A bizarre love triangle, with a cat as the major pawn.
Shozo is onto his second wife, but his heart really belongs to his cat, the beautiful Lily, with her exquisite tortoiseshell coat. First wife Shinako, who has been pushed out of her marriage in favour of the well-heeled Fukuko, is kicking up a stink. She says she is lonely and wants to take Lily to live with her. Seeing that she has been unfairly abandoned, she feels this is the least that Shozo and Fukuko can do. Shinako's secret plan is that once Lily is ensconced with her, Shozo will want to visit the cat, and hence her. The funny part is, Shinako doesn’t really like the cat, and so the plan is in some ways self-sabotaging. Thrown into this mix of emotional jeopardy is Shozo’s mother, O-rin, who has her own self-interested schemes. Weak and vacillating, Shozo finally succumbs to the pressure to give Lily to Shinako, but soon finds he can’t bear to be parted from his dear cat.
Junichiro Tanizaki published this often hilarious novella in 1936. Not only is it psychologically pitch-perfect in its depiction of a three-way power tussle, with a cat as the trophy, but it also presents a fascinating picture of Japanese society. We learn much about the importance of money and status, how marriages are made and broken, and the superficial nature of many customs. Society makes us put on many masks; Tanizaki takes them off to show our true conniving selves. A Cat, A Man and Two Women is almost a Jane Austen like comedy, where the hypocritical and the venal get their comeuppance.
A sly and piercing comedy that never puts a foot wrong. A rare piece of writing where every page is so good it has to be savored.
A Cat, A Man and Two Women, by Junichiro Tanizaki. Daunt Books. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Yukio Mishima's nihilistic tale of a gang of children and their punishment of an unsuspecting sailor.
Fusako Kuroda is a widowed woman with a 13-year-old son, Noboru. On a ship tour she meets and falls in love with the sailor Ryuji Tsukazaki. Their relationship moves quickly and the two are soon committed to each other. Noboru, Fusako's young boy, looks up to the sailor and is mesmerised by his tales of glory on the seas. It's a mysterious and dangerous world that Ryuji portrays, barely imaginable.
Meanwhile, Noboru has been running with a gang of boys his own age. They are led by “the Chief”, also 13-years old. He is intelligent but nihilistic, obsessed with the idea that life is meaningless and empty. The only way he sees to fill the void is to commit some horrible crime. He leads the group in the killing of a kitten, which he then proceeds to eviscerate, pulling out all the animal's organs. This act is seen as a preparation for worse crimes.
When the Chief learns that Ryuji, the sailor whom the gang has come to idolise as the embodiment of glory, has given up his career at sea to become the domesticated husband of Fusako, he declares that action must be taken. He prepares a sinister thermos of tea and with the assistance of Noboru, the gang lure Ryuji to a dock where something truly horrible is planned.
Yukio Mishima's 1963 novel (translated by John Nathan) is an elegantly written short novel that often shimmers with its luminous and poetic descriptions. Some of the writing is breathtakingly beautiful. The theme of the novel seems to echo the 1924 case of Leopold and Loeb, later used as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's film Rope, in which two handsome, educated young men perform a terrible ideological crime. In Mishima's novel, a touch of Lord of the Flies is thrown in, with a gang of children performing the unthinkable. The plot is consummately developed, with an air of tension and unease permeating the text until the reader is shocked by the sudden and horrific denouement.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is dark and disturbing, mixing themes of death, sex, voyeurism and power. A nightmare that lingers uncomfortably on the consciousness.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, by Yukio Mishima. Vintage Classics. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
In this fascinating study, women are proven to be the stronger sex.
It’s a well-known fact that women outlive men. Look at the statistics for any country and women live longer. This is generally put down to the riskier behaviour men are more likely to indulge in. Doctor and scientist Sharon Moalem says this is not the case. Even when comparing nun and monks living in cloistered circumstances, with little to no environmental risks, it’s the nuns who live longer. What can be going on?
According to Dr Moalem, it’s all in the chromosomes. Men have XY chromosomes, whereas women have XX chromosomes. Having the two X chromosomes gives women greater immunity to disease. Moalem writes, “…the genetic advantage that women possess results from every cell within a female having the option of using one of their two X chromosomes, each of which contains around a thousand genes.” Not only that, women have greater resilience, stamina, cognitive advantages and even better visual sensitivity.
The Better Half draws on much of the author’s professional research and scientific interests. Compelling case histories are used throughout the text to show how women have the genetic advantage over men in fighting disease and physical adversity. This is popular science at its best: lively, always interesting and a pleasure to read.
The Better Half: On the Genetic Superiority of Women, by Sharon Moalem. Allen Lane. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A koala and her joey survive a bushfire in this touching story.
