The one that makes you double-check the locks

Librairie 16 rues Moines 75017 Paris

This is where it all started… a small comics place without a name…

Daisuke Imai, Sangsues (French 2015, Japanese “Hiru” 2011)

Here comes the post that answers the probably most suspenseful question of summer (besides “when can I be on holidays pleeease?”): “which manga did I choose?”… Offered three tantalizing options by a very professional bookseller, I went with the manga called “Leeches”.

Yes I know, yucky! Isn’t this title evocative enough? Indeed it is very creepy. So creepy that I’m effectively hooked.

I could have gone with the zombie/freedom of art one, but I am a mother of two young children, one of which is able to read on his own and interested in any comics/manga that lays around, and the art was quite explicit, so I kept the title in mind but couldn’t really buy it. A responsible mother wouldn’t do that. That’s what you call self-censorship.

Anyway I don’t regret my choice. “Leeches” is full of promises, considering that it’s the first of a 6-part series. It highlights a bizarre Japanese social phenomenon I was hardly aware of: the disappearing act of thousands of people in Japan, who simply go missing one day. The name is “johatsu” like evaporation or disappearance. Apparently the police doesn’t really try to find them, or can’t due to administrative red tape.

While preparing this post I stumbled upon an investigative book about such people, by Léna Mauger and a French (Belgian?) photographer Stéphane Remael. I didn’t read the book but his pictures from his website are quite sad and haunting, as disappeared people or their families left behind say a few words about their distress and why they chose to leave everything and go under the radar: bullying by the yakuza, debt or job loss, struggle with their spouse or family… They disappear into the anonymity of big cities, just like this manga’s heroin (but the comparison stops there).

Yoko is a young woman who has ran away from her family to go find her boyfriend in town, but had to leave him too (I don’t want to disclose too much). Without any resources or friends she hides away in plain sight, while normal people go about their lives, she sneaks into empty flats to use other people’s belongings, food, bed. Nobody seems to notice subtle changes in their home (I believed I would, but with a baby at home, if something is not exactly at the same place when I come back from work I wouldn’t pay attention). Yoko takes care to leave before the rightful owner comes back, and with a rota of several people working different schedules, she actually survives quite well, until she discovers she’s not the only one to have such a bizarre lifestyle, and that other “leeches” don’t like her to mess about.

The story set in the anonymous big Japanese megacity is quite believable to my foreign eyes. There is lots of loneliness, sadness and quite a quota of violence in it (but no zombies). Luckily for my ability to sleep at night, I like to believe that Japanese people have weird habits, that they are very private and don’t care for their neighbors, and that it wouldn’t be possible in my little Paris neighborhood where concierges (caretakers) would notice or ask questions about a new girl sneaking in and out of the building.

Or would they really?

The one about the one-man comics shop

Finding a good bookseller is like finding a new friend. It’s a rare occurrence when it clicks.

As a principle I try to support independent bookshops when I don’t buy English books, but I rarely meet a passionate and knowledgeable seller who takes the time to find the book that I would love.

The nearest indie bookshop has a bit of everything, from art books to children’s corner, from classics to travel guides. They will push you towards bestsellers, and if you come with a title, they’ll order it for you for the next few days, which is not so bad. But they never try to put themselves into the customer’s shoes and get personal (that’s typically Parisian, you need to be there at least 3 years before you get a nod of acknowledgement).

On my way to the market on Saturday mornings I pass by a tiny bookstore specialized in comics and manga. They also have some children’s books. I shouldn’t really write “they”, because it’s all a one-man affair. For years I’d never stopped, because the store seemed a bit messy, and I mostly borrow graphic books from libraries, because I don’t really trust my choices and want to try stuff I’ll be able to return. Like that happened more than once. Also, I am prejudiced to think that this kind of shops mainly targets young nerd-ish male readers. A middle-aged mother with young kids and a stroller full of vegetables and cheeses fresh out of the market? I thought I wouldn’t exactly be welcomed.

