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Archive for January, 2020

I got Hiromi Kawakami’sThe Nakano Thrift Shop‘ as a Christmas present from one of my favourite friends. I picked it up a couple of days back and couldn’t stop till I finished reading it.

Mr. Nakano owns a thrift shop which sells all kinds of things which others have given away, things like old furniture, a rice cooker from the ’70s, used clothes, old photographs, old plates, kitchenware, cigarette lighters, stuff like that. Nakano’s shop has a dedicated customer base, who like these things and buy them. Sometimes new customers come looking for specific things – like a plate with a particular design from the ’70s. People who are moving house or throwing away their old stuff call Mr.Nakano, and sell their stuff to him for throwaway prices, or give it to him for free, because it is cheaper than disposing them away properly, because they have to pay more if they did that. Our narrator Hitomi works in Nakano’s shop alongwith Takeo. Sometimes Nakano’s sister Masayo comes to help out. These four people are almost like family. The book follows the thrift shop adventures of these four, the interesting people they meet during the course of the day, their lives, their loves, their heartbreaks, their affairs, and everything in between. I won’t tell you more, you should read the book and discover their stories.

The Nakano Thrift Shop‘ is a charming book. I loved most of the characters in the book, especially our narrator Hitomi, Nakano’s sister Masayo, Nakano’s lover the fascinating Sakiko, Takeo who works in Nakano’s shop, and Hagiwara, a young man who tries to give an expensive, ancient bowl to the thrift shop. Hiromi Kawakami’s prose flows serenely like a river and once I started reading the book, I was taken away by this serene flow and couldn’t stop reading till I finished it. It was tranquil and serene and calming. It was like meeting your favourite person and listening to them talk.

One of the things that I loved about the book was the way it showcased Japanese culture. I love it when authors do that. I learnt many fascinating things through the book – for example, the different kinds of Japanese noodles, ramen, soba, tanmen, yakisoba, other Japanese food like katsudon, bento lunch, mochi rice cakes, something called the kotatsu (a table type thing with an attached heater – check it out in Wikipedia, it is fascinating), the Chinchirorin game, the furoshiki wrapping, Japanese actresses Kaoru Yumi and Seiko Matsuda, kazahana snow (the description in the book goes like this – “It had been snowing on and off since the morning. It’s called kazahana, when the snow is so fine like this, it seems as if it drifted in on the wind, Masayo said.“) It was fascinating reading about all this and doing research and learning more about Japanese culture.

I loved ‘The Nakano Thrift Shop‘. I look forward to reading more books by Hiromi Kawakami, especially ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo‘.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Over the course of an hour, three customers came in; one of them bought a pair of old glasses. I wondered why anyone wanted to buy glasses that weren’t the right prescription, but it turned out that old glasses were a sleeper bestseller at Mr.Nakano’s shop.
“People buy things exactly because they’re of no use,” Mr.Nakano liked to say. Is that how it is? I said.
“Hitomi, do you like useful things?” Mr.Nakano asked with a grin.”

“The thing is, there is always the chance that this person – the one you accused – might be dying.
When I was young, I didn’t think about people dying. But when you get to be my age, people can drop dead, just like that. In an accident. From an illness. By their own hand. By someone else’s hand. Or just naturally. People die much more easily at this age than when they are young.
They might drop dead right at the moment when you blamed them for something. They might die the very next day. Or a month later. Or smack in the middle of the following season. In any case, you never know when people of ripe age will just croak. It keeps you up at night.
Having to worry about whether someone is healthy enough to tolerate my fierce hatred or criticism before I decide to blame them – that’s what I call getting old.”

“…in contrast to the creepiness around him, Tadokoro gave off a pleasant smell. Rather than any particular cologne, the aroma seemed to have more of a warm presence, something like fragrant tea or freshly roasted rice cakes. The scent was completely different from the impression Tadokoro himself emanated.”

Have you read ‘The Nakano Thrift Shop‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Hiromi Kawakami book?

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I got Sayaka Murata’sConvenience Store Woman‘ as a Christmas present from one of my favourite friends. I thought I’ll read it as the first book for ‘January in Japan‘.

