review of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
keiko Karakura is a 36 year old woman, working 5 days a week in a Convenience Store, where she has been for the last 18 years. She lives for the convenience store including doing her own shopping in the store she works, her breakfast coming from the store, her lunch from the store and dinner from the store. This brings societal pressure from both family and friends to form a relationship and to start a family (she admits to having "no awareness of her own sexuality", she seems to be very sex adverse in the novel and probably asexual (asexuality is mentioned in my edition on page 37). She also seems to be on the autism spectrum. She struggles to relate to people outside of work and needs help from her sister to come up with preplanned answers to the difficult questions. The structure of the convenience store works for her as everything she needs to do, is covered in the manual. The repetitiveness and organisation of the store puts her in a settled mood). Her sister wishes Keiko would visit her and her son more but Keiko doesn't understand the difference between her nephew and a friends baby. In social situations in the store, she tries to mimic the other staff's style of speaking and dress in order to fit in.
As a cover for her unwillingness and difficulty at dealing with the questions on her relationship status, she decides to enlist a former colleague Shirhaha to play the role of a boyfriend/partner but he seems an awful person (misogynistic, lazy). I think the pressures that keiko faces are very relateable to problems other asexuals face, trying to appear and fit in with a society that doesn't really understand a lack of interest and lack of sexual attraction.
There are some indicators I find on how I feel about books. A disappointing book may have things like, you keep going to your mobile phone to check stuff on it, you take breaks and your mind wanders. Similarly, a book that you enjoyed have other indicators, like the only break you took when reading was to have some tea, you read it through in a single evening when you originally intended to only read for an hour but instead you just finished it, you decide to skip watching stuff on tv that you probably would normally watch (also helped was new england patriots thrashing la chargers 35-7 in the odd break to see the score at 8pm). the list of those reason you enjoyed a book all apply to this one.
In short, I loved this book. Apart from my tea break (and to check the American Football score), I wanted to just read it, I loved Keiko and the voice that Murata and Tapley Takemori gave Keiko. It was witty, endearing, observant. The reason I wanted to keep reading it was I wanted to know that she got on ok.
thanks to both Sayaka Murata and Ginn Tapley Takemori for this superb novel that I loved.
* * * * *
Review of The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuku Horie, translated by Geraint Howells
This short story collection has three stories in it. In the first, the title story, a man visits his friend from Petanque in Western France and has a weird dream involving the footpath becoming bears. Further to this, both recollecting of the past and looking at the present where the narrator gets to know the friend's neighbour and her blind son. The friend is Jewish and there is remembrance to events of World War 2 in the novel. The second story is about the narrator joining a woman on a beach to remember the anniversary of her brother's death (his friend) and the third involves two friends breaking into an old castle, one where the groundskeeper would even refuse the President of the Republic if he didn't have proper authorisation
The Bear and Paving Stone * * * * *
Sandman is Coming * * * 1/2
The Old Castle * * * *
All three stories were very good and I really enjoyed this collection, rather than full plotted stories, this is more about interaction between people than intrinsic plots and complicated storylines. At times, funny, other times heartfelt, it is always a pleasure when a short story collection does not let me down in the reading of it.
* * * *
Review of The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Allison Markin Powell.
The Nakano Thrift Shop is set in a thrift shop in Tokyo. The main character and narrator is Hitomi, a girl who gets a job in the shop owned by Mr Nakano. The other main characters with them is Mr Nakano's sister, Masayo and employee Takeo. Each of the chapters is named after an object that the thrift shop uses but this isn't about the shop itself but those that work there. This is the second novel of Kawakami's that I read after Strange Weather in Tokyo
Hitomi has a little thing for Takeo, a guy that was damaged through the effects of bullying in school, he is also somewhere between asexual and demisexual. Mr Nakano is married but having an affair with a woman that works in a similar line. Masayo is seeing a married man.
Quite an endearing read, I enjoyed both Kawakami's style and the gentle humour in the novel. This novel revolves around quite an endearing cast of characters, ok I've used endearing twice in this paragraph so time to wrap up the review.This is just a novel I loved, once I got out the comparison between the shop and Auntie's Wainwright's shop in Last of the Summer Wine
* * * * *
Seventeen bills itself as "an investigative thriller in the aftermath of an air disaster". Truly, it isn't.
Instead, Seventeen is a competent and intriguing evocation of the inner workings of a local Japanese newspaper, the North Kanto Times, using the backdrop of an air disaster on the paper's doorstep to allow simmering resentments and rivalries to boil over. We are introduced to Kazumasa Yuuki, who is trying to make an ascent on Tsuitate rock face some seventeen years after making a promise to his colleague, Anzai, to climb the face with him. This leads Yuuki into a spiral of reminiscences of the events seventeen years ago, where the planned ascent of the rock was interrupted by the crash of a Japanese Airlines 747 into a nearby mountain, causing the deaths of 524 people.
Seventeen years ago, Yuuki had been a roving reporter with the North Kanto Times, assigned to lead the Air Crash desk. He was responsible for sending reporters out into the field, editing their stories, deciding the layout and, ultimately, which stories would make the cut and which would not. Yuuki was the most experienced reporter at the paper who had not gone into management, leaving him both respected and shunned.
The paper itself was constantly compromised in its effort to sustain circulation. It could not make political statements, could not ally more with one side than another (a problem in a province where the two main rivals in Japan's ruling political party held their bases), and shunned real news in favour of reporting local school sports fixtures, naming every player in an effort to sell the paper to kids' parents. But politics loomed large in the boardroom where the chairman and managing director were engaged in a bitter power struggle, sucking staff into one faction or the other.
So when the 747 went down in the paper's area - despite not being on a major flight path - the paper entered an existentialist crisis. The natural instinct of a journalist is to go after a scoop, but when the scoop comes, the fear is paralysing. Nobody knows how to play it, and the temptation is to retreat to the familiar comforts of routine basketball games and ceremonial openings of arts festivals. This is the context into which Yuuki is thrust - with all eyes on him. And at the same time, Yuuki has his own personal issues to resolve, not least of which is the sudden collapse of his climbing buddy Anzai from the circulation department...
Seventeen is a very complex novel with many characters and a network of relationships between them. It can be tricky to keep up with exactly who is who, particularly for anglophone readers who are not attuned to Japanese names. Hideo Yokoyama includes little summary lines when reintroducing a character to remind us of their role - this can feel irritating and repetitive, but without it I suspect the reader would be hopelessly lost. A further issue raised by the complexity is the uneasiness the reader will have in discerning what is actually the focus of the novel. Is it the plane crash? Is it the office politics? Is it Yuuki's personal situation? In truth it is all of these and none of them. It is really a slice of drama, a fly on the wall, from a newspaper office at a time of crisis. There is no particular beginning and no end. There is no great narrative arc, no moral, no winners and losers. It just is.
And then there's the present day, climbing Tsuitate. I can see that there was a need to have the odd period of relief from the intensity and claustrophobia of the North Kanto Times - and the open air and focus on small, technical details of the climb provided that. It also offered an opportunity for Yuuki to put some distance between himself and the events of the past. But this came at the expense of elevating one strand of the story - Yuuki's personal life - above the others in significance even though it was perhaps not the most prominent line at the time of the disaster.
Overall this is a complex, thoughtful and thought-provoking novel that has been somewhat cruelly mis-labelled to give a sure-fire guarantee of disappointing many of its readers.