A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the story of Etsuko, a Japanese woman now living alone in England, dwelling on the recent suicide of her daughter. Retreating into the past, she finds herself reliving one particular hot summer in Nagasaki, when she and her friends struggled to rebuild their lives after the war. But then as she recalls her strange friendship with Sachiko — a wealthy woman reduced to vagrancy — the memories take on a disturbing cast.

I had a rather precarious feeling, perched on the edge of
that mountain looking out over such a view; a long way down below us, we could
see the harbour looking like a dense piece of machinery left in the water.
Across the harbour, on the opposite bank, rose the series of hills that led
into Nagasaki. The land at the foot of the hills was busy with houses and
buildings. Far over to our right, the harbour opened out on to the sea.

We sat there for a while, recovering our breath and enjoying
the breeze. Then I said: Wouldn’t think anything had ever happened here, would
you? Everything so full of life. But all that area down there,” — I waved my
hand at the view below us — “all that area was so badly hit when the bomb fell.
But look at it now.”

Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers.

I’ve grown oddly fond of Kazuo Ishiguro’s detached, melancholy writing style with the occasional snippet of wisdom. But I’m just not sure if I like this book. Ishiguro writes a very specific type of story. A Pale View of Hills has a lot in common with An Artist of the Floating World, it has the narrator who tends to ramble about the past, the exotic setting, the tragic lives of the people post-war and the you-knew-this-was-coming-but-BAM-anyway ending. Being his debut, though, A Pale View of Hills isn’t as refined as Ishiguro’s other books. It’s abrupt and though the author has relied on characterization for story-building, it is filled with clumsy dialogue. He seems to be trying hard to be unique, with the purposely incomplete title among other things. The good thing is that the story is very eerie. If you start reading it, do complete it despite all the absurdities; it is full of seemingly inconsequential details that all make sense at the end. While I wasn’t too impressed by the book, overall, there were parts that haunted me for hours after I finished reading.

I’d recommend A Pale View of Hills only to a seasoned Ishiguro reader. Otherwise, it’s best to try An Artist of the Floating World, or Never Let Me Go.

Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura

Summary (from Goodreads): Isaku is a nine-year-old boy living in a remote, desperately
poor fishing village on the coast of Japan. His people catch barely enough fish
to live on, and so must distill salt to sell to neighboring villages. But this
industry serves another, more sinister purpose: the fires of the salt cauldrons
lure passing ships toward the shore and onto rocky shoals. When a ship runs
aground, the villagers slaughter the crew and loot the cargo for rice, wine,
and rich delicacies. One day a ship founders on the rocks. But Isaku learns
that its cargo is far deadlier than could ever be imagined.
Who knew it was possible to be more depressing than Thomas Hardy! Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura is now the bleakest thing I have ever read. I really wanted to like the book and searched in vain for a silver lining. Isaku’s life was terrible and terrifying. Though some of the village customs were interesting, I would’ve been happier left in the dark. The dull repetitiveness of the villagers’ lives, which was supposed, perhaps, to be touching, simply bored me. I didn’t see a point to the book, however hard I tried, and found nothing I could learn from, mull over. The writing was disconnected, repetitive and reeked of translation. Almost all characters were one-dimensional, stick figures, whom it was impossible to emotionally connect to. The only good thing about this story was that it was short. Even then, my head hurt by the time it ended. 
I’ve read better books than this for the Japanese Literature Challenge.

Death in Midsummer by Yukio Mishima

Death in Midsummer and Other stories is a short story collection by Japanese author Yukio Mishima. The first story gives the book its title. I’ve only read the first story and I loved it. I’ll write about the other stories, updating this post as and when I read them.

Death in Midsummer is translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. On a family vacation at a beach resort, while Tomoko Ikuta is taking a nap in her room, her three children and their aunt Yasue are on the beach. A freak accident leads to the death of Yasue and two children. The story is about what’s left of the little family dealing with their sudden loss.

