The 10 books nominated for the 2017 Booksellers Award were announced on January 18, and I have to admit I was repeatedly refreshing the website around the time the official announcement was due. I was not disappointed by their selections (and the gorgeous book covers of many selections are also impressive). The winner will be announced on April 11. (If you are curious, I wrote about last year’s nominees and the winner here and here.)
i, by Kanako Nishi, published by Poplar Publishing, 2016
Kanako Nishi was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1977 and was raised in Osaka and Cairo, earning a law degree at Kansai University, a background that she uses in her novels. i is her first novel since “Saraba!” (Farewell), which won the 152nd Naoki prize in 2015. It follows the life of Ai from her birth in Syria in 1988 until she is 26 years old. She is adopted by a couple in America, and lives in New York until elementary school, when she moves to Japan. The novel begins with an assertion by the professor of her theoretical math class that “i does not exist in this world.” He is speaking of the imaginary number “i,” but of course it is also the protagonist’s name, refers to the “I” denoting our personal identity, and means “love” in Japanese. This neatly sums up the running theme in this book of Ai’s search for the value of her own existence. She tracks the number of deaths in disasters like the Tohoku earthquake, terrorist attacks like the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the outbreak of the Ebola virus and wars in the Middle East, and searches for reasons that can explain why she has escaped such disasters.
Guernica Undercover, by Maha Harada, Shinchosha Publishing, 2016
Maha Harada studied art at university and made this her first career, even working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She published her first novel in 2006, and often weaves art history into her novels. In Guernica Undercover, the tapestry copy of Picasso’s Guernica, displayed on the wall of the United Nations Building in New York City, disappears one day in 2003. The story moves between Paris before the war, current-day New York, and Spain in a thrilling art novel, a genre that Harada seems to have created singlehandedly.
The Story of Ofudo, by Saki Murayama, PHP Institute, Inc., 2016
Issei Tsukihara worked in a bookshop located in a department store and gained a reputation for finding treasures among the stacks of books. However, he takes responsibility for a shoplifting incident and has to quit his job. Hurt and at a loss, Issei travels to meet an elderly man he had met on the Internet, who is struggling to run a bookstore in a rundown village. I can easily understand why booksellers would nominate this book for the Booksellers Prize!
Before the Coffee Cools, by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Sunmark Publishing, 2016
This book is about a seat in a coffee shop called Funiculi Funicula that can bring you back to the past. You would think this would attract a steady stream of customers to the coffee shop, but it is usually almost empty because several annoying rules ruin its appeal, including the limitation that you can only go back and visit people who have been to the coffee shop before; you can’t change the present, no matter what; and your time in the past starts when your coffee is poured and ends once the coffee has gone cold. The book cover promises “heart-warming miracles” in this story, which would normally have made me lose all interest in reading this book. However, since it has been nominated I’m giving it a chance, and halfway into the book, I think Kawaguchi’s punchy sense of humor redeems it from the status of Hallmark greeting card sentiment. [Edited to add that I have now finished this book and am sad to report that, while I initially enjoyed it as something light to read while I brushed my teeth, it quickly descended into bathos, with obvious attempts to manipulate readers’ emotions and make us cry.]
Convenience Store People, by Sayaka Murata, Bungeishunju, 2016
I wrote about this book, which won the 155th Akutagawa Prize, in detail here. This short novel is about Keiko, a young woman who has worked at a convenient store for 18 years and finds comfort in the routine this job offers. She has never understood how to act like everyone else, but the manuals spelling out every movement in a convenient store are a lifesaver for her. The turning point comes when Shiraha, an abhorrent misogynist, begins working at the convenient store. Keiko’s unusual perspective allows us to feel sympathy even for him, and highlights the strange ways in which identity is constructed and we become constricted within them.
Tsubaki Stationery Store, by Ito Ogawa, Gentosha, 2016
The main character, Hatoko (named after the hato, or doves, that flock to the famous Shinto shrine Tsurugaoka Hachimangu), is only in her 20s but has now succeeded her grandmother to become the 11th in a long line of scribes. She lives in the old family house that does double-duty as a stationery store, where she writes new year’s cards, love letters, letters breaking off relationships, and anything else her customers request. This is a quiet book that clearly conveys Ogawa’s love for Kamakura, where she lives. The book starts with a description of how Hatoko spends her mornings, sweeping in front of the store and carefully polishing the house’s floors while the water for her tea comes to a boil. After taking a break with a cup of bancha, she puts fresh water by the stone marking the grave in which old letters are buried. This slow pace continues throughout the book, which is broken up into a section for each season.
The Voice of the Crime, by Takeshi Shiota, Kodansha, 2016
This novel is a fictional attempt to solve the Glico Morinaga case, an extortion case targeting the major candy companies Glico and Morinaga that was never solved. In 1984, Katsuhisa Ezaki, the president of Glico, was kidnapped, and a ransom demand was made. Ezaki managed to escape, but company property was set on fire and someone calling himself “The Monster with 21 Faces” began sending letters claiming that Glico candy had been poisoned. The extortion efforts subsequently targeted Morinaga and Fujiya, and only ended with the suicide of the Shiga Prefecture police superintendent, apparently worn down by harassing letters from the Monster with 21 Faces and shame at his failure to find the culprit.
This novel begins 31 years after the incident as a newspaper reporter tries to find the criminal. At the same time, a man realizes that the voice of the person demanding the ransom was his own voice as a child and also tries to solve the crime. The police ended up conjecturing that yakuza groups were involved, so I’m curious to see how Takeshi Shiota solves this puzzle, which would be familiar to an entire generation growing up at the end of the Showa era.
Crescent Moon, by Eto Mori, Shueisha, 2016
This novel starts in 1963 and covers the evolution of juku, a private school offering tutoring after regular school hours, through the story of Goro and Chiaki and their children. Although he does not have a teaching certificate, Goro offers supplementary education in an elementary school. Chiaki recognizes his talent for teaching and convinces him to start a juku with her in a rented house in Chiba. During WWII, Chiaki saw how public education was harnessed to the ends of the state in teaching children patriotism, and this sends her searching for alternatives. With the baby boom and Japan’s economic growth in the background, Chiaki and Goro look for the “ideal” form of education while their children question whether such a thing even exists.
Honeybees and Distant Thunder, by Riku Onda, Gentosha, 2016
This book won the 156th Naoki Prize this month, so it has already become a bestseller in Japan. The story follows four musicians as they compete in an international piano competition, but also brings in the voices of the judges, piano tuners and reporters. The publisher even has a playlist of all the pieces mentioned and planned in the book.
Night Travels, by Tomihiko Morimi, Shogakukan, 2016
This fantasy novel incorporates elements of science fiction and horror in a linked series of five stories. The narrator and his five friends met during school days in college. Ten years earlier, when they had all gone to the Kuruma Fire Festival, Hasegawa had suddenly disappeared from amongst them, and now the remaining five have gathered again in Kuruma in the hopes that they will meet her again. As the night deepens, they talk about the strange experiences they had had as they travelled to Kuruma. Morimi said that he chose to set this story in Kyoto because it has so many side streets that would not draw a second glance during the day but become strange and mysterious in the dark of night, which stimulates the imagination.