6

‘Ms Ice Sandwich’ by Mieko Kawakami ****

The second book from Pushkin Press’s Japanese Novellas series which I am going to review today is Ms Ice Sandwich by Kawakami Mieko (yes, she shares the same last name as Kawakami Hiromi whose Record of a Night Too Brief I reviewed last week, but the two authors have no relation whatsoever as far as I am concerned).

Ms+Ice+SandwichI had never read anything by Kawakami Mieko before, but I have to admit that this novella caught my interest from the outset. It might have been very brief and left me yearning for more, but I developed an instant liking to her quirky yet utterly captivating writing style.

The story revolves around a young boy whose name and exact age are never really revealed (I’m guessing he’s a junior high schooler but I could be wrong), who has fallen in love with the lady who makes and sells sandwiches at the supermarket. His innocent infatuation drives him to visit her sandwich stand every so often just so he can catch a glimpse of her face. When he descibes the lady, he places specific emphasis on the beautiful characteristics of her face and her “ice-blue eyelids” which earned her the nickname Ms Ice Sandwich.

The only people who know about the boy’s infatuation are his grandma, who is stuck in her bed, unable to move and to whom the protagonist often entrusts his deepest thoughts and feelings, and his best friend from school, Tutti, with who he seems to start developing a deeper relationship as the story progresses. During one of the boy’s visits to Ms Ice Sandwich, he hears one of her customers shouting ugly words at her about her face, which he also happens to overhear from some of his female classmates the day after the event. The author does not really spend any time weaving a mystery around the lady’s face (something which I rather expected to happen), she chooses to focus on the boy’s feelings and perceptions of the woman instead.

Ultimately, this is not at all a love story and it was never supposed to be one. Instead, it is a fascinating, touching and quiet coming-of-age story with a plethora of lessons to be taught and inspiring passages. One of my favourites was from Tutti’s motivational speech to our protagonist:

If you want to see somebody you have to make plans to meet, or even make plans to make plans, and next thing you end up not seeing them anymore. That’s what’s going to happen. If you don’t see somebody, you end up never seeing them. And then there’s going to be nothing left of them at all.

Another issue this short novella tackles is, of course, difference and how people and the society deal with people who are “different”. While I felt that the author could have expanded a lot more on this issue rather than just leaving it as a side-issue, perhaps nothing more was needed to be said. One thing I have definitely learned from reading Japanese literature is that, sometimes, subtlety is much more powerful.

That brings me to the last thing I want to discuss about this book. The translation was excellent and flowed very naturally, so very much so that at some point I forgot I was reading Japanese and not Anglophone literature. Not having read the original, I cannot know whether that was a feature of the original text itself or whether it was the translator’s magic, but I was quite satisfied with it.

Overall, Ms Ice Sandwich is a very heart-warming and quiet novella about growing up, first love, loss and learning to cope with all these new feelings which inundate kids at that age all of a sudden. I would definitely recommend this to anyone with no exception, as you are certain to gain something upon reading it regardless of your literary preferences.

This book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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4

‘Record of a Night Too Brief’ by Hiromi Kawakami ***

Kawakami Hiromi has been one of the authors I meant to read more of this year (I had only read her short story 「神様2011年」 (translated in English as “God Bless You, 2011”) for my Modern Japanese Literature course in my Master’s degree last semester), so seeing this story collection published by Pushkin Press (one of my favourite publishers) I just had to get my hands on it. 9781782272717

This book consists of three separate stories (they’re not actually short at all, so I’ll just call them stories). The first one, “Record of a Night Too Brief”, which gives the entire collection its name as well, is a truly peculiar one and probably my least favourite of the three. It is divided in 19 smaller parts, each one describing a different, utterly peculiar situation. Each of those snipets has a very strange, dream-like quality.

“The girl was already showing signs of no longer being a girl. In a short span of time, her skin had become like paper, her eyes transparent. The ends of her arms and legs had begun to divide into branches; her hair had fallen out.”

The format of this story, being divided into separate sections or dreams, is very reminiscent of Natsume Sōseki’s “Ten Nights of Dream” which follows the exact same pattern. The snipets describe utterly absurd situations which can also be characterised as fantastic,

“No matter how much I poured into the cup, it never filled. And then I realized that the liquid I assumed to be coffee had, unbeknownst to me, turned into night.”

but they resemble more nightmares rather than mere dreams, since their endings are often unpleasant.

The second story, “Missing”, is also rather strange and has many fantastic elements throughout. In it, some people disappear (perhaps a metaphor for death) physically but their spiritual form may linger around their past surroundings. The protagonist’s older brother disappeared like that one day but his presence in the house was very quickly replaced by the second brother. This story is filled with Japanese folkloric elements, such as lingering spirits, talking utensils, as well as beliefs like every family needing to consist of five people exactly (I’m not sure whether that actually was a true belief in Japan), which add more to the absurd atmosphere of the story.

