Thursday, July 18, 2019

Mini reviews - Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami and The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon

Both of these are books from my personal shelves. As I was writing these two reviews (and planning a third), I realized they were ending up much longer-winded than I expected so I deleted a third cover image and I'll review that final book separately.

If not kept in check, nighttime thoughts are prone to amplification. 

~ p. 131

Confession: The cover seduced me, although a vaguely positive review added to the temptation to buy this book. There isn't anyone flying in Strange Weather in Tokyo, and it's not a book about magical realism. It's just a cool cover.

Strange Weather in Tokyo is about a young woman named Tsukiko who happens across her former teacher when they're both drinking in a bar. He is older, a widower, and recognizes her from his Japanese class, many years ago. She calls him "Sensei" (teacher) rather than his name, throughout the book. They keep bumping into each other at the bar and eventually Sensei invites Tsukiko to his home, where they continue drinking and he shows off his quirky collections of train teapots and used batteries. Occasionally, they go places together but then there will be a vague falling-out or they won't see each other for a few months. And, yet, she's always thinking about Sensei and wonders if he's thinking of her.

I like this part of the cover description: "Their relationship develops from a perfunctory acknowledgment of each other to a hesitant intimacy which tilts awkwardly and poignantly into love."

Admittedly, it takes a very long time for the "love" part to arrive. It's clear that there's an attraction between the two, and yet Sensei occasionally chides Tsukiko and treats her like she's still his student. Meanwhile, she sometimes drifts away, almost chained by her loneliness, as if she doesn't feel it's possible to break free from it long enough to encourage affection. It's a slow, thoughtful book but I wasn't sure why I found Strange Weather in Tokyo compelling, when I thought back on it. Very little happens, and yet I liked every little moment in which you caught another spark between them. In flipping through the book, I found myself rereading passages beyond the quotes I'd marked. The ending is moving and lovely. If I were to Marie Kondo the room I'm sitting in, I would definitely say Strange Weather in Tokyo sparks joy when I hold it in my hands. I think I'll be looking for more by this author.

Recommended but not a favorite - A quiet book about a couple who are a study in contrasts and yet somehow find themselves drawn to each other and filling a hole in each other's lives. Lovely writing. An oddly simple yet magnetic story.

In The Confusion of Languages, Cassie Hugo is a military wife who has lived in Jordan for a while. She's a rule follower, a little paranoid and stiff, determined not to offend the Jordanians while she lives amongst them. Margaret Brickshaw is the opposite. When Cassie is tasked with welcoming Margaret and her husband, she at first sees Margaret as a wisp of a woman, tiny and timid. But, Margaret is American to the core and unwilling to bend to the rules. Instead of covering her skin, she wears what she wants. She smiles and chats up the embassy guards and her help around the apartment, looking them boldly in the eye, even when told such behavior is dangerous.

As the book opens, Margaret has been involved in a traffic accident while driving with Cassie in the car. It's no big deal to Cassie. Americans are always found at fault; she just needs to follow the embassy guards and pay the fine. But, instead, Margaret insists on going home and asks Cassie to watch her toddler while she returns alone. When hours pass and Margaret doesn't return home or answer her phone, Cassie becomes anxious. Looking through Margaret's possessions for clues, she finds a diary and begins to read about the past few months.

The Confusion of Languages is told entirely in past tense, jumping back and forth from diary entries to the time ticking away while Cassie awaits Margaret's return.

What does the ominous final entry in Margaret's diary mean? Why is Margaret not returning Cassie's calls? Did she really go to the police station to pay her fine or somewhere else? As Cassie reads Margaret's diary, she will find out what was really in Margaret's heart and mind and the secrets she kept during the months of their friendship.

Recommended - The Confusion of Languages is fascinating for its peek into life as a military wife living in the Middle East, a subject the author knows well as she has lived in Jordan and Abu Dhabi. I learned, for example, that when you live in embassy housing you have a panic room and strict instructions how to stock it and that the embassy of a foreign nation in which an American lives keeps the military residents up-to-date on happenings that may endanger their safety (protests nearby, political upheaval). I knew none of that. The story itself is a melancholy one. As Margaret's story slowly unfolds, there's always that lingering question about where she's gone and why. But, the underlying theme seems to be that there is a time and a place to conform. "When in Rome" and all that. The book also addresses infertility and fertility and the tensions both can cause in a marriage as one of the women has no children and wants them; the other was hastily married after becoming pregnant.

If I'd read these two books one after the other I would have been dying for a thriller, afterwards. Read them when you're in the mood for a slower, more character-driven novel.

©2019 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

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