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‘When I Was A Wolf’ by Terayama Shūji ****

As winter is settling down for good and Christmas is fast approaching, what better way to spend those chilly days than cosy up with a hot beverage and a good book of fairy tale-inspired stories. 61II3YJTd9L

My fascination with fairy tales and folk stories is nothing new, so as soon as I found out about When I Was A Wolf, a book of classic Western fairy tale retellings by Terayama Shūji, a Japanese author, I was incredibly excited to get my hands on it. Fairy tale retellings have been quite popular for a long time now, but since they are usually retold by a Western perspective, I thought it would be very intriguing to gain some insight on what a Japanese author would make of those Western tales most of us grew up with and are so fond of.

Terayama Shūji doesn’t merely retell the classic fairy tales that have been chosen for this collection, but instead he twists and turns them into an entirely different entity. Attempting to give them an adult twist, much like Angela Carter had also done, Terayama creates stories that are definitely not suitable for children, mostly due to the numerous sexual references and inuendos. One such example is Pinocchio’s nose, which is being turned into a phallus that grows more and more whenever he tells a lie. This collection is excellently translated by Elizabeth L. Armstrong, who also wrote a very useful and highly informative preface to the book, giving some much needed insight into the author’s style and literary achievements.

The book is divided into two main parts. The first one contains some essays and thought pieces where Terayama explains his interpretation of fairy tales like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Pinocchio’, as well as of literary masterpieces like Ibsen’s ‘Doll House’, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Don Quixote’ and so on. I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed his literary voice and the way he expressed his opinion, even if it was one that I wouldn’t always agree with. Terayama is a very talented critic and most of his opinions on the literary pieces he commented on were spot on and gave me a lot to ponder. What shines through the entire book, though, is undoubtedly his wit and sense of humour. Every sentence, every remark he makes is witty and purposeful and I believe this is what made me truly enjoy this book in the end.

The second part contains the actual retellings of fairy tales by Andersen, Aesop’s Fables and Perrault’s Mother Goose, which Terayama turns into adult-themed stories. Although it was this part of the book I was most looking forward to reading, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed in the result. Yes, the author’s wit and caustic humour encompass his writing and that makes it enjoyable, but I was probably expecting something different. In most cases, instead of a full-fledged story, we get a conglomeration of opinion pieces, “readers’ letters” and a partial rewriting of the fairy tale in question. I soon came to realise, though, that this is just Terayama’s writing style and my disappointment is mostly due to my creating unrealistic expectations, as I was expecting a rather conventionally retold story, if I can call it that.

Elizabeth L. Armstrong, the translator, perfectly describes the experience of reading Terayama’s essays and stories in her preface: “His work is often like a piece of performance art you simply cannot tear your eyes away from, so you bear witness to it, awash with feelings of revulsion, morbid attraction, revelation and compassion” (p. vii). This first encounter with Terayama’s work might not have been what I expected, but it definitely piqued my interest and made me want to seek more of his work, especially since he’s an author I had never heard of before.

Have you read this book? Do you enjoy fairy tale retellings and if yes, which is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

A copy of the book was very kindly sent to me by the publisher, Kurodahan Press.

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‘A Biography of a Chance Miracle’ by Tanja Maljartschuk ****

40800042Some books come into your life unexpectedly, without any warning, and only after you have engaged with them for a little while you realise they were exactly what you have been looking for, even though you never even knew they existed in the first place. One of those books is A Biography of a Chance Miracle, written by the Ukrainian author Tanja Maljartschuk, translated into English by Zenia Tompkins and published by Cadmus Press.

After spending quite a long time away from the blog, what better way to return than with a review of a beautiful and thought-provoking book such as this. A Biography of a Chance Miracle is a book that came into my life by utter and complete chance and I am so thankful that it did.

The story of this novel follows Lena, a young girl who is born and grows up in a Western Ukrainian city which she calls San Francisco. We follow Lena from her childhood years to her adolescence and early adulthood as she tries to figure out the world around her, a world she never seems to be able to fit into. A rebellious but sensitive soul, Lena refuses to conform to any kind of rule set upon her even as a child, and she always speaks up when she sees injustice and maltreatment, although that rarely ends up in her favour.

