Book Review: Ms Ice Sandwich

Bookcover-Mieko Kawakami- Ms Ice Sandwich“Ms Ice Sandwich’s eyelids are always painted with a thick layer of a kind of electric blue, exactly the same colour as those hard ice lollies that have been sitting in our freezer since last summer.”
Ms. Ice Sandwich is a charming novella.

A boy in fourth grade is the main protagonist, from his perspective the story is being told. His life is not easy. He is raised by his mother, who is absent most of the time. His grandmother is living with them, she is ill and needs home care.

In school, he is being teased by a girl named ‘Tutti’, in his eyes other girls in his class are stupid teenagers with hobbies like silly dancing and who are bullying others. So, he feels somewhat lonely.

His only pleasure are the blue-painted eyes of the unreachable Ms. Ice Sandwich. A woman he sees daily when buying an egg sandwich at her stand in a supermarket.
Things change a little when he gets to know Tutti better, but he is still fascinated by Ms. Ice Sandwich, and he cannot forget her. With Tutti’s help he is figuring out how to address her.
The story is set in contemporary Japan. The overall theme is first love. It teaches you about listening to your heart and taking your chances in the moment.

A novella is usually shorter than a novel, so there are only 92 pages. ‘Ms Ice Sandwich’ is written in a clear written language. The story is narrated in a linear structure. Mieko Kawakami chooses her words in a fresh and interesting way: You read about the inner conflicts of the (nameless) boy. The characters of Tutti and Ms. Ice Sandwich are painted colorfully. The story is bittersweet because of the grandmother’s fate and the sad absence of one parent in both families, the boy’s, and Tutti’s, but everything is mixed with a touch of humor with the ingredients of friendship, forgiveness, and self-confidence.

I liked the writing style of the author, and I am curious about her other books. I had read only one story of Mieko Kawakami, which was published in ‘March was made of Yarn’ before and was impressed by ‘Ms Ice Sandwich’. Surely, I will read ‘Breasts and Eggs’ next, and will write a review on this blog soon.

Reviewed Title:
川上未映子. ミス・アイスサンドイッチ. 2013.
Mieko Kawakami. Ms Ice Sandwich. Translated Louise Heal Kawai. Pushkin Press, 2018 (Cover).

Book Review: Death by Water

Bookcover-Kenzaburô Ôe- Death by Water“And like the river current, you won’t return home.”
Kogito Choko, a writer in his seventies, is haunted by the memory of his father’s death. He had been a child, when he witnessed his father going on a boat trip during a storm, where he drowned. Kogito Choko has been traumatized by this tragedy, and nightmares about drowning are troubling him ever since. He always wanted to write a novel about it but could not.

Ten years after the death of his mother, he still wants to write his so called ‘drowning novel’. He says that he could not write this novel for several reasons, but most importantly he waited for documents stored in an old red leather trunk, which belonged to his father. His mother had restricted him access to them because she wanted to protect the family’s reputation.

Now, he hopes for creative inspiration by opening the red leather trunk, so he can finally write the ‘drowning novel’.

Kogito’s sister Asa, who is living in their parental home in Shikoku invites him to stay there. She has connections to a theatre group called the ‘Caveman Group’. The stage director and the actors have been dramatizing his works for a long time. The director is devoted to Kogito’s works. The Cavemen Group is staging a play, when Kogito comes to visit. In the ‘Forest House’ they meet and discuss Kogito’s novels and plays.

The actress Umaiko, however, finds new ways of interpreting his works. She is one of the main characters of the book. Her life intertwines with the protagonist’s in different ways as the novel moves forward.

Kogito Choko is depressive and struggles with his writings throughout the novel. His inner monologue is revealing his inner thoughts to the reader over the course of the events. This combined with letters of his sister Asa and descriptions of the evolving story presents a multi-layered picture of his family history.

Two other important characters of ‘Death by Water’ are Akari, his brain-damaged son, and Daio, a friend and life companion, who was devoted to his father. Both persons are also staying at the ‘Forest House’ during certain episodes of the novel.

Structure and Theme
‘Death by Water’ by Kenzaburô Ôe was published in 2009 in Japan. It was translated into English by Deborah Boliver Boehm in 2016 and was an International Booker Prize Nominee for the Longlist 2016.
The narrator Kogito Choko is the literary alter ego of Kenzaburô Ôe. The story is mostly told from the first person’s perspective in addition to letters and dialogues.

The novel is set in the 2000s partly in Tokyo and mostly in Shikoku in the house of Kogito’s sister, a family resident, where Kogito Choko grew up. The setting in Shikoku is essential to the story. The narrator grew up in this environment. When his father drowned in the river nearby, Kogito flew into the forest. The neighborhood is relevant, because of the local myths and legends.

‘Death by Water’ is a multi-layered novel with many references to Ôe’s literary works. Although Kogito Chôko is the narrator, there are many similarities between his and Kenzaburô Ôe’s life and works.

The overall theme is coming to terms with the past on an individual level, and with the past of the WW II and nationalism in Japan. ‘Death by Water’ deals with death, memory, growing older, guilt and atonement as an individual, as a family member and as part of the Japanese society. The novel also depicts the changes of generations and generation conflicts. It discusses the works of the author and presents a view of the younger generation and female viewpoints.