Tippy and Jellybean live in the Forest. They love to eat gum leaves. But one morning they wake up to find their home is on fire. They climb up high in the trees and Tippy curls her arms around her young Jellybean. When the fire has passed, Tippy checks to see if Jellybean is burnt. Luckily, a firefighter finds them and they are taken for a plane trip to safety. A caring vet named Kami looks after Tippy and Jellybean. They are given smoothies full of gum leaves and added vitamins. Once Tippy and Jellybean are better, they are taken to an animal sanctuary where they can get back to their old ways of eating gum leaves and climbing trees. Eventually, six months later, they are taken to their home in the forest. The leaves are growing back and the animals are returning. It's a happy ending for Tippy and Jellybean.
Based on a true story of two koalas from Gelantipy, East Gippsland, $1 from every sale of this book will be donated to the Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund. Gorgeously illustrated by Anil Tortop, with text by Sophie Cunningham, this is a bitter-sweet story sure to touch many Australians.
3 + years old
Tippy and Jellybean by Sophie Cunningham. Illustrated by Anil Tortop. Albert Street Books.
Review by Chris Saliba
A year in the arctic turns into a spiritual odyssey for Austrian artist Christiane Ritter
In 1934, Austrian artist Christiane Ritter rather gamely decided to join her researcher husband, Hermann, on the remote arctic island of Spitsbergen. Many thought she was foolhardy; seasoned travellers in the area – mainly men – told her she wouldn't last the one year stay. A blithe spirit animated her. Surely it couldn't be all that bad?
When she disembarked from her comfortable ship, with its hot meals, warm cabins and serving staff, the enormity of it all quickly sunk in. The ship would not return for another year. She was greeted by her husband and his colleague, Karl. The first thing that had to be found was water, and so the men trekked off in search of it. Christiane became immediately alarmed. Wasn't there a steady supply of fresh water nearby? No, there wasn't. It was the first of many lessons that she would have to learn about her new – often harsh and unforgiving – environment.
As the months rolled on, many hardships would follow. Especially the winter storms and their unrelenting, howling noise. For several weeks Christiane is left to survive on her own, the wind lashing at her cabin. But amidst the solitude, the cold and the privations, Christiane came to love the arctic.
The chief charm of A Woman in the Polar Night is Christiane Ritter's crystal clear prose, making for a bracing narrative. Ritter's training as an artist has no doubt helped her to sketch out essential and key aspects of her visual experience, to reveal the arctic's many splendours. The passages that describe Ritter's emotional responses are both controlled (avoiding flights of fancy) and revelatory. One really does become jealous at the peace of mind and oneness she achieves in the midst of such turbulence.
At 200 pages, the book doesn't overstay its welcome, leaving you wanting just a little bit more. Beautifully presented by Pushkin Press, with illustrations by the author, this is a curious gem not to be missed.
A Woman in the Polar Night, by Christiane Ritter. Pushkin Press. $24.99
Hisham Matar takes the reader on a spiritual and aesthetic journey
Award winning British-Libyan writer Hisham Matar spent a month in the Tuscan city of Siena, with the aim of immersing himself in the city's great galleries, especially the Sienese School of painting, which had its great period from the 13th to 15th centuries. While Matar did spend a lot of time standing in front of famous paintings by artists such as Lorenzetti and Duccio (the gallery attendants even gave him a chair, seeing him so frequently visit), the writer also made some unexpected friendships and found himself on a voyage of inner discovery.
A Month in Siena, the result of that brief sojourn, is many things. In the main a travelogue, but also a profound meditation on art and life. Matar describes the paintings of the Sienese School in fine detail, but interpolates important events from his own life, fusing art and life into a compelling narrative. Some of the book's meditations are quite moving as death, the loss of partners and the nature of love are discussed in a language that is both intimate and beautifully wrought.
Presented with exquisite colour illustrations, this short book will magically transport you to other places while also opening a window into the soul.
A Month in Siena, by Hisham Matar. Viking $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
In this Elena Ferrante-like work, Japanese author Mieko Kawakami lays bare women's reproductive and cosmetic options in extraordinary detail.
Breasts and Eggs is Japanese author Mieko Kawakami's first novel to be translated into English. It first appeared as a novella and was later expanded. The book is divided into two parts, with part one the original novella, and the much longer part two the additional material.
The story opens with Natsuko, a novelist suffering writer's block who is receiving a visit from her sister Makiko in her Tokyo apartment. Makiko and her 12-year-old daughter, Midoriko, have come from Osaka, where Natsuko originally grew up. The sisters speak in the local dialect, Osaka-ben, a sassy kind of street talk that dispenses with formalities. Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, Kawakami's fast paced conversations read like the sort of thing you'd overhear animated young people speaking.
Makiko and Midoriko – mother and daughter – are experiencing their own personal challenges. Midoriko has gone mute, refusing to speak. We gain insights into her thinking in a series of journal entries. The upshot is she is horrified at the idea of becoming a woman – the bodily changes, the pressure to reproduce - all of it causing revulsion. Meanwhile, Makiko has blithely announced she wants to have breast augmentation. She's casually looking into it and Natsuko is alarmed at all the health risks that go with surgery.