Vividly depicting the political and cultural climate of Ukraine at the time, the author brings issues of cultural dispute with Russia, the inability of the government to take care of its people and the vast, chaotic mess that is bureaucracy to the forefront. Although everyone in her country is taught to hate Russia, Lena seems to feel a peculiar affinity and likeness towards this country and its language, for which she is repeatedly punished. She also seems to be drawn to the ‘forlorn creatures’ as she calls them, those people who also don’t seem to fit in and are different from the norm, like her classmate and childhood friend who she nicknames Dog or her university roommate Vasylyna, a burly athlete with an unexpectedly soft side.

Lena’s aspiration in life is to not lead a stupid and meaningless life like most of the people around her do. In order to achieve that, she takes on the role of the saviour and tries to help the people that need her the most through a series of small ‘miracles’. From an activist fighting for stray dogs’ rights to fighting against bureacracy just to earn a wheelchair for her crippled friend, Lena is an advocate of justice that no one really seems to appreciate, as most of her endeavours end up in failure. Her spirit and determination always shine through, though, something which culminates in the rather ambiguous ending. The presence of magical realism makes the ending rather unclear and leaves the reader wondering if what is described is really what happened or if it’s all just part of Lena’s machinations, but I guess, such an ending would be the only fitting one for a character as whimsical as Lena.

I loved Maljartschuk’s prose and writing style because it is poignant yet subtle and humorous at the same time. She manages to satirise the state of Ukraine at that time by balancing reality and serious topics with wit, surrealism and the right dose of humour. It is precisely the kind of sociopolitical critique that I utterly enjoy reading. The translation also needs to be commended, since the prose flowed effortlessly and all the cultural references were presented in a friendly way to those who may not be familiar with the Ukrainian culture.

One of the main reasons why this novel came so close to my heart is because reading about the state of post-war Ukraine and the way bureaucracy and the system keep on failing their people sadly reminded me so much of the current situation in Greece. And that’s a sad, sad truth to realise.

To finish off, I would like to say a few words about Cadmus Press, a fairly new publishing house committed to bringing the most outstanding literature from Europe, focusing on Eastern and Southeastern European countries, in English translation. I think their undertaking is really impressive and I’m always in for some of the most notable lesser-known literary voices of Europe, especially if they are as impressive as A Biography of a Chance Miracle.

I strongly, strongly recommend you pick up this book. No matter what your reading preferences may be, this book will definitely tug at your heartstrings and play the sweetest melody in your soul. I enjoyed every single second I spent reading this book and I really hope more of the author’s books become available in English in the very near future, as I see her quickly climbing up the list of my favourite authors.

A copy of this wonderful book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher, Cadmus Press.

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January and February 2018 in Review Part 2: Podcasts, Languages and Visual Entertainment

Apart from my rather disappointing (with the exception of a couple of gems) reading wrap-up of the first two months of 2018, some other things I really enjoyed in January and February were language learning (as I’m trying to improve my Japanese and reconnect with my French), some podcasts, a blog and a YouTube channel, a theatre performance, a film and two TV series.

I really like podcasts and I have found so many interesting (and uninteresting) ones over the years, but I never seem to have any appropriate time to devote to them since I don’t currently commute or travel as often as I used to and I always find myself doing other things while I try to listen to them at home and thus not concentrating enough on what is being said. However, I made some new discoveries lately which I would like to share with you. small_1473319899-artwork

I first discovered the Books and Boba podcast back in October, but I started listening to it properly only this January. It focuses mostly on Asian-American literature and the hosts, Reera and Marvin, are truly great to listen to, even more so since one of their missions for this podcast is to promote and enjoy works by marginalised authors and give priority to stories told from an Own Voices perspective. They have a Goodreads group, where they pick a book to read and discuss each month and they also talk about recent and future releases, they invite guests and authors over and they also discuss other important current events. Their January read was Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (which I lauded in my previous post) and I was so excited to hear my name mentioned in that episode‘s discussion! The books they choose cover a wide array of genres, so I would highly recommend you give their podcast a try.

170x170bbThe next podcast I started listening to in February is Journey to the West, a podcast by Asian women discussing Asian issues, as the podcast’s own description reads (plus, the name of the podcast is an homage to the great Chinese epic of the same name). The four lady hosts are all very eloquent and they tackle a wide variety of topics such as racism, body image, the Olympics, feminism as well as culture appropriation (starting with the shameful Logan Paul incident in Japan recently). Their podcast is fairly new, it began approximately two months ago, but I really enjoyed listening to the discussions they brought up as well as listening to a slightly different perspective (that of Asian women) which we don’t usually get to hear very often.

Next, I have a blog and a YouTube channel I immensely enjoyed spending time on lately, both related to language study. Inside that Japanese Book is a blog focusing on Japanese and general language learning, providing motivation, study tips, book reviews and so many wonderful things. The girl behind it, Inhae, is French and is currently learning Japanese (with very impressive results) while also trying to improve her English writing skills. Her posts are always incredibly motivational and she has definitely been one of my main sources of inspiration for my own Japanese study lately. Plus, she always includes such cute drawings of herself and her cat in her posts.

Lindie Botes is another incredibly inspirational language learner, as she can speak ten (!) different languages. Of course, I mostly enjoy her Japanese/Korean/Chinese language learning videos, but she also makes videos about other languages such as French and Hungarian. No matter what language you’re learning, Lindie’s videos will definitely be an inspiration for you – I especially enjoy her ‘Study [insert language] with Me’ videos as well as the discussion videos she makes on various linguistic topics.

Having spent most of my February in Athens, I grabbed the opportunity to go to the theatre after a very long time. The performance I watched is called Το Ψέμα (To Psema/The Lie), a comedy about relationships, faithfulness and how even the most trusting couples actually have their own deeply buried secrets. Although it’s not the type of theatre performance I usually go for, I really enjoyed this one, mainly because of the excellent performances of the main actors. the_post_28film29

My favourite film was The Post, with incredible performances by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, and two of my favourite TV series were Mindhunter and Dark. Mindhunter is an American TV series set in 1970s in which Holden, the protagonist, embarks on the groundbreaking endeavour of analysing criminals’ psychology and past experiences in order to start building patterns in which to categorise their crimes – thus marking the creation of the term ‘serial killer’ for the first time. I love crime/mystery stories and Mindhunter was nearly excellent, providing both crime cases the protagonists are called to solve as well as their struggles with academia and the police force in getting their research accepted and funded.

dark-posterDark is a German series (the very first one I watch) and a very impressive one. The story is very reminiscent of Stranger Things, initially, as it involves a child’s disappearance under mysterious circumstances and the uproar that is created in the small town due to this event. Although there is something supernatural involved, Dark‘s story soon diverges from that followed by Stranger Things and it manages to create a very unique, intriguing and incredibly visually beautiful outcome. It will definitely keep you glued to your screens until the very last minute.

 

Have you seen or listened to any of those? Which were your favourite non-bookish things so far in 2018?

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January and February 2018 in Review Part 1: Reading

Since my review posting schedule has yet to become regular (if it ever will), I thought it would be a nice idea to create a wrap-up post of my reading and a few other stuff I absorbed and loved in the first two months of 2018. So as for the post not to become unreasonably long, I have divided my wrap-up into two parts.

I have read a total of 14 books so far (7 for each month) but, apart from a few exceptions, I have been very disappointed by my reading this year. Is this a sign of a reading slump? I am a mood reader and due to my constant moving around from my hometown to Peterborough to Athens and god knows where to next, I haven’t been able to carry many of my books with me – which results in me beginning the books I do have but actually not being in the right mood to currently read them. I also read more e-books these two months than physical books due to the same reason, something which makes me feel kind of uncomfortable. Maybe that’s why I haven’t enjoyed my reading as much? Anyway, let’s move on to the books.

x293January

> Time Killers: Short Story Collection by Kazue Kato ***** (manga)
> The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur *** (poetry)
> Pachinko by Min Jin Lee ***** (novel)
> Love by Hanne Ørstavik *** (novel)
> The Lost Path by Amélie Fléchais **** (picture book)
> Late in the Day: Poems 2010-2014 by Ursula K. Le Guin *** (poetry)
> The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin **** (short story)

 

February51skkgIun0L.SX316.SY316

> Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb **** (novel)
> The Lime Tree by César Aira *** (novella)
> The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night by Jen Campbell *** (short story collection)
> Daubigny’s Garden by Bruno de Roover and Luc Cromheecke ** (graphic novel)
> Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card Volume 1 by CLAMP **** (manga)
> The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert DNF (YA novel)
> Cult X by Fuminori Nakamura **** (novel)

My highlights for each month were definitely Pachinko and Cult X – both quite hefty and complicated novels. Pachinko, especially, must be one of the best books I have read in recent years; I hadn’t been so absorbed by a book in a very long time and I just adored it. You must know how when you love a book so much it becomes even more difficult to write a review about it, partly because you want to do it justice and convey its magnificence to the rest of the world who has still yet to witness it and partly because you sometimes feel your words are inadequate and ultimately incapable of achieving this. This is why I haven’t posted my review of it yet – adding to the fact that it’s such a complicated book spanning three generations of a family and tackling so many important issues and themes that I hardly know where to begin talking about it.

