2 Books Down in 2020

As I mentioned in last month’s The Reading Spree: Hindi Writing Post, January 2020 will be dedicated to reading books from the Middle East.

Strangely given the US-Iran tensions that erupted by the end of 2019 and going into 2020, it felt prophetic to be reading works from this region.

And the first two books I picked to read were coincidentally from Iran as well.

The first book for 2020 was the non fiction memoir, My Prison, My Home by Haleh Esfandiari. The work recounts her imprisonment in Evin Prison in Tehran, Iran on false charges of trying to destabalise the country. She is a scholar who works in US. She has also worked with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program and has taught at Princeton University.

I was proud to have picked this book as the first one for 2020 because I usually stay away from non fiction works but this was a moving tale and a story of strength in the face of solitary imprisonment.

The second book I picked was A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri. This book is at once heartwarming but also melancholic as it narrates Saba, the protagonist’s search for her missing twin while growing up in a fictional village in north Iran, amidst Irani traditions and aftermath of the Revolution.

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Will keep you posted about other books that I have read this month in the The Reading Spree post for January 2020.

Stay tuned!

The Artist of Disappearance

The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai thrives on the motif of disappearance. The epigraph (by Jorge Luis Borges) of the book,

“One thing alone does not exist – oblivion,”

similarly brings in an oft debated idea of what stays on eternally and what disappears from this world. I would think, contrary to what Borge points out, oblivion is the ONE thing that is absolutely constant. A person cannot protect or fight against oblivion. It is inevitable.

Yet the three short stories of The Artist of Disappearance, question whether oblivion is in fact inevitable and if it is possible to fight it.

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The first story, The Museum of Final Journeys, is about a Civil Servant Officer, who recently finished his training and is now traveling to a remote place: his first posting. Soon the banality of his office and work overtakes his life and is only broken when an old faithful caretaker of the erstwhile Mukherjee estate nearby requests the officer to take over a now crumbling museum that is replete with bric-a-brac collected from all over the world. The caretaker even takes the officer to the equally dilapidated estate and shows him the various rooms filled with these curious objects – carpets and rugs from across the world, stuffed birds and animals, miniature paintings from bygone Indian empires, fans and kimonos, myriad masks, weapons of war and much more.

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Musically Yours: Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head

 

Lunatic in My Head is one of a kind story written by Anjum Hasan. It is set in Shillong of the 1990s. The novel is an interwoven story of three main characters: an English college lecturer, Firdaus Ansari; an IAS aspirant Aman Moondy, and eight year old, Sophie Das.

Firdaus is caught between her teaching and her wish to pursue an MPhil to safeguard her teaching post at the convent she teaches in. She is also caught between her colleagues’ personal affair dramas and her very unhelpful, lecherous potential supervisor, Thakur.

The novel begins with Firdaus on an April afternoon when “pine trees dripped slow tears,’ (a line that hooked me to the book immediately for its visuality) and as she walks down a street, the opening page itself gives a sweeping view of the multicultural composition of the city, from the Khasis, to Bengalis, to Goans, and to Firdaus herself, who is from Bihar but born and brought up in Shillong. Her sense of being rooted there in Shillong yet being seen as a dkhar, which is the Khasi word for non tribal or foreigner, is another of the conflicts she is entangled in.

Aman Moondy is studying for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) exams for the second time, having failed on his first attempt. His first love, however, is Pink Floyd. He and his friends, Ibomcha and Ribor, even formed a band, ProtoDreamers and played Pink Floyd’s covers for several small occasions. Aman lives and breathes music. He compares everything around him to music, including his infatuation for Concordella. He is also on the other hand, someone who dislikes the smallness of Shillong and wants to leave. This is also why he decided to give the IAS exam a shot or two. For him, it meant a window to the outside world.

When we first read about Sophie, she is sitting in class and wondering how the baby in her mother’s belly will come out. Sophie herself is a product of an intercultural marriage, her father, Mr. Das, being a Bengali whereas her mother a northerner. Sophie loves to read and is fascinated by her neighbour, Elsa Lyngdoh, and her house, which was the only place she was allowed to go by herself. She has strange conversations with Elsa and even stranger ones (and perhaps a touch too creepy) with her son, Jason. Elsa, an old Khasi woman, and an eight year old, Sophie, made for an odd couple whenever they went together for an excursion outside the house.

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A Strangeness in my Mind

Reminiscent of other novels by Orhan Pamuk and their lovely rendering of Istanbul, A Strangeness in my Mind, also pays homage to the city.

