Three Assassins by Kotaro Isaka (International Bestselling Author of Bullet Train)

I think it’s a good idea to make Isaka’s books into film, such as happened with Bullet Train. They are certainly more plot driven than anything else, and if it is action you seek, there is no other Japanese author I can think of to provide the drama that Isaka does.

This wasn’t exactly a book I would choose to read at Christmas time, for there certainly is neither love nor peace within these pages. But, it came in ‘New’ at the library, so I checked it out, then promptly spilled a mug of coffee all over it. “Was there cream in it?” my friend who works at the library asked. “Yes,” I replied. So, I have a stinking suspicion I just bought myself a book which isn’t even worthy, literally, of giving away.

The three assassins are the Cicada, the Whale, and the Pusher. They are introduced to us as their roles revolve around a man named Suzuki, who is seeking retribution with a company named Fräulein, or Maiden. The company has a boss whose “idiot son,” has crushed Suzuki’s wife with his SUV, just for the thrill of it.

But, before he can kill the idiot son himself, Suzuki sees the son run over. Apparently, a man named the Pusher has thrust the idiot son into traffic, and he is crushed before the crowd’s eyes.

The Whale “forces” people to commit suicide at his boss, politician Kaji’s, request. His favorite book, the only one he ever reads and rereads, is Crime and Punishment. When his copy wears out, he buys a new one. Lives under a tarp in the homeless section of Tokyo, where he encounters the ghosts of people he has forced to die.

The Cicada feels like a puppet, manipulated by the strings beyond his control…

These three interact with one another in a somewhat unbelievable fashion; it seems their paths cross because they are all in a powerful underground world of murder. The scenes shift quickly from one event to another, as The Times (London) has said, “(it)…has a Tarantino meets the Coen Brothers feel to it.”

If reading a book which feels like watching a movie is your sort of thing, then this thriller is for you.

The Japanese Literature Challenge 16 is coming soon…

I wondered if there would be an interest in hosting the Japanese Literature Challenge for the sixteenth year, and so I threw out the idea on Instagram last evening. It seems that there are, in fact, a few ardent fans for whom the event still holds great interest. As it does for me.

And so we shall begin in January, reading such literature as catches our eye and leaving links, if you so desire, to a sticky post which will be at the top of my blog. Let’s hold the event for January and February, giving us two months to indulge this passion.

I will be reading, and hosting a few give-aways for, the following books:

People From My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami
The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth (not technically Japanese literature, but still an exploration of the culture)
Lady Joker Volume 2 by Kaoru Takamura
Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura
My Annihilation by Fuminori Nakamura

Already, I can feel the excitement building within my heart. Can you?

Will you join in?

(On Instagram as #japaneselitchallenge16)

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

The stripes of the tigress cross Lucrezia’s face like the bars of her cage shadow the tigress’ fur. Both the girl and the tigress are, in fact, caught and imprisoned in a cage made by others. The tigress meets her death when someone accidentally leaves the door between her cage, and the lions’, open. And I read on, hungrily, to see how Lucrezia will die. For from the very beginning of the novel it is known that her husband intends to kill her.

Lucrezia de Medici has become engaged to Alfonso Ferrara, a man to whom her sister was to be married before she died. When Lucrezia first meets him, he scrunches his face into the face of a mouse, and I think he is charming. This opinion holds with his engagement presents: a painting of a stone martin, as Lucrezia loves both painting and forest creatures, and a ruby encrusted belt.

But as the chapters alternate between a charming country home and a fortress to which he has taken her, I see that his words of adoration bear little meaning. For he is a man who will not be questioned. His authority is complete, and his wishes are fulfilled with the help of his loyal consigliere.

Not all of his wishes can be granted, though, for he has never fathered a child. This is quite significant to the heir he must produce if his line is to continue; it is threatened by his sister’s marriage. And, if there is anything Alfonso, Duke of Ferrera, cannot bear it is being threatened.

Maggie O’Farrell’s writing is as exquisite as it is in Hamnet. The scene becomes alive under her gentle touch, the emotions are felt as clearly in my own heart as they must be in the characters’. I read The Marriage Portrait with a thudding heart, alternated with wonder, and I think it is a marvel.

I’ve been under a spell…

of frustration. There has not been much to say, as I am recuperating from surgery on my right foot in July, only to discover on Friday that one of the implants had snapped. There is no sense looking for how it happened, or even why; my feet have always been my Achilles’ Heel. (So to speak.) I do feel badly for my Physical Therapist, though, who wonders lately why none of his treatments have been working. How often do we do that, seek the cure for something we have no control over?

of doubt. I had few qualms about starting a blog in 2006. It was so lovely to have a voice, and to feel it was heard, that I didn’t stop to think about what was being said. Now that I see analytical, in-depth, erudite posts all around me I think, “How does what I have to say matter?” Really, who cares if I like a book, or not, but me? It seems rather senseless to write about books, but I do so because I love them.

of laziness. Oh, how lovely it’s been to sit in my “nest” on the sofa, gazing at the fluttering leaves which fall as my mother said this morning, “as though they were being shaken from a dust mop.” I purposely turn from ads for Christmas, so that I can dwell on today, relishing the crimson, the gold, the orange, and the squirrels foraging for their winter cache.

of incredible literature. Actually, this season has been one to sink my teeth into sagas. I began a reread of James Clavell’s Asian Saga, beginning with Shogun, and moving on through Tai Pan, then Gai Jin. They are fantastic, and I’ve only laid them down to read the books on hold which come to me all at once from our public library. (Why does that happen? You wait months for them only to become available in one week.) I am finishing Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait, which I find every bit as wonderful as Hamnet. A review of her latest book will be coming soon, in case you haven’t yet read it.

In the meantime, take a brisk walk for me, as I am still limping along the trail with my sore foot for a while longer. And, do tell me what books have “cast a spell” on you…

Net of Deception by Michael J. Young, MD (“People hear and believe what they want to hear and believe…”)

I find it all too easy to be deceived these days. A news platform tells us one story, while another platform relays the opposite. Even worse to me than exaggeration are lies. Especially lies that are told for the advancement of power. So I was especially intrigued to read Net of Deception when it was offered to me for review. Few can be more powerful than those who have control of the dark web.

The novel begins with Paul Mason who is the owner of Romona Medical Systems, a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Chicago, going on his computer to order sildenafil. He realizes that there’s something odd about giving personal information such as his driver’s license over the internet, as well as the site not requiring any information from his doctor, but his desire for Viagra is so great that he pretends to overlook these uncomfortable facts.

Enter Richard Harrison, a Senator from Arkansas who proclaims to adhere to a Christian-conservative point of view, but in actuality has a male lover who works for his campaign. Harrison, too, seeks help for sexual dysfunction from the Alive! website just as Paul Mason has done.

Behind the scenes of Alive! are Richie Yonic and Cvetko Novak, the pseudo doctor and tech wizard who manipulate customers on the website purported to help those men who seek medical assistance for erectile dysfunction. They are most interested in extremely wealthy men who can easily be manipulated by their position and shame.

…having money and being miserable were not necessarily polar opposites. On the contrary, these qualities seemed not infrequently to find their own harmony. Richie felt the need to take advantage of this situation…he wanted to test the limits to create absolute mayhem with the exclusive club of the rich and impotent.

p. 80

Of course, this is what ensues: a manipulation in their clients’ lives which causes utter chaos. Both the FBI and Interpol are required to help unravel the subsequent mess.

Written with the perspective of a doctor most knowledgeable in the medical field, this thriller is a welcome respite from the typical “thriller” containing a woman behind a window, or by a train, or stuck within the cabin of a ship. Instead, we are given a fresh take on horror: what can happen when we willingly embrace what it is we want to hear instead of what we ought to hear because we are “infected with the disease of wanting more.”

Accompanying the completion of this novel is the feeling of relief I have of not getting involved with an unknown company from the internet. For those who have, may wish they never did.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (Booker Prize 2022 Longlist)

As they carried on along and met more people Furlong did and did not know, he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along though all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?

p. 113

Perhaps that sounds sappy to you: calling yourself a Christian and being brave enough to help someone else. But, I do not think there is anything more important in the world than to love one another. Especially when it’s hard.

Out of his own experience, Furlong knows what it is like to not fit in, not belong, get questionable looks from strangers. He does not know who his father is; he is raised by the Protestant widow for whom his mother worked. She did not cast his mother out of the house in her unmarried condition, rather she took the responsibility for raising Furlong herself.

It is Christmas, and the Irish town is hushed in snow. The people are struggling with poverty, and cold, and hardly enough means to pay Furlong for the coal or wood which he delivers on threadbare tires.

His wife makes the Christmas cake, with the help of each member of the family, and then the daughters sit at the kitchen table to write their letters to Santa.

Furlong remembers his childhood, asking for a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle with a picture of a farm on it. When he woke there were three presents under the tree: a bar of soap and a comb wrapped together, a hot water bottle from Ned, the farmhand, and an old copy of A Christmas Carol which smelled musty. He cries out his disappointment privately, in the barn.

“Daddy?” Sheila said.

“Santy came, surely,” Furlong said. “He brought me a jigsaw of a farm one year.”

“A jigsaw? Was that all?”

p. 25

Oh, that part pierces me. Even more than when he makes a delivery to the convent and finds a girl shut away in the coal house. A girl whose breasts leak milk and asks one thing of him: “Won’t you ask them about my baby?”

It is the experiences of our lives that make us who we are, and yet so many opportunities arise in which we must make a choice: do we help? Or, do we go on with our eyes down?

It’s like when Furlong comes across an old man in a waistcoat with a bill-hook, slashing thistles by the side of the road. He asks the man, “Would you mind telling me where this road will take me?”

“This road?” The man put down the hook, leant on the handle and stared in at him. “This road will take you wherever you want to go, son.”

p. 46

Loved this book. Loved, loved, loved it.

At 116 pages, Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These is the shortest book recognised in the prize’s history – the shortest to win was Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (1979) at 132 pages (

Find an excellent review of Small Things Like These at Read Her Like An Open Book.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Book Three: The Birdcatcher (October 1984-December 1985)

Book Two ended with Toru having a blue-black mark on his cheek, the size and shape of a baby’s palm. He does not know how he got it any more than he knows how to get rid of it, and like everything else in these strange series of events, he seems quite accepting. In fact, other than his pursuit for Kumiko, I find him to be a terribly passive person.

When his uncle told him to “stand on a street corner somewhere day after day and look at people who come by there,” (p. 328) Toru does just that, although he ends up at the Shinjuku city center. He looks for hours at people’s faces, and only one person connects with him. A woman comes to sit by him who is well dressed, meticulously, in fact, and at their second meeting she asks him to come with her. She purchases him new clothes, new shoes, a new watch, and gets him a haircut. She introduces herself as Nutmeg Akasaka, as Toru insists on having her name; her equally meticulous son she calls “Cinnamon.”

As a young boy, Cinnamon witnessed two men outside of his window, in the middle of the night, digging around a tree. And then one put something inside it, which Cinnamon discovered to be a heart. Since then, he does not speak. He moves his lips, and his fingers convey messages, but he has no voice.

And then one evening, a total stranger is sitting in Tori’s darkened living room. He introduces himself as Ushikawa, but “everybody calls me Ushi.” As he works for Noboru Wataya, he promises to find a way for Kumiko and Toru to be reunited, if Toru will “cut all connections with this ‘hanging house.’ Which means the house with the well that Toru sits within, thinking.

When Cinnamon comes to visit Toru, bringing groceries and cleaning his home, it becomes clear that Toru works for Cinnamon and his mother in some capacity. She has clients, who wish to remain anonymous, and for that purpose Cinnamon has set up an impenetrable wall of security, both digitally and in the physical world.

