Review: Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus

Author: Jeff Backhaus
Title: Hikikomori and the Rental Sister
 Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: January 2013 
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 
Length: 246 pages 
Genre: Contemporary fiction 
Why I Read: Library browsing
Read If You’re: Looking for a character-driven, melancholic story; interested in hikikomori  
Quote: “Kindred spirits groping in the dark for each other, blind, pure, nameless feelings intertwined” (239)
Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide]  
Links: GoodReads | IndieBound | Chapters | Amazon

Hikikomori: Japanese, literally “pulling inward, being confined”, refers to the phenomenon of reclusive adolescents or adults who withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement (Wiki)

I added Hikikomori and the Rental Sister to my TBR list after stumbling across the book at the library. I can’t recall why I initially added it, but I picked it up this month expecting a darkly humorous tale. The story’s immediate poignancy prompted me to reread the back description – I wonder how I ever expected a black comedy!

Yet she stays, yet she comes down the hall, yet she believes in me. She thinks I’m the same man she married. And maybe I am, and maybe that’s the problem, that I always have been this man and always will be. (14)

Thomas, an American hikikomori, has been living in his bedroom for three years, a behavior prompted by the death of his son. Silke, Thomas’ wife, hires a young Japanese woman, Megumi, as a last resort to bring Thomas out of his hikikomori state. Megumi has experience with hikikomori, as her younger brother was one. The narration alternates between Megumi and Thomas, with Megumi’s narration being in third person and Thomas’ in first person. The hikikomori concept does not function merely as a gimmick. Backhaus uses the condition to explore the more universal conditions of love and grief. The book focuses on the relationships between Thomas, Silke and Megumi, and how those relationships are shaped by their experiences with grief and their love (or lack of love) for one another. I enjoy books in which character relationships really carry the story. I also like Backhaus’ prose – clean, succinct, certainly contemporary but not too stylized. Some compare him to Murakami or Ishiguro, I would say Backhaus falls between the two. He infuses both the plot and the prose with melancholic sadness, but that sadness does not engulf in the story. The characters find healing in their own ways.

I did not come inside one day, shut the door, and never decide to come out. I needed a day to grieve. Then a week. A month. Tired, I took a nap. When I woke it was dark. The walls were high. There was no way out. (34)

I particularly like that Megumi is a fully developed character, and that the reader learns as much about her as they do about Thomas. She helps Thomas and he helps her. She has her own motivations beyond Thomas. She’s not just a device to swoop in and transform Thomas’ life – or is she?

Please Note: The next paragraph discusses to what extent Megumi’s character is problematic, thus necessitating spoilers. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

Megumi does have as much of a story as Thomas does. The reader hears from her perspective, learns her back story and comes to understand her as a whole character, rather than merely a device in Thomas’ story. However, if you look at her role in the book: she enters Thomas’ life, quickly engages in a sexual relationship with him, thereby rescuing him from his hikikomori state, and then returns back to Japan, allowing Thomas to return to his old life. Although Backhaus develops Megumi’s character, she still functions as a device to rescue to Thomas. When I first finished the book, I thought Megumi and Thomas’ roles in each others lives were balanced, but now I find that harder to argue. Additionally, Megumi is a young, sexy, Japanese woman written by a white man. Such a character could easily go wrong, and I still think Megumi could have been written a lot worse than she was. But the nature of the plot still subjects her to some Orientalism, no matter how much I tried to explain it away to myself in an attempt to justify my liking of this book. The Japanese woman rescues the American man, due to her Japanese-ness. I liked Megumi. She felt like a real person to me. The story felt real to me, I believed it could happen. Yet by making Megumi the white man’s saviour, Backhaus reduces her character to ‘the Other’, the fantasized woman from a land far away. If you’ve read the book, please share your thoughts on Megumi – this was a difficult paragraph for me to sort out and I’m sure my opinion of the book could benefit from mutual discussion. 

The Bottom Line: Backhaus explores the relationships between love and grief in this quiet, flowing tale. The story stood out to me in its balance of perspectives and its contemporary prose, but Megumi’s role in the story remains problematic. I would like to read more by this author – hopefully he grows in his portrayal of race.

Review: The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill

Author: Susan Hill
Title: The Man in the Picture
Format/Source: Hardcover/library
Published: October 2007
Publisher: Profile Books
Length: 145 pages
Genre: Gothic ghost story
Why I Read: Enjoyed The Woman in Black ; in the mood for a similar story
Read If You’re: Looking for a quick and easy, chilling (if not frightening) read
Quote: “I disliked the picture – it repelled me, made me shudder. But it was just a picture. We could hang it in some distant corner of our house, or even leave it wrapped and put it away” (78).
Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads | Chapters | Amazon

Please note: This review contains comparison to The Woman In Black and some vague spoilers for both books.

