Book: Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri

Tokyo Ueno Station
by Yu Miri
translated by Morgan Giles
published by Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House, New York
2019 (English translation – Japanese language original: 2014)

What a book to read on a stormy, autumn day!

This lyrical, sorrow-drenched book is narrated by a ghost who haunts the park near Ueno Station, where he lived once gave up on the idea of living.

Kazu Mori lived a hardscrabble life, working from an impoverished childhood through an insecure adulthood in an endless stream of physically taxing jobs, sending money home to his family while becoming a stranger to them. His reflections on his experiences raise images of hard seasonal harvests, dialect shame, inter-regional hostility, cultural bemusement over different sects of Buddhism, and grief. His choices created a deep alienation from those around him, an estrangement he recognized far too late.

Even as he drifts about, watching others live, he still notices and remembers blossoms blowing in the wind, the soft fabrics of wealthy museum goers, the sound of the rain on a tarp, the bright light at the end of a cigarette, the crunch of crisp leaves underfoot, and the sweet smells of foods… His world of overheard conversations, exposure to the full force of the seasons, and the sound of birds is beautiful, even though he may not have fully appreciated such things in life.

This beautifully written and translated book is a meditation on grief and the extremely transitory nature of life.

Book: Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

Breasts and Eggs
by Mieko Kawakami
translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
published by Europa Editions, New York
2019

This award-winning novel tells the story of Natsuko, a young-ish-but-not-young writer who survived her youth of poverty and hardship, only to be uncertain of her purpose and judged by her peers for not living a conventional woman’s life, as they have.

While Natsuko’s dear older sister struggles as a single mother by working at a failing bar, repeating some of their mother’s choices and hardships, Natsuko wonders if motherhood is the relationship that will fill her own life with meaning. While trying to come to a decision, Natsuko approaches those around her with something close to an interviewer’s curiosity, as they reveal their own views, compromises, and dissatisfaction with their choices and obligations.

This novel manages to describe so much: abuse, living hand-to-mouth, the limited options available to women who leave their marriages, they way you can go back to your hometown (but it will NOT be the same), dreary literary readings, creepy pressures from relatives to bear children and tend to thankless in-laws, the (unnecessary and ruinous) shame associated with adoption and artificial insemination, and the atmosphere of countless rooms near train stations where people meet for coffee, rounds of cocktails, deep confessions, and inappropriate offers! (I am transported back to gray November days in Tokyo just writing this…)

The novel covers many years, and so many conversations, Throughout that time, season after season, the pressures on Natsuko to resolve her life situation (and/or finish her new book) never let up.

Breasts and Eggs is a well written, engrossing book about struggling to make a life that works while withstanding (gendered) societal pressures and writers block. It’s well told, and I’m glad I read it.

Book: The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle
by Haruki Murakami
translated by Jay Rubin
published by Vintage Books, New York
1997

This is an imaginative novel that somehow weaves its story within contemporary suburban Japan, historical occupied Manchuria, and an supernatural parallel space filled with danger.

Toru Okada is an ordinary man, who left his law office job to find something more satisfying while his wife’s job pays the bills. During his time of reflection, his cat disappears; then his wife starts working very peculiar hours, and stops coming home altogether. That’s when strangers begin to reach out to him with cryptic warnings about the flow of water, he hears rumors of a cursed neighborhood home, and the malevolence of his in-laws appears to take on a supernatural force.

This is not the sort of Isekai story that I’ve written about in the past: instead of the ordinary Japanese protagonist falling into another world, the ordinary world is instead revealed to be much stranger than the protagonist had noticed.

Odd characters, almost all of them women, interact with Okada in emotionally supportive and/or physically intimate ways as he navigates the altered reality that is gradually revealed to him.

(Okada seems especially comfortable when women of any age are with him, even without knowing their real names (!), who they are working for, or much about their motivations. This gives me some ideas of why his marriage didn’t succeed (other plot events notwithstanding), but this combination of being easygoing and oblivious is entirely plausible for the character.)

The author of this book provides a classical soundtrack for the chapters, which matches Okada’s musical tastes: you can access this musical guide on his website (harukimurakami.com).

This is surely the least predictable novel I’ve read in years. While the protagonist seems so ordinary, the story that unfolds around and through him and his supporting characters is engaging, suspenseful, atmospheric (the humidity of summer rains or chill coldness of being underground are so well described), and is engrossing. This is my first Murakami novel, but won’t be my last.

Book: The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino

There are several other gorgeous covers available to this book. My image doesn’t show the fabric-like texture of the image, which extends to the woman’s skin…

The Goddess Chronicle
by Natsuo Kirino
translated by Rebecca Copeland
published by Canongate, Edinburgh
2012

This is a beautiful, sad, vivid retelling of a Japanese myth (Izanami and Izanagi) that I was previously unfamiliar with.

This story is narrated from the underworld, by someone who died young, and who writes of her misfortune. On a beautiful, isolated, tropical island, she was one of countless underfed locals. Her childhood came to an abrupt end when she was forced into a traditionally necessary taboo role… which prepared her, in some respects, for another role in the afterlife, where she learns that women being forced into taboo roles has a VERY long tradition.

This story is lyrical, harsh, and has haunting imagery. The modest narrator’s experiences of hunger, love, attachment, and betrayal give her deep sensitivity to the suffering of the goddess she comes to serve, and their stories interact in unexpected ways. It is a moving story written in a timeless way.