Seen mainly through the eyes of the character, Mevlut, comes to Istanbul in 1969 at the age of 12, to live with his father, who sells yoghurt during the day and boza (a fermented drink) at night. He and his father are among the hundreds of villagers who migrated from remote villages to Istanbul in search of a better income and life.

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Mevlut thoroughly enjoys it as a child there, looking wondrously at the city’s intricate streets and its inhabitants while accompanying his father on his rounds; picking up the nitty gritties of the job: the way to behave, the way to entice a customer to buy, the manner in which to extol your yoghurt or boza. Being in school presents a completely different set of challenges especially due to the class divide and him having to work after his school. Nonetheless, his time with his cousins and their mother, is something he looks forward to, particularly with cousin Suleyman, who is always ready to give Mevlut the benefit of the doubt.

The novel weaves its way through the various main events that occur in Mevlut’s life such as him dropping out of school, or his marriage to Rayiha which has its own twist, or his time selling ice cream or being a waiter or being robbed during one of his rounds selling boza among many others .

A Strangeness in my Mind is a peculiar bildungsroman or a coming of age novel that traces Mevlut’s growth. Yet Pamuk plays with the narrative’s style deftly such that the novel is not a mere chronicler of life from birth to death.

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Seeing Red

!!!! Spoilers Ahead!!!!

I had diligently followed the idea of Women in Translation Month in August and the last book in my list was the intensely terrifying Seeing Red by Chilean author, Lina Meruane.

(On a side note: Click here and see the other books that were part of my Women in Translation month)

Translated from Spanish Megan McDowell, Seeing Red, narrates the story of Lucina, a Chilean national, who moved to New York and is pursuing her PhD. One night at a party, something strange – yet something that she has been forewarned about – happens!

Her eyes haemmorage; blood gushes through her veins in her eyes leaving her vision clouded. She returns home with her partner, Ignacio, trying to make sense of this new reality. The months that follow show Lucina navigating through this new found blindness: they move to a new place and she tries to orient herself there, she goes back to Chile for a vacation where her relatives provide her with unsolicited advice about her impending eye operation. Even her parents who are themselves doctors, are stunned by Lucina’s illness.

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Musically Yours: Music in Solitude

Aranya is chaotic.

Ishan systematic.

Ishan is a family person.

Aranya questions the idea of family.

Ishan is spiritual.

Aranya a feminist.

Now I know what you are thinking: that this is just going to be some modern run-of-the-mill opposites attract love story.

Fortunately not!

Because Music in Solitude by Krishna Sobti, translated from Hindi by Vasudha Dalmia, is not a love story, but rather a loving tale of two elderly individuals, Ishan and Aranya, who are in the autumn of their lives and yes you guessed it, are complete opposites. Yet it is their age and the life that that brings along in it’s wake, which helps them come together. Not to mention that they stay in the same building in Delhi!

Originally titled as Samay Sargam, the novel stitches together episodes from the two protagonists’ lives. Especially the time spent together discussing myriad topics over tea, lunches or dinners!

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Travel Diaries: Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings

Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings, written in Japanese by Matsuo Basho and translated by Sam Hamill, is published by Shambala Classics. Matsuo Basho is famous for reinventing the haiku and imbuing it with true qualities of simplicity and natural beauty. This book is a beautiful haibun that chronicles Basho’s travels to the northern parts of Japan in late 17th century. Haibun is a form of writing that combines haiku and prose. Essentially, Narrow Road to the Interior or Oku no Hosomichi is a travelogue wherein Basho beautifully pens down his thoughts and journeys using both prose and haiku. The haikus often remark on particular incidents or scenes that Basho found memorable.

Read more about haibun here.

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The travelogue begins with these inviting lines,

The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.

Such an alluring beginning immediately pulls the reader in and reflect on the idea of journey itself.

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In the Time of the Butterflies

Based on a true story of the Mirabal sisters and their bravery, In the Time of the Butterflies, is a luminous and an imaginative story of the lives of the four sisters and how it was intertwined with the brutal regime of the Dominican dictator, Trujillo at that time.

Julia Alvarez has infused the truth with her own creativity and has skilfully sketched out each sister’s lives and thoughts.

In the Time of the Butterflies has been told from the point of views of the four Mirabal sisters: Patria, Dede, Minerva, and Maria Teresa. Each sister has her own unique personality and way of thinking which shines through when the story moves through their different point of views.

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Travel Diaries: Solitaire Mystery

Who else wants to take a trip all the way from Norway to Greece to search for their long lost mother?

Well, the father son duo of Jostein Gaardner’s novel, The Solitaire Mystery, sure did that.

