The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

Samurai's GardenI love books that can transport you to places that in itself are central characters of a novel. I have to say though, it’s been awhile since I read that kind of a book that made me yearn to actually visit that special place featured in a story. That was when I took a gamble and picked out Gail Tsukiyama’s The Samurai’s Garden.

Gail Tsukiyama is not the first Japanese writer (she’s actually half-Chinese) I’ve encountered so I had a bit of a reservation when picking out the book. I’ve read Banana Yashimoto’s Asleep and gave in to curiosity by getting Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake. These stories are more character-centric and very introspective. I’m thinking these are typical of modern Japanese literature? They’re great for reading on a stormy day for sure.

But when I was searching for a book to read, I was trying to find something that would transport me to a place where I want to be instead of my boring room. I think The Samurai’s Garden delivered it quite nicely even though the setting is just a metaphor for the very heart of the story which are the people that the main protagonist meets.

The book is a very easy read. The story is quite simple – a young adult meets 3 interesting individuals and he uncovers mysteries about them which made him take a closer look at relationships, loyalty, and devotion in the context of the Japanese culture. Aside from a mildly shocking event and the backdrop of World War 2, nothing happens outwardly. The change in the characters are within and it’s fascinating how Tsukiyama managed to keep the story a real page turner despite such subtle plots.

The story opens in Hong Kong where a sick Chinese boy, Stephen, is battling Tuberculosis amidst another crisis which is Japan’s invasion of China. The well-off family decides to send the boy to Tarumi, a small seaside community in Japan, where their family keeps a beach house. His father’s import-export business’ headquarters are also in Japan so he becomes responsible for the boy in the meantime.

In the beach house, he meets the gardener-cum-overall-caretaker, Matsua, a very grumpy looking but secretly compassionate and loyal middle aged man. Matsu takes care of Stephen’s needs and overtime, he trusted the boy enough to let him in on a sort of secret. Through Matsu, Stephen meets Sachi, a once very beautiful girl who got afflicted with leprosy and is now living in a leper colony. Matsu shows his devotion to his secret love by providing her with everything she needs including a Japanese rock garden that is an anti-thesis of his own garden, down at the beach house.

Japanese Garden
Flickr Photo by Cher12861

While Matsu’s garden was filled with lush vegetation, flowers, and conventional beauty of nature, Sachi’s garden is stark, colourless, and filled with things like stone, pebbles, and rocks.  This is because she can’t stand to look at beauty, a painful reminder of what once was and can never be again.

Flickr Photo by Tim McDonald
Flickr Photo by Tim McDonald

The heart of the story lies with Matsu and Sachi’s relationship. How deep it really is and how much each is willing to sacrifice for friendship and loyalty.  Stephen is a witness to this wonder of humanity which also caused him to examine his family and realise how different and seemingly shallow his mother and father’s relationship is in comparison.

While the characters are all richly fleshed out, I just love how Tarumi is brought to life in the story. The description of the beach, the town, the house, and the gardens all created vivid images  in my head and now I want to go there.

On the top of my head, here are 3 other books I’ve read the made me want to go to the place where the story was set:

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier – I’ve reviewed this book set in Lyme Regis, coastal town of West Dorset, England. The story centers on Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, two famous fossil hunters and spinsters.

A Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger – From the writer of that famous book, Time Traveller’s Wife. Her next novel was set in London’s High Gate Cemetery. Although the story was a disappointment, I was highly intrigued by the setting. I would love to go to High Gate someday.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – Nothing says character better than the Moors and it’s howling winds. Everyone needs a break from sunny beaches sometimes.

What books would you recommend for someone who wants to be transported to far off lands?

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My Tsundoku List: The Book Seller of Kabul

The Bookseller of KabulWhen I read Asne Seierstad’s The Book Seller of Kabul, I wasn’t aware of the controversy that surrounded the book. Although while reading, in the back of my mind I was thinking, the actual bookseller approved of this?

The portrayal of the patriarch wasn’t exactly flattering. In fact, it just solidifies all biases we (outsiders to Afghan and Islamic faith) already have about Afghanistan and its culture of misogyny.

