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Book Nook - 29-05-2017

Monday, May 29, 2017
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to [email protected]

Crime And Retribution
The striking cover shows half the face of a beautiful woman, with a tear rolling down her cheek. Best-selling Japanese writer Kanae Minato’s 2012 hit Penance (already turned into an acclaimed mini-series) has just come out in Philip Gabriel’s English translation.

The story is dark and morbid, but absorbing enough to complete in a single marathon reading session.  Set in unnamed town distinguished from other regular place by the purity of its air, Penance is the story of four friends, Sae, Akiko, Maki and Yuka, scarred by a childhood incident.

They are about ten years old when a new factory in their town brings an influx of city people, who look down on the unsophisticated residents.  Among them is their classmate Emily, who somehow joins the gang in spite of her superior ways.

Emily is raped and killed while the girls are playing by the school’s poolside. All four saw the killer, but when questioned by the cops, cannot recall his face.  Emily’s grief-stricken mother Asako accuses the children of abetting the crime, because the murderer is never caught.

The girls are shocked and traumatized by their friend’s murder, but are just about coming out of it when Asako, before returning to Tokyo, summons the four and tells them that they have to either catch the killer or perform a penance that would satisfy her, or she would find a way to take revenge against them.

 The girls are too young to realise the rage and sorrow behind a mother’s words; their lives are marked by it, and affected in tragic ways. They all wreck their own happiness in the quest for atonement, because there is no way they can trace the killer.

The book follows the lives of each of them and examines how they engineer their own unhappiness—they are punished for a tragedy in which they played no part, and could not possibly have prevented.

The story may be a bit too schematic in the way the girls’ stories turn out, but Minato makes the reader care for them and also gives a sharp glimpse of contemporary Japanese society from the point-of-view of various mother-daughter relationships—fathers play little or no part in their childrens’ upbringing and seem not to interfere in household matters. When the horrific incident takes place, in the midst of the Obon (a Japanese festival to honour the spirits of ancestors), the mothers rush to their daughters’ aid, the dads are supposedly enjoying their food and drinks with visiting relatives. Surprisingly, however, no mother understands her daughter’s plight, but a kindly policeman does.

For fan of crime novels, worth a read.

By Kanae Minato
Translated by Philip Gabriel
Publisher: Hachette
Pages: 240

Excerpt of Penance:
The town didn't have a single mini-mart back then, but none of us kids minded. We accepted things the way they were. We might see commercials on TV for Barbie dolls, but we'd never actually laid eyes on any so we didn't particularly want one. Far more precious to us were the fancy French dolls that people in town proudly displayed in their living rooms.

Still, after the new factory came, a strange new sensation started to arise among us. From Emily and the other transfer students from Tokyo, we started to detect that the lifestyle we'd always thought was perfectly normal, was in fact, inconvenient and behind the times.

Everything about these new residents' lives was different, starting with where they lived. After Adachi Manufacturing came to town, the company built an apartment building for employees, the first building ever in town over five storeys tall. It was designed to harmonize with the surroundings, but for us it rose up like a castle in some far-off land.

One day Emily invited some of the girls in her class who lived in the West District part of town, where the building was, to her apartment on the top, the seventh, floor. The night before, I was so excited I couldn't sleep.

Four of us were invited to her place: me, Maki, Yuka, and Akiko, all friends from long ago, raised in the same neighborhood.

 When we entered Emily's apartment it felt like stepping into a foreign land. The open floor plan was the first surprise. We had no concept at the time of an LDK — a combined great room type of living-dining-kitchen space — and were surprised that the places where you watched TV and cooked and ate were all a single unit, with no walls separating them.

We were served English tea in teacups we kids would never have been allowed to touch if they were in our house, with a matching teapot, and on matching plates were tarts with a variety of different fruits I'd never seen before. The strawberries were the only fruit I recognized. I stuffed myself, enraptured, but felt as if something wasn't quite right.

After eating we decided to play dolls and Emily brought out a Barbie doll and a plastic, heart-shaped dress case from her room. The Barbie doll was dressed exactly as Emily was that day.

"There's a shop in Shibuya that sells the same outfits that Barbie wears, and my parents bought it for me for my birthday last year. Right, Mama?"

All I wanted at this point was to get out of there.

Right then one of the other girls said, "Emily, could you show us your family's French doll?"

"What's that?" Emily shot us a blank stare.

 Emily didn't own a French doll. And she had no idea what we were talking about. I'd been feeling deflated, but hearing this, I perked up. It was only natural that Emily didn't know about French dolls. In the city they were an obsolete status symbol.

The old Japanese-style wooden homes around our town all had one thing in common. The room closest to the front door, a sitting room, was done in Western style and was sure to have a chandelier and a French doll inside a glass display case. People had owned French dolls for ages, but about a month before Emily moved to town it suddenly became popular for the local girls to go from house to house to admire the different dolls.

At first we just went to friends' houses, but soon we started dropping by other people's houses in the neighbourhood. It was a rural town and we knew almost everyone by sight, and the room was right next to the entrance, so hardly anybody turned us down.

Before long we began compiling Doll Memos, as we called them, ranking the French dolls we'd seen. Back then kids couldn't snap photos easily like now, so we drew pictures of the dolls in notebooks with coloured pencils.

Mostly we ranked them according to how pretty the dresses were, but I liked looking at the dolls' faces. I felt as if the dolls people chose reflected their personalities, and the faces of the dolls seemed to resemble the faces of the mother and kids in the family.

Emily said she wanted to see some French dolls, so we took her on a tour of the ten best in our rankings. Emily was sure that the other children in her building hadn't seen French dolls before either, so she invited a few to join her and we all trooped off to various homes in town along with children whose grades and names we didn't even know. For some reason a few boys tagged along, too.

The person in the first house we visited said, "Oh, so you're on the French Doll Tour?" We liked the term so much, that's what we dubbed our outing that day.

The French doll in my house was ranked number two on the list. The neckline and hem of the pink dress were fringed with soft, pure-white feathers, with large purple roses adorning the shoulders and waist. But what I really liked was how the doll's face looked a bit like mine. I'd added a small mole under the right eye, like I have, with Magic Marker, which upset my mother. I also liked that it wasn't clear how old the doll was supposed to be, whether it was a child or an adult.

"Isn't it great?" I boasted, but the city kids had already lost interest, and I remember being bitterly disappointed.

After we'd visited the last home Emily said, "I guess I like Barbie dolls better after all." I think she said it innocently enough, but that one statement from her was all it took for those French dolls, up till now the most radiant things in our lives, to suddenly appear worthless. After that day we stopped playing with French dolls, and my Doll Memo disappeared into the back of a drawer.

But three months later the words French doll were on everyone's lips in town, because of the so-called French Doll Robbery. I wonder how much you know about this incident, Asako.

At the end of July, on the evening of the summer festival, French dolls were stolen from five houses in town, my house included. There was no other damage to the houses, and no money stolen. Just the French dolls missing from their glass display cases. A strange affair all around.

Also Recommended:
Caught it a bit late in the day but Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, that won the 2016 Man Booker Prize is a wickedly funny satire on race in America.

 The narrator called Me starts his strange story with, "This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I've never stolen anything."

Me, also called Bonbon by his bus-driver girlfriend Marpessa, is a farmer in the small town of Dickens  in Los Angeles, dominated by Blacks and Hispanics. For reasons of his own, that involve an old Black actor called Hominy Jenkins who suddenly proclaims himself to be Me’s slave, called him “Massa” and begging to be whipped, Me decides to surreptitiously reintroduce racial segregation into the town, and finds that it actually raises the standards of living of the townsfolk.

Eventually, he has to stand trial at the Supreme Court and the journey to that point is profanity-laden, rambunctious and laugh-out-loud readable.

Coming in for particularly sharp lampooning are Black intellectuals, personified by For Cheshire who rewrites great novels into politically correct versions that read like, "Real talk. When I was young... my omnipresent, good to my mother, non-stereotypical African American daddy dropped some knowledge on me that I been tripping off of ever since."  

The book was reportedly turned down eighteen times before being picked up by a publisher and went on to become the first novel by an American author to win the Booker.
The Sellout
By Paul Beatty
Publisher: One World Publications,
Pages: 304

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