‘Death by Water’ is the latest novel of the Nobel Prize winner Ôe. A late work, where all his former works come together, with many references to his own works and to others, especially Natsume Sôseki’s ‘Kokoro’.

Evaluation
The novel is narrated in a detailed and multi-faceted manner. I liked the honesty in the inner monologue of Kogito Choko. I have not read all books by Ôe but see ‘Death by Water’ as a good reason to study them more deeply. I also liked, that the book is not only a personal novel, but the writer is coming to terms with Japanese history in a unique way. The author also references to the classic novel ‘Kokoro’. I admire the way Ôe has constructed his novel in a multi-dimensional way, and how he mastered to add new perspectives, like through the story of Umaiko.
The novel is detailed and difficult in parts. The repetitive style can be tiring and sometimes even exhausting, but I think that this is a necessary part of the reading experience. ‘Death by Water’ is one of the most complex and challenging books I have read lately.
I encourage you to read the book, but maybe not to start with it as the first book of Kenzaburô Ôe. I would recommend reading ‘A Personal Matter’ and ‘The Changeling’. Ôe also wrote many short stories. I will probably read ‘A Quiet Life’ next.

Reviewed title
大江 健三郎. 水死. 2009.
Kenzaburô Ôe. Death by Water, 2009. Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Atlantic Books, 2016 (Cover).

More reviews of Kenzaburô Ôe’s books on Japan Kaleidoskop
Book review of ‘A Personal Matter’
Book review of ‘The Changeling’

Three Interesting Love Stories by Japanese Authors

Three Cover images of Japanese lovestories
On Valentine’s Day in Japan, only women or girls show their love to their friends and lovers by giving them chocolate. One month later, on March 14th, men or boys will thank their loved ones with presents, mostly chocolate or sweets.
Valentine’s Day is also a good opportunity to read a romantic book because today is also the International book giving day. The following books are excellent Japanese love stories playing in different eras and cultural circles. I have read and reviewed them on this blog a while ago. Maybe you enjoy them too.

Geisha in Rivalry by Nagai Kafû
What is it about?
‘Geisha in Rivalry’ is a classic work of the famous Japanese author Nagai Kafû. The novel plays in the early 20th century in the red-light districts of Tokyo. It is the story of the middle-aged geisha Komayo, who falls in love with an actor. Read the book review of Geisha in Rivalry on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: 永井 荷風. 腕くらべ, 1918.
Translated by Kurt Meissner. Tuttle Publishing, 1963 (Cover).

The Ten Loves of Nishino by Kawakami Hiromi
What is it about?
Kawakami Hiromi is a well-known contemporary Japanese writer. Many of her works have been translated into English in recent years. ‘The Ten Loves of Nishino’ is a short story collection of ten stories, each from the perspective of a different woman, who fell in love with Nishino. Read the book review of Ten Love of Nishino on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒. 2003.
Translated by Allison Markin Powell. Europa Editions. 2019 (Cover).

Quicksand by Tanizaki Jun’ichirô
What is it about?
Tanizaki Jun’ichirô is one of the most talented Japanese authors. He has written many novels about love and passion in many forms, he is often exploring the dark sides and moral taboos, but not without humor. ‘Quicksand’ is a psychological thriller. Tanizaki has written a novel about love and betrayal, and this time he tells a love story between women. The work was serialized between 1928 and 1930 in the ‘Kaizô’ magazine. Read the book review of Quicksand on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: ‘Manji’. ‚Kaizô‘. 1928 to 1930.
Translated by Howard Hibett. Vintage. 1994 (Cover).

Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

book cover image -Sayaka Murata- Convenience Store Woman- riceball with a cute face “But once they get it into their heads that I’m not normal, since they all think they are normal they’ll give me a hard time about it, won’t they? “

Murata Sayaka worked in a convenience store herself, and much of her experience will probably show in her novel. ‘Convenience Store Woman’ brought her the Akutagawa Award, one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, in 2016.

Miss Keiko Furukawa is the main protagonist, she is 36 years old, working in the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart, a typical convenience store in Japan or simply called ‘konbini’.

Her colleagues are a mix of different people like Ms. Izumi, a housewife, 37 years old and a flashy dresser, Miss Sugawara, 24, a singer in a band, a university student, a job-hopper, and her boss.
Keiko Furukawa is absorbing everything in the shop: the smell, the sound, every move of the surrounding customers. She copies the dress style of Ms. Izumi because she thinks she is a role model of what a woman in her thirties should be wearing. In her speech pattern she is parroting other staff members. She is like the embodiment of the convenience store.
Her friends and acquaintances are bullying her for not having a proper job and not being married and bossing her around. Keiko Furukawa calls working in the ‘konbini’ a dead-end job herself, but it is the only place in the world, where she feels socially accepted, like a valuable part of a team, yes, she is feeling comfortable at her workplace. Wearing a uniform, everyone in the staff seems to be equal, because they are all store workers.
Then a new staff member Shiraha appears, he is an arrogant, lazy misogynist, and an outsider like Keiko Furukawa. So, they get to know each other, and he becomes her roommate. The novel answers the question if this will change her life and shows how her surrounding reacts to this development.

