Book Review: The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, translated by Philip Gabriel (Published by Doubleday in 2017)

My Rating: ★★★★★

This was my last read for 2018, and what a read it was.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles is the story of a stray cat turned pet, Nana, and his owner, Satoru. The story begins with how Nana becomes Satoru’s pet, and then fast-forwards to a few years later, where Satoru and Nana go on a road trip to visit old friends and to find a new home for Nana, for reasons the owner is unwilling to disclose. Narrated from both feline and human points of view, this novel is a tender meditation on relationships and companionship, on grief, and on letting go. It’s a beautiful, poignant read that I would recommend to everyone, especially to cat lovers.

The story begins from the point of view of Nana, the cat. Nana is a gruff stray cat with an abundance of both sass and street smarts. Nana’s voice is distinctive from his first meeting with Satoru:

‘Is it okay if I stroke you?’

No, thanks. I batted one front paw at him in what I hoped to be a gently threatening way.

‘Aren’t you a stingy one,’ the man said, pulling a face.

Well, how would you like it if you were sleeping and somebody came by and rubbed you all over?

Eventually, Nana comes to live with Satoru after the latter saves him from an accident. Even then, though, Nana isn’t very demonstrative of his affection for his owner. Five years later, for instance, when Satoru announces that he intends to let Nana go, Nana simply says:

Life, be it human or feline, doesn’t always work out the way you think it will.

If I had to give up living with Satoru, I’d just have to go back to the way I was five years ago. . . . I could go back to being a stray tomorrow, no problem.

I wouldn’t have lost anything. Just gained the name Nana, and the five years I’d spent with Satoru.

Already, though, under that gruff, stoic voice, there is a hint of sadness at having to part with Satoru. It seems Nana is deliberately minimising the sentimentality of their imminent parting, which actually belies the depth of emotion he is trying to conceal. 

Following Satoru’s statement, they embark on a road trip to meet up with potential new owners for Nana. All these potential owners were Satoru’s friends in his youth, and we meet them in the order that Satoru had become friends with them. Each chapter unfolds from the point of view of the friend, told in third person, and the point of view of Nana, and it shifts from past to present time. This kind of storytelling effectively portrays the mystery of how friendships form, grow, and finally change over time, as people drift apart and begin to live different lives. The poignancy of these narratives are interspersed with Nana’s – and the other animals’ – humorous commentary on the relationships and personalities of their masters. The effect of this sort of storytelling on me was that I’d be chuckling over a few sentences, and then just a mere paragraphs down I’d be teary-eyed and overcome with emotion.

Another thing I loved about this book was the simple, clean prose. I only noticed how beautiful this was at Chapter 3 1/2, “Between Friends”, during which Satoru and Nana travel through the Hokkaido countryside. The landscape truly came alive with the prose. I looked up the pampas grass and the purple-and-yellow wildflower fields that they passed through, and it must have looked something like this.

What I found so moving about the prose describing the landscape was the feeling of spaciousness – the feeling of the vastness of nature against the smallness of the human (and feline) life. Reading this part put me in a quiet, contemplative mood.

This chapter also served as a turning point, where both Satoru and Nana finally come clean about how deeply they feel their bond as owner and pet, and how inseparable they’ve become. It reaffirms the value of the companionship between human beings and animals, and how it may be as important as the bonds we also have with other people.

From this point in the story onward, I was more or less reduced to a leaky faucet. I kept having to put the book down to wipe my eyes in order to keep reading (and to keep from getting the pages wet). Afterwards, when I’d finally finished the book, I had to put it down and take a deep breath to savor the words of the ending and to linger just a little while longer in the quiet, beautiful world of The Travelling Cat Chronicles.

It is a wonderful, poignant book. Would definitely recommend to everyone.

My story will be over soon.

But it’s not something to be sad about.

As we count up the memories from one journey, we head off on another.

Remembering those who went ahead.

Remembering those who will follow after.

And someday, we will meet all those people again, out beyond the horizon.

Read from December 28 – 29, 2018 | Goodreads Account

Book Review: Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

This short story collection was a delightfully creepy read. 

I picked this up after reading Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor. I was so moved by that book—it was one of my favorite reads in 2017—that I hardly went through the synopsis of this one before buying it.

It turns out that the tone of this collection is wildly different from The HousekeeperThe Housekeeper was a slow-moving, poignant exploration of the offbeat relationship between a brilliant, amnesiac math professor and his housekeeper and her son. Revenge, on the other hand, is a dark, gothic read, made more chilling with the way the most gruesome events are described in a matter-of-fact tone. (I should have guessed how different they are from the covers, but it didn’t really register until I started reading. But gothic’s fine, too.) 

