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