Although all the names were changed, I would imagine, its not hard to find the biggest bookseller in Kabul. In fact, the real bookseller apparently sued the author, demanding a cut of the royalties. After reading about him, it doesn’t surprise me.

It’s a compelling read, a real page turner, if I may say so. I read it relatively quickly, mostly while in a public transport (jeepney) with all its reading challenges.

The book is a very intimate look at a relatively rich and relatively educated Afghan family but we also get a glimpse of what life is like for the ordinary Afghan family. The timeline includes the periods before the Taliban, during the Taliban, and after the American forces attacked the country because of 9-11.

The most heart-breaking character in the book would probably be Leila. She was portrayed as a kind of Cinderella, the only difference is there’s no prince charming and happy ending waiting for her. I identified with Leila, being the youngest in a brood of 6. I had my share of chores in the house but in no way was I slaving away my days waiting on my siblings and parents. 

Sultan Khan is admirable only for his love of books and literature. What he did, protecting the books from the Taliban, was nothing short of heroic. But even with his level of education and vast knowledge, he failed to become what he thought he was. He could’ve been a champion of Afghan women. A tool for change and revolution but in the book, he was just another product of a twisted society.

His son Mansur, kind of reminds me of that jerk, Joffrey Baratheon, from Game of Thrones. Looks like he’ll turn out to be a worse version of his father with his lack of education but excess in cruelty.

I’m glad that at least Shakilah is better off with her new family. I think, by her description, she’s one dynamite of a lady that could bring positive influence on her students.

Are all the contents in the book accurate? I’m not sure. How much of the dialogue and description are true? If there are only 3 translators in the family (Sultan, Leila and Mansur), I’m sure the conversations have been censored before the author could write it down.

Nevertheless, The Bookseller of Kabul is one great read. It makes you think about your daily life as a woman in a country that is relatively free. Even if I live in a third world country, there are a lot worse places to be in as a woman. I don’t think I have the strength to survive there as these Afghan women have. Besides…

I don’t look good in a big blue invisibility cloak anyway.

My Tsundoku Project: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

remarkable creaturesThe next book on the list is Remarkable Creatures by one of my favorite female authors, Tracy Chevalier. Her most well-known book, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, was made into a movie starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. That was my favorite and the first book I’ve read of hers.

Remarkable Creatures came out years before in 2009 but I was hesitant to buy it when I read the story was about some female fossilists in the 1800s. I thought I wouldn’t be interested but how wrong I was. I loved the story of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. I could totally relate to them as I, myself am about society’s next casualty in the search for Mr. Right. How could I ever doubt the wisdom of Tracy Chevalier? I’ve collected her works over the years but The Girl with the Pearl Earring still holds a special place in this bookworm’s heart.

Remarkable Creatures, as you may already deduce from the synopsis at the back of the book, is not full of dark twists and turns, nor does it have scandalous intrigues or any nail-biting trill rides. It’s almost like reading a Jane Austen with a bit more substance. The drama is very subtle which could turn off most people. I appreciated the story and landscape though. From this busy city, I was transported to the misty shores of Lyme Regis, looking at fossils at it’s cliff walls and sandy beaches. I must tell you it’s a welcome escape especially since I read most of it while commuting and stuck in traffic.

I almost forgot that the characters actually existed. I just googled Mary Anning when I was more than halfway through the book. It made the story even more interesting to me. Although it was quite a spoiler when I read William Buckland actually married someone else. It’s an awww moment as I loved his eccentric character. He’s my kind of a goofy nerd.

Just like in every Tracy Chevalier book, she added some intrigues that although might be intriguing, I highly doubt happened. It’s not as though this is an accurate historical text book though. I loved the details she put in. The description of the cottage and of Lyme Regis made me want to experience it for myself. Let me put Lyme Regis in my dream list of places to go in England. (Just after High Gate Cemetery and Baker Street!)

All in all, I highly recommend this to someone who loves Jane Austen (surprise reference included), historical novels and of stories that are nuanced and not overly dramatic.

My Tsondoku Project: Heart-Shaped Box & Graveminder

GraveminderI’m not sure why I’m suddenly drawn to darker books. Starting with Frankenstein, moving to Graveminder (disappointingly un-dark just with semi-dark themes) and the Heart-shaped Box by Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill.

Graveminder

Written by Melissa Mar, writer of the Wicked Lovely YA series, the book is her first foray into adult literature. Although I did like some of the Wicked Lovely books, my favorite being Ink Exchange, I found The Graveminder lacking in both adult themes and…well… darkness. It reads exactly like a YA book, only with late 20-something adult characters. The characters acted like sulky teenagers. Over and over again, Byron (yes that’s his name) would declare his undying love for Rebekkah(yup), the girl who seems to stubbornly cling to the notion that it’s wrong to love her dead stepsister’s boyfriend because she feels guilty although they’ve boinked a lot of times before.

Any of these ring a bell? Seriously…

I do love how Melissa Mar’s pacing moved the story forward. If I ever write my own book, I’d copy her style of breaking chapters into bite sized pieces. There were barely 2 pages per chapter. I actually read the book in two days while still doing other stuff.

I wanted to like the book but… The mythology could have been explored more and I wished, Marr didn’t shy away from darker and more gruesome scenes. As an adult book, I expected more, instead I think it barely scratched the surface.

But I heard this is going to be a series. I’m not sure I’d buy the next book in retail but I’ll probably look out for it in my next book bargain hunt.

All in all, it’s an easy, fast-paced but bland read.

Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box

I got my hardbound book on sale and promptly dropped it in flood waters. I got left with moldy and curled up pages which made it even bulkier than before. I could’ve read a more portable book but I felt compelled to read this one.

The book felt like a traditional ghost story to me. It’s about a 50-something goth rocker who bought a soul from an online auction. I found the rocker a bit cliche but there are some twists to the story that are unexpected but not original. Not to say that I didn’t enjoy inhabiting Judas Coyne’s world for a while.

I don’t think I’ll be re-reading this though. It didn’t give me any nightmares or anything but it’s not a world I would want to revisit any time soon. Having said that, I’m interested in other Joe Hill books. I like his uncluttered approach to description and believable dialogue. But I didn’t like his characters so much. Somehow they lack a certain spark that makes them entirely believable humans. For example is Craddock, the ghost. There’s not one redeeming quality about the guy. He’s a plain old villain through and through. Marybeth and Anna are typical groupies. And the rockstar is just a typical rockstar you can buy off-the shelf.

I did like that I know most of the musical references Joe Hill included in the book. I’m not sure how exactly this relates to my favorite Nirvana’s song  of the same title. Kurt Cobain was mentioned in passing just like the other references and another song was mentioned.

I heard that this was going to be turned into a movie but I don’t think it pushed through as the director dropped out in ’08.

Although this was not my favorite book, I’ll be looking forward to the next Joe Hill book I find… on sale. :)

My Tsundoku Project: The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

I’ve always known that The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a must-read but the book sounded intimidating to me. As I normally stay away from super highbrow books that I feel I would not enjoy, I missed out on this one until I actually read it. I tried the audio book first but the snotty upper class narrator turned me off so much, I put it on the back burner.

After finding a copy on sale, I was struck by how short the book actually was. I was thinking it would be like a Count of Monte Cristo epic story with a hefty volume to match. It was probably the “Great” in the title that lead to that impression. It’s actually not an epic tale at all but an all too intimate glimpse of the 1920’s flapper era with it’s superficial glitz and glamour.

Nick Carraway, the narrator, tells the tale of his mysterious millionaire neighbor (no billionaire yet as per Austin Powers!) who throws parties almost every night and his affair with his distant cousin, Daisy Buchanan. The story is very soap opera really but I suspect that The Great Gatsby influenced a lot of writers of melodramatic TV soaps of today.

