Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books In Translation (page 1 of 7)

Days At The Morisaki Bookshop – Satoshi Yagisawa

Days At The Morisaki Bookshop was first published in the original Japanese back in 2010, a debut novel that won Satoshi Yagisawa a sizeable Japanese fanbase and the Chiyoda Literature Prize. It took over a decade for the beloved story to reach Anglophone readers, but it finally did in 2023, an English translation by Eric Ozawa that soared to the top of the best-seller lists.

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It’s popularity might simply be due to the fact that the premise of Days At The Morisaki Bookshop sounds like every wistful booklover’s dream: living in a spare room on the second floor of a bookshop. I mean… that’s the dream, right?

That’s where Part One of this story begins, with twenty-five-year old Takako moving into her uncle’s overstuffed secondhand bookshop in Tokyo’s Jimbocho book district. She’s fresh off the back of a nasty break-up from a gaslighting clown, and struggling to stay upright most of the time. Her benevolent uncle offers her room and board, in exchange for a few hours working in the bookshop each day. Lacking any other options, Takako accepts.

Gradually crawling out of the fugue, Takako discovers a latent love of books and reading. The musty smell of the Morisaki bookshop becomes comforting, and she befriends several regulars at the nearby coffee shop. She gets to know her eccentric uncle, and discovers that they have more in common than she originally thought (his wife left him, suddenly and dramatically, a few years prior). The bookshop and human connection nurse her back to health, and after several months she is ready to leave and re-enter the real world.

Part Two of Days At The Morisaki Bookshop moves us forward, and Takako returns to the bookshop after one and a half years away. Her life has moved on, but she’s drawn back by the sudden reappearance of her uncle’s estranged wife. Her uncle begs her to discover the reason for his wife’s return (like, bro, ask her yourself?), and as Takako forms a friendship with her, some tragic truths come to light.

The story is all told in very simple and straightforward prose (though, as always with translated works, it’s not really possible for this monolingual reader to know whether that’s a feature of the original text or the work of the translator). Days At The Morisaki Bookshop moves fairly quickly, even though – as you can see – nothing much really Happens, exactly. It’s a short book, just 150-odd pages, so there’s not a lot of room for things to drag.

I guess I’d describe Days At The Morisaki Bookshop as a mild read – a little flat, but perfectly fine for a lazy afternoon. The best thing I can say in its favour is that it’s a surprisingly realistic portrayal of working in a secondhand bookshop, in my experience (though the customers in Jimbocho seem a lot more stable and well-adjusted than the ones you might encounter elsewhere). It’s a quiet book, one to pick up when you need a story that’s minimally challenging and easy to digest.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Days At The Morisaki Bookshop:

  • “This book was like listening to very boring person droning on and on about nothing important. Like following someone going about their day to day life, cleaning the house, dusting the furniture, eating the same thing for lunch every day, in a house with no windows and padded walls so no sound gets through.” – Tweedlebomb
  • “too shallow or silly …like a very diluted curry” – Nandu
  • “This was ok. Steady and without flourish. A bit like a cheese sandwich. You could fill yourself up on it, but you wouldn’t want to live on it forever” – S Robinson

The Anomaly – Hervé Le Tellier

The Anomaly is one of the pandemic novels you might’ve missed when it came out in 2020. It was published in the original French (L’Anomalie), then translated into English by Adriana Hunter. It’s kind of a sci-fi thriller meets philosophical novel, and it’s a weird one.

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So, as per the blurb: “During a terrifying storm, Air France 006 – inexplicably – duplicates… one plane lands in March, the other doesn’t arrive until June.” Straight off the bat, The Anomaly has some Lost vibes. There’s a plane-related mishap, of course, but also a wide cast of characters, each of whom has an intriguing/troubling back-story. There’s a hit man on board, a translator, a film editor, a traumatised child, a Nigerian hip-hop artist, and so on. The only thing that really connects them all is that they ended up on this plane and it randomly copied itself mid-flight.

I’m going to give you the trigger warnings I wish I’d had before I read The Anomaly: there is a dog death straight away, on page three, without any chance to prepare yourself. That in itself was almost enough to ruin the rest of it for me. There’s also some murder, violence, and child abuse, and I suppose it might also be triggering for anyone who’s afraid of flying. Just so you know!

Anyway, alongside the stories of the passengers runs the story of the scientist charged with figuring out how and why Air France 006 produced an identical copy of itself mid-air. Adrian Miller is a kind-of bumbling statistician who was charged with developing protocols to manage government responses to aircraft incidents post-9/11. He was asked to develop a protocol for what to do if none of the other protocols applied, and he was so sure that such a scenario could never happen, that this “alternative” protocol was “call Adrian Miller”. Sure enough, the situation in The Anomaly sees this protocol put into effect.

There are some fun moments, pithy one liners that jump of the page. I like how le Tellier customised Tolstoy with “All smooth flights are alike. Every turbulent flight is turbulent in its own way,” (page 43). I also got a chuckle out of: “Freedom of thought on the internet is all the more complete now that it’s clear that people have stopped thinking,” (page 301).

Mostly, though, The Anomaly is brain-bending stuff – scientifically, spiritually, and philosophically. le Tellier covers a lot of ground very quickly, rather than focusing on any one aspect of the mystery in depth. One minute, he’s treating Air France 006 as evidence that we’re all living in a simulation, then it’s God sending us a message, then the plane fell through a wormhole… The character I related to most was throughout the whole thing was the baffled President, who just nodded along with what everyone was saying and tried desperately to look like he was keeping up.

It’s a fascinating premise, but The Anomaly never quite achieves lift off, in my view. I would have liked to see one or two characters, and/or one or two of the philosophical questions raised by the conceit, addressed in depth. As it stands, le Tellier took a light, broad strokes approach, which might appeal to others but didn’t really work for me.

le Tellier has announced that a television adaptation is in the works, and fans of Lost should definitely watch that. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend rushing out to read The Anomaly first, though. It’s fine, just skippable, and maybe it will be more resonant on screen.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Anomaly:

  • “I’ve wasted enough time with this book; no sense in wasting more time reviewing it.” – Kindle Customer
  • “I’m sorry I bought this book. Just a couple pages into it is a graphic description of a dog hit by a car. I don’t want to read things like that! I don’t care what it contributes to the story. When will novel writers learn that YOU DON”T KILL THE DOG, or any other pet for that matter.” – bethweiser
  • “Lost its excitement midway into story and got confusing of who was who at end because so much of wasted time on scientist that didn’t even solve anything.” – Tmumble

Story of O – Pauline Réage

So, it turns out spicy books aren’t all best-selling romantasy and cartoon covers! Story Of O is classic smut, the O.G. 50 Shades Of Grey, and I can guarantee it pushes the envelope farther than anything you’ve read lately.

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Story Of O (or Histoire d’O, in the original French) is an erotic novel first published back in 1954. Pauline Réage is a nom de plume, the pen name for French author Anne Desclos, who didn’t reveal her true identity until 40 years after it went to print. Having read it, I can kind of see why. You wouldn’t want your Mum knowing this is the kind of stuff you write about!

She wrote Story Of O, she said, as a “love letter” to Jean Paulhan, a man who deeply admired the work of the Marquis de Sade (which tells you just about everything you need to know about him, hmph). Apparently, Paulhan didn’t think that a woman could write smut as well as Sade. When Réage proved him wrong, he was so impressed, he sent it on to a publisher.

The translator isn’t named in my edition, which annoys me to no end. I looked into the publication history, and it would seem that the first English translation was completed by Baird Bryant and published in tandem with the French edition initially. Then, an improved English translation by Austryn Wainhouse appeared in 1957 (under the title ‘Wisdom Of The Lash’), and then a new translation by Sabine d’Estree for the American release in 1965. I’m pretty sure that last one is the version I’ve got, as it seems to be the most widely available today.

Alright, enough dancing around it: Story Of O is a tale of female submission, revolving around a woman’s indoctrination into a BDSM chateau called Roissy. Réage doesn’t give a lot of context for what draws O to that lifestyle, beyond her being in love with a man who’s into it. Roissy is kind of like a clubhouse for a secret society of men who… I’m really struggling to put this delicately. They have the “right” to use inducted women any way they like. Any way they like.

Clearly, Story Of O was written before explicit and enthusiastic consent became sexy. Réage gives us insight into O’s willingness to participate through the narration, but the characters don’t seem to know (or care) for sure whether she’s into everything that’s happening. There’s certainly some stuff going on that O isn’t thrilled about, but she always inevitably submits. She also takes a liking to a fashion model, Jacqueline, and does her darnedest to seduce her into The Lifestyle, too.

I must say, a lot of the spicy content was kind of off-set by the formal language. It’s definitely more funny than sexy to read a dildo described as “an ebonite rod fashioned in the shape of an uprisen male sex” (page 37).

Unsurprisingly, Story Of O attracted a lot of criticism, especially from feminist writers. Réage was accused of ‘glorifying the abuse of women’, a criticism commonly leveled at BDSM practitioners and those who write about them (there’s a lot to say on that subject, but this isn’t really the time or the place). They even overcame retorts that O undeniably consented to at least some of what happened to her by claiming that a ‘pornographic society turns a woman’s heart against herself’ (Susan Griffin).

French authorities brought obscenity charges against the publisher; the charges were ultimately rejected by the courts, but they upheld a publicity ban for several years. Given that Réage (i.e. Desclos) was hiding her identity, she probably wasn’t going to be doing book tours or press events anyway, so that worked out.

But, as so often happens, the storm of controversy simply got more people interested in Story Of O. It was widely read and discussed (over a million copies sold worldwide), but it never quite reached the cultural penetration (ahem) of other classic smut texts like Lady Chatterley’s Lover – I suspect because it’s so brutal that many readers simply can’t stomach it. I reckon it would be an interesting read for people with a specific interest in BDSM psychology, and/or the history of erotic texts… but as a spicy read, or as an instructional text, Story Of O falls short in many respects. It’s definitely not one for the mildly-curious recreational reader.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Story Of O:

  • “Various reviews suggest this is some how an erotic classic of high regard. I submit that is pure crap, and not worth the slightest effort.” – himself70
  • “I’ve read BDSM stories before but this one was truly disturbing. I mean 50 Shades of Grey was silly but at least that chick got shoes, clothes and jewelry out of that mess. In the quite sad story of o, the main protagonist doesn’t get squat and actually, doesn’t even give the impression that she’s enjoying the sex. She’s just in it because people beat the sense out of her every time she protests. And that’s just the first part of the book. In the second part, her sense of self has completely disappeared and she is an object with no will of her own, no feelings, no opinion. Blank. Compared to her Bella (the high school dropout who was into dead guys in those books) and Anastasia (the idiot from the shady trilogy) are Misses Personality. Anastasia would gush: “OMG! Christian Grey wants to whip me…. But I’m a 22 year old virgin who hasn’t gotten a spanking since… Well, ever, actually. And he did say he wanted to see me bleed… That can’t be good… But then again, it is Christian Grey… Look at those abs, look at that jazz, my my my… Okay, fine… I’ll do it.” And Bella would probably bawl “I didn’t know what love was until I gazed into your soul less eyes. From this moment on, Edward Cullen, thy wish is my command. Thou shall never walk on earth like a regular dude cause I will put you on a pedestal and kneel at your feet so you can walk allover me every single day of your never ending life.”
    O on the other hand… She is not in love with her “lovers”, they are not in love with her either. The guy just goes “It’s such a beautiful summer day today… The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, nature is in bloom. It just makes me want to beat you senseless. O, my love, go get bullwhip. I want to paint 50 shades of red on your back” and O hurries to get the instrument of torture, making sure she picks the biggest whip in his arsenal. That’s just how they roll.
    It is not about submission and dominance. Rather, it’s about a sadist who was lucky enough to find a girl with a high threshold for pain, a good health insurance policy, no shame, no self esteem and no feelings.” – Reika Nogami
  • “There is some very weird translation in the book. For “belly” please read genitalia/ vagina. For “womb” read… I’m not sure. There is a lot of womb-grabbing going on, which is simply not possible.” – Foxglove Summer

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
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