Book Review: People from My Neighborhood

bookcover people from my neighborhood kawakami hiromi
The book contains 36 stories, “palm-of-the-hand stories”, so tiny they fit into a hand. Often compared to Kawabata Yasunari’s short story collection of 1971. Each story is about a person, an animal, a place in the neighborhood. Or it describes a phenomenon, a specialty, an occasion, or event that happened once in the neighborhood of the narrator.kawabata palm of the hand stories coverThe miniature stories are loosely tied together by a theme or a thought. Each can be read as a stand-alone short story with a punch line. Together they become a big picture of the neighborhood like in a hidden object game.

Some of the stories show elements of magical realism, others are narrated in simple language, and many are told like childhood memories. Things remain hidden in the dark or are presented as vague memories. Towards the second half of the book there are many surreal stories.

Kawakami Hiromi is a well-known author in Japan. Many of her books have been translated into English. Here are some examples:

The Briefcase
Manazuru
The Nakano Thrift Shop
Record of a Night too Brief
The Ten Loves of Nishino

With around 120 pages it is a small book, which can be read in one go. You begin to read and shortly after you are at the end.

First sentence: “A white cloth was lying at the foot of a zelkova tree.”

Last sentence: “I could have done without the strains of ‘White Butterfly Samba’ blaring from loudspeakers around the globe every morning and night, but as Kanae’s sister kept lecturing me, that was a small price to pay for world peace, so I held my tongue.”

It is more a literary poetic experiment. There is nothing more to say for me about the book. What have I just read? I have no idea but it was interesting and charming.

Reviewed Title
Kawakami Hiromi. People from my Neighborhood. Translated by Ted Goosen. Granta Books, 2020 (cover).

Book Review: To the Spring Equinox and Beyond

Cover To The Spring Equinox and Beyond
“Moreover, Keitaro was a youth with romantic cast to his personality and a hatred of mediocrity.”

Keitaro, a young man is living in Tokyo in the 1910s. He has graduated from school and is seeking for a job and his position in life. He is living in a boarding house where he meets a man who is totally different from him. He is an adventurer and takes many risks. He is called a “high-class idler.” Suddenly, he disappears without paying his rent and Keitaro is in trouble because he is associated with the troublesome man. He left a bamboo walking stick behind which Keitaro takes but is somehow ashamed of.

Feeling alone in the city he often visits a friend Sunaga and his family. There he meets his cousin Chiyoko a beautiful girl. She is supposed to marry soon. The novel is about the relationship of the family members and Keitaro’s observations and interactions with the people around him. The book is narrated from different perspectives in each chapter. The novel is about “ambiguities of self-identity, faith and love.”

Natsume Sôseki has written many books. He is probably the most famous Japanese writer in Japan. Several of his works have been translated into other languages. I mention only the most famous examples of English translations here.

  • I Am a Cat (吾輩は猫である. Wagahai-wa neko de aru. 1905–06)
  • Botchan: Master Darling (坊っちゃん. 1906)
  • The Three-Cornered World (草枕. Kusamakura. 1906)
  • Mon (門. Mon – The Gate. 1910)
  • The Wayfarer (行人. Kōjin. 1912–13)
  • Kokoro (こころ. Kokoro. 1914)
  • Grass on the Wayside (道草. Michikusa. 1915)

To the Spring Equinox and Beyond is one of the less known works and resembles “Sanshirô”. It is his sixth novel which was also serialized in the “Asahi Shimbun” in 1912. The novel is interesting because you get to know about the living habits and customs of the Japanese in the early 20th century. The story has some turns and twists you cannot foresee. Also, the change of the point of view in the narration is a good technique which makes the story richer. Natsume Sôseki is a very skilled writer who observes many details and has a deep understanding of the human heart.

Reviewed Title
夏目 漱石. 彼岸過迄, 1912.
Natsume Sôseki. To the Spring Equinox and Beyond. Translated by Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein. Tuttle Publishing, 2005 (cover).

Book Review: There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job

cover book There's no such thing as an easy job“Try thinking of colleagues you get along with as a bonus than a requisite, and look for a workplace of a size where you feel comfortable.”

A former social worker with a burn-out syndrome is seeking for an easy job. “I’d left my last job because it sucked up every scrap of energy I had until there was not a shred left.” This is her reason she gives to the reader in the beginning.

During the novel, she works at five different companies with limited contracts. A surveillance job, two jobs as a copy writer for bus advertising and cracker packets, a postering job, and a job in the forest. The book consists of five stories about her working experiences, encounters with colleagues, and detailed descriptions about working conditions. It is another novel about working in Japan in the 21st century.

The author Tsumura Kikuko was born in 1978 in Japan. She has earned many literature awards for several of her books. “There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job” is her first novel translated into English in 2020. Some of Tsumura Kikuko’s short stories are published online by Granta.

Here, in the book, we have five stories hold together by one frame story. The main protagonist is a Japanese woman in her thirties. The novel is narrated from her perspective in the first person singular. Although it is a personal story, she does not talk much about her personal life. The author writes about the workplace experiences of the main character in the minutest details. The encounters with her boss and colleagues are depicted realistically and lively. She also describes all kinds of Japanese dishes and eating scenes.

Evaluation

The book cover of the English version is appealing. It shows a woman obviously overworked and sleeping on her desk. The changes of the working conditions and environments in the 21st century in Japan are socially relevant and interesting topics.

The first two chapters of the book about a questionable (legal?) surveillance job and copy writing for bus advertisements are the most interesting stories of the novel. Both jobs are absurd, in part funny, and yet the protagonist takes the working tasks seriously. The main character, her boss and her colleagues are well portrayed. One can imagine working in these companies. Unfortunately, in the second half of the book the account of the work experiences of the protagonist gets repetitive and reading the last chapters becomes a little tedious. It might have been better to skip one or two jobs because they are not so different after all.

Compared to “Convenience Store Woman” and “The Woman in the Purple Skirt” which both are extraordinary books, “There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job” seems a bit more down to earth. It is a good novel to gain insight into the Japanese working life. Light and fun to read.

Reviewed Title
津村 記久子. この世にたやすい仕事はない.2015.
Tsumura Kikuko. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job. Translated by Polly Barton. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020 (cover).