Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books In Translation (page 1 of 6)

The Factory – Hiroko Oyamada

There’s no denying it: workers’ rights are hot right now. We’re taking it to The Man, we’re dismantling capitalism, one picket line at a time! So, it was a timely pick to read The Factory, a proletarian novella by Hiroko Oyamada. It was published in the original Japanese (工場) in 2013, and the English translation (by David Boyd) came out in 2019.

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The Factory is short, just 116 pages – I knocked it over in a single sitting. It’s complex, though, with a strange structure that alternates between the perspectives of three central characters. Each of them work at “the factory”, doing McJobs that none of them really understand.

There’s Yoshiko Ushiyama, a recent liberal arts graduate who applies for a permanent position but instead gets offered a contract role, shredding documents.

Then there’s Yoshio Furufue, a former scholar and moss specialist. He’s hired as an executive, ostensibly to “green roof” the factory buildings, but he really has no idea what the heck he’s doing and no one at the factory seems to care if he just sits around collecting his huge salary and cataloguing a species of moss here and there.

Finally, there’s Yoshiko’s unnamed brother, who was fired from his permanent position as a systems engineer at a different company. His girlfriend was able to get him a temp job at the factory, proofreading documents – hardly living the dream. He frequently falls asleep at his desk.

There’s no specific timeline in The Factory, but there’s a “gotchya” moment for the reader towards the end that reveals the events of the novel have taken place over a span of about fifteen years. That matches the weird merging of the protagonists’ perspectives and *vibes*; they start off as distinct characters with their own motivations, but over the course of The Factory the boundaries between them – and between their physical form and the setting – blur and dissolve.

If you’re thinking that sounds a lot like something our buddy Franz Kafka would write, you’re not the only one. The Factory has been widely reviewed and analysed as a Kafkaesque novel. The strange imagery, the oppressive circumstances of the narrative, the nightmarish repetition – all the elements are there, all calibrated to leave you feeling deeply unsettled by the end.

The setting is the big draw of The Factory (for me, anyway). It sounds a lot like Amazon or one of the other big Silicon Valley conglomerates, but Oyamada doesn’t specify the company’s name or purpose at all. In fact, even the city in which it’s based is never described or named. The company’s grounds are completely self-sufficient, with living quarters, food and entertainment, everything workers could possibly need – one of the characters says it “has everything but a graveyard”.

Unsurprisingly, it seems that Oyamada drew on her own experiences working in a factory. Apparently, a temporary role in an automaker’s subsidiary really stoked her fires. She came at this novel, full guns blazing, to expose the powerlessness of the working class and the suffocation of class division cloaked in routine and efficiency. You don’t get a gold star for recognising The Factory as an allegory, the factory workers representing the working class on a broader scale; they are completely removed from (indeed, have no understanding of) their contributions in terms of production, and don’t benefit from the specific products of their labour at all.

The energy that Oyamada poured into the metaphor seems to have tapped her reserves when it comes to answering narrative questions, though. There are no firm answers, by the end of The Factory, about what it is or does, what happens to the workers, where the strange animals that inhabit the grounds came from, what the deal is with the Forest Pantser (my favourite character, you’ll have to read it to understand).

Reading The Factory really took me back to my undergrad days, studying sociology and arguing about Marxism in workshops. I went to bed that night dreaming of baguettes and the bourgeoisie. I’d recommend it to any fellow pinkos, and fans of Sayaka Murata or Yoko Ogawa.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Factory:

  • “It makes no sense, definitely not worth reading and I would never recommend it to anyone but that’s just my opinion, give it a read and find out yourself.” – Mark J. Morris
  • “The story was pretty dumb with what it had the main characters doing all day: proofreading pointless documents and shredding paper. Real exciting.” – Greg
  • “Essentially, three characters all begin work at “The Factory,” a massive, mysterious place where everything seems great at first, but quickly, all sorts of weird, unexplainable things begin to happen and the jobs, which never had any purpose, begin to consume the characters, destroying their creativity and individuality. Oh wait! That’s what supposedly happens to actual people in their real-world jobs! I get it now! This book is actually a brilliant expose of modern life and the soul-crushing monotony and conformity of the industrial-economic complex! Please – spare me. Oyamada is no Kafka and this book is a complete waste of time.” – Gerald O’Malley

Before The Coffee Gets Cold – Toshikazu Kawaguchi

If you could travel back in time, would you want to? Who would you want to see? What would you want to say? Four people at a Tokyo cafe find out in Before The Coffee Gets Cold (コーヒーが冷めないうちに, or Kohi ga Samenai Uchi ni), a 2015 novel by Toshikazu Kawaguchi.

