shrine.  The narrator, Nanako, is the youngest of the four sisters, identified as a college student, but she appears much younger in some scenes and in flashbacks. As the sisters talk, it becomes clear that all three of the older sisters are attracted to S.  One day Nanako sees S at a bus stop, where he is staring at a sign in front of a feminist literary society.  Suddenly, he kisses the sign, and Nanako is the only one who sees him. Confused about why he would do this, she ponders the idea that “If he tried to kiss me, I might not be able to stop myself just with slapping him.  No, I would kiss him back.”

Taiyaki, a sweet dessert which S gives to Mieko, upsetting her sister.

Taiyaki, a sweet dessert which S gives to Mieko, upsetting her sister.

All the sisters seem preoccupied with sex, its anatomy, and its graphic details. They ask their mother about what it was like having sex with their father before she broke up with him.  They describe the behavior of one sister displaying her body to a ten-year-old boy who has wandered into the ladies’ bathhouse.  The sisters’ casual lusting over each other;   the physical, sexual pleasure they get from each other;   and the self-pleasuring they enjoy so much when alone are other aspects celebrated here.  Two of the sisters show that they have had some attention from S, with one, Meiko, receiving a fresh taiyaki  from him.  Later Yoko receives even more attention and contemplates the possibility of marriage.  The effects on the sisters’ relationships with each other, soon become dramatic, but they know they will always treasure each other, not some “good-for-nothing man who might one day show up from somewhere far away.”

Author Maki Kashimada

Author Maki Kashimada

With these two novellas, author Maki Kashimada lives up to her reputation of challenging the status quo and taking an avant-garde approach to writing and, in some ways, to life itself.  “Ninety-Nine Kisses,” however, is “thinner,” less thoughtful, and less involving than “Touring the Land of the Dead.”  Though “Ninety-Nine Kisses”  is supposed to have been modeled on Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, the overall atmosphere,  mood, and thematic focus remain very different.  I enjoyed Kashimada’s thoughtful, beautifully realized, and original approach to “Touring the Land of the Dead,” but “Ninety-Nine Kisses” does not compare to anything I have ever read by Tanizaki.

Photos.  The bullet train may be found on https://pixabay.com

A public foot-bath beside a street appears on https://www.kusatsu-onsen.ne.jp

The Azalea Festival at Nezu Shrine is from https://thegate12.com

Taiyaki, a sweet dessert, is shown on https://www.pinterest.com

The author’s photo may be found on https://asianreviewofbooks.com


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Coming-of-age, Experimental, Japan, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Maki Kashimada
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 04/06/2021
ISBN: 978-1609456511
Available in: Ebook Paperback

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »