A burnt out social worker goes on a quest to find peaceful employment.
The 36-year-old unnamed narrator of There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job has quit her social worker job of 14 years and embarked on a new career. Or rather, she's trying to discover if a new career is even a possibility. Her recruiter, Mrs Masakado, is given the task of finding something that is not too demanding, something easy on the nerves.
What follows is essentially a description of five jobs trialled over the period of a year. There is surveillance work done in an office in front of a computer, with hours watching an unsuspecting male subject via hidden camera; next is a job writing advertising copy for a local bus company; then a humorous, off-beat stint writing trivia questions and answers for the back of a popular commercial cracker biscuit; a job putting up local posters, one that involves some petty politics and aggression from a rival organisation; and finally, a dreamy job working in a park doing pretty much nothing, but one that comes with its own strange and mysterious events.
The style of the book is quite bland and flat, yet strangely addictive, with a dry humour shot throughout. Kikuko Tsumura describes the minutiae of everyday life and the small scale politics of human interactions. Through this attention to detail, the narrator even surprises herself at how little she knows of her own world, even her own desires. Studying the man in her surveillance job from the comfort of a desk, she starts to live vicariously through him, developing an appetite for whatever he is eating. When taking the local bus she now writes advertisements for, she starts to study more closely the route, only to discover, quite to her shock, new shops and restaurants she never knew existed.
There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job is unconventional to be sure. There's no real story arc, no major characters on which the action really pivots, just the narrator passing through five jobs. Yet there's something very human and sympathetic about Kikuko Tsumura's writing. Her gentle negotiating of the world of work and the different personalities that we bump up against make for an astute portrait of contemporary life. A clever contrast here is made in the last chapter with one of our original hunter gatherer forbears, the Obayashi hominin, a fossil of which was found at the park the narrator works at. It is discovered that a man has been living wild in the park, living off fruit and nut trees, trying to escape his middle-class life. Can we transition from burn out to the possibility of oneness with nature and the world? seems to be one of the novel's many existential questions.
A mind bending trip through the mind numbing world of modern work.
There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job, by Kikuko Tsumura. Published by Bloomsbury. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
In 1830s Mississippi, two young men find moments of solace with each other as they are kept as slaves on a cotton plantation.
Isaiah and Samuel live in a barn together on a Mississippi cotton plantation in the early 1830s. They are slaves in the American South, around seventeen years of age. Theirs is a life ruled by fear and humiliation. Keep your eyes down and always appear submissive, although that doesn’t always work. Paul Halifax, the plantation owner, and his wife, Ruth, mete out a justice based on their own whims. If a slight or wrongdoing is imagined, then it is as good as having happened. The two youths, however, have each other. In the precarious privacy of the barn, the young men carry out an intimate relationship and are lovers – as far their circumstances will allow.
The plantation owner has plans for Isaiah and Samuel. They are strong, fit young men and he intends to couple them with other slaves. In the economy of the South, slaves are treated like livestock, to be bred and sold. When Isaiah and Samuel don’t produce the required results, questions start to be asked. The others on the plantation know about their unique relationship, but when they are betrayed to Paul, the plantation owner, it sets in train a series of events that lead to tragedy.
The Prophets is the first novel by African-American writer Robert Jones, Jr. It’s an astonishing debut, one that achieves many great things. The story is written in a voice that is both assured and breathtakingly beautiful, a language that is full of sweeping Biblical cadences. The characters are fully drawn and three dimensional, with dialogue that punches through the page to speak with arresting clarity. The effect is to create an atmosphere that feels so real, one that inspires dread, fear, pity and sorrow. Lastly, but perhaps most important of all, The Prophets has a great moral authority. It delves deeply into the psychology of racism, the dark recesses of the human soul that allow people to mistreat others so abominably. Even more, it examines the pitiful moral collapse of the plantation owners and slave guards, how they have sunk so low, and know it, but cannot say it themselves.