I came in during winter to buy a picture book for Baby S and I ended up buying one for my older son as well, Chien Pourri (Rotten Dog?), a hilarious tongue-in-cheek series about a stray dog (I’ll post about it one day for sure). My son fell in love with the series: the shop owner obviously knew his stuff.

I came in again for children’s books, and then last Saturday I took the plunge and asked for advice. How to describe my taste in graphic novels? Standalone preferably to series, no fantasy or superhero, no horror and no kinky stuff but no special allergy to violence. I was looking for a shojo but nothing twee. He offered Taniguchi as a first choice, and when I said I knew a lot of his works, the conversation got going.

He said he had exactly the thing for me: Solanin. When I said I’d read it and loved it, it was like a new ping-pong game. What now? He offered a lesser-known Taniguchi centered on a detective specialized in finding lost dogs. I’d loved it too! (although I didn’t review it? It doesn’t seem to have an English translation though) We were now evolving in familiar territory.

He came up with 3 serious propositions:

– the first about an old man leaving his family behind, by Takashi Murakami. Although I loved the cover art, I was less taken by the manga design itself (you can get a sense here) and it was kind of depressing for a summer weekend… It’s a two-part manga (bonus point) and the shop owner said it was his personal choice.

– a second option is the first of a 5-part series by Daisuke Imai, about a young woman who decides to leave her life behind (is there a trend here?) and who lives by stalking other people and entering their apartment when they’re at work. She has access to several flats and thinks she’s one of a kind, but then she finds out that she’s not the only one living off other people, on the outskirts of normal life. The French title means “leeches”, so you get the idea… It really looked intriguing, but a bit scary in the realistic vein…

– the third option was quite bizarre and ventured into deeper topics (not that the previous two were light either): censorship and the limits set to the creator’s freedom. Can a mangaka write about anything, and if so, will he get published? The title is Poison City, by Tetsuya Tsutsui. Here, the artists sets out to design a ultra-realist zombies series and has to navigate publishing politics and much more. Apparently the manga alternates chapters between the zombie story and  the publishing story. I’m not fan of zombie to say the least, but the topic of this option really appealed to me.

Now, what would you have chosen? I let you guess, and I’ll give you the answer in a few days, with a proper review.

The one that made me roll my eyes and clean my cupboards

Marie Kondo, the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Japanese 2011, English 2014)

Oh my, how conflicted I am about this book!

I have no previous allergies to Japanese quirks, a mix between cute, weird, naive, formal and efficient. I like self-help books and organizing books when they inspire you and cheer you up. I should be an ideal convert to the Konmari method. Like millions of people around the world, apparently.

But this… How this book has managed to make it to the New York Times bestsellers list is beyond my comprehension. Sure, the idea of minimalism is selling like hot cakes these days, and apparently it helps when the one who tells you to do it is a smiling, foreign young woman. As if there was a secret recipe. As if there was a magic trick.

But Marie Kondo soon tells it herself: there’s not one single method, you just have to follow your heart and fill trash bags. If you don’t know what to keep, throw everything out, your heart will tell you what it misses most. A few good ideas are packaged with the weirdest recommendations (balancing them out in my mind, if not cancelling them completely), thrown together with enough episodes of the writer’s memoir to convince you that she suffers of OCD.

To reach an actual book length, things are rehashed ad nauseam, otherwise the gist of her ideas would easily get into a leaflet. The promotional information you get here and there are actually a good synthesis and saves you from the weirdest parts of the book: the pages where Marie Kondo recommends that you speak to your purse and furniture, that you thank your objects before throwing them away, and to have a little thought for the plight of your socks. I’m too much of a rational Western girl here, she entirely lost me at this point.

Halfway through I figured the writer was so completely crazy that it was a comic book rather than an organizing method. There are unintended hilarious passages, especially as she takes herself so seriously (the people who have followed her cult method have a glow and everything goes well in their lives, she says). And I certainly didn’t wait long before applying her own method to this book, that I resold as soon as I’d finished the last page.