Other than that, I feel like I don’t really have much to say about the rest of the books I read. They were either unimpressive or my thoughts on them would fit in a few sentences. If, however, you’d like to hear my thoughts on any of the books listed above, please let me know and I will do my best to write a post about it 🙂

My Official TBR Pile Challenge is also not going well at all. I’m currently reading Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library because whenever I’m not in the mood to read anything, a good mystery is always the solution, but unfortunately I’m not feeling this one at all. I don’t know if it’s the book or me in my current situation of disatisfaction with mostly everything. Other books I’m currently reading include:

> The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla (an essay collection about the experience of being an immigrant (or the child of immigrants) in the UK and the various (mostly racial) issues that arise)
> Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini (a historical novel about Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada, and her fascination with mathematics and science)
> 日本人の知らない日本語 (The Japanese Japanese People Don’t Know) by Umino Nagiko (because I’m trying to improve my Japanese reading skills and this book is such a treasure for language learners)

I hope I manage to overcome this disatisfaction that has been plaguing my reading lately and find books that make me excited and passionate, books that are well-written and important and, preferably, physical paper books rather than e-books (I need to settle in a place before that happens and I know that won’t be any time soon…). Until then, I have to focus on various life matters, job applications and finishing the many books I have already started…

How has your reading been so far? Do you have any mind-blowing book suggestions for me? Let me know in the comments below have a great reading March 🙂

 

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Reading Ireland Month 2018

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March is almost upon us and for many people of the bookish community March is synonymous with Reading Ireland Month, organised by Cathy and Niall. I couldn’t participate last year due to the incredible amount of studying, essay writing and dissertation proposal preparing I had to do for my Master’s, but I definitely want to return to it this year and contribute even a little bit.

As usual, I don’t really want to make a long list of books I plan to read and films I plan to watch, because, we all know it by now, I will not stick to it. I do have some Irish cultural goodies in mind that I would definitely like to post about, though.

As far as books are concerned, I really want to finally get to In the Woods by Tana French, the first book in the Dublin Murder Squad mystery/crime series. I’ve been meaning to read this for the longest time and the Ireland Month event seems like the perfect incentive for me to finally do so. In December, I read a short story, ‘Mr. Salary’ by Sally Rooney and I really enjoyed her writing (much more than the ‘Cat Person’ for which everyone raved about..), so perhaps I will try to read her novel, Conversations with Friends. Emma Donoghue and Elizabeth Bowen are two more authors I’ve been meaning to read more of, so I will try to include them in my March reading, as well as one more play by my favourite Oscar Wilde – perhaps Vera; or, The Nihilists or An Ideal Husband.

I haven’t yet done all my research for Irish films I might watch, but one I definitely want to get to this year is Song of the Sea, since I loved The Secret of Kells so much when I watched it for the first Ireland Month 3 years ago (time flies so fast…). Other than that I plan to try and watch one classic and one contemporary film, for both of which I am open to recommendations 🙂

Are you participating in Reading Ireland Month this year? What are your plans for it? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

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‘The Lime Tree’ by César Aira *** (Asymptote Book Club #1)

Asymptote Journal is very well-known in the literary world for being devoted to and promoting world literature in English, an endeavour that had me mesmerised from the very first time I stumbled upon their website. Very recently, they launched an incredibly interesting book club to which I could honestly not resist subscribing to (it is currently open for US and UK only as far as I’m concerned, but they will probably expand to other countries in the future) – every month you receive a newly released translated literature book from independent publishers, something which sounds right up my alley.the-lime-tree

César Aira’s The Lime Tree is the first (December’s) book club pick and a book I had heard absolutely nothing about before receiving it. Aira is an incredibly prolific Argentinian author, having published around 80 books and being one of the most lauded Latin American authors – facts which made me ashamed for not having heard of him before but very happy to have finally come into contact with his writing. According to the book’s jacket, Aira’s writing ‘is marked by extreme eccentricity and innovation, as well as an aesthetic restlessness and a playful spirit’.

The Lime Tree is a very short novella (or novelita as it is called at the back of the book – such an adorable term!) of 106 pages and yet it is so hard to describe it accurately. While not mentioned anywhere as an autobiographical work, it is evident that many elements of the author’s life have been transplanted in his narration, the place (Pringles, Argentina), age and first-person narration being some indicative features.

