BOOK REVIEWS

There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura

Comparing this novel to the work of Ottessa Moshfegh or Sayaka Murata seems somewhat misleading, if a bit lazy.
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job has elements that may bring to mind certain aspects of Convenience Store Woman but it has almost nothing in common with My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Still, I could have enjoyed Kikuko Tsumura’s novel if it had something interesting to say or if it was written in a particularly inventive or catchy way. Sadly, I found There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job to be an exceedingly boring story that is written in an exceedingly boring way. Some of the issues I had may be due the translation (more on that later) but for the most part Tsumura’s prose is kind of dull. Her protagonist, the classic unnamed narrator, lacks the deadpan tone of Murata’s mc, nor does she have the same upbeat voice as the lead in Temporary (a novel that explores modern workplace in an absurdist fashion).
Tsumura’s book is divided in five sections, each one focusing on a different job: in the first one our mc works a surveillance job (this happened to be the only section I enjoyed), in the second one she records ads for a bus company (advertising the shops that are on the route of that bus), in the third one she has to come up with ‘fun/useful facts’ for a packet of crackers, in the third one she puts posters up, and in the final job she works at a park maintenance office. We never gain any real insight into her private life (I’m fairly sure she lives alone and her parents are still alive) and we never learn anything about her past (other than she left her job because of burnout syndrome).
The jobs she are peculiar and yet they never held my interest. I liked Temporary much more because the jobs the mc does there are really weird. Yet, I think I could have tolerated reading about a relatively ordinary workplace if the dialogues or mc’s inner monologue had been amusing, as they are in Murata’s novel (which managed to make tedious tasks entertaining).
Even if I where to judge Tsumura’s novel without drawing comparison to other novels, I still can’t think of anything positive to say about it. The narration lacked zest, oomph. She recounts her routine in a very prosaic way, and she offers no real insights into why ‘modern’ work culture makes her feel so uninspired.
Usually when I read a translated book I don’t really notice that the prose was not originally written in the language I’m reading but here the writing had this stilted quality that made me kind of aware that I was indeed reading a translation. Certain word choices struck me as awkward. There are many instances in which the narrator’s colloquial style is interrupted by high-register and or antiquated words (such as nigh!). Maybe this was simply reflecting the original Japanese but I can’t say for sure as I’m afraid my knowledge of Japanese is abysmal. And yes, I understand that translation is not an easy chore (in the past I tried my hand at translating) but that doesn’t change that the prose There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job offers some eyebrow-raising phrases/passages.

Usually I read books of this length in two or three days but it took me five days to finish this novel (and I nearly fell asleep while reading it…which is new for me).

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai

In The Setting Sun Osamu Dazai captures a nation in transition. Set during the early postwar years Japan this novella is centred on an aristocratic family fallen on hard times. Kazuko, our narrator, and her fragile mother who are forced to move to the countryside and give up their family home. Gentile Kazuko has no options left but work in the fields. She slowly begins to fear that this menial labour will make her spiritually and physically ‘coarse’. Kazuko laments what she perceives as a decline in moral standards, which she attributes to the rapid industrialisation and Westernisation of her country.
Kazuko’s brother return to Japan causes further distress. Naoji is now addicted to opiodis and his presence in the household upsets Kazuko. His cynicism and cruelty do little to assuage their mother.
As the narrative progresses we are introduced to Mr. Uehara, a writer and an acquaintance of Naoji.
While I was interested in Dazai’s mediations on class, nobility, and the right to die, as well as his navigating the dichotomy between tradition and modernity, I was ultimately underwhelmed by The Setting Sun. Perhaps this is because Kazuko and Naoji’s voices at times were almost interchangeable, or maybe I was never convinced by the character of Kazuko (especially when it came to the man she loves). At times Dazai seemed more interested in rendering the aesthetics of existentialism than of truly delving beneath his character’s surface.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Parade by Hiromi Kawakami

In this short volume readers will be reunited with Tsukiko and Sensei, from Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. After sharing a meal together, Sensei asks Tsukiko to “tell me a story from long ago”. Tsukiko obliges. When she was a child two tengu started following her around. Other children in her class age were also being followed by spirits and creatures from folklore. Kawakami’s sparse prose has lulling quality. She combines quotidian moments or reflections with surreal elements. Tsukiko is regretful about her behaviour towards one of her classmates, so that some of what she recounts is given a bittersweet note.
Throughout this short story there are two-colour illustrations by Takako Yoshitomi (geometric shapes and patterns as well as anthropomorphised figures).
I love Kawakami’s prose, the timelessness of her stories, the vague sense of nostalgia that permeates her narratives. Parade felt just a bit too short.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Devotion of Suspect X (Detective Galileo #1) by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X is an unusual detective novel. By the end of the first chapter readers witness the murder that is at the centre of this novel. We know the identity and motivations of the perpetrator. What follows is a compulsive game of cat-and-mouse between ‘detective Galileo’ and Suspect X. At times this felt like a chess game, in which two highly intelligent individuals try to outmanoeuvre each other.
The final chapters of this novel took me by surprise and answered some of my niggling questions regarding the actions of a certain character. Still, [SPOILERS] I’m not quite certain why he just didn’t leave the ex-husband in the river or whatever it was…why let the police find a body in the first place? The ex-wife would have been questioned but if they had no proof of the guy being dead, surely they would have soon moved to more urgent cases…especially considering that this guy wasn’t exactly a model citizen and his disappearance could have been chalked up to loansharks or something…but then we wouldn’t have a novel so…[END SPOILERS].
I think this is a novel that to best appreciated this novel one should know very little about its plot and characters before picking it up. If you like tales of suspense, police procedural, and clever mysteries, you should definitely give The Devotion of Suspect X.
The only thing that kept me from giving this book a higher rating were the characters themselves. I found some of them to be a bit wooden, and I also wasn’t particularly keen on that ending.

My rating: 3 ¼ stars

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Star by Yukio Mishima : Review

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Although first published in 1961 this feverish novella explores themes that are still being explored today such as celebrity fandom. The protagonist of the story is a ‘star’ and we soon see that he struggles with maintaining the persona of famous and beloved actor. Although Rikio enjoys his fame he also begins to feel disconnected from his own self, almost loosing himself in the roles he takes and, as his story progresses, his identity seems to disintegrate.
Because of his cynic outlook Rikio sounds much older than he is. There are moments in which he seems a passive participant in his own life, observing with mild distaste what other people do and criticising his contemporary Japanese society. The only person that seems ‘visible’ to him is his make-up artist, a woman who is older than him. The two seem to poke fun at the way the film-industry works and at Rikio’s adoring fans.
Much of what Rikio experiences and thinks comes across as being somewhat surreal or even as being part of a larger hallucination. As Rikio narrative becomes increasingly affected by his anxiousness over his career and life, I found myself feeling almost paranoid alongside him.

Overall, although this was far from ‘enjoyable’ it was an interesting and short piece of writing that might appeal those readers who have watched and appreciated Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue.

★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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KITCHEN: BOOK REVIEW

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Kitchen
by Banana Yoshimoto
★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars of 5 stars (4 stars to Kitchen, 3 stars to “Moonlight Shadow”)

Yoshimoto’s distinctive style perfectly captures grief and its ramifications. After the death of her grandmother Mikage, an orphan, finds herself without a family. Mikage, unable to bear another loss, attempts to withdraw from others.
Yoshimoto renders the emptiness and sadness experienced by Mikage in a rather matter-of-fact way. And Mikage’s grief and depression feel all the more real because of it. Yoshimoto manages to imbue ordinary objects and places (ie. a kitchen) with incredible feeling. By paying attention to small details (such as the way that sunlight shines through a glass) Yoshimoto brings to life seemingly mundane moments. Her writing style really lends itself to the depiction Mikage’s grief. In her estrangement from her daily life she is empowered by small or normal things (such as kitchen utensils and or a beautiful dish).
Overall, Kitchen was a really good novella. I sympathised with Mikage’s and I understood the numbness that overwhelms her. The few interactions she has with other people were really lovely, and of course, her relationship with Yoichi and Eriko was incredibly sweet. And with time, Mikage finds some sort of solace.
“Moonlight Shadow” lacked the realism of Kitchen. It was much shorter and, since I read it immediately after Kitchen, I couldn’t help comparing the two. Kitchen packs so much more feeling and character. “Moonlight Shadow” might also deal with grief but it does it in a far more rushed and predictable manner.

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THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR: BOOK REVIEW

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The Housekeeper and the Professor
by Yōko Ogawa
★★★★✰ 3.5 stars

A poignant and gentle tale of a friendship between a professor (whose memory lasts approximately 80 minutes), his housekeeper and her ten-year-old son, who goes by the nickname of ‘Root’.
The narrative of The Housekeeper and the Professor although brimming with compassion avoids being over-sentimental. There is plenty of kindness and love to be found in this novel. Ogawa’s style depicts with honesty the friendship between an old and vulnerable man and a hard-working single mother. The housekeeper, a good-natured woman, becomes interested in maths thanks to the professor, who prior to his brain injury was a professor of maths. While living in solitude, cut away from the world, he still possess his love for numbers and a knack for teaching.
Nothing eventful really happens, and this is not a plot-driven novel. The narrator recounts this friendship and a particular time of her life in an almost wistful manner. Her reminiscing provides some beautiful observations and some lovely phrases.
As silly as it might sound, there was a bit too much talk of numbers&maths and baseball, so I did feel a bit distanced from the story at times. Nevertheless, if you fancy a quick and moving story, look no further.