Nutmeg and her mother had escaped from Manchuria to Japan. On the way, an American submarine surfaced next to the transporter they were on, and it seemed that all the passengers would be killed. Much like what happened to the animals at the zoo, where Nutmeg’s father, who was the chief veterinarian with a blue-black mark on his cheek, worked.

The themes of war, in Asia, are clear and horrific. They are almost unbearable to read and write about. Yet, it is about Kumiko and Toru which I am most interested. When the cat comes back, unexpectedly, the reader senses that Kumiko, too, will come back. But, this is the quest which Toru is on: bringing his wife back no matter what. And to me, the mysterious characters sprinkled throughout the novel, serve to point him in the right direction towards accomplishing this feat.

By infiltrating the complex computer system which Cinnamon has set up, Toru and Kumiko are able to converse. Briefly. And then, while in the bottom of the well, Toru is able to get through the wall into Room 208, the one with the heavy scent of flowers and a woman in bed who will not let him shine the light on her face. (I believe this woman to be the one who called Toru on page one, asking him how well one knows anyone. I believe it is also Kumiko; they are one and the same.)

Eventually, Kumiko explains the hateful, evil person that is brother, Noboru. He ruins everything he comes in contact with, from their sister, to the “imaginary” Creta whom he violated. Kumiko will not rest until she kills him, then turns herself in. “I am calm with the thought that I will have to obliterate his life from this world. I have to do it for his sake too. And, to give my own life meaning.” (p. 603)

So, here are some thoughts I hold about each character:

  • Toru’s purpose is to bring back Kumiko.
  • Kumiko’s purpose is to vanquish her brother, Noboru.
  • Noboru’s purpose is to destroy everything in his path, in order to gain power.
  • Nutmeg’s purpose is to overcome the terrible poverty and sorrow in her life by becoming involved in fashion, and making those around her “heal” in her “fitting room.”
  • Cinnamon’s purpose is to support his mother, while dealing with the image of the heart he found, buried in the ground, which I believe to be his father’s.
  • May’s purpose is to challenge Toru in his search, sometimes deliberately blocking him so that he will persevere, sometimes standing by his side in friendship.
  • Mr. Honda’s purpose is to tell Toru to think hard, and long, and maybe getting his wife back was a more important job than being a lawyer for right now.
  • Lieutenant Mamiya’s purpose was to shed light on the atrocities of war.

What do you think? Do you agree with any of my suppositions? It seems to me that Murakami has written an incredible labyrinth of lives intertwined, perhaps encouraging us to go into some “well” of our own to consider what it is that has been done to us; what it is that we must overcome, or discover, or fight for.

Scattered All Over The Earth by Yoko Towada (translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani) for Women In Translation Month…sadly, I abandoned it.

Scattered All Over the Earth has a label on it reading “Science Fiction.” But, I wonder how accurate that classification is. Consider these quotes, which seem entirely possible:

…since China has stopped exporting goods, America must produce all its daily necessities domestically, but no one there knows how to sew anymore. This being the case, they’re desperately trying to recruit immigrants who can speak English and are good with their hands. Europe, on the other hand, has developed a comprehensive welfare system that covers everyone, including immigrants, but with national budgets running low, they would rather have all the foreigners who can speak English move to America.

(p. 43)

In the beginning of this novel, Knut, Hiruko, and Akash go to dine in an Indian restaurant, which serves pizza, before visiting the Umami Festival held at the Karl Marx House in Germany.

Knut is studying linguistics; Akash is a Comparative Cultures major. He is also transitioning from male to female. “So you can change your sex, but not your caste,” Knut says to him. Her.

“That’s right,” I (Akash) said a little flustered. “Our bodies are always changing from moment to moment. In these baths (in Trier) the ancient Romans surely felt that. They’d have unwanted body hair plucked away, get their hair and nails cut, enjoy a massage to loosen their muscles. The body changes when we sweat in the sauna or drink water. And that’s not all. Even our brains change sex every second – depending on the book we’re reading, we become men or women.”

p. 57

Yet some of the points of view are disconcertingly accurate. Here is one from a character named Nora:

Just at that time, I was reading a book in which contemporary society was compared to a multi-tenant building. The tenants are not bound together by common ideals. While they share a desire to protect the building from fire, the inner sufferings of other tenants mean nothing to them. Nor do they care about equality or human rights. Basic principles the state once held in esteem have broken down, so that even if a neighbor is covered in urine or feces, as long as one’s home doesn’t smell, one doesn’t interfere.

(p. 68)

While I made it almost halfway through, I must admit to defeat: I lost interest at page 90 of 219. The insights are profound, and the future they point to almost terrifying (what if everyone stays inside and just orders what they need through the internet?), but it felt repetitive. Perhaps you will fare better than I, but Scattered All Over the Earth was ultimately not for me.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Book Two (July – October 1984): Bird as Prophet. “When it is time to wait, you must wait.”

So many riddles. What is in the light that Lieutenant Mamiya described while he was at the bottom of the well in the desert of Outer Mongolia? What is the evil that Noboru seems to represent? Who is the woman, whose name she claims that Toru knows, but can’t remember? What does Malta know about good things and bad things that are entering his life at this time? What is that Kumiko wanted to tell him, but didn’t? And, finally, what (or whom) is the wind-up bird which winds up the world’s spring?

In Chapter One of Book Two we discover that Kumiko never came back one night. After one o’clock Malta Kano calls him to say, “I must tell you, Mr. Okada, I believe that the cat will almost certainly never be found. I hate to say this, but the best you can do is resign yourself to that fact. It is gone forever. Barring some major change, the cat will never come back.” (p. 118) Then she asks if there is something else with which she can help? It is as though she knows that Kumiko is the one who not to be found.

Two chapters later, Malta and Noburo meet Toru for coffee at the Shinagawa Pacific Hotel, where Toru met Malta before. Noburo tells him quite bluntly that Kumiko has taken another lover and left him. He goes on to say that Toru was wrong from the start; his head is full of garbage and rocks. Apparently, Kumiko had not only met with her brother to tell him she had taken a lover, she had met with Malta, after discussing the disappearance of the cat. “You will have to win with your own strength,” Malta tells him. “With your own hands.” Is it in his power to find his wife, Kumiko? To bring her back?

“Mr. Okada,” she (Malta) said, “I believe that you are entering a phase of your life in which many different things will occur. The disappearance of the cat is only the beginning.”

“Different things,” I said. “Good things or bad things?”

She tilted her head. “Good things and bad things. Bad things that seem good at first, and good things that seem bad at first.” (p. 44)

Another letter from Lieutenant Mamiya arrives, with information that he feels Toru alone would understand. Mamiya’s memories only get stronger with each time he tries to push them away. The time that the light struck him while he was in the well he saw a shape of something there, but he could not make out what it was. “It is trying to come to me, trying to confer something upon me very much like heavenly grace.” (p. 208) What he suffered with, more than hunger and thirst, was not being able to attain a clear view of what it was in the light. “Had I been able to see it clearly, I would not have minded dying right then and there. I truly felt that way. I would have suffered anything for a full view of that form.” (p. 209) But, just as Mr. Honda had told him, he could not die, even though he would have preferred physical death to liberate him from the pain of being himself.

Toru decides to go the bottom of the well in a vacant lot himself, to think. While at the bottom of the well, Toru has a dream that isn’t a dream that “happened to take the form of a dream.” He is talking to the woman who had first called him. She is in a room with a bouquet of freshly picked flowers with quite a heady scent. She tells him that he already knows her name. “All you have to do is remember it. If you can find my name, then I can get out of here. I can even help you find your wife; help you find Kumiko Okada. If you want to find your wife, try hard to discover my name. That is the lever you want. You don’t have time to stay lost. Every day you fail to find it, Kumiko Okada moves that much farther away from you.” (p. 246)

In the early years of their marriage, Kumiko became pregnant. While Toru wished her to have the baby, she decided it wasn’t good timing in their lives, and when he was away in Sapporo for a business trip, Kumiko had an abortion. Afterward, when they were talking about it, she told Toru she had something to tell him, but she just couldn’t yet. “I’m not hiding it from you. I’m planning to tell you sometime. You’re the only one I can tell. But I just can’t do it now. I can’t put it into words.” (p. 252)

And so, like Toru, I am waiting. Not at the bottom of the well, certainly, but pondering all these puzzle pieces as I ponder my own life and the people who have entered, and left, as we go on our journeys. And, while waiting, I can’t help but wonder if the name that Toru is looking for is Forgiveness.