One of the reasons why this book is so hard to describe is probably because there is no specific plot to it. Instead, the novelita consists of the author/narrator’s thoughts, memories and reminiscences, the point of departure of which is the plethora of lime trees the narrator sees at the Plaza in his hometown, Pringles, which remind him of his father and how he used to gather the lime tree’s leaves or flowers in order to make tea which helped with his insomnia. From that point on, the narrator tells us about his family – his dark-skinned father with his supposed ‘other family’, his deformed but imposing mother and his childhood years which were shaped by the Peronist political movement.

Babies, by their very nature, are in a sense little monsters; I might have turned out to be a dwarf or to have needed spectacles […] I was human plasma, unpredictable and protean, like Peronism.

I truly enjoyed how the author managed to give so much cultural, social and political information about the time his story took place without resorting to actual history recitations or mere recounting of historical facts. Aira very skillfully intertwines his story with Argentina’s history and context (perhaps because the country’s history is so deeply embedded in the author’s personal story) that even people like me who knew nothing about Peronism prior to this book, leave enriched and satisfied.

Aira’s writing style is very pleasant to read. Perhaps due to the nature of this particular novelita the prose was a bit dense at parts and the narrator’s frequent stream-of-consciousness method might not entice all readers, but I’m sure the short length of this book will make up for its shortcomings. Although there were fragments of magical realism here, I would love to explore other works by this author where magical realism is even more prominent. Certainly, one out of 80 books of Aira’s oeuvre is nothing sort of representative, and I am more than excited to read more of his books in the near future.

How could we have changed so much, if everything was still the same? It all seemed too much the same, in fact. I felt nostalgic for time itself, which the Plaza’s spatial stories made as unattainable as the sky. I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect lime blossom, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take a hold of it, like a ripe fruit… so I set out to recover that old self.

You can also read Ali‘s and Marina Sofia‘s reviews of The Lime Tree and I hope you do give this author (and book club!) a chance if you haven’t already done so.

I’m very looking forward to January’s book club pick! 🙂

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Two Reviews

2017 might not have been my most productive reading year (in terms of pleasure reading at least), but I did manage to read some wonderful books that will remain with me for a good while. I will talk to you about two of them today, a Japanese “classic” crime novel and an American collection of short stories, both of which I immensely enjoyed and made my 2017 a bit more tolerable.

The Master Key by Togawa Masako **** 36396709

A very well-crafted and quirky mystery novel which hooked me from the very beginning. I really enjoyed how the different stories of each character all came together in the end and the mystery kept being unveiled until the very last page. All the characters were so unique and well-rounded and the story of each individual was also compelling on its own. It was definitely refreshing, a mystery very unlike the usual ones and definitely one which deserves everyone’s attention.

Although there was not a main detective in charge of solving the case and the structure of the novel is vastly different from similar Western crime novels of the time (this one was published in 1962 in Japanese), there is something about this mystery that strongly reminds me of Agatha Christie. I can’t say if Togawa is Christie’s Japanese equivalent, or even if such an assumption is fair, but I enjoyed reading The Master Key tremendously and I will definitely seek out more of her work.

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks ****

35011288I usually am very cautious and shy away from books written by celebrities – no matter how much I like or admire the celebrity, more often than not the books they publish are yet another publicity stunt to make the number in their bank account even bigger. Needless to say I was taken aback when I heard Tom Hanks, one of my most respected actors, was releasing a short story collection.

Despite my initial skepticism, I have to admit I truly enjoyed this collection. While not all stories were my cup of tea, and some felt rather dull or without a specific point (as it happens with most short story collections), the vast majority were stories that made me smile, brought tears to my eyes and offered me a wonderful experience. Tom Hanks is a truly gifted writer and I didn’t expect his prose to feel so natural and adeptly crafted.

The tone and voice of the stories were inherently American and the characters and plots felt like they jumped out of Tom Hanks’s most successful ’90s films. Although I’m not American, they managed to evoke a feeling of nostalgia for an era well gone and for a certain innocence and naivete of people which is scarcely found today. I also enjoyed the fact that some characters were recurring in later stories, which made them feel even more realistic to the reader, as a different aspect of their lives or perspective was offered in each story they appeared. Overall, a wonderful collection of stories which made me wish there will be more to come.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think about them? 🙂

Both books were provided to me by their respective publishers via NetGalley.