The story is frank and simple. It is more like a chapter out of someone’s life; without a real plot but in a way, complete. In contrast to the helpless feeling that Ishiguro’s stories brought, Death in Midsummer is precise. The way the characters deal with death and family is very real. The relationships between the characters, the husband and wife are at once delicate and strong. They aren’t always able to understand each other or are puzzled by how they both react to a same situation in two completely different ways. Their reactions are described with a calm lack of drama, that very few books about loss manage, and I could relate to it perfectly. The writing is shockingly vivid. I hope to read more stories from the collection soon. In the meanwhile, if you like Japanese Literature, check out this challenge.

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Pictured: The library copy of Ishiguro’s Nocturnes with its beautiful blue cover and beside it, my favourite bookmark.

After really enjoying An Artist of the Floating World and recently, Never Let Me Go, I had certain expectations from this book. In a way, it’s very typically Ishiguro and in another, it’s really not what I had in mind.

Nocturnes is a collection of short stories, as the title says: five short stories of music and nightfall. I loved two, fairly liked another two, and was entirely confused and disappointed by one. The book has a nostalgic, almost silly romantic air to it and shows the way music intensely affects people and relationships. The stories are tied together by a sense of lingering regret. There are some recurring characters.
Crooner: This is the first story in the collection and one that I really loved. A Polish guitar player meets the once famous musician Tony Gardner at a piazza where he spends time playing for various groups, bored by the monotony of his life. After spending a day with Tony Gardner, our narrator realizes that his idol and inspiration is like every other man, lost and desperate. The musician is not really his music, just the way an author, I suppose, isn’t necessarily his book. In that one encounter the guitar player learns a lot, perhaps more than he wants to, about Mr. Gardner, his wife Lindy and the world they live in. He is surprised, shocked, touched and awed, but by the end, unsurprisingly, the encounter hardly affects his idea of the singer. The build up to the tragi-comic ending is nice and what could have been a rather wordy narration is delightfully conversational. The story is beautiful in its simplicity.

“..his voice came out just the way I remembered it – gentle, almost husky, but with a huge amount of body, like it was coming through an invisible mike. And like all the best American singers, there was that weariness in his voice, even a hint of hesitation, like he’s not a man accustomed to laying open his heart this way. That’s how all the greats do it.”

Come Rain Or Come Shine: This story was very weird and I don’t know, maybe I just didn’t understand it well, because if I did, then I don’t know why the hell it was part of this collection. A man visits his old friends and realizes that their marriage is falling apart, that he is meant to patch things up between them by making the wife see how miserable he is and how happy they are in comparison. I don’t like to watch physical comedy and even less to read it. So the scene where the woman walks in on the friend wrecking her house and chewing paper, while staging a fake dog attack was very awkward. And I get that the story was more than that: it was about the pathetic idea that the only thing this man’s friends appreciated in him was his taste in music and how, even though they had bonded over it so well, they didn’t think it mattered. That’s all I can think of. So I’m assuming I didn’t understand this story or why it was humorous: I do welcome explanations.

Malvern Hills: This is another story in the collection that I thought was just fabulous. It’s written in a lazy, meandering tone and lets on a lot more about the narrator than the narrator perhaps intends, which reminded me of Never Let Me Go. The book jacket describes this as the story of “a struggling singer-songwriter unwittingly involved in the failing marriage of a couple he’s only just met.” It’s about being a struggling artist and having to deal with people who don’t value art or understand why you want to be a artist, it’s about that odd connection and sense of belonging between complete strangers, who only having in common that shared passion, about music transporting you to a different place, about being cruelly snatched back to reality every time. Ishiguro has this knack of focusing on the little moments and making them big, vivid.

“A power cyclist, kitted out in what looked like a black wetsuit, went speeding by us, and for the next few moments, we all watched his frantic receding shape.”

Nocturne: The title story is odd, nice, though not my favourite. The characters are pitiable and funny; the story features Lindy Gardner from Crooner, in a hotel room with her face wrapped in bandages following a plastic surgery. Starring alongside her, in the room next-door, is our narrator, a talented but underrated jazz musician, who has convinced himself that plastic surgery will bring him the fame he deserves. It’s a sad story about shallow artificiality, about groping blindly in the dark, about jealousy and all those little emotions that blur out the rest of the world and make us do the craziest of things. It drags on a bit, though, and gets confusingly, abruptly surreal in the middle. What I liked was seeing Lindy Gardner through another perspective.

