Reader For Hire by Raymond Jean, and The Diving Pool: Three Novellas by Yoko Ogawa

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I had a chance to accompany my husband on a two-day stint in Dover.  While he spent nearly 14 hours being seasick on a boat for an assignment (I feel you, babe.  Honestly, I do.) I spent Monday morning chilling in our hotel room and reading the library books I brought with me.

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First off, Raymond Jean’s novella, Reader For Hire, an amusing story about Marie-Constance, a 34-year-old woman who -after being prompted by a friend- decides to advertise her services as a reader in her local paper.  ‘Young woman available to read to you in your own home.  Works of literature, non-fiction, any sort of book you like.’  Her ad attracts a handful of personalities; a paraplegic teenager and his overbearing mother, an elderly yet feisty Marx-loving Hungarian countess, a wealthy but lonely businessman with no time to read on his own, and a young career-driven single mother and her precocious daughter.  At the beginning, Marie-Constance is able to deftly navigate the various eccentricities of her clients, and is able to effect them in different ways through the power of her voice and the books she reads to them.  But during a session with the countess, the old woman is stirred up to enthusiasm by a workers’ demonstration outside her window and makes a spectacle of herself.  Marie-Constance gains the ire of the local police Superintendent, who’s convinced that she’s the reason behind the countess’s antics.

I like to think of Reader For Hire as the sort of light drama-comedy romp that only the French are known for.  There’s that bit of highbrow with a pinch of sex, a dash of drama and self-reflection, and generous sprinkle of absurdity here and there.  It’s a light, entertaining book that presents the art of reading out loud as a sensual and pleasurable shared experience.

 

On the darker side of things, we have The Diving Pool:  Three Novellasby Yoko Ogawa.  Sparse and deceptively gentle, is how I would describe this haunting collection of stories.  The first two of the three novellas featured revolve largely around the theme of cruelty and how people are capable -whether they’re aware it or not- of cruelty.  In The Diving Pool, a lonely teenager’s secret infatuation with her foster-brother drives her to act out in quiet viciousness against a young toddler in her parents’ care.  In The Pregnancy Diary, a young woman’s simmering antipathy is slowly revealed over a series of diary entries written to record her sister’s pregnancy.

Dormitory, the last novella in the collection unfolds more like a suspense story; a married woman awaits word from her husband in Sweden letting her know when she is to join him.  Out of the blue, a male cousin calls her and ask for her help in finding a place to live before starting university.  The one place she can think of is the dormitory from her own college years, run by a triple amputee.  Her cousin’s arrival pulls the woman briefly out of her lonely routine, and she throws herself into helping him settle in. The manager of her old dormitory is still there but in fragile health, and the building looks as if it’s barely holding itself together.

From here, the story takes on a more sinister vibe, as the woman, who has grown fond of her cousin, comes regularly to visit but is always told by the manager that he is out.  She ends up passing the time with him instead, and learns why the dormitory is mostly uninhabited now, leading her to do some investigating of her own.  She continues her visits, but her cousin is never there, just the manager and the bees…THE BEES!!!  Sorry.  Couldn’t help myself.  Eh-hem!

Out of the three novellas, I think I found The Diving Pool the most disquieting and memorable.  While one can feel sympathy for the main character -her sense of displacement in her own parents’ lives, in a house full of orphaned children- her casual acts of cruelty directed toward a helpless toddler and indifference to everything except her foster-brother seem more monstrous in comparison.  I finished this book two days ago, and I’m still thinking about this story.

I’m in awe of writers like Yoko Ogawa who can say so much about a character with only a few words, build up an atmosphere of dread and uneasiness without bloating their writing.  Banana Yoshimoto, the only other Japanese writer whose books I’ve enjoyed, writes in a similar spare and unfettered manner, and I think it’s refreshing and ‘cleanses the palette’ so to speak.  You know, for whenever you’re feeling burnt out from reading.  It happens!  Michael and Anne said so on Books On the Nightstand (I miss you, guys).

Find rare and collectible first editions at AbeBooks

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