Part two takes place some eight years later. The main themes of part one – the pressure on women to surgically change their bodies, Midoriko's fear at her looming physical maturity – are pretty much dropped. Midoriko now has a boyfriend and Makiko's breast enhancement isn't discussed. Instead, the focus is on Natsuko's body. She wants to have a child and considers using the services of a sperm donor. She doesn't have a partner, nor does she want one, as she finds sex completely unappealing. And so starts a personal journey to find a way to have a baby, without a man being involved.
Breasts and Eggs is fast paced and chatty. Kawakami has a real gift for writing dialogue – often in huge chunks – that is naturalistic and believable. She's clearly a good listener with an ear for verbal ticks and idiosyncrasies. The book's subject matter and style, with its addictive prose, is reminiscent of Elena Ferrante's quartet of Neapolitan novels. Both works investigate in intimate details the lives of women. Kawakami focuses even more strongly on the female body, discussing menstruation and reproduction, among other things, with an unflinching eye.
There are some structural issues with Breasts and Eggs. Part two seems simply bolted onto part one and at 430 pages, the book is long and in parts long-winded. That aside, there is much to enjoy in this surprisingly candid work.
Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami. Published by Picador. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A sharply observed satire by young Irish writer Naoise Dolan.
Ava is a 22-year-old Irish foreign worker, teaching English to children in Hong Kong. When she meets Julian, a smart yet obnoxious banker, she moves into his apartment and starts a casual relationship with him. The two often spar on economic and politic issues, Ava playing the deadpan socialist and Julian smug with his capitalist assertions. Ava knows she's somewhat of a hypocrite, living rent free off her banker friend, but she ploughs ahead nonetheless. An emotional spanner is thrown in the works when Ava meets Edith, a young Hong Kong lawyer, and the two start a relationship. Things become increasingly complicated as Ava keeps the true nature of her relationship with Julian secret. When Julian arrives back in Hong Kong after a work jaunt, the manipulative Ava must do some explaining.
Naoise Dolan is a young Irish writer and Exciting Times is her debut. Apart from being a compelling portrait of modern day relationships, the novel also provides a razor sharp analysis of money, power and class. Dolan's narrative shimmers brilliantly due to its fierce intelligence, sly humour and ability to illuminate the hidden ways in which power is entrenched. A new voice to watch out for.
Exciting Times, by Naoise Dolan. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson. $32.99
A lovesick and desperate young man wanders through the city and meets over 200 people from Melbourne's past.
A young man ponders his future by the Yarra River and decides it's not worth living. Having made the decision to jump in and end it all, he's accosted by Captain Matthew Flinders, the English navigator who was the first to chart much of the coast of Australia. It is the real Flinders, straight out of the history books and now made flesh in contemporary Melbourne. The two strike up a conversation and the young man is suddenly distracted from his immediate woes. They begin to perambulate the city, somewhat like Boswell and Johnson traversed London centuries ago, and make their way through some of Melbourne's smaller lane ways and byways. Each street they enter, the person the street was named after makes an entrance and begins a conversation. Captain Flinders soon falls away, and the young man continues on in a feverish daze through the city's streets, meeting along the way over 200 historical figures - merchants, councilors, publicans, performers, builders, pastoralists and even the odd saint.
The cause of the young man's distress (who narrates the story, although we never learn his name) is Chloe, a barmaid at the Young and Jackson. Having enjoyed a brief, idyllic time together by the beach, he now finds himself estranged from his great love. As he notes of his troubles, “…mine is an extreme case. I measure this whole city by the pain I feel about her – I don’t know if anyone else has ever done such a thing.” Throughout the novel he seeks help for his romantic dilemma from Melbourne's fair and famous, only to receive useless or silly advice.
The young man yearns to find work as a shepherd – surely the simple life will cure his ills – but becomes discombobulated by so many random conversations and finally ends up drunk, staggering into the night. (He meets a succession of publicans who ply him with wine.)
Three Thousand is a self-published novel by writer A.E. Cochrane. A story based on such a conceit shouldn't really work. The whole idea risks getting bogged down in repetitiveness. What holds the book together is the engaging narrator and his lovesick plight, pining for a return to an idyllic past with Chloe the barmaid, a past that may have been experienced more in the imagination than in reality. The book reads like a mix of Voltaire's Candide, with its humorous escapades, and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, for its melancholic romanticism (with a hint of the tongue-in-cheek). There's also a touch of Kafka thrown in as the narrator finds himself in a never ending maze, full of bubbleheaded famous people, with seemingly no way out. There is a lot of delightful wit in Cochrane's writing and his prose has an elegant precision, able to capture complex philosophical and religious concepts and render them in simple, often ironic, language.
History buffs will enjoy this clever story about Melbourne's early beginnings; readers of literature will derive much pleasure from the young narrator's personal story of romantic melancholy and bumbling adventure in the city.
Three Thousand, by A.E. Cochrane. Published by Decision Press. $25
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books