“Maybe it was because I’d become so bored by this point; or just that my mood was on the up again; or that the thought of having a fellow prisoner to swap stories with was extremely appealing. Or maybe I wasn’t so immune myself to the glamor thing. In any case, despite everything I felt about Lindy Gardner, when I read this, I felt a tinge of excitement, and I found myself telling Gracie to let Lindy know I’d be over at five.”

Cellists: This was perhaps the most wittily crafted story of the five and being the last, it did have the most lasting impression. Had the book ended with the second story, I wouldn’t have liked it. This was a good ending and it was almost as if it completed the point the writer was trying to make throughout the book, and quite perfectly, I must add. According to the book jacket, this story is about ‘a young cellist whose tutor promises to “unwrap” his talent.’ That tells very little about the actual story, which is about the innate aptitude for music, the need for recognition, the ego and its inability to deal with failure, about the metaphorical muse and about being scared even, and well, I think from the whole collection, this is one story that is truly unique and that could stir something in you. It should be read not summarized, so I’ll leave you with this last quote:

“He resolved, out of politeness, to endure this uninvited tutorial for at most another five minutes. But he found himself staying a little longer, then longer again. He played some more, she talked again. Her words would always strike him initially as pretentious and far too abstract, but when he tried to accommodate their thrust into his playing, he was surprised by the effect.  Before he realized, another  hour had gone by.”

Overall, this isn’t a book I would normally read. It’s about music, art and life; none of which I quite understand. It’s something to enjoy and be sad about on a quiet afternoon and wonder about late into the night. I’m not completely done wondering just yet. Meanwhile, I need to get The Remains of the Day from the library, I have heard far too much about the book in the past couple of days and while some stories from this collection did puzzle me, I’m starting to develop a kind of vague fondness for Ishiguro’s writing.

 This wasn’t read specifically for the Japanese Literature Challenge, but it fits, so why not.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Often, when I read a book, I end up noting things down along the way. It then turns into a sort of rant-review and I can think of nothing else to write later. This post doesn’t have much of a beginning nor an end. Of course, if you’ve already read Never Let Me Go, this post would make a lot more sense to you than if you haven’t. I have to say, though: it is definitely worth a read. From the two books I’ve read of his, I find the author rather talented, mostly for having produced two quite different books. (The other one I read was An Artist of the Floating World.)

Summary: The book is narrated by a thirty year old woman, Kathy, who has been a carer for twelve years now. She is looking back on her life in this post-war world. Kathy and her friend Ruth were students of a special boarding school “Hailsham.” They spent their childhoods there, with the teachers (guardians) being the only people they had in their lives apart from themselves; they had no families and weren’t even allowed outside the school. The children were different from the people outside, you know, the “normal people”, though none of them knew why. Kathy reminisces about her past, about bonding with the misfit Tommy, losing him to sassy little Ruth, the quiet loneliness that followed, and other seemingly little incidents that build up to the moment when the students realize what fate has in store for them in the outside world. Kathy talks about meeting Tommy and Ruth years later, as their carer and helping them through their donations. Kathy is now about to quit being a carer and finally become a donor herself.

Never Let Me Go was so sad. Great, but very sad. It was depressing, it just got more depressing and more truthful with every page and the ending was so honest, it hurt. I liked it, of course and here’s why.

Most post-apocalyptic, dystopian books try to be suspenseful and fail. The plots follow a kind of formula: where there’s this post-tragedy futuristic world that’s supposedly working just fine, until our protagonist starts to not-fit-in and soon realizes that under the facade of a very well-functioning society lies this whole underground community of rebels. More often than not, the protagonist joins them and almost always, fails in overthrowing the system or loses something of himself in his attempt. Sure, dystopian fiction calls for this pessimistic, “Oh God, is this really how the world’s going to end up?” and tragic “No, wait, the world already is kind of like this, isn’t it?” flurry of reactions. But an author putting a lot of trouble into making the plot suspenseful, when we all know this is going to happen, gets tiring after a while. The thing that irritated me to no end in The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, was that very silly withholding of information. I couldn’t focus on anything, but that aura of mystery the narrator kept trying to create. It was a very childish technique of keeping someone interested, which combined with the overly obvious “message”, just didn’t have much of an impression on me. Deliberately misleading the readers into thinking something else, while employing the formula anyway is not very creative (unless it’s something like I am Legend, all the planning usually just gets in the way of actually sending across a message.)

