A Chorus of Mushrooms by Hiromi Goto

“I mutter and mutter and no one to listen. I speak my words in Japanese and my daughter will not hear them. The words that come from our ears, our mouths, they collide in the space between us.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 268 pages.
Read from December 9, 2019 to December 12, 2019.

A Chorus of Mushrooms is what I would describe as “my kind of book”. It’s the type of book that details lives and scenarios that I know nothing about, with poetic, imaginative, and dream-like writing, and with words that are in partial or full in translation. There must be something about this ‘poetical otherness’ that I’m completely obsessed with. Another draw for me in this book is that the town the majority of the book is set in, Nanton, is a town I visited as a kid over many summers. The book also spends time in Calgary, a city I lived in for many years.

A Chorus of Mushrooms details the lives of three different generations of Japanese-Canadians on the matriarchal side and was first published in 1993. The family lives on a mushroom farm in Nanton, Alberta, Canada. The grandmother, Naoe, is very old and requires the care of her daughter, Keiko, and granddaughter, Muriel or Murasaki, as Naoe calls her. The first person narrative switches between Naoe and Murasaki and drifts between different points of time. Naoe knows English but refuses to speak it as her Keiko has abandoned her heritage and culture in order to try and assimilate into their home in Canada. Naoe may no longer be close to Keiko but they still care for each other in their own way.  Naoe had a very different life in Japan and thing have not always been easy for her and she is frustrated because she feels she has no one to communicate with that deeply understands her. Despite her age, Naoe decides one day to leave her home in Nanton and in the middle of winter. From there, the story takes a different turn with Naoe making the reader wonder what’s real or the wishful imaginings of the author. Murasaki was always extremely fond of her grandmother and recounts her childhood and all the Japanese myths her grandmother used to tell her. After Naoe leaves, Murasaki attempts to fill the emptiness of her grandmother’s presence as well as a piece of her identity that has been kept from her by Keiko by attempting to reconnect with her heritage.

This beautiful book won numerous awards when it was first published and it’s easy to see why. The book will always continue to relevant as it speaks to anyone looking for their own identities or to anyone who has ever had to establish themselves in another country. Further, A Chorus of Mushrooms is partially autobiographical as Hiromi Goto moved to a mushroom farm in Nanton when she was a toddler and her grandmother used to tell her stories growing up too which I’m sure contributed to the intimate and personal feel of this story. The story itself is simple, elegant, and delicately told with sentences of untranslated Japanese, along with being fiercely feminine and sexually empowering.

I loved this book. Really loved it, as I read most of it in one sitting. It’s the kind of book that feels like a comfortable blanket that I’d want to crawl back into again. I would highly recommend this book to literary-fiction lovers, Murakami-lovers, or for those who are looking for something a little different but not too challenging that will still keep you engaged and captivated.

The Monsters We Deserve by Marcus Sedgwick

“Almost everyone has an inborn need to create; in most people this is thwarted and forgotten, and the drive is pushed into other activities that are less threatening, less difficult, and less rewarding. In some people, that need to create is transmuted into the need to destroy.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 145 pages.
March 10, 2019 to March 11, 2019.

This book is one of those delightful Goodreads finds. A reviewer I follow gushed about how brilliant this book is and after reading the description I was hooked.

A horror writer is staying in a remote cabin in the French Alps to finish a book he is struggling to write. The author is drawn to the classic horror novel, Frankenstein, but not because he enjoys the book, in fact, he despises it. As the narrator draws his own conclusions about the horror genre in an attempt to write his own book he discusses the weak points of Frankenstein, details of the author, Mary Shelley’s history and life, all the while making philosophical remarks about how we create our own monsters along with the nuances of the reading and writing processes.

“Orwell’s vision of our terrible future was that world– the world in which books are banned or burned. Yet it is not the most terrifying world I can think of. I think instead of Huxley– …I think of his Brave New World. His vision was the more terrible, especially because now it appears to be rapidly coming true, whereas the world of 1984 did not. What’s Huxley’s horrific vision? It is a world where there is no need for books to be banned, because no one can be bothered to read one.”

As the story progresses the narrator begins to be visited by ghosts, first by Mary Shelley herself and then by the characters in her book. As the narrator navigates this dreamlike horror, he realizes that he is going to have to face the monster of Shelley’s creation and of his own.

This short novel leaves the reader wondering what actually happens to the narrator and how much of this tense story is real or metaphorical. The writing is smart, highly creative and very well paced making for an engaging read. The story reads like a diary or an essay that focuses on the unique writing process of a horror story, the act of creation itself, and of course, our own personal monsters. I particularly enjoyed the author’s comments on the creative process and how he looks at writing in general as they’re bookmark worthy spots if you need help breaking up a writer’s block.

“The binary colour of words on a page give the sense of simplicity and clarity. But life doesn’t work like that. And neither should a good story. A good story ought to leave a little grey behind, I think.”

This book may not be for everyone however as its approach and topics are slightly unusual. The story is a quick read so its a good candidate if you’re looking to catch up on your reading goal or even if you’re looking for something exceptionally different than your usual reads. If you love horror, are familiar with the author, or are a writer yourself, you may find this book is perfect for you.

Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

A creative memoir on the presumed life of an absent mother.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 265 pages.
Read from February 28, 2019 to March 1, 2019.

Anaïs never knew her mother’s mother, Susanne, nor did her mother, really. After her grandmother’s passing Anaïs hired a private detective to get the details on why her grandmother was such a fleeting presence in her family’s life. Short-listed for Canada Reads 2019, this is a creative memoir taken from the facts gathered by the private detective in an attempt to piece together the life a woman who abandoned her two young children and caused a void in her family that is felt for generations. The book will be defended by Yanic Truesdale during the Canada Reads 2019 debates at the end of March.

canada-reads-2019-yanic-truesdale
Yanic Truesdale will be defending Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette during the debates taking place on March 25-29, 2019.

Susanne was originally written in French under the title, La femme qui fuit (The Woman Who Ran Away) and has been beautifully translated into English by Rhonda Mullins. Bravo to Rhonda who has managed to capture the poetic prose of this story in translation.

Susanne is successfully written in the second person and reads like an elegant poem of yearning as Anaïs envisions her grandmother throughout the different stages of her life. The book is far from accusatory and it reads like a real memoir in many aspects. The yearning is for forgiveness, understanding, and for the answer to the one question that neither the author or her mother get an answer to, why did Susanne leave?

Susanne led a tumultuous and intriguing life that included the great depression, political and art revolutions, alcoholism, homelessness, asylums and more. Even with the details unearthed from Susanne’s life, the author can still only speculate as to what drove her to her decisions and imagine how she might have felt in different parts of her life. Why did Susanne decide to abandon her two children, one of whom is Anaïs’ mother, after giving them such tender care for a few years? And then show up at Anaïs’ birth and a few small moments in her mother’s life? Guilt? Remorse? Forced responsibility? As Anaïs speculates, Susanne may have lived with guilt but ultimately may not have been able to face the choices she made, to which, Anaïs forgives her.

What’s the most moving about this book is the wonderful poetic prose which makes for a highly readable book that is easy to connect with. Anaïs is an immensely talented writer whose writing it literary and stimulating while also being highly accessible. I truly enjoyed this novel and felt entwined with Susanne’s gripping story, even if it is only through the speculative hope of her granddaughter.

This engrossing story is going to give the other contender’s in the Canada Reads 2019 debate a run for their money and I am looking forward to hearing how it is received.