I am reading this with Stephen, of Swift as Inspiration, as a shared read-along.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Book One (June and July, 1984): Magpie “A Well Without Water. A Bird That Can’t Fly. An Alley Without An Exit.”

Book One, The Thieving Magpie, takes place in June and July, 1984. But, it ends with the most horrible scene that I can imagine: the skinning alive of a Japanese man named Yamamoto, that happened decades ago. The Russians had demanded a document from him, which he would not give, even under pain of torture by the Mongolians. This story, told by Lieutenant Mamiya, pierces the quiet, dreamlike mood of what has come before in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

The novel opens with Toru Okada asking the question, “Is it possible, finally, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?…We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?” (p. 24)

It seems that Toru knows very little about anything. He does not know the woman who is calling him at 10:00 in the morning asking him for ten minutes of his time. He does not know where his wife’s cat, Noboru Wataya (named after her brother) might be. He does not know what he wants to do with his career, quitting his job in a law firm even before taking the bar exam. And, he does not understand these strange people who are entering his life at this moment of time.

There is Malta Kano who asks him to meet her in a tearoom, telling him that his brother in law, Noburo Wataya, had recommended her to help find the missing cat. Her name comes from Malta, and Kana is translated “god of the water.” She tells him that he is entering a stage in his life when many different things will occur; the disappearance of the cat is only the beginning.

Then another fortune-teller, this time Mr. Honda, tells Toru that legal work might be the wrong thing for him. “The world you belong to is above that or below that.” When Toru asks him which is better, he says not to “resist the flow…now’s the time to stay still. Don’t do anything. Just be careful of water. Sometime in the future, this young fellow could experience real suffering in connection with water. Water that’s missing from where it’s supposed to be. Water that’s present where it’s not supposed to be. In any case, be very, very careful of water.” (p. 51)

After that, a sixteen year old girl who lives in Toru’s neighborhood, May Kasahara, shows Toru a dry well in an empty house near their own. Mr. Honda had told him, “When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom.” What does all this mean?

Malta Kano’s sister, Creta, whose real name is Setsuko, comes to visit dressed as a woman from the sixties. She says that Malta sent her, and when pressed for more information about herself from Toru explains that she has had tremendous pain, physical pain, for most of her life. Headaches, menstrual cramps, bruises appearing such that she never wanted to go swimming. Furthermore, she became a prostitute and was brutally attacked by Noboru Wataya. Before she can explain more, she abruptly leaves Toru’s home.

All of these occurrences, these characters with strange and seemingly disparate stories, combine to form a mysterious aura. Although I have read the book before, I cannot remember being so careful with each piece as I am now because I want to know how they fit together properly.

Coming back to where this post began, Lieutenant Mamiya, who told the horrible story of torture, was sent to Toru’s home by Mr. Honda, a man who had also witnessed the torture. Mr. Honda had given Mamiya the mission to present a keepsake he had especially selected for Toru, something from his closet just for him. When Toru unwraps layer after layer of wrapping paper he finds a Cutty Sark box. It is completely empty inside.

Clearly, the themes from Book One are water. A well. An emptying of oneself. War. I am eager to continue reading, while keeping the image of Jacob from the Old Testament, who was thrown into the empty well by his brothers, in the back of my mind. It may, or may not, have anything to do with this story, but I know that coming out of the well can be a form of transformation. At least it was for Joseph, who went in a hated brother, and came out to be a ruler in Egypt.

I am reading this book with Stephen, of Swift as Inspiration, looking forward to his insights as we proceed.