From the Fatherland, With Love by Ryu Murakami

From the Fatherland With Love 

Translated from the Japanese by Ralph McCarthy, Charles De Wolf, and Ginny Tapley Takemori

Five words from the blurb: Japan, invaded, North Korean, troops, death

From the Fatherland, With Love is a political thriller which describes a scarily plausible series of events in which North Korean special forces invade Japan. The book begins with them taking a sports stadium and its 30,000 occupants hostage and then shows how they progress to take control of increasingly large areas of Japan. The detail was so convincing that I spent most of my time worrying about the fact this book is in the public domain and terrorists could copy the clever (but devastating) ideas. I hope that authorities in Japan have read this book and closed some of the loopholes in their security and that terrorists don’t try to replicate any of the scenarios in this book, anywhere.

I’m not normally a fan of thrillers, especially politically motivated ones, but there is something about the North Koreans that makes them especially compelling. I loved the background detail which explained what it was like to grow up under a tyrannical leader and how this upbringing changes the basic personality of the North Koreans. The interaction of the invading troops with the Japanese people was fascinating, although I suspect that most of the brilliant observations will be lost on those who aren’t familiar with the Japanese culture. I didn’t understand all the references to the Japanese political system, but a small amount of googling allowed me to understand the basic chain of command and I didn’t feel as though I was missing out on much.

 …the various intelligence services in Japan had no history of sharing information, and there was no system in place for integrating intelligence. In the event of an emergency or major disaster, it fell to the Security Council to collate information and direct the appropriate response to the crisis, but the various intelligence agencies lacked the channels for passing information to the Council in the first place. Why didn’t the Japanese government take intelligence seriously?….Suzuki thought there was a simple reason for it: that it simply wasn’t seen as necessary and therefore wasn’t considered important. Japan had no history of invasion by foreign countries, and was not composed of different ethnic groups with conflicting interests. For centuries domestic relations had been far more important than foreign ones, and the country was simply unable to adapt to the changed circumstances.

The book is 666 pages long and it did take a large investment of time to complete. There was a small section in the middle where I lost interest, but the momentum quickly picked up again and I was hooked through to the end. It isn’t a fast paced read, but the reader is desperate to discover how everything unfolds and so it remains gripping throughout.  There were a few too many characters for me, but I was impressed by the complexity and depth of the majority of them.

From the Fatherland, With Love is very different in style from Piercingthe only other book by Ryu Murakami that I’ve read. Piercing was very short and chilling. The only element shared by the books was the occasional gruesome scene involving blood-splattered violence; otherwise it would be impossible to tell that they were both written by the same person.

Overall this is a very intelligent book. It gives a chilling insight into the holes in Japan’s security; whilst at the same time giving a thorough examination of the Japanese and North Korean culture. Recommended to anyone who likes to learn from their literature.

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

 …a great story, and one whose ending works very well. Tony’s Reading List

…a compelling and shocking read. A Common Reader

…a wonderful cast of characters in a tale that rollicks along with all the mayhem, violence & action one expects from a Ryu Murakami book  The Parrish Lantern

When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head

When Rain Clouds Gather And Maru (VMC)

Five words from the blurb: Botswana, outsiders, help, community, farming

When Rain Clouds Gather is an African classic. It was first published in 1968 and gives an insight into life in rural Botswana. The book follows Makehaya, a South African convict who escapes across the border into Botswana. In a small village he meets Gilbert, an Englishman determined to help the local community by introducing modern farming methods. They work together to try to improve lives in this rural area, but a severe drought threatens to starve them all.

This book was very easy to read. The writing was compelling and deceptively simple, but there was depth and symbolism buried just beneath the surface:

‘Even the trees were dying, from roots upwards,’ he said. ‘Does everything die like this?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘You may see no rivers on the ground but we keep the rivers inside us. That is why all good things and all good people are called rain. Sometimes we see the rain clouds gather even though not a cloud appears in the sky. It is all in our heart.’

I was initially concerned that everything was seen through the eyes of outsiders. I longed to know what the native community thought of these newcomers and to find out what life was like before they arrived, but by the end of the book I realised that the writing encouraged me to think more about these issues than if it had been explained to me. I missed the raw emotion, but the book was probably stronger without it.

Another minor problem was that this book failed to explain the political situation of the country. Botswana became an independent country in 1966 and a knowledge of events leading up to this would increase the reader’s appreciation of the book. I read a potted history online, but still felt I was missing out on something.

Overall this is a very important book. The issues were all mine and I’d encourage everyone to read this classic piece of African literature.

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Books in Brief

All the King's Men (Penguin Modern Classics)

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

Five words from the blurb: politics, American, community, corruption, success

I really wanted to finish this classic, but after 6 months I think I must finally admit defeat. I started to read the paperback, but found the dialogue confusing. I wondered if this would be improved by the audio version so I imported a copy from America (at great expense as I really did want to get the best from it) but, although this was an improvement, I still found the story painfully slow. Politicians and their power games irritate me and I’m afraid the period detail wasn’t enough to hold my attention. I listened to 9/18 of the CDs before finally giving up. It’s an important book, but it wasn’t for me.