The story is written from the perspective of a 36-year-old woman working in a convenience store in first person narration. Keiko Furukawa is still single in her mid-thirties and has been working part-time in a convenience store for her whole life. The overall theme is women’s living conditions in contemporary Japan and specifically how people are singled out as an outsider, when they do not play their role as expected by society, which means getting married or taking a decent career path.

The novel can be understood as a critical portrayal of contemporary Japan’s society. So-called social phenomena like ‘hikikomori’ (secluding oneself, often hiding inside and not leaving one’s apartment), working in low paid or/and part-time jobs, as a ‘freeter’ (freelancer) with little or no perspective to change one’s lifestyle for the better. These developments can be seen in Japan at least for the last three decades and have changed the society deeply, where the once so important full time employment for a lifetime at one company was the norm.

Sayaka Murata is one of Japan’s modern female authors, who writes about women in Japanese society without shying away from taboo topics and has won several literary awards. ‘Convenience Store Woman’ is her 10th novel. Her newest book is called ‘Earthling’ (地球星) published in Japan in 2018. A translation into English was made available in October 2020.

I liked ‘Convenience Store Woman’ more than I thought I would when taking the book in my hands. The cute cover was indicating the wrong direction. It is not some nice story about a girl working in a store, but a deeply moving story about a young woman searching her way in a hostile environment. She does not understand the social protocol and is not understood by her friends and family either. As an outsider of Japan’s society social interaction becomes painful for her, but she finds happiness in a place which is not appreciated by normal standards and that is her ‘konbini’. I was surprised by the literary strength of the book which stands out. So, I would like to read more of Sayaka Murata and will have a look at her new book in the future. ‘Convenience Store Woman’ is an important and unusual work.

Reviewed title:
村田沙耶香. コンビニ人間. 2016.
Sayaka Murata. Convenience Store Woman. Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Portobello Books 2018 (Cover).

Book Review: The Lake

Cover image- Banana Yoshimoto- The Lake- english versionIn ‘The Lake’ Banana Yoshimoto tells the story of Chihiro, a young Japanese woman, who gets to know a young man who is living across the street. Nakajima, a shy, extraordinary intelligent and interesting man. She watches him every day when she is looking out of her window.
Chihiro recently lost her mother, who died at the hospital after a long illness. She is mourning her loss deeply and struggles with her feelings. In this situation she is glad about a new friendship with her neighbor. In the beginning they are just friends, who become lovers.
Chihiro also loves her freedom very much. Coming from a small village she embraced the opportunity of moving to Tokyo. As an independent woman she is not actively seeking a relationship, she is still grieving, and she does not feel ready for a new boyfriend, not to speak of marriage. The friendship with Nakajima feels comfortable, and it is nourishing her soul. After a while Nakajima is moving into her apartment, and it feels right for her, but they are still struggling with their past.

Nakajima has an enigmatic aura. It comes apparent that something went terribly wrong in his childhood, and he seems to suffer from a childhood trauma. Chihiro is patient, cautious and caring towards him, but she also doubts sometimes if she can handle it.
She learns about Nakajima’s mother and about two childhood friends. After a visit of his former home, a small house at a lake, Chihiro is deeply moved emotionally but somehow feels alienated. She stays with Nakajima and their relationship further deepens when the backstory of Nakajima’s trauma is revealed.

The novel is written from the perspective of Chihiro in the first-person narrative. She describes the development of her relationship with Nakajima in a detailed description of her conflicting emotions. It reminds me of a diary, as she writes most parts of the story in a stream of consciousness.
The novel is mostly about Chihiro’s inner conflicts and the novel tells everything about the evolving relationship, therefore the story feels very lively.
You even can feel Chihiro’s feelings because she tells you about them in her inner monologue, she uses emphatic language, and you can imagine, yes, this is the way how it feels when you are falling in love.
She reflects her doings and emotions, sometimes she shares her philosophical thoughts. Not every word she writes is particularly wise, but it is very interesting.
The underlying topics are tough, as it is emotional or physical abuse in childhood and how it affects human wellbeing and relationships.

Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favorite Japanese authors. I have been reading her books for a long time. In my opinion ‘The Lake’ is a very emotional and extraordinary book. Her language is very colorful, and her story is moving. I like her writing style very much. The story reminded me a little of her debut ‘Kitchen’ in the beginning, but then it took another road. Banana Yoshimoto is a mature author now and although the book’s topic is serious, I liked how she deals with it: Her attitude towards others is positive and caring. And that is what I like most about the ‘The Lake’.

Reviewed title
吉本 ばなな. みずうみ. 2005.
Banana Yoshimoto. The Lake. Translated by Michael Emmerich. Melville House, 2011 (Cover).

More book reviews of Banana Yoshimoto’s books on Japan Kaleidoskop

  1. Book review of Banana Yoshimoto: Kitchen.
  2. Book review of Banana Yoshimoto: Lizard.