Hans Thomas and his father come across their mother’s photo on a magazine cover and they decide to (after a lucky draw win) take a car ride across Europe to bring back their mother who had left several years ago to search for her own self.

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But that is not where the story starts.

It starts a long time ago with Frode’s playing cards when he got shipwrecked onto a magical island in the middle of nowhere where he made his own characters come out from his own imagination.

Confused much?

Let’s take a step back.

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Travel Diaries: The Ships

In the Honduran novel, The Ships by the Honduran author, Roberto Quesado, the protagonist, Lopez Guillermo is proud to be working on the pineapple plantation for the Standard Fruit Company despite being a city person. That is because there are not many jobs that pay well in the city.

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What he would like to do is write but he is not sure if that too will bring in the money. However, that does not stop him from always thinking about how to write about certain things that are happening around him such as when he visits the town of El Porvenir, he thinks about how to write about that town where one is greeted by headless hands. He is always thinking about how to make his writing interesting and unique even though we do not really see him writing.

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When We Were Orphans

Typical of Kazuo Ishiguro’s themes, When We Were Orphans, which is set mostly in the 1930s England while also hovering over to Shanghai, deals with the diminishing of one’s memories and the protagonist, Christopher Banks, makes a conscious attempt to try and recollect them and tell his story.

Through these recollections we see how he lived in Shanghai and how he had to come back home to England due to his parents going missing.

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Quick Reviews: The Plague

Albert Camus is well known for his Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, through which he pioneered the idea of the absurd and made a relatively lesser known Greek mythic figure, Sisyphus, into a worldwide celebrity for the absurd task.

Even in his classic 1947 novel, The Plague or La Peste (in French), he uses the motifs of absurdism predominantly.

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Red Sorghum

The opening of Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum – a child of fifteen setting out to join his foster father’s mission to ambush the Japanese – sets the tone for the rest of the novel: not only violent but intensely detailed violence.

Within that violence is embedded the story of three generations of a Chinese family that lived before and through the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Cultural Revolution up to the 1970s.
The part which is most emphasised on is the first one: the life of the family before and through the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Keep on Reading!

Guest Post: Weep Not, Child by  Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’

First Guest Post of the Blog:

Guest post by Linda Shaji-Pauline:

Linda Shaji-Pauline, a fellow feminist and a rice lover, who had an affinity for post-colonial literature but now realises that there is much more to read as well. When she’s not at work, her motto is, “will walk for food.” You can often find her walking around all over the city in search of that new restaurant. She is still undecided if she loves music or books more but agrees that together they make the best combination. Together they make her life in finance very tolerable.


“Fear not, read”

That is how I encouraged myself to pick up a Kenyan (notice I do not refer to this as an African) classic, Weep Not, Child.

Why? Because I thought that this work would be a cliché as it was one of first works of post colonial literature.

Also never have been a fan of “classics”. But yes, the story is rather simple, and sticks to the use of long, oft repeated themes of post colonial literature like redemption of one’s oppressed life through western education / Christian God, that colonialism was never any good at assimilating with the local population, but were merely diving cultures, etc. These themes have seeped into our imagination since pioneers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’ thought it was important to write about them.

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Of Dogs and Walls

The Penguin Modern series presents a brilliant collection of stories from authors which you might not encounter in your everyday bestseller list. Plus it is super cheap! What more could you want?

One title from the series that I recently bought was two short stories by Yuko Tshuhima. I have never read this author before. I have heard of Yukio Mishima, but yet to read him as his books are so hard to get here! So I was excited to find this gem on an online website and its price was hard to resist even with the delivery charge!

The book uses the title of the second short story as its main title: Of Dogs and Walls.

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Bitter Wormwood

Bitter Wormwood. How does the title sound to you? Bitter? Would you ever pick up a novel named so?

Don’t judge a book by its title!

This is because the novel, Bitter Wormwood by Easterine Kire, deftly deals with the issue of freedom of Nagaland and the movement to form an independent country. Beginning with a gripping prologue, and then winding down to a bildungsroman style, it then traces the beginnings of the movement through the character Mose’s development.

The writing is crisp, clear and action packed taking a panoramic view of the conflict and Mose’s life. They move simultaneously. It begins with his childhood which is as the cliche goes, quite innocent and blissful (there is a poignant scene where the only thing that concerns Mose is his school, teaching his mother and grandmother English and helping them or moments of listening to the radio together!). Mose’s only struggle is his school till India’s Independence comes closer and the idea of Nagaland being part of India becomes an problem. The growing dissent is marked by his growing years that disrupts him and his whole life be it family, school or his villagers.

Like his childhood, the conflict is also small but then grows its tentacles as the idea of remaining independent grows further without any proper discussion or response from the other side.

Soon violence and crime take over as the major response from the monolithic Indian government is deploying the armed forces and use of fear tactics.

Mose gets swept up by this tide as well and soon joins the rebels in his teenage angst (though I do not think that the conflict or his joining can be trivalised by that phrase!)

By the end, we see how the movement has become old, warped, lost some of its initial principles, and petered into a conflict among its own people rather than targeting the bigger picture. This is mirrored through Mose’s old age as well.

In the last part, we also see the conflict from the soldier’s perspective albeit briefly. We see how stereotypes can be broken about each side through Mose’s grandchildren and I feel that that is the best message which the book can give to its readers because both sides need to stop this kind of prejudice towards each other.

I would recommend this book to all, just for everyone to know a little bit more about India’s history that is routinely swept under the carpet because it is not appetising. It helps us to know a little bit more about Nagaland, a part of the north east, that is routinely stereotyped against! It is something you will never find in a history textbook, so might as well read it in the form of an engaging and quick to read novel!

And what about the title?

Read the novel and find the significance or its symbolism on your own! There, I have already given away a clue: that it has some significance!

Buy Bitter Wormwood here:

http://zubaanbooks.com/shop/bitter-wormwood/

A Fabled Tale

For all the Kpop and Kdrama fans, fancy a quick dip into Korean literature?

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a short novella by the beloved South Korean author, Sun-Mi Hang.

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Accompanied by very cute illustrations, the simple story is about a hen, aptly named Sprout, who does not want to lay eggs for human consumption anymore and instead wants to raise a chick on her own. Her determination to follow her dream is fraught with danger and several obstacles. Will she be able to achieve her ultimate dream? Borrow the book from the library and find out!

Constructed like a fable, the story’s myriad characters are like metaphors that readers-both children and adults-can relate to. In the simplest way possible, the story talks about following one’s dreams despite what the world tells you, the need to find your own identity and that it is alright to not fit in with the world around you, or the ultimate importance of letting go of people and things even those that are the closest to you. These may sound cliched or philosophical ideas, but the author wraps these themes under the guise of an animal fable and is not trying to rub those ideas into your heads or is not consciously trying to teach you those moral lessons.

The novella stands somewhere between children’s literature, a fable and philosophy book. It will remind the readers of other favourite animal classics like The Wind in the Willows or Charlotte’s Web or the evergreen The Little Prince, which similarly deals with larger existential issues through the eyes of a little boy.

In this case, it is through the eyes of a hen on a farm and her chick. So sit back on a cloudy Sunday afternoon and enjoy this quick and easy read!

(Side Promotion: Read my review of The Little Prince herehttps://bookreviewsgalore.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/a-princely-read/

Read the first 20 pages of the book, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly here:

https://oneworld-publications.com/media/preview_files/9781780745343.pdf

Read a short interview by the author, Sun-Mi Hang here:

https://oneworld-publications.com/media/wysiwyg/Reading-Guides/hen-who-dreamed-she-could-fly-reading-guide-draft-3.pdf

Reading from all the States of India!

We have all heard of reading books from all over the world.
(Sidenote: Check out this 13 year old girl’s Facebook page that will motivate you to read always: https://www.facebook.com/reading197countries/)

But how many of us have read books from all parts of India?

I have definitely not read from all the states. But plan to.

So here is the challenge, before taking the big leap of reading novels from all the countries in the world, lets read books from all 29 states and 7 union territories of India!

Please share recommendations of the different books from different states that you read. They could be in any language; they could be of any genre be it children’s novel or romance or horror or political or plays or poems; they could be translations as well.

The criteria is that the authors are from a particular place or the book is set in that place.

So here is a list of the books of the different states that I have read:

Arunachal Pradesh:

Assam:

  • Swarnlata by Tilottoma Misra. Read my review here.

Chhattisgarh:

  • Hari Ghaas Ke Chappar Waali Jhopdi Aur Bona Pahad by Vinod Kumar Shukla.
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Delhi:

  • Delhi is Not Far by Ruskin Bond (It is not exactly set in Delhi but the idea of Delhi pervades the whole book!)
  • A Girl Like Me by Swati Kaushal (Set in Gurgaon. It is up to the reader to decide the question of what qualifies as a Delhi novel!)
  • Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup. Read the review here!
  • Music in Solitude by Krishna Sobti. Read my review here.
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  • Seahorse by Janice Pariat (The initial part of the novel is set in Delhi university)
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Goa:

  • Reflected in Water: Writings On Goa– edited by Jerry Pinto. download (4)

Gujarat:

  • 3 Mistakes of My Life by Chetan Bhagat.
  • First There was Woman: Folk Tales of Dungri Garasiya Bhils retold by Marija Sres. Read my review here!