On one hand, the book made me cringe, because it seems that her method is only suitable for single people who have a lot of time on their hand. On the other hand, her method is surely appealing, because it doesn’t need much for you to start: does this object spark any joy? Yes, it stays, no, it goes. No need for complex strategies to build a capsule wardrobe or a perfect system. Still I would have liked it better if she’d talked about recycling and reselling instead of throwing all away and being proud of a number of trash bags.

The one where 20-somethings find a life purpose

Inio Asano, Solanin (2006)

I was searching for non-clichéd standalone mangas via Amazon (i.e. no fantasy / ultraviolence / sex / SF / Pokemon), and the algorithm found Solanin for me. I am very grateful for the Amazon algorithm, but I remained a bit suspicious of its taste, so I hope the next thing I did will not make me a total cheapskate in your eyes: I borrowed it from the library.

Solanin is about Meiko, a young 20 Japanese girl, just out of college, who hasn’t a clue what to do with her life. She’s doing the conventional, expected thing as an Office Lady (a junior clerk) and is bored to tears. Her boyfriend Taneda has a creative job that he seems to like, but it is part-time and doesn’t even pay the rent, so he always ends up crashing at her place. Together with other friends from university, Taneda play in a rock band that mostly gets to meet for rehearsals and drinks and pity party. One day on a whim Meiko quits her job, essentially because she feels inadequate and fears that she lives a passionless, lifeless dreary life. She has six months’ savings to figure out what she wants in life.

At about the same time, Mr Smithereens and I sat through a few episodes of Lena Dunham’s Girls, and we had that awkward conversation where we tried to pinpoint what people see in it, and ended up wondering if we were just too old, or too European to “get it”. I kept sighing and wanting to tell those girls to “just grow up” and I felt totally out of synch with what’s supposed to be the icon of a generation (is it?).

But weirdly enough, the manga and the series both deal with early adulthood, and figuring out who you want to be, and unsurprisingly given their respective cultures, they don’t give the same answer, although both answers must be credited with avoiding clichés and simplistic resolutions.

I had a hard time relating with Solanin’s main character at first, especially as I didn’t quite warm up to the design itself. But she kind of grew on me, especially as she starts out as meek and dreamy and ends up taking more risks and decisions than I’d expected. Quitting seems an immature reaction at first, but after a tragedy strikes the small circle of friends realizes that they can’t delay taking chances if they ever want to live their dreams. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers but I was taken completely off guard by this tragedy that occurs around the middle of the manga (end of tome 1 for those 2-volumes editions) and I totally respected the author for trying something so daring for the genre.

It reminded me of the podcast Lit-Up on that episode where they discuss what makes you an adult.  Their discussion with Meghan Daum points that having a child is not necessarily the (right) answer, and that often it’s when something bad has happened to you, the first glimpse of life’s unfairness or brutality defines adulthood. In Solanin we see characters growing up in that direction under our very eyes, and that’s very moving.

The one for marathon runners… and others too

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (1987)

For those who know me IRL, it seems crazy that I’d ever read a book about running. Come on, I run half a block and I’m totally out of breath, begging my 7-year-old for mercy.

But Murakami got me there, and I have him to blame that Goodreads now recommends me books like “Lore of running” or “Marathon: the ultimate training guide” (algorithms beware: I’m a tough cookie to crack).

As a matter of fact I have been misled by the French title, that reads as: Portrait of the writer as a long-distance runner. It got me thinking that Murakami was doing a kind of deep metaphoric parallel between running and writing.

Yes he does, sort of, but it’s also as straightforward as the Carver-inspired English title: “what I talk about when I talk about running”. He just means business.

The book is about his passion for running, why he came to this discipline when he decided to become a professional writer (as a way to keep fit after his more physically active first career as a bar owner), and how he trains for various races and why on earth he would impose himself such an ordeal a to run an ultra marathon or a triathlon (he admittedly hates cycling).

