January 2023 Summary

Hasn’t this been the longest month ever? Cold, dark, busy at work, but not quite as miserable as the months preceding it because at least we have all been healthy. I’ve mostly snuggled in my burrow and read – even more than usual, now that I’ve decided not to worry about reviewing every book. 18 books this month, of which 7 fit with the January in Japan challenge (although one of the seven was not written by a Japanese author, but was a non-fiction book about the Japanese criminal world). Nine books in translation, three non-fiction books, ten by women writers, four that could fit under the crime fiction label. A good mix that I can live with.

Here are the books that I have reviewed this month (I am putting the Japanese author names in the Japanese order – surname first):

And here are very brief thoughts on the others I read:

Charlie Higson: Whatever Gets You Through the Night – entertaining, madcap, quick read, made for the screen – as so many current thriller books seem to be. This one is perhaps slightly funnier and slyer than most, fits a bit into the Knives Out/Glass Onion universe.

Percival Everett: The Trees – this one I regret not reviewing properly, as it is a quite unforgettable, excoriating view of the South of the United States and its history of lynching. By taking an almost absurd premise and bringing in lots of fierce humour, it brings this dark story to a wider audience. A surprising novel, with moments of true poignancy, although perhaps a few too many repetitive descriptions of crime scenes (deliberate, no doubt, and I can understand why).

Robert Thorogood: Death Comes to Marlow – my son goes to school in Marlow, so I go there nearly every day and I can see a big splash being made with this book in the local bookshop. I’m always going to read a book set in a place I know well, although I was disconcerted to discover that I know the real vicar’s wife (the mother of one of my son’s best friends) and she is nothing like the one featured in the book. Although I appreciated having three middle-aged women investigators, I couldn’t help feeling that their quirks are being exaggerated for comic effect, that the secondary characters are rather one-dimensional, so all the book really has going for it is the puzzle element. Of course I will continue to read this series, even if I complain about it, simply because of its familiar location.

Elin Cullhed: Euphoria, transl. Jennifer Hayashida – just like I will always read something about Sylvia Plath. This novel is a fictional account of the last difficult year of Sylvia’s life, sticking quite closely to the known facts and trying to combine elements of Sylvia’s real voice from the letters and diaries with a speculation of what must have really been going on in her mind. I am familiar with this kind of fictional recreation of an artistic life from France, where this is a much more common type of literature, but I am not sure what it adds to our knowledge of Plath. Instead, I see this more as the universal portrait of a marriage and a clash of two very strong and creative personalities, two tremendous artistic egos, particularly at a time when it seemed harder to accept equality within married couples.

He loved me as a motif. He loved the picture of me. He loved the type. The American, the emotional one, the poet. He loved my high demands (and hated them). He loved having a thinking wife. He loved having a wife. He loved that I was thinking and grinding my own thoughts, then there was nothing left of them later in teh writing. He loved that I tried by failed. That I got up and was stabbed, like a goat. That I was not who I wanted to be. He loved my imperfections, and I stood in the middle of it and tried to be perfect.

Fiona Spargo-Mabbs: Talking the Tough Stuff with Teens – trying to educate myself and not talk too much, yet encourage a rather silent teenager to open up. An encouraging, non-judgemental book, with many real-life examples.

Bec Evans & Chris Smith: Written – I’ve been following the authors on their Prolifiko website and subscribing to their newsletters, and this is a book about finding the writing routines and habits that work for you, instead of slavishly imitating others. Encouraging, friendly, with lots of good exercises and suggestions for further exploration.

Sara Gran: The Book of the Most Precious Substance – impossible to categorise this book, no wonder the author struggled to get it published and so created her own publishing house for it. It is not as chilling as Come Closer, but you can see elements of anger and grief here too, as well as the quirkiness and humour of the Claire DeWitt crime series. Although touted as a sex magic book (and it certainly contains elements of eroticism and supernatural), it probably won’t fully satisfy fantasy or erotica fans. I like the underlying ‘normalness’ of it, which keeps it somewhat grounded even when we are off travelling in a world of unimaginable luxury. Basically, it is a story of grief, of clinging to a sense of injustice, of the wisdom (and ability) to move on, and the hunger for power and money.

The trick isn’t to protect yourself. It’s to accept life. Not push it away when it gets messy.

The past is over and done. You have no choice but to live with it. There’s no getting over, there’s no making up for. But there;s a chance to see and create something new. That’s the only chance…

…a wall I’d built around something too broken to trust the world with it. But that wall had never kept me safe. It only locked me in with my pain, leaving it to fester and spoil. I’d locked out all hope, all pleasure, and now, with a force like th eocean, the wall had crumbled, and my protection had gone.

Antoine Wilson: Mouth to Mouth – a story within a story, with a supposedly neutral account of the wild tale told by an acquaintance. Another novel about the hunger for power and money, full of self-justification. Quite clever but nor terribly memorable. On the plane to Switzerland I read another book like it translated from French (not featured above, as I will present it as part of my personal French February reading initiative).

I read Balzac’s Lost Illusions for the winter long read for London Reads the World Book Club, and will review it of course during my French February. I still haven’t seen the film, which apparently is only available to stream in Canada. However, I have watched (and rewatched) quite a few good films this month – more than usual by my standards, partly because my older son the film buff was around for 9 days at the start of the month.

I really enjoyed rewatching My Neighbour Totoro for the nth time (especially after seeing the very innovative, delightful staging of it at the Barbican) and the beautiful, warm Portrait of a Lady on Fire, although I was perhaps somewhat less mesmerised by The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction this time round. I was moved by the Korean film Memories of Murder but even more so by the very recent Aftersun (which cut a little too close to home, so there were floods of tears). Stellar performances by Paul Mescal and young Frankie Corio.

By the way, I’ve had some friends asking who is hosting the #FrenchFebruary initiative – and the answer is no one, I just created this personal challenge for myself because I like alliteration and reading French language books. But if you would like to join in and read some books from France, Switzerland, Belgium, Quebec, French-speaking Africa etc. then please do! The more the merrier! Always happy to expand my understanding in this area.

#JanuaryInJapan: Loneliness and Finding Your Passion

I was going to write separate reviews, or at least talk about them two by two, but in the end they all seem to speak to each other. So I have attempted something new: an audio review (podcast seems a bit too ambitious a term).

They are all books about misfits, quirky outsiders who seem to struggle to socialise with other people, who all have a passion for something, who put up with many disappointments and ultimately find some kind of resilience or escape. They are all written by women, but in two of the books the main protagonists are men, which allows for an interesting contrast. I discuss several common themes that run through all the books: the lonely, socially inept main protagonist who explores ways in which to live their life via their craft or hobbies; the yearning for human connection, perhaps even love; the mentor character; the pragmatic character who provides a strong contrast to our dreamy protagonist; finally, some thoughts about style and appeal.

https://anchor.fm/sanda-ionescu/embed/episodes/Four-Novels-about-Loneliness-and-Finding-Your-Passion-e1tgul1

Kawakami Mieko: All the Lovers in the Night, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd

Miura Shion: The Great Passage, transl. Juliet Winters Carpenter

Miyashita Natsu: The Forest of Wool and Steel, transl. Philip Gabriel

Plus a Taiwanese novel that also fits this theme:

Lee Wei-Jing: The Mermaid’s Tale, transl. Darryl Sterk

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. However, you can also set up a link to your favourite independent bookshop and they too will get a share of the sale price.

You may be surprised to discover that The Great Passage has been adapted for an animated TV series. Here are the characters from the book in their anime form.

Winding Down and Wrapping Up (Part 3)

If there was a glimmer of hope and joy in the late spring and early summer, the third trimester of the year was when things started to go seriously wrong in my personal life. Rading, as always, helped me through that but it veered mostly on the escapist side, with very little reviewing. Unsurprising, perhaps, that the dominant colour for this period was blue.