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One Last Drink at Guapa

One Last Drink at Guapa intertwines two very sensitive themes or ideas: homosexuality and the Arab identity. In a nutshell, the novel is about a man named Rasa, living in an unnamed, presumably a Middle Eastern or a predominantly Islamic nation, who gets caught by his grandmother in bed with his lover, Taymour. Taking place within the short span of just 24 hours, the novel looks at Rasa’s present dilemma of being caught and how to continue the relationship with Taymour, takes the reader through flashbacks into Rasa’s past including his time as a student in America; and brings us back to the present which seems as fraught with complications as the past.

The readers view the events in the story through Rasa’s eyes. We see his predicament as a young teen trying to search for the right word in either Arabic or English to encapsulate his homosexual identity. We see later in America how him being bilingual further alienates. We see how as an adult, he navigates the mix of his grandmother’s hegemonic rules along with the new ideas his education gives him. We see how Rasa’s own individuality is overshadowed by the Muslim stereotype and how he traverses that mix as well being both Arab and gay in both America as well as his home country. We see him being forced to confront this new sense of the Other which before was simply the normal way of life for him.

Along with Rasa’s own individual turmoil, we see the political upheavals raging within his own country. This adds another layer to the novel where challenging sexual norms are meshed with challenging oppressive political regimes as well.

Apart from Rasa, other interesting characters that feature in the novel are his lover, Taymour, who eventually succumbs to the pressures of society and settles down for a heterosexual marriage; and his fiercely principled grandmother who controlled a lot of how Rasa’s family functioned. A close friend of Rasa is Maj, who is an activist by day and a colourful cross dresser by night and performs at a bar named, Guapa, where Rasa and his gang spend most of their nights reveling away. There are plethora of other characters you meet along the way as well.

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The ending is most interesting as it ends not only on an ambiguous note but also on a hopeful, poignant note where the characters seem to accept that living their life and living in their country will be rife with problems and stress but they are going to soldier on and stay true to themselves and their beliefs. While it is difficult to often stand by your own, it is heartening to see a book ending on such a positive note where the characters are not simply scrambling away to America or other such dream country to end their woes.

The novel therefore gives the readers a unique glimpse into Arab gay culture: something hitherto not as well known in popular literature thanks to the stereotypical Muslim equals terrorist image that colours popular imagination.

Available on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.in/One-Last-Drink-at-Guapa/dp/9385755099

See more reviews here:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34234646-one-last-drink-at-guapa?rating=2

 

The Guest Cat

Fed up of dog related books? Are you a cat lover who is not appreciated because the world is gaga over dogs and their loyalty whereas cats are consigned to a manipulative caricature?

Well I am!!

I am a default cat lover since the time we got a pet cat quite out of pity. From then on, I have loved my own cat and cats in general to death. So when I came across the novel, The Guest Cat, by Takashi Hiraide on Amazon at a decent rate, I instantly bought it since it fed my two interests: cats and my nascent interest in Japanese literature.

Translated into English by Eric Selland, the story is a simple one about a couple who sort of adopt a cat but do not own her. It traces their relation with the cat while also commenting on other aspects of Japan.

Chibi, the cat, comes into their lives unexpectedly when they move into a small guestroom next to a bungalow in Tokyo in 1988. Chibi has her own quirky characteristics that the narrator describes at length. Chibi comes and goes freely into their modest abode, sets up a routine of staying in their house at night and leaving in the mornings to accompany her actual owners’ son to say goodbye.

Against this backdrop, the couple themselves go through their own daily lives and jobs. The woman works at a publishing house and the man quits his job at a publishing agency to write his own stories.

What stands out however is how the main focus is the cat’s quiet relationship with the couple and the house they live in. The descriptions of both Chibi and their house is poetic and academic perhaps keeping in mind the profession of the narrator.

Through these descriptions the narrator also conveys information and comments on the goings on in Japan and Tokyo, most prominently the real estate and the Emperor’s sickness and subsequent death. It is accompanied by a glossary at the end which gives good information on the Japanese references in the novel.

Another, truly unique aspect that stands out are the comparisons and references between the different emotions and moods of the narrator whether it is comparing a house hunt with Machiavelli or triangular surveying to measure distance to avoid grief!

All in all, the novel, The Guest Cat shines because of its talent to convey profound musings through the everyday. And whether you are a cat lover or not, this is a must read since the style and the writing is unique, sparse and down to earth.

Here is a link of the book on Amazon: