The Travelling Cat Chronicles, by Hiro Awikawa (Random House UK, 2017)
In The Travelling Cat Chronicles, the reader is introduced to Nana, a male cat with an odd name. The name is given to him by Satoru, the man who saves Nana’s life after a bad car accident. The two become fast friends and live together until, for reasons that aren’t explained until much later in the book, Satoru needs to give Nana away.
We are taken on a beautiful journey across Japan as Satoru drives his silver van with Nana sitting beside him, nose pressed up against the window. It is mostly Nana who narrates the story, telling us what he sees as they go from place to place. On their journey, Satoru seeks three old friends and asks them to take in his beloved pet cat, but he won’t tell them why he needs to give Nana up, either.
As we follow this journey, the narrative becomes more complex and takes us into Satoru’s past, to his tragic childhood as it intertwines with the lives of his three friends. Finally, after deciding that none of his friends can take Nana from him, he goes to his Aunt Noriko, who raised him as a young boy. From here I will give no more plot details to avoid spoiling the book.
This novel is heart-wrenching and yet often incredibly funny. It is also inspiring, as it shows us the very best of life – the love between people, and between humans and animals. Satoru is an almost angelic figure, and the cat’s devotion to him, in turn, is admirable. I particularly enjoyed the cat’s perspective, which the author attempts to give yet at the same time compelling his narrator to do the seemingly inexplicable things that cats do. The result is a warm and funny novel.
The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2017)
Rushdie’s latest novel is set against the backdrop of the Obama administration. It features a mysterious family who move into a New York neighborhood from a country that cannot be named… except that it is named, and it’s India. These bizarre people, who call themselves Golden and give themselves other names from Ancient Rome, like Nero, attempt to hide their past, and the narrator, a film-maker, attempts to uncover it.
The narrator, whose name we find out eventually is René, is unreliable and annoying. Rushdie is playful in his story-telling, but the playfulness soon loses its charm. The childish voice becomes irritating quickly, and the reader is left wanting a different approach to what could have been a very interesting story. The numerous pop culture references seem forced and silly, as though the author is simply wanting his book to gain some cheap acceptance by people who are capable of remembering things that happened five years ago.
This book lacks subtlety, lacks interest, lacks a coherent, engaging voice, and lacks just about anything else to make it at all worth reading.
Forest Dark, by Nicole Krauss (Bloomsbury, 2017)
Nicole Krauss’ forthcoming novel is an odd one. It tells two stories that are clearly linked, and yet at the same time the characters may as well be living in different realities. On the one hand there is Jules Epstein, an old man who’s retired, recently divorced, and just lost his parents. He appears to be suffering an existential crisis, although reading this novel I felt it may well have been a degenerative disease because of references to memory loss. On the other, there’s Nicole, a novelist with writer’s block and also suffering a crisis of sorts. Both characters, although they are unrelated, are drawn towards Israel, and in particular the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv.
The book starts out with a witty and engaging mystery as Epstein goes missing. The second chapter is jarring as it brings us straight into Nicole’s story without warning, and for a while it seems that Nicole may be Epstein’s daughter. For the longest time, we are left wondering when their paths will cross, but this never happens. They are only linked by this attraction to the Hilton, and by certain philosophical ideas about infinity.
On a sentence level, this is a hell of a book. Krauss writes beautifully and brings up seriously deep ideas. However, structurally, it is quite off-putting. Nicole’s sections (the book flips from one to the other) are sort of stream-of-consciousness and include a lot of philosophizing and digressing. Just when you think something is about to happen, you get page upon page of ideas and memories and nothing much does happen. There is a plot about Kafka, and a whole lot of talk about Jewish lore and how nothing can become something, and at times it is wonderful to read, but a lot the time it is a bit tedious.
Startup, by Doree Shafrir (Little, Brown, and Company, 2017)
Startup grabs you from the very first pages. Like Douglas Coupland, Doree Shafrir socks you with cultural reference after cultural reference. The book is absolutely up to the minute. Her characters don’t take taxis; they use Uber. They don’t send texts or use Messenger; they use Slack and Snapchat. It’s actually quite impressive that she has captured 2017 so well in novel form, with a cast of mostly millennials that seem pretty real and startups developing apps that are plausibly ridiculous.
The novel revolves around a startup whose founder is trying to make it into a billion dollar company and a tech website whose reporters are eager to take him down. As the lives of these characters – who are only vaguely related at the beginning – become more entwined, the women in the novel take it into their hands to destroy the men. As an office romance falls apart, Mack McAllister gets desperate and sends a few drunken messages to his ex, an employee. These are seen – in an almost Thomas Hardy-esque situation – by Katya, a reporter for TechScene.
Startup is in many respects a really good novel, but it is also a clumsy feminist take-down of tech culture wherein all the male characters are archetypal scumbags and the women – who invariably have more depth – are eventually willing to draw upon all their strength to punish the men for their mistakes. It makes the book seem to lack depth, heart, and restraint at points. Towards the end, there is too much half-witted philosophizing and the book falls apart a bit.
Still, politics aside, Shafrir’s book is mostly enjoyable and makes for a solid summer read.
Banned Forever: How I Came To Love South Korea After Being Deported Twice, by Louis Morgan (Createspace, 2017)
This relatively new Kindle Single by Louis Morgan tells the story (allegedly a true story) of a young man who used to live and work in South Korea. The book functions as a short memoir of his two – that’s right, two! – deportations from the country.
What exactly does one do to get deported from the same country twice? Seemingly, very little. If we are to believe the author, and it seems that he has no reason to lie here, he was arrested by armed police on a tip-off from a psychologically damaged young woman that he was some sort of a drug kingpin. Through a bizarre series of events, mostly involving the ineptitude of the South Korean police and judicial system, Louis Morgan (not his real name) is booted from the country without ever being allowed to speak with a lawyer.
Well, that about describes the first deportation. The second occurs many years later when he tries to return to South Korea. He is given the all-clear by the Korean embassy in his country, but when he arrives he is almost immediately deported once again.
Amazingly, Morgan maintains a very sunny disposition during all of this – at least towards Korean people and the country as a whole. Despite the unfortunate things that happen to him, he finds himself falling in love with the country – something that never happened when he actually lived there. Is this a case of loving what you cannot have? Almost certainly, in my opinion.
Banned Forever is an entertaining read. You could probably get through the whole book in an hour or less, which leaves you wondering why the author didn’t pad it a little more. It is a well-told story, but it certainly leaves some questions unanswered.