June Round Up! – #20booksof summer

The curse of 20 Books of Summer has struck again!

For yet another year, my reading is going really well, but the reviewing is falling by the wayside.

I swore I wouldn’t do mini-reviews, but I have to face facts. We’re one month in and by my calculations, I should have 6.66 books reviewed. I haven’t. I have managed to review the grand total of three. So, I’m going to do quick reviews of the two books I have read and while they both deserve a full review in their own right, I am afraid they are going to have to be disappointed in me.


No 588: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood is not at all what I expected from my first Murakami. I anticipated something weird, futuristic and challenging, but instead got a beautiful, languorous meditation on youth, love and the power of memory.

When he hears the famous Beatles song as he touches down on an international flight, Toru Watanabe recalls his first love Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide. The song transports him back almost twenty years to his student days in 1960s Tokyo, a world of faltering friendships, obsessive love, loss and passion, He recalls his consuming relationship with Naoko, conducted mostly at a sanitarium where she has chosen to stay and how their relationship is threatened by Midori, an impetuous and passionate young woman who forces Watanabe to choose between the future and the past.

The novel is set at a time of student unrest and volatile demonstrations, but this only serves as the background to a more delicate love story as Watanabe tries to recall all the details of this emotional time in his life.

What if I’ve forgotten the most important thing? What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud?

If this were just a straightforward tale of a love triangle, Murakami would give answers, relationships would be cemented. What he presents instead is not a rose-tinted love story. It is an honest, beautifully written coming of age story that explores the difficult transition between adolescence and adulthood, where sanity and self-preservation are constantly under threat and ‘ordinary’ love is anything but ordinary.

”I once had a girl / Or should I say, she once had me,” are the opening lines of the Beatles song and they are an apt summary of this lovely, questioning book. Murakami gives us no resolution, but then this is a book of memory with all the shadows and whispers that memories contain.

Read on: iPad

Number Read: 159

Number Remaining: 587

yellow wallpaper

No 587 The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I did cheat slightly by including The Yellow Wallpaper in my 20 Books, given that it is really a short story. But what a story it is and I would argue, it packs more emotional intensity and vivid imagery into its 30-odd pages than a lot of novels I’ve read.

The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.

The Yellow Wallpaper has become a classic of feminist fiction, a pioneering portrait of the trauma of postnatal depression. Written with a barely concealed fury, this autobiographical horror story scandalized readers on its publication with its portrayal of a woman who loses her mind because she has literally nothing to do.

A century on and The Yellow Wallpaper has lost nothing of its unsettling power. The first person narration, in the form of a diary, gives it an urgent immediacy, and the fact that it was born out of Gilman’s own experience of mental illness, makes it undeniably prescient. The narrator is a nameless young woman who has recently had a baby. She is suffering from a ‘temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency’ as diagnosed by her husband and her brother, both doctors. Treatment for her illness is rest. She is confined in an upstairs room of a large country house and it is in this room, with a lack of anything else at all to occupy her, that she becomes at first disgusted, then enthralled and finally obsessed with the yellow patterned wallpaper.

I never saw a worse paper in my life. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions… The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

Studying the wallpaper becomes her only self-chosen activity. She is not allowed to look after her child, see friends, read or write – so the examination of the wallpaper becomes a kind of freedom. Before long, she begins to see women trapped within the pattern, jailed just as she is. When she starts to see these women from her barred window, creeping in the garden below, her madness is complete.

I don’t like to look out of the windows even–there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?

The lack of mental stimulation has created a situation where she is literally bored out of her mind and Charlotte Gilman Perkins captures perfectly the eroding of her mental faculties brought about by the actions of the very people who were supposed to care for her. This is an incredibly well-written story, paced perfectly with a growing sense of paranoia and terror. It would be powerful enough without knowing the biography of its writer and as it stands is a stark rejoinder to the treatment of post-natal depression and the repression of the female mind.

Read On: Book

Number Read: 160

Number Remaining: 586

So how is everyone else doing in the challenge now that we are one month in? I am three-quarter of the way through THREE other books, so if I could just get them finished, I’d be close to be on track with my reading.

Do let me know how you are all getting on!

20 books




No 626 The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa

Adobe Spark (6)

As usual with my 20 Books of Summer challenge, the reading isn’t the problem, it’s the reviewing. I’m actually nearly finished my 7th book, but am only at review number 3. I’ll be playing review catch up for the next while, but at least I’m on course to actually read all my books, for a change!

diving pool - Copy

I’ve been a fan of Yoko Ogawa’s exquisite controlled prose since reading Revenge, The Housekeeper and the Professor and Hotel Iris. The Diving Pool, written when she was in her twenties, is a collection of three novellas, all intuitively exploring emotionally displaced female psychologies.