I did not find The Man in the Picture as frightening as the Woman in Black. There was only one chapter (Chapter 4) that really spooked me, and that was because I was so caught up in thoughts of what might happen next. I suppose that is the definition of suspense! But, scenes from The Woman in Black made my skin tingle because of what actually happened in the story, and not potential scenarios I concocted in my own mind. Although I did not experience much fear, I found the idea of being trapped in the painting uncomfortable and horrific.

I anticipated a similar ending to The Woman in Black. Of course, once I read the ending I thought “Oh, how did I not predict that earlier!” Perhaps I would have guessed the conclusion had I put some thought towards it, but a well-written story allows me to become totally absorbed so my mind does not move ahead of what’s happening on the page in front of it. Hill handles the shift in perspective very well. I did not anticipate such a shift and it fits with the mood of the story.

The Bottom Line: I’ve been working on this review for days because I could not think of what to write. Really, all you need to know is that this is a quick read, nothing too developed or in-debth, a nice little ghost story that will not wow you unexpectedly. The story has a chilling sombre tone. The Man in the Picture may not frighten you but it may unsettle you.

Review: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida

Author: Naoki Higashida
Title: The Reason I Jump
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: August 2013
Publisher: Random House
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Non-fiction question and answer
Why I Read: Saw it at the bookstore, thought it would be interesting 
Read If You’re: Interested in learning about autism from a person with autism’s perspective
Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReadsChapters | Amazon 

There seems to be a lot of suspicion surrounding this book as to whether it could actually have been written by a 13 year old with autism, or how much David Mitchell embellished the translation. I approached the book with some skepticism, but now that I’ve read I don’t think there’s any reason to be suspect of Higashida’s writing. Yes, I think there /could/ be some embellishment but I also think that it’s not unreasonable to believe a thirteen year old wrote this text. Now, controversy aside…

I found this book very heartbreaking at times. Many times Higashida writes about how he knows he can make situations difficult for people and how he hates himself for it, but he still very much wishes for people not to give up on him. This must be a terrible feeling for someone who cannot communicate with others in the generally expected and accepted ways. Yes, it can be difficult for a non-autistic person to engage with an autistic person – but it is important to recognize the person with autism is very much a person, just like someone without autism!

The above paragraph brings me to another point – how Higashida addresses his audience. He uses the plural you, presumably to address an audience of non-autistic people who have many questions about what it’s like to have autism. I’m not sure if there’s a better way to address these questions, given the nature of the book. but sometimes it does feel a bit presumptuous of him to make statements like “One of the biggest misunderstandings you have about us is your belief that our feelings aren’t as subtle and complex as yours.” (109) He also uses ‘we’ to speak for all autistic people which I think is more problematic than how he addresses his audience. Overall, his pronoun use is a relatively minor issue with the book, and it may possibly just be attributed to his age or his editor or something but it is a noticeable aspect of the narration that might bother some people more than most.p

The Bottom Line: Definitely check this book out if you any interest in what it might be like to have autism – but remember that it’s just one teen’s account.

Review: Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit by Corey Olsen

The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida
Author: Corey Olsen  
Title: Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
Published: September 2012
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 318 pages
Genre: Literary analysis
Why I Read: The Hobbit is one of my all-time favourite books + I enjoy reading Tolkien scholarship
Read If You’re: A new fans of The Hobbit; interested in literary analysis
Quote: “Even when [Bilbo] himself is facing the possibility of being devoured, the ‘idea of eating’ that is on his mind is a very positive one” (94).
Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReadsIndieBound | Chapters | Amazon 
Two Tolkien posts in a row! I promise this isn’t just a Tolkien blog. I wanted to post my responses to those two articles while they were fresh in my mind, and then this is the only book I’ve read recently for which I have a full review planned. Now, onto the inaugural review of the reborn Falling Letters.

I added this book to my TBR list shortly after it was published, but I wasn’t eager to read it because it seemed to be an introductory text exploring themes in The Hobbit with which I am already familiar. This is not to say I didn’t think the text had anything to offer (otherwise I wouldn’t have put it on my TBR list), but after reading The History of the Hobbit in the same year this book was published, I felt I had enough Hobbit knowledge in my head for one year. In his introduction, Olsen describes how his love of Tolkien developed and became integrated into his academic work. He describes people who “get nervous at the prospect of a literary critic discussing a work they love”, because they’ve “had unpleasant experiences in high school English classes” (4). He assures the reader he will not take the same approach found in such classes (drawing inferences from the text as to what Tolkien really meant, judging passages as good or bad, etc.). He writes of his book:

“…we will take a journey through the story, looking carefully about us as we go. It is easy to rip through a book that you like at top speed; the main thing I hope to do is to slow things down enough to be able to see more clearly what is unfolding in the story as we go. We will take notice of the recurring themes and images […] We will listen closely to all the songs and poems […] If we walk slowly and pay attention, we may find that our perspective is enriched by the journey as much as Bilbo’s was, and that our eyes have been opened to marvels we never expect to see.” (5).