“A Snake Stepped On” is the third and final story of the collection and my personal favourite out of all three. Japanese folkloric beliefs and the fantastic are also widely present here as well, as certain snakes are transformed into women and impose themseves on the houses of the people who accidentally step on them, trying to lure them in the snake world (perhaps another allusion to death). This story held my interest for much longer than the previous two and I found it much more intriguing. Interestingly enough, this story is the one which gives the title to the Japanese version of this collection, as it is the one which won the prestigious Akutagawa literary prize in 1996. I’m not sure why the editors decided to change the title in the English version, especially since, in my opinion, the snake story is of higher quality than the rest.

Overall, this collection is very nicely put together, since there are certain themes which can be traced in all them. However, I wouldn’t suggest a newcomer to the fictional realm of Kawakami Hiromi to start with this collection, since the absurdity of those stories (especially of the title one) and Kawakami’s quirky style of writing might scare them away if they are not very accustomed to it.

This book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

2

‘Tokyo Decadence: 15 Stories’ by Ryu Murakami ***

There are some books which I do appreciate but do not really love and would definitely not return to again. I appreciate them because, even though some (or all) of their content was unsuitable to my tastes or thoroughly disturbing for me, I do recognize the author’s literary prowess and/or messages they were aiming to convey. Murakami Ryu’s Tokyo Decadence belongs to this precise category and thus, it is unbelievably difficult for me to find the correct words to talk about this book. But I shall attempt to do so anyway.

jp0049First of all, Tokyo Decadence is a short story collection. The stories selected for this anthology all come from different short story collections and usually the stories from each collection share a common theme or characters. For example, the first stories are derived from Run, Takahashi! (published in 1986) and they somehow involve a certain baseball player called Takahashi, while some other stories come from Swans (published in 1997) and they each revolve around a song by the Cuban singer Javier Olmo. I do enjoy individual short stories, but recurring characters and themes immediately win me over.

In all of the stories contained in this collection, Murakami Ryu portrayed the ‘decadence’, the deterioration of his characters’ lives, their struggle to live through horrible situations and circumstances. Even though most of the themes tackled and described are disturbing and sad, most of the stories do have something positive in them or even a generous dose of humour (especially the first four). Some characters have dreams which they strive to materialize and ambitions they struggle to make true. I truly liked seeing such a mixture of strong and weak characters because this made them all the more realistic.

Some stories (especially those coming from the Topaz collection) were rather painful for me to read, since they dealt with themes and contained specific scenes which made me squeamish and filled me with a desire to drop this book and never pick it up again. Instead of doing that, though, I merely skimmed through those parts and got on with the rest of the stories, which were much lighter (some of them) and with completely different thematology.

ryu-murakami

Ryu Murakami

Glimpsing through the lives of call girls, penniless young people striving to make their dreams come true, transvestites, drug dealers, office ladies and psychopathic murderers, Murakami makes a very loud and lasting point about Japanese society and its darker side which may be usually ignored but it undeniably exists.

For me, this book was terrifying. Terrifying because it threw a side of society which exists and thrives everywhere but is deftly hidden most of the times right to my face and also because the realisation of how real the characters and events described in these stories were, made me cease my reading and look around me warily more than once.

Despite the unpleasant and disturbing scenes contained in some stories, Murakami’s writing is simple and matter-of-fact yet so very powerful. Those shocking scenes manage to alarm the reader and make him aware of the decay surrounding both the characters and the city they reside in. Murakami certainly managed to gain my attention but I’m not sure whether I’m ready to attempt reading one of his books again soon.

This is the second book that was sent to me by Kurodahan Press upon my request, but this does not affect my opinion of it in any case.

 

4

‘Blue Bamboo: Tales by Dazai Osamu’ *****

Dazai Osamu is an author quite well-known amongst fans of Japanese literature. Born in 1909, he contributed greatly to the Japanese literary tradition with works such as No Longer Human (1948), The Setting Sun (1947) and a plethora of other novels and short stories, before taking his own life in 1948. He is mostly known for the darker and depressing themes he tackles in his work, which were mostly drawn by the horrendous events of World War II.

jp0040lBeing acquainted with the bleak and dreary side of Dazai’s writing, I was quite surprised when I started reading Blue Bamboo, a collection of seven tales inspired by Asian tradition and mythology. As Ralph McCarthy, the translator, informs us in the Introduction, all of the tales contained in this collection, apart from one, belong to Dazai’s “middle period”, one which is often neglected by both readers and scholars.

