My personal favourites
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
In this beautiful novel Benjamin tells us the story of his family at a time when his father is called away to the city. Benjamin has three older brothers, Ikenna, Boja and Obembe. Left to their own devices the boys decide to go fishing in the forbidden river, calling themselves The Fishermen. It is on one of those days the boys happen upon a local madman. But is he mad, or a prophet? The man predicts that Ikenna will be killed. “Ikenna, you shall die by the hands of a fisherman.” Wondering if this means Ikenna will be killed by one of his own brothers, the bond between the boys breaks. A chain of events follows: tragic, heartbreaking, but also magical and mythical.
This book is set in Nigeria. It is filled with the rich tradition known in this African country. The life and upbringing of the boys is full of magic, folklore and the old religion of the indigenous peoples, mixed with the new Christian religion. A fascinating and compelling story, beautifully written by Chigozie Obioma. (This book is already on our list: E16-08)
Elise Kleuskens, member of the English Literature Working Group
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Mrs Kang Han is a contemporary Korean writer. She has won several national and international prizes. This novella was translated in 13 languages and is considered a bestseller. The English translation by Deborah Smith won a prize as well.
The novella is set in modern Seoul. The main character of the book is Yeong-hye, a woman who decides to stop eating meat after a dream. She becomes psychotic and thinks she is a tree and therefore cannot eat meat. Her marriage with Mr. Chong breaks up. Her family doesn’t understand her. She has an unusual extramarital sexual experience with her brother-in-law. She ends up as a chronic psychotic and anorectic patient in a mental hospital.
The story is told in three parts: "The Vegetarian", "Mongolian Mark", and "Flaming Trees". Each part is narrated from the point of view of a different person.The novella deals with shame, a very prominent issue in Asian culture. It can lead to suicide when the reputation of the family is involved. Mental illnesses are not well accepted. The Vegetarian is a bizarre and disturbing novella, not to be missed. I would rate it *****.
(Click here to read the complete text of Francine's article)
Francine Kruyt, member of the Working Group English of Senia
(with special interest in translated Asian literature
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Imagine you are living in Soviet Russia in the 1920s. You are a known poet and you are being sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest in the attic of the Metropol hotel in Moscow. This is how Amor Towles’ book begins. So, what do you think this book is about? That’s right, it is about the life of the poet in question, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. Small bits about his past, but mostly about his life in the Metropol hotel up until the 50s.
What happens in a hotel over a period of 30 years? Not much. The Count is lucky to be staying in a hotel that includes a hairdresser, two restaurants and a bar. He fills his days in an orderly fashion. Every week is the same. This makes the pace of the story slow, but if you think about quitting: don’t! Please, try to wrestle through the parts of the book that drag on and experience the perfect, unexpected ending. In the last 100 pages your whole view of the Count and his orderly life in the Metropol will change drastically. You will most definitely love it! I’ll guarantee that!
Strange Weather in Tokyo/The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami
Hiromi Kawakami (1958) is a Japanese writer. She has been awarded several Japanese prizes and is one of the most popular contemporary novelists of Japan.The novel has been published with three different titles. The original Japanese title (2001) is Sensei no kaban. The literal translation of the title is “Teacher with Briefcase”. The translated title is Strange weather in Tokyo. A special UK version was published with the title The Briefcase (2012) The novel was translated by Allison Markin Powell. She is a literary translator and editor in New York City. The novel is 176 pages long.
Strange Weather in Tokyo is a love story between a woman Tsukiko and her former teacher Sensei. Tsukiko is in her late thirties and single. The teacher, whom she calls Sensei as she did at school, is more than thirty years her senior. Their relationship grows from when they start having dinner together. They meet frequently in bars and have meals together accompanied by sake, sometimes a lot of sake. This goes on for quite a while. They do not seem to know much about one another. Everything they say or do is not straightforward. Their relationship develops very slowly. Their way of communicating with each other conceals much, for instance Tsukiko presumes her former teacher is a widower, it is not a subject they talk about. Their growing closeness revolves largely around eating tofu or fish, and drinking sake or beer in bars. It is certainly not a wild and passionate tale of romance. It is full of mystery, uncertainness and veiled conversations. Their relationship eventually develops very hesitantly to an intimacy and love.The story ends when Sensei has passed away and his son brings the briefcase to Tsukiko. Sensei has left it to her. The briefcase was empty…
There are some remarks to be made about the choice of the different titles. The title The Briefcase is exactly what the novel with its ending is about, yet sounds a bit boring. The title Strange Weather in Tokyo is more intriguing. It gives a good picture of the novel after a little thought. Are people who live in a big city such as Tokyo, strangers to one another? Strangers only talk about the weather, for the most part, no matter what the situation is. Were Tsukiko and Sensei strangers to one another? Their relationship, set in Tokyo, was an unusual one, in a way a strange relationship? Was the weather strange? Their relationship elevated them to a higher level, they floated to a higher state of consciousness. This is pictured very well on the front cover. It is lovely novel, intriguing, unconventional and at times also funny. I would rate it with *****.