What’s creative is coming up with a whole new approach to the story, which is what I think Ishiguro has done here. He’s never kept the pretense of “mystery”. It’s quite clear from the very beginning why the children are ‘special’, why they’re at Hailsham and how they’re going to end up. If you haven’t already guessed, I won’t say what, but I can promise you, you’ll guess before you reach even the seventh page. The narrator, Kathy, assumes we know, since we’re from such a school ourselves and focuses on her story, instead. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, the point of Never Let Me Go, the message that the author was trying to get across, seemed rather subtle. The characters in this book, quite maudlin and immature in their ideas, told a lot more than an unlikely hero would have.

The book made me think about what ‘doing good’ means, about double standards and how people like to believe in the ultimate good, even though we’re all just as confused as the next person. Do we try to believe our life makes sense only to gain some semblance of control, as we stand on the edge of an infinite pit of darkness, desperately trying to keep our balance. The book has no fairy tale ending. It just leaves a lingering feeling of helplessness that characterizes the lives of the people in the book, not to mention, our own lives. A loss of control that can only be dealt with by acceptance.

Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino

Summary: The book opens as Ayane, a beautiful young patchwork-artist decides to kill her husband Yoshitaka Mashiba. He is about to leave her as she cannot get pregnant, and that is the only reason he got married in the first place – to have a child. He already has a new girl in mind who could father his baby, and she happens to be Ayane’s favourite student Hiromi. Ayane doesn’t object to the break-up, but does escape to her parents’ place for a few days, seemingly to calm herself down. In the meanwhile, Hiromi and Yoshitaka meet up and make plans. On the next day, when Hiromi shows up at Yoshitaka’s house for a dinner date with her lover, she finds him on the floor, dead, poisoned. It is up to Tokyo Police Detective Kusanagi and his assistant Utsumi, who enlists the help of genius physics professor Dr. Yukawa, to solve the mystery.

My thoughts: If you ask anyone, what a good crime novel is all about, they say it’s a book that keep you guessing. There are different ways of keeping a howdunit / whydunit like this one mysterious, and Higashino somehow doesn’t get them – in neither his previous book The Devotion of Suspect X, which was quite a phenomenon nor Salvation of a Saint. We already know who did the crime and as the book progresses we watch the police and detectives try to figure it out, trying ourselves to figure how Ayane committed the murder and why. The investigation goes around in loops; junior detective Utsumi suspects Ayane, but couldn’t tell you why and Kusanagi, our hero, seems to have fallen for the beautiful widow. For the first hundred pages of the book, it is impossible to guess just what might have happened – the reason being, nothing new really comes up – the same conversations with the same few suspects, minutely detailed descriptions of feelings and analyses and different perspectives on the same thing. The investigation becomes a drag (although I rather believe real-life investigations would be just as repetitive and unlike the fast-paced action most books provide.) The detectives’ constant state of being confused forms a major part of the book. And just when, somewhere in the middle, the writer lets slip the first obvious clue of why the crime could have happened, figuring out the whole reason is a piece of cake. Infinitely easy. So, I could guess the whydunit there and then and that part of the mystery was lost. Then came the howdunit. You know the man was poisoned, you know, from the prologue, that a bag of white powder was somehow involved in the crime. You couldn’t possibly figure out the method used to poison, but when you know who and why, does ‘how’ really matter? Enough to read half a book? If it does, well, let me tell you, I could vaguely guess what must have happened forty pages before it was revealed, or could at least guess the components involved in arranging that crime (let’s put it that way, if we want to avoid spoilers.) And when I did find out the whole truth it wasn’t as ingenious as I would have liked it to be – in fact, it was kind of ludicrous (and also kind of moot, which you’d understand if you’ve read the book; tragic how Ayane went through so much only to be caught.)