I liked the tone of the book, decidedly humble and down to earth (no pun intended). Murakami doesn’t take himself to seriously (although he’s dead serious about never walking in a race) and he doesn’t even try to convince you that running is the best sport ever and that you have top run a marathon otherwise you’re a loser (running has become such a competitive fashion these days that I’d feared the preaching): he’s clear that not everyone is made for it and will love it. More often that not it feels like getting a peek into his private diary and running log.

It was hard for me to relate to his experience, but I enjoyed his honesty and his direct very visual sense of painting a scene (he ran in many places, among them Cambridge, Mass. where we intend to go later this year). At the end I was moved and surprised how he touched the universal subject of getting old and the ineluctable limitations of our body.

PS. The book was not enough to make me want to run, but it’s a great motivational reading for anyone who wants to get fit and develop good habits!

The one about the atomic ripple effects

Fumiyo Kono, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (2004)

Another manga for me, but not a great success on my side. I would have loved to love it. It deals with a subject too often overlooked: the longterm consequences of the atomic bomb on people from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The book is made of 2 stories, the one set in 1955, the second a two-part novella set in 1987 and 2004. Very cleverly, the manga is not about the fateful events themselves, and we get no horrific, realistic depiction of victims and death. On the contrary, the story is about what survivors went through and how events still shape reactions and prejudices against Hiroshima people.

The first story was more straightforward and accessible to me: a young woman who survived the bombing as a little girl and lost all her family members but her mother, lives in a slum and works as a seamstress. She is quite shy, especially as a young man takes a romantic interest in her. As he declares himself, she suddenly has a flashback of the events she went through, runs away from him and soon after falls sick due to radiations.

The second story was very complex in terms of plotting, and while the characters had depth, I kind of missed a lot of the subtle hints of backstories and references and I couldn’t stay afloat with the flashbacks and all. It was totally lost on me. What I understood, though, is that Hiroshima people were treated with distrust, not compassion, and that they were “damaged goods” even decades later, not worthy of getting married with, or be friend with, just in case their mysterious illnesses would be contagious or transmitted to their children. I’m not sure if this is still the case and how the tragedy of Fukushima has had any parallel consequences in today’s Japan.

The excuse for my lack of attention is that I didn’t really enjoy the art, which looked sometimes simplistic, sometimes clumsy, sometimes cute. In my opinion, it was not nervous enough, it was barely touching the surface of the issue (yes, I know how Japanese it sounds). I can only dream what the precise pencil of a Taniguchi would make of such a story, I bet I would have needed a box of handkerchiefs close by. But here, I was just annoyed because the whole story was way too polite and didactic. Obviously the author has researched her subject at length, and I’m told there are many little details to make Hiroshima quite real on paper (geographical details, dialects, lots of end notes), but in a way her intention of showcasing a little-known story was quite heavy-handed.

Mmh, I am aware that I criticize the book for being both too polite and too heavy-handed. Perhaps it’s not the book’s fault then, perhaps it’s just bad timing on my part.

The big reference on that subject is obviously Black rain, from Masuji Ibuse. I watched the movie by Imamura as a teen, and it was a shocking experience, so I never had the courage to read the book. Did you read it?

Ito Ogawa, The Restaurant of Love Regained (Jap. 2008)

‘Tis the season where we all frantically try to tie all loose ends before the end of the year… which  actually doesn’t make much sense. This is a struggle doomed from the start. Yet I am guilty of hoping and trying every single year. I’d love to have all my books neatly finished when the bell strikes, and all my blog posts lined up with a nice bow. Sigh…

Sometimes it’s a mistake not to write about a book right after finishing it, sometimes it makes us more balanced in our opinion. But actually, I haven’t made up my mind yet.

