Ms. Ice Sandwich

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Thank you to Pushkin Press for providing me with a copy of Mieko Kawakami’s novella, Ms. Ice Sandwich, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – A young boy going through puberty develops a crush on a quirky woman who sells ice sandwiches at a local grocery store.

LIKE/DISLIKEMs. Ice Sandwich is part of Pushkin Press’ series highlighting Japanese authors. I love reading writers from other countries, but I have to admit that I felt like a lot of this novella was lost in translation. Actually, I’m left unsure whether or not it was lost in translation or just not a complete story. Or perhaps, it was brilliant writing, because it kept me thinking about it long after I put it down.

The most intriguing aspect was the character, Ms. Ice Sandwich. She is a very unusual woman, who wears thick blue eye-shadow and is mocked by many people in the town. The protagonist, is fascinated by her and goes out of his way to visit her sandwich stall. I’m not sure that I quite understand what an ice sandwich is, but I think it was more of a Japanese treat, than a savory or meal item. She, being an adult, has no idea that this kid has a crush on her. Knowing that she is older and the town-weirdo, he keeps his obsession fairly hidden, only spilling partial truths to his friend, a girl he has nicknamed Tutti-Fruiti. I wasn’t sure how this crush was going to play out. I kept thinking with the way that the town treats Ms. Ice Sandwich, that she may have been transgendered, but this never came about in the story. It seems her treatment is solely because she dresses quirky and wears too much make-up. This wasn’t a strong character or story choice. I was let-down when my anticipation of a greater reveal, never came to fruition.

Kawakami captures a young boy’s first crush very well, with plenty of realism. He goes through so many emotions as he is trying to process this new feeling. He also has awkwardness with his peers and is dealing with caring for his sick grandmother.

The end of Ms. Ice Sandwich was a let-down, with a dull resolution with regard to both the crush and Ms. Ice Sandwich’s future. I was wanting a more dramatic or unexpected resolution, but the story just ended on a dull note. It fizzled.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. If you can read Ms. Ice Sandwich in Japanese, I think you might have a better experience. Overall, I enjoyed the story, but I don’t think it will be memorable when I look back over my favorite books that I read in 2018.

Record of a Night Too Brief

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Thank you to Pushkin Press for providing me with a copy of Hiromi Kawakami’s short story collection, Record of a Night Too Brief, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Japanese author Hiromi Kawakami’s short story collection, Record of a Night Too Brief, is comprised of three short stories that are surreal and magical. Translated to english by Lucy North.

LIKE/DISLIKE– Normally, I break what I like and dislike about a book, into two separate areas, but with Record of a Night Too Brief, the likes and dislikes blend together, and I thought it would be easiest to simply discuss the book as a whole.

The stories in Record of a Night Too Brief are quite bizarre. They are works of surrealism, with bits of magical realism, and I wondered how much of Japanese folklore was being worked in, that I wasn’t picking up on. Normally when I read translated fiction, I feel like I understand the cultural context, but perhaps because these stories were so unusual, I felt like I was getting lost in translation.

I have a confession: Until reading NetGalley’s description of the collection a few minutes ago, I didn’t realize that this was a collection of three stories. I thought it was a bunch of very short stories with two longer ones at the end. I’m not sure how I missed it ( perhaps because it was so bizarre and confusing) but I didn’t not catch on that the short chapters at the beginning of the story were actually one story, rather than individual shorts. Being totally honest, I didn’t understand them. I read them more as stories that elicited an emotion, rather than stories that make sense from a storytelling standpoint. It was like walking around a modern art exhibit.

The last two stories, I enjoyed far more. The first was about a woman who is haunted by her older brother, who has died. This brother had been arranged to marry a local girl, who does not know what he looked like, so the family simply marries her to his younger brother, without telling her. The dead brother haunts the household, but only his sister can see him. In one chilling scene, his ghost attempts to make-out with his would-be bride, which his sister can see and she watches as her new sister-in-law struggles to breathe, because a ghost is pressing on her chest.

The last story features a woman who comes home from work to discover a snake in her house. This snake can shift into a woman. It turns out there is a whole world of people who can turn themselves into snakes and they try to lure other people to join them. Animals and transformation are themes woven throughout this collection.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Record of a Night Too Brief wasn’t my cup of tea, but I did find the story about the ghost to be engaging. Overwhelmingly, I felt like I wasn’t understanding these stories. If you are able to read Kawakami’s stories in Japanese or know more about the Japanese culture, I suspect you would have a very different experience. This collection did win Japan’s Akutagawa prize.