One more month down in 2021. We are now in the last stretch of 2021 and, in less than 120 days, we will be welcoming a new year. It both sounds exciting and daunting at the same time for we are not sure of what the new year will bring in. Nevertheless, I am hoping that we will get more great news in the coming year. For now, I hope you are all doing great despite the adversities that lurk in every corner of the world. I pray that you will reap the benefits of everything you worked and prayed hard for this year. For those who are on their way to achieving their goals, we are here cheering for you. Fighting! Reach for those stars
With the perpetual lockdown protocols here in the Philippine capital, I was able to cross out several books from my infinitely growing reading list. For months, I have lived a peripatetic existence as books have transported me to different parts of the world, from Africa to South America to Japan and the rest of Asia. Books have helped me attain a sense of stability during the pandemic. There was not much of a change in my reading routine as I tried to read as much as I can. However, my focus was now on “new” books, books published during the year. I have always been a backlist type of reader but in the past three years or so, I tried to read as much new books as I can. Now, I even dedicated a month to reading purely new books. In reading new books, I was also hoping to tick off books from my 2021 Books I Look Forward To List.
With this being said, here is a peek into how my journey went. Here is my reading list for August.
Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki
I did extend my July Japanese literature month in August, hence, the three Japanese works in this list. My first read for the month is a continuation of my immersion into the heart of Japanese literature. I first came across Natsume Sōseki through his novel I am a Cat, a book I have been longing to read. Ironically, my first Sōseki was Botchan which I read almost two years ago. And my second novel from the esteemed Japanese novelist is still not the book I am looking forward to. Nevertheless, Kokoro provided me a deeper insight into Sōseki’s prose. Literally translated as “heart”, Kokoro is the story of the friendship that has formed between the anonymous narrator, a university student, and an older man he met in Kamakura during his school break. The older man has earned the narrator’s admiration, even earning him the nickname “Sensei”. As they get to know each other, the better we get to know about the Sensei who lived an isolated existence. There was a pall that hovered above him, an enigma that shrouded him. In the third part of the novel, taking the form of a letter, we get to know more about him and the source of his reservations. Rather than its plot, the novel flourished with emotions and insights. In dichotomy to the lightheartedness of Botchan, Kokoro had a bleaker tone.
Earthlings by Sayaka Murata
From a familiar name to an unfamiliar name, my second book for the month was a book by a writer who has been on a steady rise lately. Sayaka Murata, I have learned, have taken the literary world by storm when the translated version of her 2016 novel, Konbini ningen, was published as Convenience Store Woman. I did purchase a copy of the Convenience Store Woman but it was her more recently translated novel, Earthlings, that has captured my interest. One fellow book blogger’s comment about the book caught my attention, hence, my decision to read it ahead of Convenience Store Woman. Originally published in Japanese as Chikyu Seijin in 2018, Earthlings is the story of Natsuki, who narrated the story, beginning with seminal events during her childhood. At a young age, she was treated by her parents differently which made her disconnect from the physical world and find company in a plush toy hedgehog she called Piyyut. She started believing she was an alien from a planet called Popinpobopia. The novel’s message was quite straightforward, buts its exploration was highly imaginative. Apart from bodily autonomy, the novel zooms in on pedophilia, child abuse, and conformity to the expectations of the society. The ending, however, was graphic and one can’t help but question Murata’s intentions.
Nip The Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburō Ōe
Kenzaburō Ōe is, without a doubt, one of the most recognized Japanese literary figures. He had a prolific career that has earned him several accolades, the biggest of which was becoming just the second Japanese writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. However, despite his resume, I have always been apprehensive about him and his works. I don’t know. I guess I was daunted. I took a leap of faith last year when I finally read my first Ōe, The Silent Cry. It was, to say the least, an absorbing experience that made me look forward to reading more of his works. This year, I got the chance to read Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, which, I have learned, was his first novel, further piquing my interest in the novel. Like Kokoro, Ōe’s debut novel was related by an anonymous narrator. Set in World War II Japan, he, his brother, and thirteen other boys, were sent to a reformatory. When they arrived, the adjacent village was afflicted by plague. The villagers then retreated, leaving the boys to their own devices. To ensure that the plague won’t afflict them, the villagers built a barricade. It is a dark and bleak novel as the boys scramble to survive on their own. As they deal with their fate, we witness how the boys started to transform into young men. This was a promising debut that set a precedent Ōe’s succeeding works, and a good book to culminate my journey into Japanese literature.
The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe
With my expedition into Japanese literature finally done, it is time to start a new journey. I commenced my new books reading journey with Ashley Audrain’s debut novel, The Push. While researching for books to include in my 2021 Books I Look Forward To List, The Push was one of the first books that immediately caught my attention as it featured on many similar lists. It did not take me that much convincing to add it to my own list and it became the second book from the list that I read this year. In The Push, the readers are introduced to Blythe Connor. She was lucky enough to marry her college sweetheart, Fox. It was not their relationship, however, that was the focus of the narrative. Rather, it was Blythe’s journey into motherhood. The couple first had Violet but Violet was a “bad seed”. A difficult child, she pushed her mother beyond her limits although she was a sweet child to her father. Violet’s disposition made Blythe question herself and how she was handling motherhood. Is she the bad mother Violet made her feel? Things changed when Sam was born. Instantly, Blythe knew that she wanted to cultivate her son. But tragedy struck, exacerbating Blythe’s descent to mental collapse. The Push was an interesting read, not just because of its psychological dimensions but because of its portrayal of motherhood.