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Kawaguchi is a celebrated playwright in Japan. Before The Coffee Gets Cold was actually a play before he turned it into a novel. The text was translated into English by Geoffrey Trousselot and went on to become a best-seller around the anglophone world. (Plus Kawaguchi’s follow-ups – Tales From The Cafe in 2017, and Before Your Memory Fades in 2022, sold gangbusters as well.) Even if the play-writing game isn’t paying like it used to, Kawaguchi is surely in the black!

Before The Coffee Gets Cold is made up of four interrelated but separate stories: The Lovers, Husband And Wife, The Sisters, and Mother And Child. Most of the characters appear across all of the stories, and I found it kind of hard to keep track of who was who.

Kazu is the barista at Funiculi Funicula, the Tokyo cafe rumoured to let customers travel back in time. The customers featured in Before The Coffee Gets Cold include Fumiko (a woman whose boyfriend is chasing his career dreams in America), Kohtake (a nurse whose husband has Alzheimers), and Hirai (who runs a nearby bar, and has a complicated relationship with her family). There’s also the cafe co-owners, Nagare and Kei (upbeat but in poor health, and recently pregnant).

I won’t spoil their stories, but most of them travel in time. It turns out, in Kawaguchi’s version, there are a lot of finnicky rules for time travel. They’re unlike the others usually found in time travel novels. First off, you can’t change the present – it’s not just that you’re “not allowed”, you quite literally can’t. No matter what you do or say when you travel back in time, the present will remain the same when you return. Then, there’s the time limit: you can only stay as long as the coffee in your cup is warm. If you hang around after it cools, you risk becoming a ghost that haunts the cafe. When you do go back, you can only meet people who have visited the cafe in the past, and you can’t leave the Special Chair in which you sit. On and on the rules go…

Before The Coffee Gets Cold is a bit trite and earnest, more like a fable or a fairytale than a novel with a plot. It’s written in a surprisingly simple style, given the complexity of the subject matter. Some people really respond to that though (people who love The Alchemist, for instance) and I don’t begrudge them that. I’m not sure it really worked for me, though. I wasn’t swept away by it, or really moved much at all. I was mostly just annoyed at all the Rules the characters went over, time and time again.

There’s already been a Japanese film adaptation of Before The Coffee Gets Cold (Cafe Funiculi Funicula, starring Kasumi Arimura). It looks like a couple of American companies have teamed up to develop and produce a television series for English-speaking audiences, too. I’d be mildly curious to check that out, but I wouldn’t wait in any queues.

All told, I’m not sure Before The Coffee Gets Cold lives up to the hype, but it’s a short and sweet novel that wouldn’t be the worst thing you could choose from a Little Free Library.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Before The Coffee Gets Cold:

  • “The episodes of time traveling are few and far between. Mostly it consists of boring details about the sound of flip-flops and shop door bells and other uninteresting things.” – Ron Johnson
  • “Absolutely dire. Reads like a book written by someone who was guessing what a book should sound like but has never actually read one.” – Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged
  • “Not my cup of coffee I guess.” – Elissa W
  • “Average book.true review” – Vishnu reddy

Britt-Marie Was Here – Fredrik Backman

Britt-Marie Was Here has been calling to me from my to-be-read shelf ever since I read My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises about a year ago. I was fairly sure that the books existed in the same universe, and the titular Britt-Marie in this story was the same Britt-Marie who lived in the apartment block with Elsa, Granny and co. Turns out, I was right! (Naturally.)

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Britt-Marie Was Here (Britt-Marie var här in the original Swedish, translated into English by Henning Koch) is Fredrik Backman’s fourth book. It was first published in 2014, and the English translation came out two years later. It didn’t make as much of a splash as A Man Called Ove, or any of Backman’s other #bookstagram darlings, which is weird because the premise and tone is classic Backman.

The story revolves around Britt-Marie, a middle-aged fusspot recently separated from her beloved husband Kent. She knew his collars sometimes smelled of perfume (before she starched them, of course), but his infidelity was confirmed when his mistress called an ambulance to attend to the heart attack he had on top of her. That was the final straw (understandable).

Fearing that, without Kent as an (albeit inattentive) witness to her life, she might someday die without anyone noticing, Britt-Marie goes out in search of a job and a life of her own. That’s how she finds herself in the backwater town of Borg, the only person desperate enough to take on the role of caretaker for a soon-to-be-demolished community center.

This is a Fredrik Backman novel, so of course, Britt-Marie finds herself drawn in to the lives and dramas of the small-town citizens. Despite her firm intentions of simply keeping the community center clean (with a bucket-load of baking soda), she ends up roped into coaching a soccer team of ragamuffins, and best friends with the drunken pizzeria owner.

Britt-Marie Was Here is a darker read than A Man Called Ove or My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises – in fact, in many ways, it reminded me of the criminally-underrated movie Green Street Hooligans. The citizens of Borg are down on their luck, poverty and family violence are common, and the kids of the town have nowhere to go and (almost) nothing going for them. But it’s still a very touching read, with Backman’s trademark life-affirming philosophy – and a few laughs, mostly at Britt-Marie’s expense.

“Britt-Marie is not actually passive-aggressive. She’s considerate. After she heard Kent’s children saying she was passive-aggressive she was extra-considerate for several weeks.”

Britt-Marie Was Here (Page 3)

Britt-Marie Was Here is a good one for fans of small-town romances, and/or movies where the kids get their sports field in the end after they defeat the evil developers. I suspect that Backman might’ve figured out he was onto something with the sports theme, as I hear Beartown (one of his best-sellers) and its sequels use ice-hockey in a similar way. That one will be the next Backman on my list, I think!

P.S. Britt-Marie Was Here was adapted into a film starring Pernilla August and directed by Tuva Novotny, released in 2019. I watched the trailer, it actually looks pretty good (better than the abomination of A Man Called Otto, anyway).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Britt-Marie Was Here:

  • “I had already read Ove; why did I need to read the same basic book over again?” – Linda S
  • “Thankfully the compulsive main character relaxed a bit toward the end.
    That’s it. Save your time.” – MeFree
  • “With all the words we have in the English language, why does practically every paragraph have to have a curse word? I don’t even hear trash like that out on the street. And the morals of the book? – no thank you.
    It was trash & that’s exactly where it went.” – SP
  • “It is just plain stupid, if you ask me. I know you didn’t ask me, but it’s my opinion just the same.” – Kathleen

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Tolstoy himself called it his ‘first true novel’. William Faulkner, when asked to name the three best novels of all time, reportedly answered: “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina”. But still, as I approached it, I was nervous. It was first published in book form in 1878, and most editions have run to 850+ pages. This book is huge, in more ways than one.

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I spent a lot of time considering my approach to Anna Karenina. I specifically sought out this translation, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, as I’d heard from multiple sources that it was the most readable version. This edition doesn’t come with an introduction or anything, though, so I was forced to simply dive in with only what I’d heard about the story around the traps to guide me.

It centers on an extramarital affair, between society woman Anna and cavalry officer Alexei Vronsky. They make a half-hearted attempt to keep it a secret, but Anna impulsively confesses to her husband (also, confusingly, called Alexei). After that, they go public, in a move that scandalises their friends and family. Anna and Vronsky move to Italy, hoping to escape the fall-out, but they’re eventually pulled back to Russia (when Vronsky’s alternative career as an artist doesn’t pan out) and their lives totally unravel.

That’s the most straightforward summary of Anna Karenina I can manage, and it feels woefully inadequate. This is a complex novel, told in eight parts, with over a dozen major characters. Anna and Vronsky are the main focus, but there’s also Levin – a wealthy landowner from the sticks – who has a big ol’ boner for Anna’s brother’s sister-in-law (see? complex!). Their love story runs parallel to Anna and Vronsky’s – and, spoiler alert, has a much happier ending.

The underlying thesis of Anna Karenina (as I read it) is this: men ain’t shit. Honestly, every single one of them made me want to flip a table. That said, the ladies are hardly peaches either. The only truly sympathetic character in the whole book is Levin’s dog.

Oh, and Tolstoy did write the perspective of Anna’s nine-year-old son beautifully – such a shame that it only lasted a few chapters. I was truly baffled by Anna’s sudden willingness to abandon him to go to Italy with her lover. For the first half of Anna Karenina, she clings to her dud marriage because of the kid, because she couldn’t bear to part with him (and she knew that Alexei would get him in the divorce, with her being a disgraced scarlet woman and all). Then, without explanation, she drops the kid like a hot potato and runs off with Vronsky – but still takes her new kid with her. Savage, eh?

(I’m going to offer the obligatory spoiler warning here. For Anna Karenina. A hundred-and-fifty year old novel that has saturated popular consciousness and influenced generations of literature that has come since. If you don’t know the ending and you don’t look away now, that’s a You Problem.)

Tolstoy’s foreshadowing isn’t subtle. Trains are a motif throughout Anna Karenina, with train carriages and stations being the setting for several major plot points. There’s also a few heavy-handed hints about their danger (including a bloke being killed on the tracks early on). So, it feels kind of inevitable when, at the novel’s climax, Anna throws herself under a train. Bye bye, heroine!

But if you’re expecting a dramatic denouement, where Vronsky and Alexei come together and mourn the loss of the woman they loved or share tear-filled regrets about how they treated her or whatever, move along. Anna is barely mentioned again. Instead, Levin spends 100 pages trying to work out whether God exists before Tolstoy wraps things up.

And that’s pretty emblematic of Anna Karenina as a whole. There’s pathos galore, but before the spark can really catch, it’s snuffed out by Levin’s poli-sci philosophising. When Levin does get involved in an actual plot, it’s a direct rip-off of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. (Kitty turns him down, lives to regret it, then eventually they get together and live – mostly – happily ever after.)

I’m glad Tolstoy isn’t around to read my thoughts on Levin, though, because apparently he’s a semi-autobiographical character and basically served as a megaphone for all of Tolstoy’s own beliefs and ethics. He borrowed heavily from his own life to inform Levin’s thoughts and actions (up to and including forcing his fiance to read his diaries, so she’d know about all of his sexual exploits before they married). If that’s the case, I’m telling you that Tolstoy was definitely the kind of guy you’d cross the room to get away from at a party.

I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but as far as I’m concerned, Anna Karenina is just… fine? It wasn’t the dreadful slog I was worried it might be, but it wasn’t brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same either. If you’re thinking about reading it, go ahead – there’s nothing to be afraid of (unless listening to rich guys bang on about how to Fix The Economy makes you want to bonk yourself over the head, in which case you might want to remove all bonking implements from your vicinity before commencing).

Tl;dr? In Anna Karenina, a bunch of rich Russians fuck around and find out. It’s okay.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Anna Karenina:

  • “The storyline about Kitty and Levin has absolutely no connection whatsoever to the storyline about Anna and Vronsky, and no business being in the same book.” – JJ McBear
  • “So much drivel. So much detailed nuance on every though that has ever been thunk. It was like having to many voice in my head saying to much about nothing. Tolstoy may wanna get himself to a psychotherapist.” – Katie Krackers
  • “I don’t know what the point of the subplot with Kitty and Levin is, except to make the book a few hundred pages longer and a lot more boring.” – grammagoulis

The Story Of The Lost Child – Elena Ferrante

Ah, here we are: the last of the Neapolitan novels. Sitting down to read The Story Of The Lost Child felt like sitting down to goodbye drinks with an old friend the night before they leave town. Having followed Lena and Lila through childhood (My Brilliant Friend), adolescence (The Story Of A New Name), and young adulthood (Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay), this last installment follows them as they mature into old age. It has been translated, as always, from the original Italian into English by the imitable Ann Goldstein.

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Lena says early on in The Story Of The Lost Child that this is “the most painful part of the story” and (spoiler alert) she’s spot on. I think this might be the most intensely felt of all the Neapolitan novels, more deeply impactful than even the sharp angst of My Brilliant Friend.

It begins in a time of painful contrasts for narrator Lena: the passion of a long-awaited love affair with Nino and the satisfaction of a revitalised career, experienced simultaneously with complete social, marital, and familial collapse. She officially leaves her husband Pietro, and believes that Nino too has left his wife… but Lila, as always, comes around with a big bucket full of truth and dumps it over Lena’s head. Nino hasn’t left his wife, and doesn’t intend to.

Even when he knocks Lena up, he stays with his wife, and splits his time between two households. Lila gets pregnant at the same time (by Enzo, with whom she still lives and runs a computer business). Finally, Lena and Lila’s lives are on the same track. They go to gyno appointments together, commiserate over the symptoms of pregnancy, and become close once again.

They grow even closer when Lena discovers Nino is cheating on her with the housekeeper, and moves into a small apartment right above Lila’s. They have daughters the same age, they trade off dinners and childcare, it’s all very Modern, takes-a-village, etc.

The big catalyst of The Story Of The Lost Child is that Lena, in desperation and lacking time to write new work, submits a copy of her old manuscript – a novel about her childhood in Naples – for publication. Apparently, being back in the old neighbourhood makes her prose just a bit too vivid. The dangerous Solaras family recognise themselves in the pages, and the ramifications – not just for Lena, but for everyone in her orbit – are huge. (There’s a hint in the title…)

I won’t reveal the Big Twists from that point (got to hold something back, eh?), but the ending – oooft! It was better than I could have ever imagined. Standing ovation. Even after thousands of pages, Ferrante still surprised me and delighted me and made my heart twist in my chest. The end of The Story Of The Lost Child is absolutely breathtaking.

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed The Story Of The Lost Child, finishing it felt bittersweet. I know there are other Ferrante books to read (some of them are already crowded into my to-read shelf!), and I’m a bit too Mature(TM) to mope about fictional characters… but still! I’m amazed and impressed with how the story ended, but quite sad that there’s no more of it for me to discover.

Some project for some future year – “when I have time”, ha! – will be to sit down and re-read all of the Neapolitan novels from start to finish, but back-to-back this time (instead of one per year, as I’ve done since 2018). I wish I could do it immediately, if I’m being honest, but naturally there are other books to be read and things to be done that have to take priority. It’s one for the bucket list.

If you’re wondering whether undertaking to read the Neapolitan novels is worth it, the answer (according to the authority of me) is absolutely YES. If you’re wondering whether the story runs out of fizz by the time you get to The Story Of The Lost Child, the answer (according to the authority of me) is a resounding NO. Of course, the series has its ups and downs, and every reader will respond differently to parts of such a complex and multi-faceted work, but on the whole: W. O. R. T. H. I. T!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Story Of The Lost Child:

  • “Who wrote those words? An algorithm? If the writer is human, she seems afraid to reveal the self behind her work. I find that irritating and cowardly. What is she hiding from? The Mob? Whatever. Brilliant marketing of four novels that could easily have been edited to one. Bravo on that point.” – rc
  • “Glad my female friends and I are not this complicated.” – Sucarichi
  • “I am not a corpse, therefore I loved this novel. The only problem with it is the depression I feel having reached the last page.” – Agaricus
  • “Without doubt written by a non Italian. 4 books and not one mention of Napoli the football team. No mention of Italy wining the World Cup. Ridiculous! No Mention of the Roman Catholic Upbringing ALL characters would have had. No mention of the local chapel and the priests. Pure fantasy!” – C. Caughey
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