The first story, “On Love and Beauty”, caught my interest initially because of its structure. It begins by introducing us to the members of a family that consists of five brothers and sisters. Despite being completely different in their characters and interests, they have the tradition of making stories together. One of them comes up with the beginning and each one of the rest of them subsequently adds their own parts until the story is concluded. Dazai revisits this very interesting family in the last story of this collection, “Lanterns of Romance”, where we get the opportunity to become more acquainted with this curious family, as they embark on the journey of retelling a version of Brother Grimm’s “Rapunzel”.

“The Crysanthemum Spirit” and the title story, “Blue Bamboo”, are both stories based on old Chinese tales, but Dazai manages to add some elements of his own and make them quite distinctive. “Blue Bamboo” in particular, according to McCarthy’s notes, was even originally written in Chinese as Dazai meant for the Chinese people who were already familiar with the traditional tale to read and enjoy his own take on it.

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Dazai Osamu

Another retelling of a Japanese story this time was “The Mermaid and the Samurai”, which I did enjoy but it definitely was my least favourite. “Romanesque” is Dazai’s earliest story, written in 1934, and it is preceeded in the book by “Alt Heidelberg”, the only story which is not based on any myth or legend but which instead is a biographical account of the days Dazai spent whilst writing “Romanesque”.

Without meaning to sound biased, I absolutely adored this collection of short stories. I was already quite fond of Dazai’s writing from what I had read before, but seeing a literary face of his radically different from the significantly darker one presented in most of his later work, made me appreciate his literary aptitude and realize that apart from a deft storyteller and analyst of the human psyche, he is also a truly versatile author who is inspired by the tales of the past and doesn’t merely stick to writing a specific type of books.

Furthermore, I truly enjoyed the fairytale atmosphere and the humorous tone most of the stories contained. Myths and fairytales fascinate me no matter where they originate from and discovering old and new retellings of them is more than enough to make me excited. Regardless of whether or not you are familiar with Dazai’s work, I would highly suggest picking up this collection, as it is a real treasure.

I received a review copy from the publisher upon my request, but that does not affect my opinion of this book in the slightest.

6

‘We Have Always Lived in The Castle’ by Shirley Jackson ****

We Have Always Lived in The Castle is a book I’ve been seeing around in bookish blogs and BookTube videos quite frequently and it had piqued my interest from the very beginning. Only recently, though, did I get the chance to acquire a copy of my own and finally read it. 26852229

The gothic and ominous atmosphere permeats the book and I have to admit that I felt perplexed whilst trying to figure out what is going on in the story and what kind of events led our characters to their current situation.

Mary Catherine Blackwood, or simply Merricat as her sister calls her, is the narrator of the story. She is the youngest daughter of the family and she is currently living with her sister, Constance, and uncle Julian, since the rest of their family have died due to food poisoning for which Constance was held accountable but was soon acquitted of the murder charges.

Even though Merricat merely wants to live a peaceful life with the remaining of her family, things do not seem to be all that favourable. The rest of the village is still scared of the Blackwood daughters and they avoid them as much as they can, they accuse them or they even make fun of them by concocting rhymes such as:

“Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?”
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?”
“Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.”

As a result, Merricat appears to nurture feelings of hatred towards everyone outside her family and she does everything she can to protect this little sanctuary of hers. However, Cousin Charles makes an appearance to the Blackwood household and this peace and quiet seems to be about to vanish.

It is difficult to talk about this book without mentioning any spoilers, even more so since it’s a rather slim book of approximately 146 pages. The truth is that apart from a couple of truly important events, not much happens in the present of the story. There are some references to the murder of the family that happened in the past and some hints here and there about what might have truly happened, but since the narrator is Merricat and she doesn’t seem to be very stable all the time, it is hard to distinguish the truth. I would have liked some more closure, to be honest, and that is the reason why I didn’t give this book the 5 stars it would definitely deserve.

Shirley Jackson’s writing is superb and vivid and poetic and she manages to keep the reader’s interest piqued until the very last page. Merricat’s character is certainly the most interesting in the entire book and the most complex one as well. Even though it is a gruesome and sad story, I would recommend it not only to fans of gothic fiction but also to those who enjoy well-written prose and well thought out characters.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

0

‘The Gracekeepers’ by Kirsty Logan ****

Kirsty Logan is a Scottish author for whom I’ve been hearing so many things around the bookish internet lately. Her first novel, The Gracekeepers, was published last year in a beautiful hardcover edition and the paperback, which I own, came out a couple of months ago. Most of the reviews and opinions on this book and Logan’s storytelling abilities in general, which I had encountered prior to purchasing this book, were more than enthusiastic, so I was very much looking forward to reading this.

Paperback edition cover

I find it rather difficult to describe The Gracekeepers giving it the justice it deserves, but I will do my best. The story is set in a world where land is scarce and there are some people, called damplings, who spent all their lives on boats at sea and cannot fathom life on land. There is an array of different characters presented in the book, but the two main ones are Callanish, a girl who has undertaken the task of a gracekeeper (they take care of some birds which are used in funerals) and North, a girl who works and travels with a floating circus along with her bear. We follow their stories separately at first, and we get to know their characters and the circumstances surrounding them.

