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2022 50 Book Challenge

Geoffrey Firmin

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@FlyingMonkey just recently finished The Little House, historical novel,and will finish Things Remembered & Things Forgotten,a collection of short stories which contains one of the best ghost stories I’ve read in years. Both by Kyoko Nakajima. Highly recommended.
 

FlyingMonkey

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11. There's No Such Thing As an Easy Job, by Kikuko Tsumura.
Another whole genre of contemporary Japanese fiction is the workplace novel. Some of these are tedious and interminable. But there are significant number of emotionally rich and / or gently surreal novels in this category - see for example, Convenience Story Human (again, badly translated as 'Woman') and The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada. Tsumura is a multi-award winning writers so you would expert this to have more of the latter and so it does.

The story centers on a woman in her thirties who is adrift and has lost her sense of purprose in life and work. She has signed up to some kind of employment agency which assigns her various jobs, which form the focus of each section of the book. At first, I was thinking that this would turn out to be the fictional version of David Graeber's Bullshit Jobs, but it's not like that. While there is a lot of often quite funny stuff about the ridiculousness of various jobs, the author doesn't really have any critique of work, or of Japanese employers, or of capitalism. Indeed everything about the novel is micro and personal. There are intimate but distanced relationships between a supervisor and employees, and among workers, but never any reference to anything structural or social in a broader sense. You could argue this in itself is a a critique of how neoliberalism has turned us all into isolated entrepreneurs of our own lives, but that's not the position the book takes. In fact, really it celebrates self-discovery as fitting back into the system, finding a place - which is a stereotypically modern Japanese take on personal psychology. The western equivalent would be finding yourself and 'breaking out,' here it's breaking back in (almost literally in the final section).

However, the characters and their interactions are interesting enough - some, apart from the protagonist, do reappear in different sections, but there are also annoyingly, elements of not just surrealism but the paranormal that form an element of mystery in particular sections, but then are just dropped. Another very distinctive aspect is the complete and total lack of romance or romantic feelings. There are (older) married people and feelings about failure related to marriage in older characters. There are family relationships. There are even obsessive fans. But none of the main characters in their 20s and 30s seem to either experience or act on any feelings related to sexual desire or romatic love. Of course journalists have made much of the seeming rise in numbers of asexual and aromantic young people in Japan as a group, and I used to be quite sceptical, but I've noticed this is a feature of many contemporary Japanese novels, particularly those written by women.
 
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Fueco

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7. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
 

FlyingMonkey

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12. Heaven by Mieko Kawakami
I couldn't help hearing the Talking Heads song in my head as I read this latest translation (although actually of a much earlier book) by the author of the excellent Breasts and Eggs, because 'heaven' for the protagonist of this powerful novel would probaly indeed by "a place where nothing ever happens." Too much happens to this scrawny middle school kid with an unfortunately obivous lazy eye. His mother is dead, and his father is practically invisible. Luckily his stepmother cares for him, but school is a nightmare of continuous bullying by the popular kids, lead by the univerally popular and therefore untouchable handsome, athletic and academcially gifted boy in the class. He is made to run errands, beaten, his desk fill with garbage and used tampons, and in the worst incident, he is used as a 'human football.'

However, his life is made bearable, even beautiful and hopeful by a friendship inititated via mysterious secret notes with his female equivalent in the class, Kojima, a girl who is herself bullied for being dirty and smelly. Through this friendship, the boy sees that there can be some meaning or redemption in their suffering, a possibility that is totally denied by one of the gang of bullies in what is probably the most existentially bleak section of the book in which the boy is confronted by the idea that he is not even being bullied for any reason other than some nihilistic ennui and that the brutality he endures has not more meaning than the temporary relief of boredom.

But can his friendship with Kojima last beyond merely their joint outsider status and the 'signs' they recognise in each other as those 'signs' either become more extreme, as Kojima drifts into anorexia, or alternatively disappear, in particular with the possibility that the boy's eyes might be fixed through surgery? How this is resolved is harsh and shocking and even though there is an ending that the protagonist clearly sees as beautiful, it's hard for the reader to feel happy.

Kawakami has becomme one of Japan's best novelists of the early twenty-first century and this book confirms it.
 

FlyingMonkey

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Continuing my Japanese fiction theme...

13. An Easy Life in Kamusari by Shion Miura.
This is an easy read, but not a totally simple or superficial book. Yuki Hirano is a guileless, naive kid just out of High School and is sent by his parents on a government scheme for young city kids to experience life in the remote countryside. Yuki gets sent to Kamusari, a very remote mountain district in which there is basically forestry and drinking and nothing else, and Yuki can barely lift a chainsaw, let alone hold his saké. Early on he actually tries to escape and you start to think this might be a really bleak book, but he soon gets into the rhythm of life and his eccentric new community and profession. What really makes him what want to stick around is the fact that although there aren't many young people left in this depopulating rural neighbourhood, the women that are left seem to be universally beautiful. And he sets his sights on one in particular: Nao, a tomboy school teacher who rides a motorbike like a lunatic. The only problem? She's not only older, she's in love with someone else. Life in Kamusari is ostenibly slow and laid-back, but it's also strongly connected to natural cycles and old beliefs, and like many Japanese novels there is an almost everyday sense of respect for the unseen, and the supernatural plays its part but doesn't seem out of place at all.

An Easy Life is told in the deliberately naive voice of the protagonist (I am told the author is an afficianado of the weird Japanese manga sub-genre known as 'Boys' Love', which may explain why she does this voice so well). One or two of the reviews I have seen make the mistake of thinking that the naivity of the narrative voice means the book is naive or for naive or younger people, which really misses the point of fiction altogether! The other notable thing about the book is that it really seems designed to be made into a film (without having sacrificed its readability) - Miura has already had several of her previous novels adapted so I wouldn't be surprised. There is also a sequel due out in English in May this year. I've got a little used to the (not always) easy life in Kamusari, so I'm actually looking forward to it!
 

Fueco

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8. Abbey’s Road, by Edward Abbey

Revisiting an old friend. I bought this book in 1998, and have read it a few times over. Abbey’s writing about the Arizona and Utah slickrock country is legendary, but in this book he visits other places and topics, all with that same anarchic humor.
 

SixOhNine

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3. A Practical Guide To Conquering The World by KJ Parker

The third book in The Siege trilogy. This one seemed like a trudge. I think it's mostly because it felt far too much like the first two. One book was enjoyable, the second started to drag, and the third just became tedious. I think I took longer to read this than I did the Stephenson book that was at least double the length, which is a sign that I wasn't really into it.
 

FlyingMonkey

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At my wife's suggestion, I read:

14. The Little House by Kyoko Nakajima.
This is a beautiful, subtle and cleverly deceptive novel, set in the period of Japanese fascism leading up to and during the Pacific War. It's interesting seeing it described as a 'Showa' period novel, because although that's technically true, the time that most Japanese people think of when they imagine the Showa Period is the 1950s and 60s. There is a specific kind of nostalgia attached to that time. However the 30s and 40s are only really normally considered nostalgically by neo-imperialists and the far-right in general. But not in this case.

The protagonist of the novel, Taki, is a sturdy country girl (she's described near the end as being "built like a little tank"), who moves to Tokyo to go into service as a maid, first to a writer with roving hands (and perhaps worse), and utlimately to a family who inhabit the titular, Little House. Taki is both loyal and inventive and soon becomes indispensible to the family, which consists of a rather boring salaryman, his filmstar-beautiful wife, Tokiko, and their little son. So much is repressed in the relationships in and around the house. Tokiko is not-very-secretly in love with a younger man, a local writer, Itakura. But it's clear that Taki's feelings for her mistress go way beyond simple admiration and loyalty, and there are several other indications of "the love that dare not speak its name" in the story.

The novel is told mostly autobiographically by Taki in long retrospect from her final years, including interruptions from her nephew, Takashi, who is reading the manuscript as she writes. Takashi is often indignant about Taki's golden-hued memories and apparent lack of both knowledge of and interest in, the progress of fascism and war. But in fact there is quite a lot revealed about this dismal progress, more as the war goes on and the failure of Japanese fascism returns to destroy everthing that Taki has faught so hard to protect. Her denial of reality isn't so much a failure of knowledge as a survival strategy, one that many deploy in such circumstances, coupled with the fact that as a servant, Taki is certainly not in any position to be taking some more critical stand.

I said 'mostly autobiographical', because there is one final chapter that changes some of what we think we've understood about what has been happening. It's not a 'twist' as some of the reviewers seem to think (unless you haven't been paying attention up until this point), more something that adds depth and if possible, even more sadness.

Nobody seems to have made this comparison, but in the period it covers and the feeling of the novel, The Little House stands comparison with Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World, although Taki is a much more sympathetic person than Ishinguro's self-justifing fascist accomplice. But this book is at that level. I really want to read more Nakajima, because apparently this isn't even her best book, but her other novels haven't yet been translated, however there is a short story collection which I bought immediately after finishing this.

Highly recommended.
 

FlyingMonkey

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15. The Great Passage by Shion Miura.
Shion Miura's best known novel so far is, like many novels that come out of Japan, a novel about work and life, or work as life. The title refers to the name of a new dictionary of the Japanese language which is proposed by a 2nd-tier publisher, but also metaphorically to the process of work, and of course to life. Lexicographers are generally obsessive and somewhat anti-social people to begin with, and the cast of characters we encounter here who work to finally bring The Great Passage to publication over a period of almost 15 years, are no exception. The main protagonist, Majime's unusual name even means 'serious,' much to the amusement of his co-workers at the start!. This is an appropriately meticulous novel about obsessive dedication to vocation, about how love and home fit into such a mindset and more. It's less obviously populist and amusing than An Easy Life in Kamusari (see above), but it is in no way dull. The characters are no less engaging and memorable, and there is a restrained emotional depth, even joy to be found in its pages.
 