In Sayaka Murata’s story, Keiko the main character in the story, works in a convenience store. She is thirty-six years old and she has been working here for eighteen years. She is good at her job. She is introverted and doesn’t have many friends. When she was young, she used to speak her mind, but then she discovered that it doesn’t go well with people, because she was brutally honest. So she has learnt to hide her true thoughts and behave like a regular, conforming person. Her sister understands her and sometimes helps her in making her ‘conforming mask’ better. The story describes Keiko’s work at the convenience store, her relationship with her co-workers, her relationship with her sister and parents, her time with the few friends she has. We also get to know about Keiko’s real thoughts on different things and get to see up close, how an introvert’s, a non-conforming person’s mind works. Then something happens in Keiko’s life which changes it upside down and what happens after that forms the rest of the story.

Convenience Store Woman‘ is one of the great introvert novels. It reminded me a lot of Patrick Süskind’sThe Pigeon‘. I fell in love with Keiko from the first page. She works in a job which she loves, but which others regard as a dead-end job, and her life follows a beautiful routine and rhythm that she is comfortable with. But the world tries intruding into her life frequently, judges her, tries to change her and make her conform, and she resists it with all her being. And we cheer for her and we hope that she wins. There is a character called Shiraha who makes an appearance at some point in the book, and we hate him as soon as we see him (atleast I did), but he speaks some of the most profound lines in the book. It is like the villain in a movie offering deep insights into the human condition. It was hard to love him, because he was a mean, selfish character, but it was also hard to ignore him, because he was wise.

Convenience Store Woman‘ is also a beautiful love letter to the convenience store. The convenience store itself is a character in the story and when Keiko says at some point that it speaks to her, we realize that the book is a love story, with Keiko and the convenience store as the two lovers. Sayaka Murata has written a beautiful essay at the end of the book, which explains this in more detail.

I loved ‘Convenience Store Woman‘. My reading this year has started wonderfully I think, because I think this will end up as one of my favourite books of the year.

Have you read ‘Convenience Store Woman‘? What do you think about it?

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I wanted to spend a whole month reading Japanese literature and so I thought I’ll start the New Year with January in Japan. The exciting part of any reading adventure is making a potential reading list and I enjoyed doing this – this is my favourite part.

Here is the list of Japanese books from which I am planning to read some. This comprises most of the unread Japanese books I have on my bookshelves. Outside of this, I have a few Murakamis, a couple of complete Manga collections, and Murasaki Shikibu’s epic, ‘The Tale of Genji’. The Japanese literature part of my bookshelf is really thin. I need to redeem that. So now, the list 🙂

(1) Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
(2) The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami
(3) A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees by Kenko
(4) Japanese Haiku
(5) Japanese Fairy Tales
(6) Sanshiro by Natsume Soseki
(7) If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura
(8) South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami
(9) Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa
(10) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
(11) A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe
(12) The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima
(13) The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
(14) The Sea of Fertility tetralogy by Yukio Mishima (Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, The Decay of the Angel)
(15) Absolutely on Music by Haruki Murakami and Ozawa
(16) A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
(17) I Saw It by Keiji Nakazawa

I love the list, because it has something for every mood – fiction, poetry, fairytales, memoir, nonfiction, manga.

Have you read any of these books? Are you participating in ‘January in Japan’? What are you reading?

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2019 was a very good reading year for me. Though I had a major reading slump in the middle of the year, I ended up reading 74 books, the highest ever I have read in a year, in my whole life. I still don’t feel euphoria or something, which is odd, because I should. But I am happy.

The break-up of books with respect to different categories, goes like this :

Fiction – 55; Nonfiction – 19

Female authors – 26; Male authors – 46; Both – 2

In English – 37; In original language / translation – 37 (12 languages)

I am happy about the English-Translation breakup – it is perfect! The highest number of non-English books I read were from Japanese – 8 books. Followed closely by German and Russian at 7 books each and French at 5 books.

I participated in many reading events this year – atleast five readalongs (Braiding Sweetgrass, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Radetzky March, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Judas Window), and five themed reading months (Women in Translation Month, Science September, Diverse Detectives Month, Red October Russian Reads, German Literature Month). A significant part of my best reading happened during these readalongs and themed reading months and I am so thankful for the hosts of all these events for that.

