Book Review: Byobu


Byobu, by Ida Vitale (translated by Sean Manning) is structured as a series of short vignettes that take the reader inside the head of the eponymous protagonist. The episodes recounted are often playful but also poignant, offering insights into how Byobu sees himself and the effects he has on others. He lives alone but is not a loner, aware that his inability to recount amusing anecdotes can lead to boredom in any audience he secures. He prefers his days to be predictable, following habits, even when he recognises they do not make best use of his time.

The book opens with a musing on what makes a story and how, when told, they will roam free, ‘like a lightening bolt no lightening rod has grounded’. The reader is then offered a description of a typical day in Byobu’s life, how he makes choices yet often gets sidetracked, time passing due to his ‘habitual indecisiveness’. We learn that he ‘loves the sun’ yet seeks shade when it shines. He claims to be continually seeking ‘how to be more’.

Thus the reader gains an image of Byobu’s character. From here we are taken through some minor events that he has experienced and what he thought as they were happening. They mine the mostly everyday but demonstrate how thoughts are wont to wander.

“Often, distracted by some minutia captivating him at a particular moment, he misses fragments of conversations that later turn out to be important.”

Most of the short chapters are easily understood, relatable or likely metaphors. Some, however, are more opaque. I remain unsure what the author wished to convey in The Race.

One chapter relates the fate of Byobu’s generational home, which he valued highly. When potential structural faults started to cause anxiety, his life became intolerable. He found it easier to accept loss and move on than live with the gnawing unknown.

I enjoyed the anecdote about the wife who, realising her husband didn’t listen when she spoke, came up with an entertaining means of regaining his attention, of trapping him in his rudeness, thereby forcing him to admit he was in the wrong.

Another chapter detailed Byobu’s discomfort when he found himself on a bus amidst a gathering of deaf people who were chattering away happily with their hands. It offered a powerful reminder of how the deaf may feel if alone amongst the hearing.

There are thoughts on: resistance, rebelliousness, order to be found in personal actions, boring others and being bored.

The final chapter muses on what are, or perhaps are not, original thoughts. I was particularly taken by one of these short summaries.

“Poetry seeks to extract from its abyss certain words that might constitute scar tissue we are all unconsciously chasing.”

There is much within these pages to ponder, yet each chapter deals lightly with what are deeper concerns. That the author has drawn them together in such an entertaining way is impressive. An engaging but also lingering read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.


Book Review: The Absent Therapist

“because a thing is unseen doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In order to see it properly, you may find you need to look away. Some things do not like to be observed too directly. Staring fixes them and creates a blind spot.”

The Absent Therapist, by Will Eaves, is a book of vignettes arranged into five sections. The voices are various and rarely explained other than to provide necessary context. Written in the first person, they come across as thoughts and personal opinions. Some may appear shocking to more sheltered readers. Mostly they highlight situations the author may or may not have encountered, that he then runs with for effect. A superficial read may raise questions as to what is being conveyed – the intention in writing the piece. Somehow, though, the stories linger. They are clever – perhaps too clever at times for me to fully appreciate.

“Thinking is the set of mental processes we don’t understand. It is the soul in conference with itself.”

Many of the entries cover encounters with people – friends, colleagues, love interests. They highlight aspects of character that may concern the narrator along with recollections from memory that, with hindsight, shaped them. Settings vary across continents although Australia features regularly. A recurring theme is musings on AI and how it is unhelpful to anthropomorphise machine intelligence.

Certain entries go back to ancient times but mostly they offer thoughts on more contemporary, day to day situations. The narrators have varying careers, including that of a writer.

“‘I could have done that’, people cry, especially relatives. ‘You’ve taken my story and written it down verbatim. How dare you?’ To them I say: ‘Well, you weren’t doing anything with it. You didn’t see that it was a story worth telling.”

I enjoyed the final section the most and wonder if it took me this long to find the author’s cadence. Throughout the book I was questioning how much of the deeper aspects I was getting.

“What draws everyone on is knowing that we’re denied objectivity by the limits of our perception while simultaneously denying that we are denied it”

I wouldn’t wish you to think I did not enjoy what I was reading. It is more that I felt unable to fully grasp all that could be gleaned from the shadows cast by the author’s carefully crafted words.

A book that will doubtless offer more on subsequent read throughs. An intriguing and intelligent glimpse at facets of lives recognisable, here offered careful and perspicacious consideration.

The Absent Therapist is published by CB editions.

Book Review: All Grown Up

“They tell you that you grow up, you get a job, you fall in love, you get married, you buy a home, you have children, you do all that, you get to be an adult. […] But you can’t be something you’re not. You can’t.”

All Grown Up, by Jami Attenberg, introduces the reader to Andrea Bern, an intelligent and independent woman on the cusp of forty, living alone in New York City. Andrea is single and child free by choice. She has a decent job, even if it isn’t the one she once dreamed of, and lives in an acceptable apartment. She carries emotional baggage but isn’t convinced therapy will help. She drinks, enjoys sex, and ponders the direction her life is taking, if this is what it is to be.

Told in a series of vignettes, the book explores Andrea’s relationships with family and friends as she watches many of them settle into the lives society expects – marriage, babies, discontent. There is much humour in the telling but what stands out is the raw honesty.

People come and go from Andrea’s life. Their experiences affect them and all they interact with as needs and desires progress. Individual choices don’t always segue with those made by loved ones. Is it possible to ever truly know someone when time only moves forward and disparate actions, especially within one’s varied relationships, auger personal development?

Andrea has no interest in children. She distances herself from those whose lives now revolve around their offspring. She observes how others regard her, some chafing against how she behaves. Whilst she recognises that her life is not ideal – she feels lonely sometimes, frustrated by her job – those who have chosen to follow society’s conventions have issues to deal with too. Many struggle to accept her right to autonomy if she is not providing them with what they crave.

“no matter how much you own yourself and your body and your mind, there are men who will always try to seek power over your body, even if it is just with their eyes”

In poignant, fierce, uncompromising  prose the reader is offered insights into personal thoughts and feelings often shrouded from public consideration. Whatever one’s relationship status or occupation, life is experienced as an individual. This story portrays what it is to be a woman, sentient and alive.

Although unsparing in its observations this is an affirming read. It is powerful, perceptive and recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.

This post is a stop on the All Grown Up Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.