This paragraph made me more interested in the book than anything else I had read about it – I definitely know how it’s easy to rip through a favourite book! I read The Hobbit more often than any other book. I could benefit from a slowed down, close reading. That is largely what the book is – a close reading of The Hobbit. Olsen makes minimal references to Tolkien’s thoughts or works beyond The Hobbit. I thought it interesting that he chose to explicitly not discuss The Hobbit with any close relation to The Lord of the Rings, particularly given the release of The Hobbit films which are being brought more closely in line with The Lord of the Rings films. The publication of Olsen’s book likely connects to the release of The Hobbit films, as interest in books on which movies are based always surges when said movie is released. But, this is not a negative observation – The Hobbit is a fantastic work considered by itself. I don’t think it always needs to be placed within a greater context and it’s refreshing to read something focused solely on the tale I love.

 If you have read The Hobbit many times, you might not find a lot of new ideas here. HOWEVER! A major exception is the analysis of songs and poetry. I confess, I tend to gloss over songs and poetry whenever they appear in a novel, however crucial to the story they may be. I do this less with The Hobbit, where the songs are of a different nature than those found in The Lord of the Rings, but I still plead guilty to not fully paying attention to what the songs contribute to the story. Where Olsen’s text excels for me is in his exploration of the songs. John D. Rateliff’s quote on the back of the book accurately praises, “[Olsen is] particularly good at pointing out how Tolkien uses poems as characterization”. I suspect I am not the only adorer of The Hobbit who prefers to bypass songs and poems. Olsen has chosen an excellent area on which to focus.

Additional notes:  I enjoy reading interpretations of the riddle scene. While I thought some of the inferences were a bit stretched, I did like the perspective he took on the whole scene (exploring how the riddles reveal the riddler’s character while also reacting to riddles that had already been presented). The text is not written in a scholarly manner, it’s very accessible, but there were some instances where the use of slang stood out (“street cred” [113] is an extreme example). I’m not sure such language is necessary, even in a relatively informal work.

The Bottom Line: If you are a long time fan of The Hobbit, who appreciates the songs and poems contained within, you might find this book does not have a lot to offer you. But if you are a newer fan of The Hobbit, or you wonder what the point is of all the songs and poetry, or you just plain enjoy close readings, I recommend this book.

Eowyn Ivey – The Snow Child

  Author: Eowyn Ivey
Title: The Snow Child
Date read: 26 December to 29 December
Published: February 2012
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Length: 212 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/fantasy?
Why I picked it up: Sounded intriguing, pretty cover
Rating: 4 stars
Buy:  IndieBound Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

My notes for this book are primarily chronological, documenting my thoughts on aspects of the story as they emerge. SPOILERS AHEAD!

Well. Not many books can pull off opening with a suicide attempt! I have read very little that deals with suicide, and usually it is in a much modern sense – related to problems of bullying, society, etc. I found the sequence extremely well-written, realistic and believable. An impressive start to a solid story.

I found the balancing act between is Faina a real girl or not, and what Mabel and Jack believe about her, incredible. At first I fully believed she was something they created but evidence against and for continually emerges throughout the tale. Usually I find I’m able to deduce what’s true, or I end up frustrated at the author’s ambivalence, but I found Ivey kept the balance well and didn’t force one side or the other. You truly cannot tell. Even Mabel and Jack seem to alternate in what they believe about the girl. The balancing act is subtle and believable and not at all frustrating.

I had to laugh at how easily I was misled by Garett. I had one question before the story even started – Who will cause Faina’s downfall?’ and it became pretty obvious it would be Garrett. But not for the reason I thought! I thought after he killed her fox, that would be the start of trouble. But I quickly realized (I even said a loud ‘OH I’m an idiot!’ as I realized that the two were going to fall in love.

The characters and story develop slowly but deliberately and at one point I suddenly found myself caring deeply for the characters (oh poor dear Mabel), who had suddenly become so strong and defined in my mind, and I had this wavering shaky feeling because you just know the story isn’t going to have a perfect happy ending.

I’m thinking now that the best way to describe this tale is understated, perhaps. Everything is just so well-written, so carefully constructed, nothing is too blatant or over the top or demanding, or even /too/ subtle – everything seems to be written just so, for a beautifully developed story.

As someone who went through Canadian elementary school, I appreciated and laughed at the reference to ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ (page 139) 😛 What a creepy little poem that we studied in grade five!

Unfortunately, I did find the ending disappointing. I was expecting more emotional upset – why didn’t we see a reaction from Garrett? Because the story isn’t about him, I suppose. But I had become invested in these characters and I was braced for tragedy at the end, and then tragedy came but there wasn’t much to it and I didn’t feel bad for the characters. Perhaps this is a character fault of my own rather than the author’s? Something to contemplate…overall I though the story was great, a lovely winter read, but the ending relatively weak.