I love the companionship of a book. Reading is an escape into someone else’s world and can shut out the noise of the daily hassles that keep us awake at night. Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles had me smiling from the very first chapter and made me teary by the end. I simply loved this enchanting tale about the loving friendship and emotional bond between Nana, a stray tom-cat with a crooked tail, and young, kind-hearted Satoru Miyawaki, who lives in a suburb of Tokyo.
When Nana has a nasty road accident that leaves him with a mangled leg, Satoru takes him home and tenderly nurses him back to health. Nana narrates how he becomes domesticated by Satoru and why he is named after his crooked tail that resembles the number seven. After five happy years of living together, Satoru suddenly takes him on a road journey across Japan to meet his close friends, among them a childhood sweetheart, and the aunt who brought him up.
Kosuke, his oldest friend from junior school, is the first person they visit. There, Nana discovers that Satoru is in search of a new home for him. No explanations are given and we are left wondering why Satoru can no longer look after his much-loved feline. Like most cats, Nana is an astute observer who listens to the conversation between Satoru and Kosuke as they reminisce about Hachi, a kitten they once shared, who was named after the number eight. Nana learns about Satoru’s tragic childhood that forced him to give Hachi away and Kosuke’s regrets about not helping his pal when he needed him most.
When crafty Nana realises he could be left with Kosuke, he refuses to warm up to his friendly attempts. Perceptive Satoru realises Kosuke is not the caregiver Nana needs and moves on to visit other friends, in search of the perfect home for his pet — something he was unable to do for Hachi. As he travels across the picturesque Japanese countryside through changing seasons, he reconnects with his past and those he cherishes.
Eventually, the reason behind his decision to give Nana away is revealed. We soon realise that the story is not only about the relationship between man and animal but also the importance of friendship and the impact Satoru had on the people he loved. As he packs up to leave his cat behind, he bids him farewell: “I know you will be a good boy. I love you, you silly cat.” But Nana answers back: “What? Come back here! Take me with you! I’m your cat till the bitter end!”
Be prepared to fall in love with the feisty cat who succumbs to Satoru’s overtures. This bittersweet story translated by Philip Gabriel — famed for his work on Haruki Murakami’s books — proves that friends and pets are the family we choose. It is a delightful, light-hearted read that tells real-life concerns in a simple way.
Still on the Japanese theme, The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga teaches you how to achieve happiness and personal success by discovering your true self. Based on the theories of 19th-century psychologist Alfred Adler, it gives straightforward solutions on how to recover from trauma, quell self-doubt and not live according to the expectations of others.
The book reads like a conversation between a philosopher and student who, over several nights, discuss issues that are troubling the latter — how to banish feelings of insecurity, leave the past behind and not fear being disliked. Adler’s theories encourage us to live in the now and this self-help book could liberate us from the burdens we think we must shoulder.
With my natural affinity for biographies, the book that I would give and also like to receive is Michelle Obama’s newly released memoir, Becoming. It tells how a hard-working African American girl from a working class background became the first lady of the US, something no one could have ever imagined. The book details the sacrifices her parents made to give her the best in education, how she met her husband, the struggles she faced to help him achieve his dream, the discrimination they experienced as the “first black family” and their joint commitment to leave a legacy that would have a positive impact on the people they served.
Additionally, Queen of the World by Robert Hardman is apparently a true account and not the television version of how Elizabeth II took on her role as queen of the UK and head of the Commonwealth. After watching The Crown, one has nothing but huge respect for the woman with the ultimate diplomatic career who sacrificed her personal life to dutifully serve a nation she loves.
After spending a day at the four-day George Town Literary Festival in November for the first time, I was inspired by the local and international writers and poets who were there to speak on, read and debate the overall theme, The State of Freedom. Bernice Chauly and team truly organised an enlightening event that, hopefully, will further nurture an appreciation for literary art and culture among the public.
Listening to authors express their opinions on subjects close to their heart certainly had an impact on me. I was blown away after hearing Ali Cobby Eckermann open the conversation on I Have a Dream — Women, Writing and Freedom with her haunting poem about the traumatic effects of being forcibly separated from her mother and community as a baby.
In Love Dreaming & Other Poems, the mixed-descent indigenous Australian writer and member of the Stolen Generations describes her search for her parents, the grief and pain felt by her community and the ongoing struggle for recognition that Aboriginal people face today as they try to adjust and assimilate in a modern world. It is no wonder that Eckermann is hailed as one of her country’s greatest living poets.
The other session I attended focused on the Indian partition. Authors from Pakistan and India spoke about the effects of the liberation of India from British rule that led to the brutal displacement of its people and loss of human life. These devastating repercussions remain in the consciousness of those from both sides of the divide and has played a big part in their books. After listening to the carefully curated panel moderated by Blood and Silk author Michael Vatikiotis, I realised that listening to authors speak passionately about their work draws you closer to their writing. It was definitely an eye-opener for me.
After that, I rushed to the best bookshops in Penang — Gerakbudaya and Hikayat — to buy a variety of books to inspire my reading for 2019. I am looking forward to reading Kinibiz’s 1MDB: The Scandal that Brought Down a Government; Bridget Welsh’s The End of Umno?; and Michael Beckman’s political biography Daim Zainuddin: Malaysia’s Revolutionary and Troubleshooter, as well as rereading Blood and Silk and A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, an entertaining anthology edited by David Davidar. There is nothing like a literary festival to get you back to books again.
Books are available at Kinokuniya Malaysia and major bookstores. This article first appeared on Dec 17, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.