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
Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

Severance by Ling Ma

“To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

Severance is an engrossing and, given the current pandemic, timely read. Through the use of a dual timeline Ling Ma’s novel encompasses many genres: we have chapters set in the past, pre-apocalypse, when the Shen Fever is a mere afterthought in the daily lives of New Yorkers, and the ones post-apocalypse, in which our protagonist joins a cultish group of survivors who seem to be immune to the fever.

Kmart realism meets millennial malaise in Candace Chen’s first-person narration.
Candace’s sardonic observations lightened the mood of the story. Her drone-like work attitude brought to mind novels such Convenience Store Woman and Temporary. The chapters set in the past detail Candace’s daily routine, in which we see that other than her half-hearted interest in photography, Candace is resigned to her position as Senior Product Coordinator of Spectra’s Bibles division, and isn’t too disturbed by her role in the exploitation of workers outside of America. She’s yet another disaffected, somewhat directionless, twenty-something female protagonist who has become all the rage in contemporary fiction. Thankfully Ma makes Candace her own unique creation, one who, as the fever starts spreading in America, actually undergoes some character growth (making Severance a coming-of-age of sorts). Although Candace operates very much on auto-pilot, her listless routine is soon interrupted by the pandemic.

In the chapters focusing on ‘after’, once New Yorkers have either fled the city or become infected, Candace joins a group led by the rather bullying Bob, a man who isn’t particularly charming or clever but has somehow successfully convinced others that they will be safe if they follow him to the Facility (a ‘mysterious’ but safe location). Along the way, they raid the houses of those who are infected, and Candace finds herself becoming increasingly disenchanted towards her so-called leader.

In Ma’s novel the fevered repeat “banal activities” on an infinite loop: they will spend the rest of their days performing the same activity (such as washing dishes, opening a door, dressing , trying different clothes). Ma’s fever works as an allegory, one which reduces humans to the humdrum activities—getting dressed, preparing food—that constitute their lives.
Tense or even brutal scenes are alleviated by Candace’s caustic narration. And there are even moments and dialogues that are so absurd as to verge on the hysterical realism. Ma makes it work, and unlike her characters, or the circumstances they face, her language remains restrained.
Underneath the novel’s hyperbolic scenarios lies a shrewd critique of capitalism, consumerism, globalism, modern work culture, and the American Dream. Through flashbacks we learn of Candace’s parents’ arrival in America and of how their diverging desires—Candace’s mother wishes to return to China while the father believes that will lead more successful lives in America—created a rift in their marriage.

Ma covers a myriad of topics in a seemingly offhand manner: adulthood, loneliness, connectedness, dislocation. Candace’s deadpan narration takes her readers alongside a journey that is as surreal as it is chilling. Ma, far more successfully than Mona Awad with Bunny, switches with ease between the first and third person, showing her readers just how easily one can lose sight of their identity.
My only criticism is towards Ma’s use of the dual timeline. At times there wasn’t a clear balance between past and present, and some sections detailing Candace’s work at Spectra were overlong. Still, I really enjoyed Severance, it is an impressive debut and I can’t wait to read more from Ma.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · REVIEWS

THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR: BOOK REVIEW

housekeeper_professor
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.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEWS

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.

813r5sfkikl

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.



View all my reviews

 

BOOK REVIEWS

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
Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads