In the Miso Soup – Ryu Murakami (Book Review)

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I’ll be honest, I was attracted by the strange title and interesting front-cover. I’m also trying to read shorter books in preparation of facing down War and Peace later in the year. But this was a pleasant (?) surprise:

 In the Miso Soup tells of Frank, an overweight American tourist who has hired Kenji to take him on a guided tour of Tokyo’s sleazy nightlife. But Frank’s behavior is so strange that Kenji begins to entertain a horrible suspicion—that his new client is in fact the serial killer currently terrorizing the city. It is not until later, however, that Kenji learns exactly how much he has to fear and how irrevocably his encounter with this great white whale of an American will change his life.

Kenji, a young Japanese man, makes living from taking foreigners around Tokyo’s nightlife, most those with the intention of finding strip clubs or hiring prostitutes. Kenji being well connected makes a fair living from this, though un-registered as a tour guide.

When he is hired for three nights on the run up to New Years Eve by an American named Frank, he first suspects a similar job to usual – a business man in the country for a few days looking to find a prostitute before leaving back to his home life in America. But, something about Frank is very strange, and Kenji becomes unnerved by suspicions of Franks true identity and desires.

The book, unsurprisingly, is very dark and described in such detail as to only be recommended with those who approach it expecting this. The descriptions of murders around Tokyo and the “sleazy nightlife” are skimped out on, and are given as graphically as possible. Though perhaps in a way to shock the reader to the realities of the life there.

It was truly saddening to hear even fictitious lives of prostitutes in Japan who are often young and down on their luck, meaning they sell “there only marketable thing”: their body. The men who approach them are looking only for a bit of fun, but for them it’s a life which has become inescapable.

I found myself drawn into the darkness of the world portrayed, and I found it hard to stop reading out of curiosity for what will happen next. I don’t often read thrillers but if many are like this one, perhaps I should…

I recommend this for anyone interesting in Japanese life or literature, but only if you approach it knowing it’s a little dark: not as bad as American Psycho, but certainly in a similar vein!

The ending was very poetic in a way, and left a lot of things open intentionally it seems, as fitting for the story.

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The Postman’s Fiancée – Denis Théirault (Book Review)

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I mentioned a little while back in a post titled Five Book Tags that I recommend a book called “The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman” to everyone – well I found out the author was writing a sequel, and after some waiting, it has arrived!

Twenty-two-year-old Tania has moved to Montreal to study, fine-tune her French and fall in love. Finding work as a waitress in an unpretentious down-town restaurant, she meets Bilodo, a shy postman who spends his days perfecting his calligraphy and writing haiku. The two hit it off. But then one stormy day their lives take a dramatic turn, and as their destinies become entwined Tania and Bilodo are led into a world where nothing is as it seems.

The book is a sequel I never expected with the ending of the previous being so rounded perfectly – so I was a bit curious to how this would fit in:

This sequel fits into the first in an unexpected way, which though works, felt a bit like forcing an almost-correct jigsaw piece next to another.

The characters are almost equally creepy in their approach to romance – Tania taking advantage of Bilodo’s amnesia to trick him into thinking he once lover her is a little bit strange to call a romance – though that’s how many have classified the book.

There is humour throughout too which fits perfectly, and the writing style is indescribably surreal, giving a weird atmosphere to the book so unlike your typical novel.

I’m afraid to say though that following the first one, this one is a bit less perfectly rounded – it leads some unanswered questions that the prequel didn’t, and though it was a good read – it wasn’t exactly what I had hoped!

The ending relied too much on Bilodo being somewhat blind to the obvious, with the haiku of Granpré, the mysterious English professor, being such a giveaway, he’d have to almost never have read them to not see the clues throughout – which frankly, I don’t believe he would have done.

Still, they are both worth reading – and I am glad I have done so.

 

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler (Book Review)

I picked this up in Waterstones when looking for shorter books to read. It had a review beside it by a member of staff, and other reviews reinforced my choice to buy it:

Andreas Egger knows every path and peak in his mountain valley, the source of his sustenance, his livelihood – his home.

Set in the mid-twentieth century and told with beauty and tenderness, his story is one of man’s relationship with an ancient landscape, of the value of solitude, the arrival of the modern world, and above all, of the moments, great and small, that make us who we are.

Firstly, this book is very well written – the occasional humour throughout was genuinely very clever, but the sadder times of Egger’s life felt disturbingly real to the point of sympathy for a fictional character. The book essentially follows the whole of Egger’s life in about 150 pages, and it is full of the ups-and-downs as in all lives.

From childhood, to work-life, to marriage, to war – the book is diverse in it’s content. If you are a fan of Stoner by John Williams, you will like this too. The atmosphere of this book was very real, and though not necessarily always the type of book I’d lean towards, I was engrossed throughout.

The book is a translation of Robert Seethaler’s original which took Germany by storm – reaching the top 10 shortly after being published.

The change in the quiet mountain valley as modern life enters in is quite melancholy, and leads to a lot of reflection on the change tourism has had on places whose beauty was once exclusive to those who lived there, and who also often never left.

If you can get a copy, I recommend giving it a go. It’s not long, after all, and is really very good.

Laughter in the Dark – Vladimir Nabokov (Book Review)

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If Nabokov wrote about paint drying, I would still read it. I’ve read a lot of his books, and after stumbling across this one in a shop, added this to the collection:

Albinus, a wealthy artist is a married man with a young child. Arriving in town for a meeting one morning, he notices he is early, and so goes into a cinema to kill some time. Whilst in there, he notices a young, pretty usherette, and becomes obsessed with visiting the cinema to see her.

Eventually, a semi-abusive relationship develops, with Margot, the young usherette, abusing Albunis’ feelings towards her for financial gain, and the possibility of using his influence for her to become an actress.

When tragedy ensues, Albinus is pressed between moral and emotional pressures.

 

The title becomes so much darker once the book is finished, and you notice what the ‘laughter in the dark’ is laughter at. Albinus was the only semi-nice character in the book, and considering he cheated on his wife for the sake of the thrill, that is saying something.

The characters are all well written, and each unique in so many aspects. Much like Nabokov’s other novels, fairly common human characteristics become all too focused on for anyone to feel comfortable when carrying them out (or, has a hypocritical cynic like myself saying ‘yeh, exactly! People are stupid’).

The shortness of the book and typical style of prose make it well worth the read, though perhaps not as an introduction to Nabokov. The characters are well written and very stylized, and usually mundane situations become poetry when Nabokov describes them.