July was not that bad, as the boys and I went to Romania for the second half of the month, but there was a lot of work to complete before going on holiday, as well as desperately trying to find someone to look after Mademoiselle Zoe, who had just been diagnosed with a tumour in her intestines and was undergoing chemotherapy. I looked into changing flights so that I could spend more time with her, but that would have been far too expensive, and my parents were impatient to see their grandsons after nearly 3 years. The holidays themselves involved a lot of travelling around and meeting family and friends, which is never restful though lovely. Sadly, I also realised that my mother’s dementia is progressing faster than we had initially expected. As an only child, I worry about how I can best help her while living at a distance (and our relationship has always been delicate even at best) and how to support my father as well.

July was meant to be the month of Spanish and Portuguese Language reading, but in fact I read very few books translated from those languages. One that did really stick with me from that month was Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho, so concise and yet so memorable. This book also fitted well with a film I watched during this period in the hope that it might amuse me, but which ended being quite grim, since it deals with domestic violence, cheating and macho culture, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. I also tackled a less well-known work by a favourite author, Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial, and checked out several other authors for a potential fit with Corylus Books.

Almost immediately after coming back from holiday, I fell and broke my elbow and wrist on my right (writing) arm, then very nearly developed an ulcer from all the painkillers I was swallowing. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t review much. August is traditionally Women in Translation month, but once again I fell somewhat short on that topic and relied instead on a lot of very escapist, very light literature. I did read the International Booker Winner Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, which I found exhilarating and deeply moving, although I probably missed quite a lot of the cultural references and found it a bit overlong. I reviewed it in September together with the rather deliciously subversive Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (not pictured here because I didn’t like any of the covers).

Another highlight in translation was a coming-of-age novella by Mieko Kawakami Ms Ice Sandwich, while my own bout of ill health and Zoe’s sudden decline and death made me connect even more with the book by Tanya Shadrick about creativity, motherhood, facing up to illness and mortality, The Cure for Sleep. The only book I could read during those painful last days with Zoe was (unsurprisingly) Paul Gallico’s Jennie.

I had a brief moment of joy in September when I went to Bloody Scotland in Stirling, but that did not go unpunished, as I came back with Covid, which once again laid me low and meant my immune system has struggled to cope with things ever since. I was also delighted to find that my translation of Mihail Sebastian’s play The Holiday Game was highly commended for the John Dryden Translation Prize – a great honour, although that doesn’t make it any more likely to be performed or published. Rejections followed thick and fast for other writing or translation pitches, while my day job remained busy, so I was struggling to make it through the remaining weeks until my much-awaited writing retreat holiday in Yorkshire in October (which did not quite live up to expectations). In the meantime I was delighted, however, to reconnect with Istanbul and my beloved detective duo of Ikmen and Suleyman created by Barbara Nadel, plus discover a new series by an author I have enjoyed in the past, Vaseem Khan’s Midnight at Malabar House, while the historical fiction of Set in Stone by my friend (and near compatriot) Stela Brinzeanu was a welcome change of pace from crime fiction.

You can find the first and second part of the annual reading review on my blog, but you’ll have to wait for the final part while I do some more reading.

All the Summer Reading Challenges

I’ve come to the conclusion that, despite three weeks of ‘holidays’, it’s been a difficult summer personally, and this has been reflected in my reading. I have failed in virtually all my reading challenges (not that I take the word ‘failure’ terribly seriously in this context). I’ve read more than #20BooksofSummer, but few of them were on my original list. I read a couple of books in July for Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month, but never got around to reviewing them. I’ve also read quite a few #WomeninTranlation books in August (and generally – this is probably one of my favourite themes in reading) but I have no intention to provide carefully considered, deep reviews of any of them.

I just can’t. I don’t have the mental or physical capacity at the moment. It’s a shame, there will be a gap when I look back on my reading and wish I’d done more. In the meantime, here are some very brief and hopefully pithy remarks (I hesitate to call them reviews) about each of them. I have already shared my escapist reading with you, here are the more ‘serious’ reads.

July Reading

I read 12 books that month, of which three escapist crime novels and four for work purposes (two books in German and two translations from the Catalan). I skimmed through two very interesting but simply far too long ones (for my levels of concentration and busy-ness that month): The Shadowy Third about one of Elizabeth Bowen’s love affairs and the letters exchanged and Devil-Land about 17th century Britain. Which leaves only three books, two of which fit into the Spanish/Portuguese language reading challenge.

Maria Judite de Carvalho: Empty Wardrobes, transl. Margaret Jull Costa, Two Lines Press, 2021.

I interpret the title as the emptiness that many women feel when they realise that the people or the love that they held dear have let them down, that sentiments and trust were illusory, and that they have no one but themselves to rely on. It’s a sombre yet depressingly accurate view of heterosexual relationships, shared by three generations of women in the same family, although not necessarily from a position of solidarity. Written in 1966, in a very Catholic and patriarchal Portugal where women had few choices outside the domestic sphere, there is nevertheless much that is still recognisable today. It also reminds me of Enchi Fumiko’s work, particularly The Waiting Years, although that refers to even more demeaning conditions for women in Meiji Japan.

He would arrive home, give me a peck on the cheek, drink his usual glass of whisky, then tell me all about his day in great detail, and so I thought he really loved and needed me. In fact, I was merely a convenient body beside him, an ever-attentive audience always ready to express unconditional admiration when he told me of yet another professional triumph… he needed that applause at home as well, in order to feel he was lord of a little tailor-made world all his own.

For far more detailed and sensitive reading of this book, do read Jacqui’s blog.

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara: Slum Virgin, transl. Frances Riddle, Charco Press, 2017.

This one is the exact opposite of the quieter, more restrained style of Empty Wardrobes. It is a riot of events, characters, stories and style, with elements of tragedy, melodrama, comedy and farce all jostling for attention within its pages. Cleopatra is a trans prostitute in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, but renounces her work once she has a revelation from the Virgin Mary. Quity is an ambitious journalist keen to cover the story, but ends up falling for Cleo instead. Told in short chapters alternating between the highly individualistic voices of these two characters, filled with colourful slang, replete with religious references and superstition, we encounter a seamy, corrupt but energetic world reminiscent of Jorge Amado’s The War of the Saints.

In the extract below, Cleo is receiving all sorts of gifts from people in the flooded slum who are hoping for miracle cures:

Then with a practicality that surprised me and continues to surprise me in a person who speaks with celestial beings, Cleo told us that God loved us, that through God we could love each other, and that we should have breakfast. It was time and it was freezing cold, and first things first. We could always pray later.

Shirley Jackson: The Sundial, Penguin Modern Classics (first published in 1958)

No one can portray the suffocating qualities of a family and a house better than Shirley Jackson, a real antithesis to the wholesome image of home and hearth projected in the United States in the 1950s. This novel portrays a very strange family, all living in a sinister home with surrealist traits (like being in an Escher drawing), an ‘end of the world’ prophecy which binds them and excludes everyone outside their property. But are the dangers truly in the outside world or within their ‘safe’ house and ‘in-group’? We know that Jackson was agoraphobic at various points in her life, but we also know that she considered the family home to be the most perilous and vicious place too. I don’t want to put you off by the rather serious subject matter and the magical realism style – it is also very sharp, witty and downright funny.

Shirley Jackson is one of my favourite authors, and occupies pride of place on my bedside table: go and read her, pronto, if you haven’t already done so, whether you start with this or with her more famous (but less funny) novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House.

August Reading

This month was less busy but far worse in terms of health, worries and need for distraction. Of the 16 books I read, 13 were escapist literature. Two of the crime novels fitted into the #WITMonth category (one from Turkey, one from Romania), as did two of the more ‘serious’ reads. One was a chunkster, the International Booker Prize Winner Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated (and perhaps annotated/interpreted, as she freely admits) by Daisy Rockwell. I still hope to give it a proper review at some point, and we have a Book Club meeting about it next Monday, so I will leave it for later.

Kawakami Mieko: Ms Ice Sandwich, transl. Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press, 2013.

This is an early work by Kawakami, a slight novella about an adolescent boy starting to learn more about life and people and empathy, through his harmless crush on the unusual looking lady who makes and sells sandwiches at the local supermarket. It is an understated story of loneliness, being ‘different’, feeling unable to stand by your convictions or support the people you love. Far more restrained than Heaven, but conveys a lot in just a few pages. And, it’s a personal preference, but I really like the way Louise Heal Kawai translates Kawakami and wish that we had more of her books featuring this translator! For a more thorough review, please see Tony’s. I do love the cover, though!

Tanya Shadrick: The Cure for Sleep

I picked this one rather randomly, after some recommendations on Twitter. It is the memoir of a woman who nearly died after the birth of her son and resolved thereafter to lead a braver and more creative life, to stop shrinking away from opportunity and hide in routine. It is the most devastatingly honest memoir I have read that does not feature any descriptions of addiction or debilitating health issues. It lays bare all the ambiguities of married life and motherhood, and the eternal conflict between the anchored ‘real’ life and the creative life. I don’t think I could ever be so frank, but that is why I prefer to write fiction rather than memoir.

As someone who constantly feels that I have buried myself too much in domesticity and looking after others, I found this book quite inspiring, although just a tad overwritten at times.

20 Books of Summer

So how did I do in my fabled (and very flexible) 20 Books of Summer challenge? Thanks to my discipline in June, I managed to read 13 books overall (8 in French in June, 2 Spanish/Portuguese ones in July, 3 from the random choices in August). I am currently reading the 14th one from the list, the Berlin-set Schäfchen im Trockenen, but I doubt I will finish it by the 1st of September. Not quite as bad as I expected!

#WITMonth: No Heaven This… Mieko Kawakami

My tour of depressing and untouristy locations continues with middle-school Japan in Mieko Kawakami’s merciless yet somehow endearing Heaven, which is also my 14th book in the #20BooksofSummer reading (I might still hit the target!).

Mieko Kawakami: Heaven, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd.

After the full immersion in the female perspective in Breasts and Eggs, this shorter and earlier novel by Kawakami takes us into the heart and mind of a fourteen-year-old boy. The unnamed narrator is horrifically bullied at his school, probably because of his lazy eye, but does not dare to let any of the adults in his life know. The teachers don’t seem to want to have their eyes opened for fear of the school’s reputation suffering, while the boy believes his parents would blame him or think less of him for acquiescing to the bullying. (Incidentally, bullying is indeed a major problem in Japanese schools, and has led to many suicides or self-harming incidents. The love of conformity in Japanese society means that anyone who is a little different becomes a possible target.)

Be warned: some of the bullying scenes are extremely brutal, verging on the unbearable, although they are never voyeuristic or gratuitous. What makes it even more shocking is the almost throwaway descriptions of these scenes, which have become part of the daily routine. The ringleader Ninomiya is the good-looking golden boy who breezes through his schoolwork as well as athletics. His teachers cannot keep up with him, so no one ever believes he could be so vicious. Besides, he and his gang are careful to cover their tracks: they punch and kick without leaving visible marks, or enjoy the power of forcing humiliating rituals upon the narrator.

When we are told about the somewhat enigmatic new boy, Momose, who joined the class after elementary school and who is almost equally as beautiful and gifted as Ninomiya but much more nonchalant about things, we readers are tempted to hope and believe that he will become an ally. But this is not an American high school story of converting the wicked or finding redemption. Momose proves to be even more chilling. He does not enjoy the bullying or get a kick out of it, but he refuses to feel any concern or guilt about it. When the narrator tries to confront him, saying that he doesn’t have the right to hurt him or any other human being, this is what Momose says (I am collating several relevant passages into one quote, because this is a scene that continues over quite a few pages):

Well, first of, when you said that we’re the same, you were way off. See for yourself. I’m not cross-eyed, and I’m not you. You are cross-eyed, and you’re not me.

Second, that thing you just said, about how no one has the right to hurt anybody else… Nobody does anything because they have the right. They do what they want to do.

There’s no reason it has to be you. It could have been anyone. But you happened to be there, and we happened to all be in a certain mood, so things went the way they did.

I don’t care if things are so bad that you can’t sleep. That’s got nothing to do with me. It doesn’t make me feel anything. Nothing. Your problems have never crossed my mind… Don’t try and tell me something stupid like it’s my responsibility to think about your feelings.

Given these kind of reactions, it’s not surprising that the narrator at first doesn’t quite dare to believe in the timid hand of friendship being extended to him by Kojima, a girl in the class who is also being bullied for being dirty and smelly (her nickname is ‘Hazmat’). They write each other messages and meet in person outside school, bonding over their common suffering, but never really discussing it in detail. Instead, they try to bring a little bit of joy in their lives – and even manage a day trip to a museum during the summer holidays, where Kojima describes her favourite bit of escapism, a painting she calls ‘Heaven’. The description of this burgeoning friendship is delicately done, with a lot of sympathy for youthful awkwardness, but this is no saccharine love story.

When school starts again, things go back to the unbearable and dysfunctional normal. Just as you start to fume as a reader about their passivity, you realise that Kojima deliberately chooses to appear poverty-stricken and dirty, because it creates a bond with her father, whom her mother abandoned to marry a rich man. While the narrator is often ashamed that he allows the bullying to continue, Kojima turns the negative into a positive. She has created an entire ideology about their suffering, a martyrdom mentality that is oddly reminiscent of early Christianity:

That’s not why we let them do this… It’s not because we’re weak. We’re not just following orders or whatever… We know exactly what’s going on. We see it and we let it happen. I don’t think that’s weakness at all. It’s more like strength.

Kawakami is so good at capturing the voices of her youthful protagonists, making them urgent and compelling, that at first you completely buy into this desperate attempt to explain and justify what is happening to them. Yet, towards the end of the book, things take an ominous turn. The narrator discovers that his eye problem could be corrected with a relatively simple and cheap surgical procedure, but when he tells Kojima, she is profoundly disappointed in him for ‘abandoning’ their principles and what she perceives to be their just cause:

Even if something happens to us, even if we die and never have to deal with them again, the same thing will happen to someone, somewhere… The weak always go through this… Because the strong never go away. That’s why you want to pretend to be like them, isn’t it? You want to join them.

A very different cover for the hardback – which of the two do you prefer?

This is a nuanced and at times unexpected exploration of bullying, of moral strength and weakness. There is the secondary issue about missing or self-absorbed parents. The narrator’s father is largely absent (and a bit of a selfish patriarch when he is around). Although his stepmother is the only one who seems to listen to him, his relationship with her is stilted, as if he resents her own passivity in front of his father. He wonders what his own mother (who died when he was very young, and from whom he has inherited the strabism) would have been like. Meanwhile, Kojima cannot forgive her mother for the way she disdains her former husband, Kojima’s father. It is easy to see that, although the subject of the book is bullying in school, it could easily be extrapolated to the adult world.

One striking feature of the story is how it changes stylistically. In the beginning, the language is very plain and declarative: simple sentences, describing routine actions in a detached, matter-of-fact style. The author keeps reverting back to this style when she describes the more extreme behaviours of the classmates or the suicidal thoughts of the narrator, as if to make those scenes more bearable through the restrained choice of words. When the friendship blossoms between the young people and they start writing longer notes to each other, the style grows more descriptive, at times lyrical, at times painfully graphic, coltish just like the adolescents themselves. Finally, towards the end of the book, the language becomes much more impassioned, with the narrator engaging in a constant interior monologue (or imaginary dialogue with those around him), and his surroundings (the weather, the park) are coloured by his emotions.

There are glimmers of hope and beauty in this stifling world, and the book ends on a determined upbeat note.

Everything was beautiful. At the end of the street, a street I had walked down more times than I could count, I saw the other side for the first time, glowing white, I understood it. Through my tears, I saw the world come into focus. The world had depth now.. I opened my eyes as wide as I could, fighting to see it all…

But is the narrator’s determination justified, or is he doomed to be disappointed once more? The book ends on an ambiguous, and absolutely perfect final sentence.

This is a less ambitious and therefore much more coherent and well-structured story than Breasts and Eggs, but what is clear from reading two of her books so far (and hoping that there will be more of them to come in translation) is that Kawakami is an author to watch, who can move effortlessly between registers and styles, and develop convincing characters of all ages and genders.

#6Degrees January 2021: From Hamnet to…

This is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month she chooses a book as a starting point and you have to link it to six other books to form a chain. It doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, merely to the one next to it, although some participants choose a theme for all of the links. This month we start with  Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, which was one of my top reads of the year 2020.

So the first link is a very obvious one, namely another favourite read of the year, a book published in 2020, and whose author I got to see in an online literary event: Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami.

The second link is the only other book I can think of with ‘eggs’ in the title, namely Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss. I not only loved it as a child, but I read it so many times to my own children (during their fussy eating phases) that I know it by heart. As a former fussy eater myself, I could really empathise with the candid cry: ‘I do not like them in a house./ I do not like them with a mouse./ I do not like them here or there./ I do not like them anywhere.’

The more spurious link to my next choice is the name Sam – a marginally less obnoxious character than that insistent, nagging Sam-I-Am is Sam Spade from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The charismatic, brooding, cynical private eye was not the first hardboiled detective but truly defined the genre for all who followed.

Another book with the name of a bird of prey in the title is Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, set in Roman Britain and exploring the supposed annihilation of the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army. I was fascinated by this book when I was a child, but my children never quite got into it.

By way of contrast, one of the series that my older son really got into and which I never quite loved was Harry Potter by JK Rowling. I thought they were quite poorly written and derivative, and much preferred Diana Wynne Jones. But of course I was an adult already by the time they came out, so who knows how I’d have felt about them as a child.

My final link is to the wonderful Tales of Beatrix Potter, which was much loved by all three of us. As a child I was probably most like Tom Kitten getting his clothes terribly mussed up, but nowadays I most identify with poor Mrs Tittlemouse desperately trying to keep her house tidy against a deluge of visitors. (Well, not this year, but you know what I mean…)

This has been a nostalgic little trip down memory lane – and I wonder if that is because subconsciously the theme has been one of motherhood (with the exception of Sam Spade, who perhaps needs a mother to soften him a little). Or maybe my subconscious is troubled by the endless debates about schools reopening safely (or not). Anyway, here is our beautiful edition of the Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, a treasured birthday present for my older son’s second birthday.

#WITMonth: Mieko Kawakami

Author photo from Goodreads.

Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd

By fortunate coincidence, it turns out today is this author’s birthday, so Happy Birthday, Mieko! And thank you for a very thought-provoking and entertaining read.

If I told you that a book entitled Breasts and Eggs talks frankly and at length about breast surgery, sperm banks, artificial insemination, asexuality, single motherhood and periods, you would probably conclude that it is an angry feminist tract – possibly written by a brash Western writer (Virginie Despentes or Otessa Moshfegh come to mind). The fact that it was written by a Japanese woman makes this book seem even more revolutionary. Japan is still a far from equal society when it comes to gender – in some ways, it has even regressed in recent years under a conservative government.

Yet, of course, Japanese women have been writing books portraying women’s (and men’s) thoughts and their restricted lives for centuries.  Just off the top of my head: Murasaki Shikibu‘s portrayal of men playing their power games with women as their pawns in the Heian period, to the frank description of sexual desire in Akiko Yosano, the trauma of spouses supplanted by second wives in Fumiko Enchi,  the description of working class struggles and the red light district in Ichiyo Higuchi (a writer Kawakami cites as an inspiration), the fiendishly subversive retelling of myths of Aoko Matsuda. There is a plethora of exciting women writers in Japan today and, luckily for us, more of them are getting translated. Alongside the well established names such as Banana Yoshimoto, Natsuo Kirino,  Yoko Ogawa, Hiromi Kawakami and Kanae Minato, we are starting to see the emergence of challenging and fearless writing, occasionally with a surreal twist, by younger authors such as Hitomi Kanehara, Sayaka Murata, Misumi Kubo and Nao-Cola Yamazaki.

So, while I don’t agree that Mieko Kawakami is a revolutionary who ‘lobbed a literary grenade into the fusty, male-dominated world of Japanese fiction’ (as The Economist puts it), I have to admit that this book addresses issues that are typically swept under the carpet in Japan – and, let’s admit it, probably are not discussed that much in fiction in the West either. And she manages to offer us a variety of opinions about motherhood and the female body, while also giving us an involving plot about sisterhood and friendship, well-rounded characters with great back stories, and writing which can span everything from raucous female banter (in dialect) to philosophy to passages of lyrical descriptions.

In the first part of the book, which is by and large the original novella entitled Breasts and Eggs that won the Akutagawa Prize in 2008, we see three women at three different stages of their lives. Natsuko, the narrator, is 30, still young but no spring chicken anymore, and she can feel the clock ticking on her career as a writer in Tokyo. Her sister, Makiko, is nearly ten years older and still lives in their home town of Osaka, doing her best to keep herself and her daughter afloat as a single mum, working in a hostess bar. She too can feel the clock ticking – on her body – and thinks that getting breast enhancement will improve her life and her career. Meanwhile, her daughter Midoriko (the name means ‘green’ in Japanese and she really is very green still, just starting to experience her own bodily changes at the age of twelve) refuses to communicate with her mother in any other way than in writing. Natsuko is mostly the observer and tries to mediate between them, but she struggles to understand her sister’s need for validation or her niece’s judgemental attitude. There are some beautiful conversations between them, but the reminiscing about the past steers clear of either melodrama or sentimentality. One of the most poignant passages was the conversation between aunt and niece as they go round in a ferris wheel – this was the passage that Kawakami read out during her Edinburgh Book Festival interview, and the contrast between the Osakaben that Natsuko speaks with Midoriko and the descriptive passages in literary Japanese stood out even more when she read them.

I would have loved to see more of the sister and niece in the second part of the novel, but that is really Natsuko’s story (the title of the whole book in Japanese is Natsu Monogatari, which can be translated as either Summer Tales or Tales of Natsu). Natsuko is now nearing the age of her sister in the first part, and this time it’s her biological clock that is ticking. She is still single, and doesn’t really want a relationship with a man. She is enjoying some literary success, which is a great opportunity for mocking the pretentiousness of the Japanese literary scene, but realises that she really would like to have a child before it gets too late. So she starts investigating the possibility of using a sperm donor (which is not really possible for single women or same-sex couples in Japan). Along the way, she both befriends and alienates people, and gets to hear a variety of different attitudes about what it means to be an artist or a mother or both in Japan, as well as being the child of a sperm donor (and condemned to never know exactly who your biological father is).

As for being a wife, well, I can just imagine the reaction of the reading public to the quote below by a fellow writer Rika, who is also a single mum, and whom Natsuko befriends:

Everything men do repulses me, I can’t tell you how good it felt when we got divorced and my ex left the house. It was like I could breathe again… It’s just, men can be such idiots. They can’t do anything around the house without making a ton of noise, not even close the fridge or turn the lights on. They can’t take care of anyone else. They can’t even take care of themselves/. They won’t do anything for their kids or their families if it means sacrificing their own comfort, but they go out in the world and act all big, like I’m such a agood dad, such a provider… For better or worse, living with someone is nothing but friction, the collision of incompatible ideals. It takes trust to make it viable. I mean, love is basically a drug, right? Without love and trust, resentment is the only thing that’s left.

Well, I could certainly relate to that, and so could many women, particularly those living in rather patriarchal societies. Yet, in her Edinburgh Book Festival interview, Kawakami expressed some surprise and amusement that her book was a big hit with male readers as well in Japan.

In some ways, this novel reminded me of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, both of them novels of ideas, with the focus here being on women’s bodies and motherhood instead of race and immigration. Much as I loved Americanah, I felt that Kawakami was more successful at integrating her ideas into the flow of the narrative, rather than having long blog-like passages, which slightly marred Adichie’s book for me. However, another reviwer I admire feels that there is a blog-like quality to the second half of the book and overall it’s chick lit with a feminist agenda. I think individual passages taken out of context can sound flat, but when all the layers come together, it certainly left me with a powerful impression.

Thank you also to Tony Malone, who in his review of Breasts and Eggs, pointed out that there was an alternative translation of part of the first part by Louise Heal Kawai, using a Mancunian speech pattern to render the Osaka dialect. I think it’s a brilliant version and wish we could have had the whole book translated like that (although Sam Bett and David Boyd have done a good job of smoothing out the language to appeal to a wider audience). And, although I’m the last person to suggest that books by women writers should only be translated by women, given the particular subject matter, I cannot help wondering how different it might have looked if it had been translated by a woman.