The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
It's winter. In my opinion at least… Christmas trees, candles, festive music everywhere. I associate all of this with love and warmth. And what goes better with that but a book about love? No, not your everyday romance story, I am talking about The Course of Love, written by Alain de Botton, a British philosopher and author. I did not really know what to expect of this book before starting to read it. Would it be a philosophical account of love? Or perhaps a novel? A little bit of both!
This book is about Rabih and Kirsten. They are introduced to us when they first meet and we follow them far into their marriage. We go through good and bad times with them. In between the story, Alain de Botton explains to us the course of love. A realistic view of love and relationships. A view that is nothing like what we see in movies.
A very interesting and from time to time revealing work. The book is easy to read because Rabih and Kirstens story is split into small parts by the philosophical musings of De Botton. This story feels real, sometimes poignant, sometimes heartwarming. A fine piece of work!
Inside the wave by Helen Dunmore (winner of the Costa Poetry Ward 2017)
Helen Dunmore was an extraordinary writer and is well known for her novels. Unfortunately, she passed away this year on the 5th June 2017 at the age of 64. This collection of poems was written towards the end of her life when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. In an interview with The Guardian Dunmore says: “The ground beneath my feet has never been more uncertain, but what is sure is that the ambulance has already called and there is no vagueness about my mortality.” The poems were published after she died, which makes you read them from a different perspective. The photograph on the cover was made by Dunmore herself.
The poems describe the waves and the tides of the sea, seen as a metaphor for life. To be alive can be seen as to be inside the wave, until it breaks and is gone. The poems also have illness and death as subjects. The first poem of this collection is about anesthesia and an operation room:
Untroubled, the anaesthetist
Potters with his cannula
As the waterfall in the ante-room
Grows steadily louder,
All of them are cool with it
And just keep on working
No wonder they wear Wellingtons –
I want to ask them
But it seems stupid, naive,
Basalt, I think, the rock
Where the white stream leaps.
Imagine living at such volume
Next door to a waterfall,
Stepping in and out of the noise
In their funny clothes.
But you can get used to anything
Like the anaesthetist
Counting to himself
Backwards, all wrong.
The poems do not have a set structure or rhyme schedule. They are all very different in structure and length. They do have a certain rhythm to them. The poems are worth reading, preferably one at a time or perhaps one poem a day, with regard to the subjects illness and death. I would rate this collection of poems with ****
The White Book by Han Kang
Han Kang is a Korean writer. You might think that Han is her first name, but Han is her family name. The English of the translation is excellent. The translator’s name is Deborah Smith. Han Kang has become famous with her novel The Vegetarian, winning the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.
The White Book is her latest book. In my opinion it is a gem of a book. The Portobello edition is a piece of art on its own. The black and white photographs in the book are of a serene beauty. The colour white has a different meaning in Asian cultures as to Western cultures. White is the colour of death whereas in our culture the colour white is associated with peace, virginity and purity. The book is divided in three parts: I, She and All Whiteness. The ultra short stories in each part, poemlike stories, are all about subjects with the colour white. These subjects are very diverse, such as sugarcubes, snow, mothermilk or ashes.
Against the background of a black sleeve, a large flake of snow will reveal its crystals even to the naked eye. A scant couple of seconds and she has witnessed it all. Mysterious hexagons melting clean away.”
Han Kang’s style of writing is very powerful and has an intensity which has a great emotional effect on the reader. The book ends with: “Within that white, all those white things, I will breathe in the final breath you released.” Whether this book is going to be a bestseller or not remains to be seen. It is truly a wonderful book and a real asset for any booklover, but it may not be everybody’s cup of tea. I would highly recommend it for the more advanced reader of English (translated) literature. I would rank this book with 5 stars.