DNF

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Dept. of Speculation

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Five words from the blurb: letters, married, family, facts, changes

Dept of Speculation is a slim book in which the story of one woman’s breakdown is explained via a series of passages, most just one paragraph long. I don’t normally enjoy experimental books, but there was something about the writing that compelled me to read on. I loved the inclusion of random facts and sped through the entire book in a single sitting. Unfortunately it had no lasting impact and just two weeks on I’ve forgotten almost everything about this book. It’s an entertaining distraction, but I’m afraid it didn’t have the emotional power I like to see.

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The Tell-tale Heart

The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson

Five words from the blurb: teenager, dies, heart, transplanted, stranger

The Tell-Tale Heart began really well, with an emotional scene in which a man wakes up after heart surgery. Unfortunately this emotional atmosphere failed to be carried through the rest of the book. It was all a bit predictable and ordinary. There were a few interesting observations about life, but overall it was all too simple and subtle for me.

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The 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist

The shortlist for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was announced this morning. I was lucky enough to receive the list a few days ago and was pleased to discover that I’d already read the majority of the books. A Meal in Winter was the only novel I hadn’t tried so I decided to pick up a copy from the library and read it over the weekend – an easy task since it was so short! Unfortunately I can’t comment on the short story collections, but hopefully my summaries will give you a good idea about the other books.

Strange Weather in Tokyo Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Five words from the blurb: romance, old, teacher, friendship, solace

A beautifully written story about the friendship that develops between a young woman and one of her former high school teachers.

 

The Mussel Feast Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

Five words from the blurb: German, family, issues, revolutions, understand

Gripping novella which shows how life in a repressed state mirrors that of a family living under the power of a tyrannical father. It’s amazing how much complexity is crammed into such a small book!

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A Meal in WinterTranslated from the French by Sam Taylor

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli

Five words from the blurb: soldiers, capture, Jewish, prisoner, choice

Simple, atmospheric story about German soldiers who have been asked to track down Jews for execution. I can’t fault the writing, but I’ve heard a similar stories many times before.

 

A Man In Love: My Struggle Book 2 (My Struggle 2) Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett 

A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Five words from the blurb: father, life, holidays, neighbours, children

This book was much lighter than A Death in the Family, the first in the series. I found it lacking depth and became bored by its ordinariness. I’m afraid I abandoned it, but others love its honesty.

DNF

 

Revenge Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Five words from the blurb: woman, bakery, disconnected, chaos, cruelty

I enjoyed The Housekeeper and The Professor by Yoko Ogawa, but I’m afraid my dislike for short stories means I haven’t tried this one. I you enjoy the short form then I’m sure you’ll find a lot to appreciate in this one.

 

The Iraqi Christ Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim

Five words from the blurb: surreal, absurdities, Iraq, human, war

This collection of stories has been described as ‘Arabic Gothic’. It sounds so different from anything else I’ve read that I’m tempted to try it, despite the short story format!

Who should win the IFFP?

Obviously I can’t comment on the quality of the short story collections, but I think The Mussel Feast will be hard to beat. For such a short book it combines a staggering amount of information. It has everything from emotion and tension, through to complex ideas about power and communism. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for it!

Who do you think should win?

For other opinions on these books read the reviews of the Shadow IFFP Jury, a group of bloggers who’ve read the entire IFFP longlist:

Dolce Bellezza  (twitter @bellezzamjs)
Follow the Thread (twitter @David_Heb)
Tony’s Reading List (twitter @tony_malone)
Winstonsdad’s Blog (twitter @stuallen)
Messengers Booker (twitter @messy_tony)
and the blog free Jacqui Wine ( twitter @jacquiWine)
 

The 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist

The 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist has just been announced.

The shortlisted books are:

The LowlandBurial RitesAmericanah

A Girl is a Half-Formed ThingThe GoldfinchThe Undertaking

  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

I predicted three out of six correctly, but am quite shocked that Booker Prize winning The Luminaries didn’t make the cut. It is also disappointing that my two personal favourites, The Signature of All Things and Eleven Days, failed to make it through.

Overall it’s a strong list, but I expect A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing to take the winning spot.

The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky

The Giraffe's Neck Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside

Five words from the blurb: teacher, scorns, students, species, succeed

The Giraffe’s Neck is narrated by Frau Lomark, a biology teacher who believes that Darwin’s principle of evolution should be applied to humans. She thinks that most teachers waste their time indulging their less-able pupils; whilst she prefers to concentrate on giving her knowledge to intelligent individuals – the ones that will make the most use of it.

Frau Lomark was a wonderfully bitter character. Her observations could be considered offensive, but there was something about their honesty that drew me in. The book raised many interesting questions about how much teachers are able to change the lives of their pupils and whether or not is it possible to engage everyone:

It just wasn’t worth it, dragging the weak ones along with you. They were nothing but millstones that held the rest back. Born recidivists. Parasites on the healthy body of the class. Sooner or later the dimmer bulbs would be left behind anyway. It was advisable to confront them with the truth as early as possible, rather than giving them another chance after each failure.

The writing quality was outstanding. Some people might find the biological details confusing, but I was very impressed. It is rare to find scientific information combined with such beautiful writing and I loved to see the moral arguments backed up with sound genetic data.

Unfortunately the plot didn’t develop as cleverly as I’d hoped. The momentum that built up over the first half of the book disappeared, leaving me a little disappointed.

Overall this was a thought provoking book, with many bold concepts. The minor problems with the plot can be forgiven because of the general intelligence of the text.

Recommended to anyone interested in the nature versus nurture debate and the way it applies to teachers.

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