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
In a methodology I have employed this year, I followed up an unfamiliar author with a familiar one. It has been nearly five years since I read my first Jhumpa Lahiri novel, The Namesake. When I learned early this year that she was releasing a new work, I was naturally excited. The Namesake left me wanting more of Lahiri’s prose and I was hoping that Whereabouts will give me more insights into her body of work. Whereabouts was originally written and published in Italian but Lahiri herself translated her original work and published it in English in 2021. In Whereabouts, we meet yet another anonymous narrator (they have become quite in vogue). She is a teacher in an unnamed Italian city or town; it was never mentioned but the descriptions and words indicated that it was somewhere in Italy. Unlike the typical novel, Whereabouts has no linear plot. As a fellow book reviewer mentioned, it was a novel about nothing and everything. It practically sums up what the slender novel is about. We see quotidian images of the narrator walking dogs, talking to her friends, and even watching after her friends’ children. It all look domesticated. As the novel draws to a close, the forty plus-year old narrator comes to realizations on her own, the emotional high of the narrative.
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
Gaining a reading momentum, my next reading journey transported me to Jazz Era with Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful. Just like The Push, it was also one of the “new” books that has immediately captured my attention. I found the book cover gorgeous and the premise interesting – a queer Asian living the high life in Jazz Era America felt original. That was my initial impression. In literature, when one talks about Jazz Era, the first name one associates it to is F. Scott Fitzgerald and his classic novel, The Great Gatsby. What I have not expected was that I would find myself in exactly the same story. What made The Chosen and the Beautiful different from the original was its narrator. Whilst Nick Carraway originally told Jay Gatsby’s story, Vo’s retelling had Carraway’s on-and-off girlfriend, Jordan Baker take the limelight. It was a promising premise as Baker was an inconsequential character in the original. Vo’s version, however, had her as queer, Asian, and an adoptee from Tonkin. She also possessed magic which makes cutouts come to life. It was all interesting except that the novel was too fixated on the original that the impact of Jordan’s story was mostly ephemeral. The ending redeemed her character though but it was still a missed opportunity.
Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen
In a rare feat, I read the works of two Vietnamese Americans back-to-back. Eric Nguyen was born to Vietnamese immigrants who settled in Maryland, USA. At first, he took his heritage for granted but as he grew older, he wanted to learn about it. However, he was averse to the idea of asking his parents about their experiences during Vietnam’s refugee crisis. In his search for answers, he came across a thriving community of refugees in New Orleans while taking his masters at McNeese State University. This community became the inspiration for his debut novel, Things we Lost to the Water. The novel introduced Hương, the young wife of a Vietnamese professor, Công. Post-Vietnam War, they were forced to flee in 1978; however, it was only the pregnant Hương and their son, Tuấn, who were able to board the boat to Singapore. A year later, and after giving birth to Bình, Hương and her sons settled in New Orleans. The novel underscored the immigrant narrative and the plight of refugees; it is even more seminal considering the recent plight of the Afghans. However, I was underwhelmed as the novel highlighted only the pivotal events in the characters’ lives. It was disjointed and I never really got to know who they are. Nevertheless, I was impressed by Nguyen’s prose.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
I closed out my August reading journey with yet another debut novel (the fourth in the list). Zakiya Dalila Harris’ The Other Black Girl was also the fourth novel from my 2021 Books I Look Forward to List that I read. I was really looking forward to the novel especially as it had received several raving reviews. The moment I had my copy of the book, I immediately lined it up for reading, ahead of the other books I bought first (HAHA). In The Other Black Girl, we meet Nella Rogers, an editorial assistant in Wagner Books, a prominent publication house in contemporary New York. She was the only Black employee and when another black girl, Hazel-May McCall joined the company, she was more than excited. She was stoked. Contrary to what she expected, things were not going in Nella’s favor. Hazel-May managed to accomplish the things that Nella have been campaigning for for years, but to no avail. The novel is, apparently, a thriller but it was a slow-burner; action only picked up in the last 50 pages of the novel. I am a little torn about it as I found the writing underwhelming. Nella was also a forgettable character, and her desire to be pass as white was a turnoff. It was also riddled with plot holes that were never resolved.
Reading Challenge Recaps
- My 2021 Top 21 Reading List: 12/21
- 2021 Beat The Backlist: 4/12
- My 2021 Books I Look Forward To List: 4/11
- Goodreads 2021 Reading Challenge: 63/75
- 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: 12/20
Book Reviews Published in August
- Book Review # 270: Breasts and Eggs
- Book Review # 271: Earthlings
- Book Review # 272: How Do You Live?
- Book Review # 273: The Chosen and the Beautiful
- Book Review # 274: The Push
- Book Review # 275: Dream of the Red Chamber
- Book Review # 276: Things We Lost to the Water
In terms of book review, I managed to complete seven even though I was planning to complete ten. Everything got tedious towards the end of the month that I failed to meet my target. Nevertheless, seven is a good number as I came ended July with a meager number, five book review. I am now just down to two 2020 books for review and after that, I am going to focus on the books I read early this year. I just hope I get to finish as many book reviews as I can in September as it is bound to be a very busy month.
August was a healthy mix of contemporary and literary classics. There was a fine balance and I am glad I managed to find the equilibrium. Whilst there were good reads, there were some that were a little underwhelming, which is fine I guess because bad reads are inevitable. To quote Nobel Prize in Literature winner William Faulkner: “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.”
For now, keep safe, and happy reading everyone!