Geoffrey Firmin

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15. The Great Passage by Shion Miura.
Shion Miura's best known novel so far is, like many novels that come out of Japan, a novel about work and life, or work as life. The title refers to the name of a new dictionary of the Japanese language which is proposed by a 2nd-tier publisher, but also metaphorically to the process of work, and of course to life. Lexicographers are generally obsessive and somewhat anti-social people to begin with, and the cast of characters we encounter here who work to finally bring The Great Passage to publication over a period of almost 15 years, are no exception. The main protagonist, Majime's unusual name even means 'serious,' much to the amusement of his co-workers at the start!. This is an appropriately meticulous novel about obsessive dedication to vocation, about how love and home fit into such a mindset and more. It's less obviously populist and amusing than An Easy Life in Kamusari (see above), but it is in no way dull. The characters are no less engaging and memorable, and there is a restrained emotional depth, even joy to be found in its pages.
Great review in particular “the restrained emotional depth, even joy” sums the whole book up a deceptively deep novel and very enjoyable read which I read over the past week.

I found the description of the process of gathering words and the publishing of the dictionary had a very romanticized sensibility about it, and the cachet that surrounding publishers acquire for their specific editions was an interesting insight to Japanese culture.

I still have an Oxford and Penguin gathering dust on the shelves, sadly my first edition Macquarie Dictionary, which was the first Australian dictionary was eaten by the dog years ago…:brick:
 

Casaubon

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3 – Beach Read, by Emily Henry

Man, you guys are far ahead. Well, here goes. Book number three, and it took me quite some time to read this since I am currently halfway into a biography on Ataturk. Hopefully it will not take me forever to read that one as well.

Beach Read introduces us to January, a writer of uplifting romance fiction, whose love-conquers-all attitude is reflected in her books as much as it is present in her own life. That is, until the death of her father, which leaves her with a shocking discovery that he had been cheating on her mother for quite some time. Not only that, but he had actually bought a lakeside house in his home town to spend time with the mistress. Suffering from writer’s block and an empty bank account, she ends up in said house on Lake Michigan, facing a deadline to churn out another cheery, inspiring book while at the same time being forced to face material evidence of her father’s second life. Such a predicament could not be made worse, or so she thinks until it turns out that her next-door neighbor is none other than her nemesis from university days, who is now an acclaimed author of literary fiction.

It came as quite a surprise to me how many similarities there are with The Hating Game in regards to character dynamics and the way their relationship unfolds. Perhaps these are common tropes in romance stories, but regardless of the cause, this lack of imagination struck me as a weak point of the book. Still, Beach Read more than makes up for these creative shortfalls with its likable characters as well as its ambition, as it also tries to talk about grief, loss, and the overall uncertainty of life. There have thus been some moments of sincere and touching sentimentality and a more than a few laughs, which makes the book recommendable in my opinion.
 

FlyingMonkey

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I couldn't sleep last night so I started and finished:

16. Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Café by Toshikazu Kawaguchi.

There won't be a long review of this one because most of what I said about the first book (my #9 on the previous page) still applies. However, this book doesn't just add four more individual stories of people needing to use the café's unique time-travel function, each of them connects and adds some depth to the characters who inhabit the café, including the 'ghost' who normally occupies the special chair on which a customer has to sit to go back (or just occasionally, forward) in time.
 

FlyingMonkey

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Recommended above by @Geoffrey Firmin (as well as already by my wife):

17. Things Remembered and Things Forgotten by Kyoko Nakajima.
As Geoff said, this collection, culled from about three collections published in Japan, includes one of the best ghost stories you will ever read, and a couple of others (from the same collection called Ghosts) that are almost as good, which makes me wish that the individual collections had been published separately so we could read the rest. But there is more than that, much more in these stories. It also includes a trans* story that is as joyful and affirming as any I have read, and for once not in any way tragic or traumatic. There are stories that deal with sex, and she writes well about sex, which very few writers actually do. There are stories that deal with growing up, with the passing of time, with loss... and everything is so damn well written. If you are interested in contemporary Japan, if you a fan of the art of the short story, if you just enjoy good writing, you should read this collection. Excellent.
 

Geoffrey Firmin

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Recommended above by @Geoffrey Firmin (as well as already by my wife):

17. Things Remembered and Things Forgotten by Kyoko Nakajima.
As Geoff said, this collection, culled from about three collections published in Japan, includes one of the best ghost stories you will ever read, and a couple of others (from the same collection called Ghosts) that are almost as good, which makes me wish that the individual collections had been published separately so we could read the rest. But there is more than that, much more in these stories. It also includes a trans* story that is as joyful and affirming as any I have read, and for once not in any way tragic or traumatic. There are stories that deal with sex, and she writes well about sex, which very few writers actually do. There are stories that deal with growing up, with the passing of time, with loss... and everything is so damn well written. If you are interested in contemporary Japan, if you a fan of the art of the short story, if you just enjoy good writing, you should read this collection. Excellent.
I have to say that out of the stories presented my favourite was The Life Story of a Sewing Machine had the simplest in terms of narrative ideas but was elegant in its presentation.
 

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