North’s circus consists of many other characters such as Jarrow or Red Gold, the circus master, Avalon, his wife who dislikes the circus and longs for a quiet life on land, Ainsel, Jarrow’s son, as well as many other acrobats, clowns and so on. Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character (but it’s still a third-person narration), with more emphasis given on Callanish and North. I found this constant change of perspective quite confusing and unnecessary at first, since some chapters present the point of view of very minor characters, but some important information was given to the reader through these perspectives, since lies and deception are dominant characteristics of most characters in this novel, to the point where it became very hard to distinguish the truth.

As far as the plot is concerned, I found it very intriguing and unique and it certainly kept my interest piqued until the very last page. The story was filled with twists and certain turn of events were more than surprising. Logan’s writing was beautiful and lyrical throughout the novel and she definitely managed to create a whimsical and heart-breaking tale. What stood out the most for me, though, apart from the beautiful language, were the characters. She managed to craft such complicated and multifaceted characters, who could easily reflect any people from our lives. Especially Avalon, was one of those characters who I immediately disliked and whose actions only added more reasons for me to feel that way towards her. However, through the different perspectives, I had the opportunity to learn more about her motives and reasons why she acted the way she did, and even though I still disliked her, I felt like she had a solid background and wasn’t merely unnecessarily mean.

The only thing which prevented me from giving this book five stars was the ending. Well, perhaps not the ending itself, but rather some of the subplots which were left hanging and unwrapped up, with only some indications provided as to what may happen. Nevertheless, this was a book I wholeheartedly enjoyed and, being the very first book I read in June, I felt like it was the ideal book to start my summer with. I’m more than looking forward to devouring more of Kirsty Logan’s writing now.

Have you read The Gracekeepers or any other book by Kirsty Logan? I’d love to hear your opinions 🙂

3

‘Speculative Japan 2: “The Man Who Watched The Sea” and Other Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy’ ****

Fantasy fiction is one of my very favourite genres to read since I grew up with it, and I’ve been trying to find some Japanese fantasy for the longest time. However, my search had been mostly fruitless until I stumbled upon a fellow blogger’s review of the “Speculative Japan” series of fantasy and science fiction short stories. Needless to say I was more than happy to finally acquire a volume for myself.

This second volume consists of 13 short stories by a different author each. Even though all of the stories fall under the category of fantasy or sci-fi, they are so diverse and they handle their themes in such a different yet interesting manner.

In the Introduction of the book, Darrell Schweitzer accurately observes that most people expect samurais, geishas, kimonos and “a ritual suicide or three” whenever they think of inherently Japanese elements and while I do agree with this remark, I also felt like those stories couldn’t be more Japanese, even though most of those elements which first come to one’s mind were absent.

Whilst fantasy and science fiction do not seem to be very popular in Japanese fiction (at least when translated into English), they dominate the anime/manga and video game world, which I believe makes such an interesting contradiction. For instance, Kitakuni Koji’s “Midst the Mist”, a story revolving around a specific breed of aliens that lived inside human bodies as parasites, strongly reminded me of the anime/manga series “Parasyte”.

Most of the stories contained in this collection were focused mostly on sci-fi rather than fantasy, but it was still great to read them as they offered a very fresh perspective and approach on the themes they chose to follow compared to the sci-fi stories that I have read so far, which are mainly American. Moreover, some of the stories such as Tani Koshu’s “Q-Cruiser Basilisk”, a space story about ghost ships, and Ogawa Issui’s “Old Vohl’s Planet”, a story about the evolution of (alien) species, contained quite a few scientific terms and it was evident that the authors had conducted a very thorough research before writing anything down. I can only imagine how challenging the translation of these stories might have been!

Of course, in short story collections it is very rare for all the stories to equally be of one’s liking, and therefore there were some stories I didn’t enjoy as much as the others. “Freud” by Enjoe Toh was one of them, which I found rather uninteresting. On the other hand, some of my favourites were “The Whale That Sang On The Milky Nework” by Ohara Mariko, “Emanon: A Reminiscence” by Kajio Shinji and “The Man Who Watched The Sea” by Kobayashi Yasumi, which was also featured in the title of the collection.

The translations were also all very good and they had a very natural flow. Even though I read Japanese literature often, I wasn’t familiar with any of the authors featured in this collection, so I was very happy to discover some new authors whose work I would very much like to follow. It would have been nice, though, if some information about the authors were also included in the collection.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading these short stories and I definitely discovered some gems in there. It was very well put together and I will definitely seek out the rest of the series’ volumes in the future.