As with all Ogawa’s work, the stories are written in a simple prose style that belies a profound emotional depth. A sense of unease permeates all these stories, which have an eerie dream-like quality despite their realistic settings. A lingering feeling of dread follows each of these tales, as if the reader awakens from a nightmare and is unable to shake the unease that comes in its wake.

The first two novellas in this mesmerising collection feature isolated female characters who are at an emotional distance from those around them, and try to poison people in a warped attempt at intimacy.

In The Diving Pool, Aya lives in the ‘Lighthouse’ an orphanage run by her parents.

My father and mother are the leaders of a church, a place they say mediates between the faithful and their god. They also run the Lighthouse, which is an orphanage where I am the only child who is not an orphan, a fact that has disfigured my family.

Aya has developed obsessive feelings for an orphan Jun, with whom she has lived since childhood and every day she watches him in secret at his diving practice. Unable to express her feelings for Jun, she internalises her need for comfort and connection and gives in to cruelty instead. She begins to torment a small child called Rie in the orphanage, finding excitement and power in her ability to hurt.

My desires seemed simple and terribly complicated at the same time: to gaze at Jun’s wet body and to make Rie cry. These were the only things that gave me comfort.

When Rie becomes dangerously ill and Aya still feels no remorse, Ogawa cleverly subverts our expectations and shows us how cruelty and kindness can be intermingled when our natural feelings have become twisted through childhood neglect.

The award winning Pregnancy Diary features another emotionally detached young woman. The diary of the title is not that of her own pregnancy, but of her sister’s. As each detail of the pregnancy is logged in the diary, a sense growing revulsion creeps into the narrative as the focus is not on the baby, but on bodily changes and on the consumption of food.

I feel a little disorientated every time I see her like this. Her while body is swelling before my eyes like a giant tumour.

As her sister suffers first from extreme morning sickness, then from a need to eat constantly, the narrator makes vat after vat of possibly toxic grapefruit jam to feed to her insatiable sister.

Like Aya in The Diving Pool, the narrator of Pregnancy Diary is essentially impassive, seeking power through cruelty with an almost disconcerting lack of awareness. Their roles in life are indistinct and their response to this is to create a position of power where they can. Ogawa’s characters seem unaware of the consequences of their actions and the cool, detached tone adds to a sense of alienation not only from those around them, but from themselves.

The protagonist of the final story Dormitory channels her sense of isolation towards misplaced kindness rather than misplaced cruelty. While she waits for her husband to summon her to live with him in Sweden where he is working, the narrator fills her day with patchwork quilting and television, unable to focus on anything more substantial.

My life, too, seemed to be drifting in circles, as if caught in the listless season….I never went out to meet people and had no deadlines or projects of any sort. Formless days passed one after the other, as if swollen into an indistinguishable mass by the damp weather.

Into this limbo comes her cousin, who is moving to Tokyo to go to University. He asks her to help him find accommodation and she finds him a place in her old college dormitory, run by a man who is missing both arms and a leg. Of all the stories in this collection, Dormitory is the one that most resembles the horror/ thriller genre. A student from the dormitory has gone missing in strange circumstances and as the narrator attempts to visit her cousin after he has moved in, she becomes a carer for the deformed manager. As she is drawn into his isolated world, she loses her grip on everyday life, ignoring her husband’s letters and feeling incapable of completing the simplest of tasks

Somehow I couldn’t really understand what he was trying to say. The words – ‘market’…’passport’, ‘moving company’ – were like obscure philosophical terms.

Where has her cousin gone? What is the steady humming sound in the dormitory and where is the growing stain in the ceiling coming from? Ogawa once again subverts expectation and the story ends on a symbolic rather than a sinister note.
As with all Ogawa’s books, there is not a word wasted, yet her prose evokes a dream-like, even surreal pull, distancing the reader before bringing them close again. There is a sense of beautiful unease in her stories that haunt long after they have been read. The cool brilliance of her narratives suggests a universality to her work and the translation by Stephen Snyder maintains this smooth, eerie magic.


This is one of my Diverse reads for #ReadDiverse2016

Read on: Book
20 Books of Summer: 3/20
Number Read: 121
Number Remaining: 625