In this collection, we meet a woman whose heart is situated outside her chest and the bagmaker who becomes obsessed with it; a lover who commits murder; a curator of a museum of torture. We meet characters whose stories seem less dark, but who seem to be filled with unease from waiting for something unpleasant to happen. All this is rendered in crisp, clean prose. Ogawa does a good job of avoiding melodramatic horror; it’s in the very understatement of the horrific that allows its impact to be truly felt. 

Another thing I liked about this—and what other people have been raving about, too—is that all the short stories are set in the same universe, so we meet characters or hear about snippets of events from the other stories as well. Very sly device. It’s hard sometimes to read short story collections because they’re harder to “get into”; you don’t have as much time to know the characters and ease into the setting like you do in a novel. But because all these short stories are set in the same universe, there’s this frisson of familiarity you feel when you jump into the next story, because there’s an element in it that’s been “foreshadowed” in the one before. 

Despite all this, I have some reservations about the book. Some of the stories left me confused, because they seemed plotless. I don’t expect a story that can be understood neatly (you know, like those stories they made us dissect in high school), but really, some stories start off one way and then end in a manner that is completely unforeshadowed by the first half. This is why I took so long to finish it. If I can’t make sense of the story, I’m less likely to pick it up again soon. Also, there were a number of authorial self-inserts. Not sure if that’s the right term, but what I mean is the author seemed to use herself as the persona a number of times, including referencing her works. I’m not sure what she’s trying to do with that device—is she trying to blur the line between author and persona in fiction???—but it struck me as too gimmicky.

Still, I did like it overall. There are some stories I would read again, like “Afternoon in the Bakery” and “Old Mrs. J”. I also appreciated how Ogawa writes creepy female characters. Literature is saturated with creepy male characters, so it’s nice to see well-written creepy female characters for a change. 

3 solid stars. Would recommend to anyone craving a little darkness.

Read from January 2 – November 4, 2018 | Goodreads Account

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Book Review: Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

Men Without Women

Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

I’ve considered myself a Murakami fan for years. Back in college, I read Murakami when I was supposed to be reading Hemingway or Dostoevsky for class. I read his books well into the night, when I should have been finishing a term paper. I’ve devoured nearly every book of his in one or two sittings. Murakami’s books reminded me why I loved reading in the first place.

I still have no idea why I’m so drawn to his works. I mean, his novels usually have the same elements – there’s usually some lonely, aimless, middle-aged man who likes jazz/classical music, beer, and women, and then weird mysterious things inexplicably start happening to this guy, and he usually has no choice but to go with the weird flow of things to find out how they’re all connected. I didn’t know I could be into that kind of thing. But when it’s Murakami, I’m on board. 

Anyway, a few months ago I’d just quit my job, and I had no idea what to do next, and I was walking around a mall, wallowing in a good old existential crisis, when I passed by a bookstore and saw this book on the display. I thought, Hey, maybe reading about lonely, aimless, middle-aged men might make me feel better. Misery loves company and all that. Also, I missed Murakami. I’d read almost all of his works available in paperback, and there’s something about his works – maybe the familiarity – that feels comfortable. 

Out of all the stories, “Yesterday” was my favorite, because it hit all the right “Murakami” notes. The loneliness, the nostalgia, the sense of loss, the irreversibility of time. The inexplicable disparity between past and present. The story shifts between past and present, and tells about the brief friendship between the protagonist and Kitaru, who’s eccentric and who rebels against societal norms. The story builds a picture of their friendship, how the friendship shifts subtly when Erika, Kitaru’s girlfriend, comes into the picture, and how they just eventually lose touch over time. Even if the collection is titled Men Without Women, it seems like this particular story is the only one that doesn’t really revolve around the presence or absence of a relationship with a woman. I felt the focal relationship was the friendship, and the past that their friendship symbolized. There are periods in our lives when we spend most of our time with one person or with a few people in particular, so much so that when we recall that time, we inevitably recall it with those people in mind. And the recollection becomes bittersweet when we realize that we can’t reconstruct that relationship we had with them now, in the present time, as it was before. That’s how I felt about this story. 

Other than “Yesterday”, though, the other stories in this collection were forgettable, at least for me. I skimmed through the first story, “Drive My Car,” and the last two stories. After I read the entire book, I realized that I was feeling uneasy about the whole theme of “men without women”. The underlying idea is that men are somehow less without women, and women “complete” men – women are cast in the role of being the healers of men’s emotional lives. I don’t think Murakami excels at writing female characters, but I felt the flimsiness and one-dimensionality of his female characters was particularly glaring in this collection. 

So, 3 stars. “Yesterday” was exactly what I needed to read at the time, and the ending of “Kino” did make me think. But it’s not Murakami’s best, and not one of his works that I’d reread.

Read from June 30 – July 7, 2018 | Goodreads Account