These are all the books I read this year, in no particular order. I have put them in three categories – Books I Loved, Books I Liked, Books I Hated (Yes, unfortunately, there is one.)

Books I Loved

(1) Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto

(2) Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto

(3) N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto

(4) Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

(5) Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata

(6) Thirst for Love by Yukio Mishima

(7) I Hid My Voice by Parinoush Saniee

(8) Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

(9) Child of the River by Irma Joubert

(10) The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells

(11) An Answer from the Silence : A Story from the Mountains by Max Frisch

(12) Nowhere Ending Sky by Marlen Haushofer

(13) The Taste of Apple Seeds by Katharina Hagena

(14) One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

(15) The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang

(16) The Poet’s Dog by Patricia McLachlan

(17) Jennie by Paul Gallico

(18) The Island by Gary Paulsen

(19) Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf

(20) The Man on the Other Side by Uri Orlev

(21) Let it Snow : Three Holiday Romances by Maureen Johnson, John Green and Lauren Myracle

(22) Land of Smoke by Sara Gallardo

(23) Rasskazy : New Fiction from a New Russia edited by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker

(24) On Cricket by Mike Brearley

(25) String Theory : David Foster Wallace on Tennis

(26) Denis Compton by Tim Heald

(27) I Am Yours : A Shared Memoir by Reema Zaman

(28) A Manual for Heartache by Cathy Rentzenbrink

(29) The Language of Kindness : A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson

(30) The Anna Karenina Fix : Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop

(31) Hamlet by William Shakespeare

(32) The Seagull by Anton Chekhov

(33) Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner

(34) Citizens of the Sea : Wondrous Creatures from the Census of Marine Life by Nancy Knowlton

(35) Lives of the Scientists : Experiments, Explosions and What their Neighbors Thought by Kathleen Krull

(36) Braiding Sweetgrass : Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

(37) Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand : Fifty Wonders that Reveal an Extraordinary Universe by Marcus Chown

(38) Batchalo by Michael Le Galli and Arnaud Betend

Books I Liked

(1) The Shooting Party by Anton Chekhov

(2) Ruslan and Lyudmila by Alexander Pushkin

(3) The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

(4) Franny and Zooey by J.D.Salinger

(5) The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

(6) The Historian and the Hunter by Zeenat Mahal

(7) All of My Heart by Sara Naveed

(8) Stained by Abda Khan

(9) Elevation by Stephen King

(10) The Queen’s Last Salute by Moupia Basu

(11) The Poisoned Heart by Nandini Sen Gupta

(12) Kolayudhir Kalam (Murder Season) by Sujatha

(13) The Judas Window by Carter Dickson

(14) Picture Imperfect : Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay

(15) The Menagerie : Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay

(16) The Rhythm of Riddles : Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay

(17) We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

(18) Desire by Haruki Murakami

(19) She Speaks

(20) Waiting for Jazz and other stories by Amishi Batha

(21) The Roger Federer Story : Quest for Perfection by Rene Stauffer

(22) Isaac Newton by James Gleick

(23) Thanks a Thousand : A Gratitude Journey by A.J.Jacobs

(24) The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre

(25) Una Bo : the Magic Tree of Life by Rebecca Paul

(26) The Impact of Science on Society by Bertrand Russell

(27) The Universe Below : Discovering the Secrets of the Deep Sea by William J. Broad

(28) Deep Simplicity : Chaos, Complexity and the Emergency of Life by John Gribbin

(29) Batman : The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb

(30) Batman : Year One by Frank Miller

(31) Batman : The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

(32) Batman : The Killing Joke by Alan Moore

(33) Neither Land Nor Sea by Olivier Megaton

(34) Jeremiah Omnibus Volume 1 by Hermann

(35) The Lost Dutchman’s Mine by Jean-Michel Charlier and Jean Giraud

Book I Hated

(1) Napoleon by Paul Johnson – Please don’t read this. This is the most biased, worst biography I have ever read.

So, that’s it! This was my reading year! How was your reading year in 2019?

Happy New Year! May you read some amazing books this year!

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