At first, the book grated on my nerves because of its lack of focus and its (in my opinion) forced naivety. Rinko works in a restaurant in town, she has an Indian boyfriend, who suddenly takes off with all of her (theirs) belongings. From the shock, she stops speaking altogether, only communicating with writing and gesturing. She gets back to her mother’s home, in a remote countryside village, which she left when she was 15, and decides to open a restaurant, because that’s the only skill and passion she has. There’s also a pig that doubles as a pet for her mother. And the very special relation to food that Rinko has.

Maybe it was my stomach that had the upper hand over my brain, but I hadn’t had time to get acquainted to Rinko in the first pages, so her bad breakup was not a real tragedy to me. But when she frantically searched for her beloved cooking tools in her empty flat, and found only a jar of pickled vegetables inherited from her grandmother, and that she hangs on to it like a lifesaver, I kept on reading.

Who uses a pickles’ jar as a plotting device? For sure the book was going to be kitsch, quirky and a bit heavy of the metaphors.

The description of food, the special respect that Rinko has for plants, animals and natural resources that end up on the restaurant’s plates and bowls was actually the best part of the book to me. Yes, there is also gruesome bits when it comes to preparing meat from a live animal, but personally it didn’t bother me and it made me quite sympathetic to the writer’s project. Gourmet cuisine is an art, but it’s also an act of destruction, of consumption. Despite the difficulties, the writer managed to convey emotion and sensation to food, which is no mean feast.

But for the rest, I found that the book followed too many directions, too many anecdotes, way too many characters (Rinko prepares bespoke menus for her customers, so we get a lot of back-stories), many of them quite teary and predictable.

It was a quick read and not unpleasant at all (I am not a vegetarian, I hasten to add, and I have no problem with eating weird stuff), but it didn’t live up to its potential.

Back from Holidays with a Treat!

Usually, when French people come back from holidays in late August (the entire country sort of shuts down from 08/5 to 08/25, except for the tourist industry), there are bad surprises in the mail: the tax sheet and lots of invoices. That makes you get back in the (grumpy) mood right away, believe me.

But this year, a nice surprise awaited me too, that helped me find the courage to open the tax sheet: a book by Pushkin Press: Salad Anniversary by Tawara Machi, that will come out in October!

Some years ago I wrote a review of this book after I fell in love with these evocative poems full of those tiny moments daily life and mundane emotions. Machi Tawara had used a very old poetry form to express herself and created a huge success in Japan.

Some 5 years later I opened the book afresh (the one I’d read was a library copy) and I enjoyed it again. Here a few lines that resonated with me this time, from the poem Hashimoto High School (Machi Tawara is a teacher):

Proctoring the exam,

Suddenly I think of each one’s mother,

The day she conceived this child


Parents claim to raise their children,

but garden tomatoes turn red


In case you need a refreshing break from fall’s hectic schedule (back-to-school! new projects at work! budgets! the end of year already looming! arggh…) and the noise of social media, a book of poetry (in paper with a clean design and a cute cover) is a good place to start.

Interrupted: Kazuo Umezu, The Drifting Classroom (1972)

Sometimes I wander among the manga shelves at the library, and I feel like a grandma trying to buy clothes in a hipster shop. Does it ever happen to you?

I simply lack references and so I have no clue how to choose something that I might like. Actually, I do have some references, but they are quite old and come from anime I watched in the 1980s or 1990s: Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Cat’s Eye and such. After all, I was raised with Candy Candy and lots of other Japanese anime, and I’m a big fan of Studio Ghibli. I’m not totally a virgin in the manga department, but it seems that genres have evolved so much that the popular mangas now have nothing to do with the older generation’s. So where should I turn now?

The other problem is more practical. At the library, every time I get attracted to a title, I discover that the volumes 1 and 2 are already borrowed. The only manga whose beginning was available at the time was The Drifting Classroom.

In retrospect, I should have known something was amiss when the person at the library desk raised her eyebrow at my choice. And perhaps it was no coincidence that nobody had taken these two first volumes.

It was soon confirmed. I read the first volume within a few hours and then I told myself: this is a pure nightmare, you should not go on: this is my first ever horror manga, and probably the last for a long, long, long time.

I have nothing against post-apocalyptic science fiction (uh, well, that’s not quite true, I have decided to avoid McCarthy’s The Road, I’m too much likely to get depressed by its theme), but nothing prepared me for that. Survival manga with lots of gory details. With main characters being elementary school children. Ugh.

I must be grateful I’ve read (skimmed, rather) Lord of the Flies as a novel a lifetime ago and that words are not as, well, visual, because perhaps it would have looked a bit like that. Except the violence is much worse. Add post-apocalyptic monsters. And don’t get attached to any of the characters, because they’re likely to die in horrible circumstances in the next few pages.

Well, I wanted to try something new, didn’t I? I promptly returned both books, it was a different person at the desk, but in retrospect, a pregnant mother with a 5 yo borrowing a horror manga? Perhaps a raised eyebrow was a bit of an understatement.

After all, it’s October, so if you’re looking for something seriously creepy, look no further. But don’t come back here complaining that you haven’t slept a wink or you’re shocked out of your wits.

Yoko Ogawa, Secrete Cristallization (Jap. 1994)

Original Title: Hisoyaka na kesshō, 密やかな結晶 (translated to French but sadly not -yet- to English)

I will go back to all those books I finished long ago and never managed to speak about here, but I have to say a word right NOW about the book I finished yesterday, so moving and powerful it was. I nearly finished the book in tears and I’m still sad this morning, as if I’d lost a real person and not a fictitious character.

I owe SilverSeason a great “thank you!” for pointing me toward Yoko Ogawa again, a prolific Japanese female writer I’d read years ago but a little neglected of late. It’s easy to dismiss Ogawa’s books because it’s always very subdued: characters aren’t shouting at you for attention and plots aren’t dazzling you with clever tricks and turns. They are subtle, a bit slow, always very polite, slightly apologetic, and never wish to disturb you, just like perfect Japanese manners would require.

But disturb you they actually do, because of the bizarre circumstances that characters seem to consider banal and the accumulation of small touches that eventually build a cruel, moving, fantastic world. In this novel, the narrator is a young woman, a novelist, who lives on an island where things disappear.

Regularly, the inhabitants discover that something, may it be an object, an animal or an emotion, are disappearing from their lives and their memories. The remaining objects are to be destroyed or rid of and people don’t even remember the name of the disappeared thing. At the beginning it’s small “useless” “stuff”: candy, perfume, music boxes, then it moves on to flowers, birds, calendars, books. People who can’t forget are rounded up by the police. In this Kafkaian totalitarian world, people aren’t very unhappy, they have a melancholy tone and a numbness that goes with not quite living normally, but they make do and always remain polite and disciplined. They are more  worried about the lack of food and the continuous bad weather (“has spring disappeared too?”) than by the ever-diminishing pool of things and feelings they are allowed to keep, because they aren’t even aware of what they miss. That’s heart-wrenching.

The young woman who tells the story is no rebel, but she knows that her publisher, a man who remembers way too much, will sooner or later get arrested, and she just knows that she has to have him near (Ogawa’s characters aren’t prone to self-analysis). She decides to hide him in her home with the help of an old man, friend of her family. The relation between these three characters is full of respectful gentleness, which softens the cruelty and incredible darkness of the world Ogawa creates.

The reader is increasingly aware that there’s no way out in this plot, as things that go missing get closer and closer to what make people humans. Their hearts, devoid of memories and emotions, are more and more full of cavities (as Ogawa say), and soon they even lose limbs, making Ogawa’s world even more absurd (dark humor and morbid. The published tries to rekindle memories and emotions in the young woman but his attempts aren’t quite successful.

It’s definitely not a book to read when you’re melancholy, but the poetry and the beauty of the descriptions of banal disappeared objects, the gentleness, the sheer humanity of these odd characters make it a precious and deeply original experience.