This was a very easy and light read (If you’re reading for pleasure and not for school). Also a page-turner especially when Gatsby finally meets Daisy again after five years of separation. I can’t wait to see the movie by Baz Luhrmann and how Carey Mulligan plays her role. In my imagination, I see Michelle Williams as a better cast as I’ve seen her in My Weekend with Marilyn. It seems to me, Daisy and Marilyn would have a lot to talk about.

On a more serious note, was Nick Carraway gay or bisexual?

I’m lead to believe Nick is a little bi-curious not because he’s in love with Gatsby. He clearly admires and respects the man but I don’t think it goes beyond platonic. The bedroom scene with Mr. McKee wearing underwear lying on the bed and Nick standing beside the bed and in the elevator where Mr. McKee was caught fondling the lever, I think, is conclusive enough.

And that’s just fine and dandy.

My Tsundoku Project: The Curios Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time

I’ve become uncomfortably aware of the amount of books I had that have yet to be opened and read. I have been newly informed that this behavior of buying books but not reading is in fact experienced by many people and the Japanese have coined a word for it: TSUNDOKU.

One of these books is Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. A simple story about an autistic child, Christopher Boone, who also happens to be the first person narrator of the entire book.

I don’t know how Haddon did it but the tone and voice is very believable to be that of a 15 year old autistic child. The lack of emotion and social disconnect ironically made the story, in my opinion, more poignant and relatable.

The story begins when the neighbor’s dog Wellington was murdered by someone with a pitchfork (no spoilers there as the cover and title practically says it all). Christopher, being a Sherlock fan (hooray, co-Sherlock nerd!), took it upon himself to investigate what happened. In the course of his “investigation” what he will uncover will not only lead him to find out what happened to the dog but also what happened with his family.

The story is simple but the challenge of conveying the emotions of the characters through the eyes of an emotionally-challenged child is a true feat to behold. Not once did the narrator break character.

It’s not a cheap tear-jerker of a novel nor an action packed detective story but it’s a real page-turner because you can’t help but root for Christoper and understand the frustrations of his parents.

I see now why this is almost every must-read list. I still have a long way to go, but here’s to finishing all my Tsundoku books!

The Goth Girl’s Guide to Dating Old Farts

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Cover

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

This is the first book in the Millenium Trilogy. The second being The Girl who Played with Fire and the third, The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

I got the audio version instead of the book to listen to on my way to and from work. And I’m glad I didn’t have to actually read it.

The story:

Journalist, Mikael Blomkvist is tried and found guilty of libel by financier, Wennerström because his source double-crossed him.

It looks like his career is over when opportunity comes to write the family history of the Vanger family. But the real agenda is to find out what happened to the patriarch’s niece, Harriet, who was presumed dead, murdered by someone in the family. Blomkvist was hired because he’s a very talented investigator as well as a writer and he had known Harriet as his baby sitter when he was eight.

The most interesting thing that will hook you eventually is the character Lisbeth Salander; she’s the girl with the dragon tattoo. In an adult novel, it’s rare to find a protagonist with a goth persuasion. And that’s one word that summarizes how she looks… Goth. Think leather, chains, piercings, tattoos, death metal and black everything.

Of course, that’s not all she is. Salander is innately intelligent but was declared legally insane. She’s hacker with a passion for numbers that we’ll discover in the second book. Her weakness: serious authority issues and manically introvert.

In many ways, the book is nothing new – a detective story with a girl partner uncovering a mystery full of sex, lies and murder. In other ways… Damn it, I love Salander!

I can’t say that I like Blomkvist as much. I can see him with Robert Langdon sitting together having a scotch lamenting their love lives with girls half their age.

There’s some seriously boring narrative you have to tackle to get to the interesting plot of the story that’s why it boggles my mind that people would actually think it’s the next Dan Brown. I hardly think so. Dan Brown maybe a stick-to-the-formula kinda author but his earlier books were quite page turners.

I’m now in the third book, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and somehow I don’t like this book as much as I did the first and the second. I’m trying to think positive, maybe there’s a great story behind this boring dialogues. But until I get the energy to listen to it again, I’ll be checking out other books on my To-read pile.

Rating:

3 out of 5 bookmarks