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THE NAKANO THRIFT SHOP: BOOK REVIEW

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

I thought about how what I felt for him now and what he felt for me at that moment must be totally and completely out of sync. Trying to imagine it made me dizzy.

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Hiromi Kawakami can really capture the most ordinary thoughts and moments of everyday life. While Strange Weather in Tokyo was focused on a woman’s evenings in a bar, leaving out her day job, The Nakano Thrift Shop is all about our protagonist’s job. We don’t know much about Hitomi other than that she is employed at the Nakano Thrift shop. The story is concerned with a particular time in her life, and avoids adding unnecessary information.
In her new job Hitomi meets plenty of interesting, eccentric, if not downright weird, people: from her employer, Mr. Nakano, to his sister, Masayo, her colleague, the nervous Takeo, to the many different customers. The novel is divided in twelve chapter, and each one of them tells of a particular period in the Nakano shop, focusing in turn on Mr. Nakano’s love life, or Masayo’s, or even on a set of cursed bowls. There are plenty of colourful characters who provide funny anecdotes or peculiar conversations. Each chapter is self-contained given that they tell of different moments of Hitomi’s time at the thrift shop.
Kawakami excels in capturing the misunderstandings and awkwardness that can arise between two people, wherever they are romantically involved or not. The characters’ conversations and arguments are incredibly believable given their propensity for ‘going nowhere’ or ‘around in circles’. Unlike other books, (I’m looking at you Normal People and Outline), this novel relays clumsy interactions, evincing the limitations that our words often have, in a truly credible manner. There are these moments of sullenness over what’s been said or what hasn’t been said or even the way it has been said in.
I also love the way in which these ordinary moments can almost seem surreal or fantastic.

I liked the way Masayo held those scissors. It was like she had a small woodland creature playing in her hand.



Kawakami is not for readers who seek plot, action and meaning. If you don’t need these things, and if you are looking for a read that will fill you with a sense of nostalgia and make you smile, look no further.

I hear somewhere that human cells renew themselves every three years. His name might still be Takeo, and he might look just like him on the outside, but this guy was a totally different person.



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Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper grown-up. I had been very much the adult when I was in elementary school. But as I continued on through junior high and high school, on the contrary, I became less grown-up. And then as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person. I suppose I just wasn’t able to ally myself with time.

Hiromi Kawakami injects a series of ordinary episodes between two people with a dreamy atmosphere, one that makes the events she describes anything but boring. In Strange Weather in Tokyo, also translated as a The Briefcase, Tsukiko, a 38-year-old woman who works in an office (it is never specified what her job truly entails), runs into Sensei, her former teacher. The two are both gourmands, and find themselves conversing over food and becoming ‘drinking companions’. Their talk feels very natural, especially in the way it often leads nowhere. They talk of their favourite foods or haikus, comment on the weather, disagree over the best baseball teams. As unlikely their companionship is (there is an age gap of 30 years), their connection is vibrantly rendered. Tsukiko’s tranquil yet quirky narration will appeal to readers who enjoyed Hilary Leichter’s Temporary or Convenience Store Woman.

This slight novel is very much a slice of life, a glimpse into the everyday experiences and thoughts of its main character. Each chapter focuses on a certain episode from her life: she goes mushroom hunting, walks around the neighbourhood with Sensei, witnesses the cherry blossom with a former classmate, spends a weekend away from Tokyo. There are paragraphs in which Tsukiko considers fizzy water, and many pages are dedicated to scenes in which she’s eating or drinking (alone or with Sensei). The author’s dialogues have an almost mumblecore-esque quality to them, one that makes them ring true to life. Throughout the course of these self-contained chapters Kawakami showcases an incredible understanding of ‘loners’ such as Tsukiko and Sensei, and of all the little things that go through people’s mind.
Each chapter brought a smile to my face. Tsukiko, our peculiar narrator, is an endearing, if puzzling, character, and her gradual relationship with Sensei felt very authentic. There are small, and often silly, misunderstandings or disagreements, drawn out silences, and moments of true companionship.
Because the story was written in the early 2000s, I experience a certain nostalgia while I was reading it. There is lack of modern technology (mobile phones appear towards the end of the story) that gives it an enchanting sort of timelessness.
I would definitely recommend this for those who want to read something less plot oriented or for fans of quiet yet atmospheric storytellers such as Banana Yoshimoto.

MY RATING: 4 of 5 stars
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