If a good crime novel really is one that keeps you guessing, this isn’t it. But I think people put too much weight on suspense. For me, a good book is so much more than “What happened? What happened? What happened? Oh! THAT happened! Wow.”

The book deals with many social issues; you almost relate to the killer, which is saying something. There is no definite bad guy, just a string of unfortunate situations and behaviour that spiraled off to a murder. It makes you wonder how sordid the world has become, how biased and superficial our actions and emotions are, how helpless we often feel and how blurred the line between right and wrong is. The motive for the murder is just typical enough to be believable, the characters are really fleshed out. Ironically, I could connect to them better, because they were almost irreparably selfish and flawed.

(By the way, good work by the translator as well, the words flow in a way that makes it hard to believe it’s a translation – as I remember, The Devotion of Suspect X was a bit clumsy: which is odd, considering it’s the same translator.)

Like I said, if you’re looking for a fact-paced thriller, surprising, crime mystery novel thing, this is probably not it. You would probably enjoy The Devotion of Suspect X a lot more. But if you want a good book, one that lingers on your mind long after you’ve finished reading it, I would suggest you go ahead and read this one. I certainly liked the book.

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The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

I received this book in exchange for an honest review through Blogadda.

The Devotion of Suspect X is a Japanese crime thriller first published in 2005. It is the third and the most acclaimed book in Keigo Higashino’s Galileo series. The first two chapters tell us, the readers, of the murder that is committed by single mother Yasuko Hanaoka and the cover-up designed by her strange and mysterious neighbour, a genius mathematician called Tetsuya Ishigami. The murder has the police completely puzzled. And it is upto detective Kunasagi, assisted by physicist Manabu Yuwaka (Galileo) to figure out just what happened.

(What I liked) Usually, twist endings in crime novels leave me thinking; “What!! Did that just happen?”. They almost always make me wonder if the writer just got tired of coming up with a decent ending. It’s safe to say, that there are very few unexpected turns of events that I actually like. But this one was one of those few. As a reader, you are an observer of a story, which is carefully veiled. The veil is lifted slightly every so often, but never quite so much that you know exactly what is happening. The author does a great job of maintaining the suspense, of not letting on too much, without making you impatient. Every page gives a little more information, and every page creates a new question.

This was also one of the few psychological thrillers I have read, where the hero isn’t suffering from an actual mental disorder. And yet, it was also the most thrilling, in that respect. I know people who don’t like mysteries/crime novels because you don’t get anything valuable out of them. I disagree, because the biggest reason I read is to just get lost in a new kind of world. But this book had a lot more to offer than just that. It was highly unrealistic in many places, but at the same time, it said something about human nature that is uncannily real. I couldn’t tell you that without disclosing the best parts of the book, so let me just leave it at this; the book has the most apt title! Plot-wise, I think The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino was really quite fabulous.

That being said, I did not exactly love the book.

(What I did not like) Firstly, let me just say, I might have enjoyed this book a tad bit more, if I could have read the original. It was obvious in many places, that this was a translation. The sentence construction was awkward. Another thing I did not like was that it seemed too much like an unrealistic and cheesy detective movie. Crime fiction is so vast a genre, and has seen so many bests over the years, that it must be hard to write something that would count as different. The scenes were repetitive and it seemed to me, as if I was viewing a combination of all the crime dramas there on TV these days.
Which brings me to the next thing; the book read like a movie script at times; and that, according to me, is the worst thing when it comes to a thriller.
It was also kind of weird, how the writer kept explaining every thing over and over again, from the different perspectives of all the different characters. It was almost as if he assumed the readers were too stupid to figure things out on their own.
The characters had the potential to be much better than they actually were; much more developed. But somehow I kept thinking that the author was juggling a lot more characters and viewpoints than he should have been.

It’s not the worst book I’ve read, but it’s certainly not the best. I would recommend people to read this book, for all the good parts. But I would like to remind you, 2 million people might even be wrong; Twilight taught us that!

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