One example will suffice. Paul Halifax, the plantation owner, has sired a son named Adam with one of the slave women. The two have similar features, and both know it, but it can’t be spoken of. Paul – a highly religious man – must pretend Adam is just another slave. One night Adam drives Paul out to a tavern, and Paul gets drunk, and he comes close to acknowledging his son. But of course he can’t, and it’s a sign of his depravity that his own flesh and blood he will treat as a piece of cattle.
The Prophets washes over the reader with its heightened poetic language and fully imagined characters, revealing a dark nightmare world without escape. It asks us to look into a mirror of the past, and see if we can see ourselves there.
The Prophets, by Robert Jones, Jr. Published by Riverrun. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Idealism clashes with reality in this thoughtful and revealing memoir.
A Promised Land was supposed to cover Barack Obama’s entire presidency, but it stops after 700 pages at 2011. A second volume is in the wings.
Let it be said at the outset, this is a very fine memoir. Its standout feature is an intellectual honesty that allows Obama to confront his personal limitations and the limitations of US democracy. Everywhere the overarching theme is the clash between idealism and reality. Good policy regularly takes a backseat to pointless political bickering and naked self-interest. US democratic politics doesn’t lend itself to reform and improvement, but is frustratingly weighted to maintain the status quo.
Often Obama fondly remembers his younger idealistic self, romantically wishing he could join progressive global protest movements, but finding himself inert, ironically hamstrung in the world’s most important political office. The US presidency might seem to confer power, but the reality is it is often a straitjacket. For all the personal sacrifices to attain the presidency – family, privacy, a normal life – a question constantly hangs in the air: how much is really being achieved? For the most part, achievement is measured in the ability to stop even worse things happening.
It is this honesty and candour that makes A Promised Land so compelling. The book gives a penetrating view into the presidency (we learn much about how the office actually works) and exposes the limitations of power. Obama remains optimistic about change, but this memoir, while deeply insightful, is also a sobering reminder of blunt political realities.
A Promised Land will go down as one of the great political memoirs.
A Promised Land, by Barack Obama. Vintage. $65
Review by Chris Saliba
Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer’s 1979 book of stories Trafalgar offers a quirky new angle on the sci-fi genre.
Trafalgar Medrano is an intergalactic trader. He buys and sells whatever will make him a buck, travelling to exotic and bizarre planets in his “clunker”, a small spaceship that’s seen better days. In the bars and cafes of Rosario, Argentina, Trafalgar relates his adventures to various interlocutors. A favourite café is the Burgundy, where Trafalgar is served by the adept Marcos who has an uncanny skill in anticipating his every need. Chief among them is coffee: Trafalgar downs bitter black coffee by the gallon.
Trafalgar has seen it all in his day. There are planets run by matriarchal hybrid human/robots, societies where the dead keep living, causing all sorts of mischief and far away places that are populated by bizarre dancing troglodytes. Several of the stories feature time travel, with interesting twists. The book ends with the surprise introduction of Trafalgar’s daughter, Eritrea. A surprise, because Trafalgar is a known womaniser. He claims not to even know who Eritrea’s mother is.
As should be fairly clear from the above, Trafalgar is a series of freewheeling space stories linked together by their settings in bar rooms and cafes, and the roguish character of Trafalgar himself. There’s a lot of humour in Angélica Gorodischer’s writing. The dialogue is breezy and good natured, with many incredulous and playful interjections from friends, waiters and family giving the whole affair a realistic, earthy feel. Trafalgar as a character is somewhat reminiscent of Han Solo from the Star Wars series. He likes women to a fault, indulges in drink and cigarettes, drives a clapped out space ship and makes fast friends with all sorts from outer space.
The stories also have the irreverent quality of Kurt Vonnegut, describing topsy-turvy lands, while the Argentinian settings give a feeling of joi de vivre. Not classic sci-fi, but a trippy, hallucinatory side road that is worth the journey.
Trafalgar, by Angelica Gorodischer. Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
An ancient peoples on a hidden planet make hair carpets, but no one seems to know why.
On a distant planet, on the outskirts of a galactic empire, a rudimentary civilisation makes intricate, hand woven carpets. The carpets are made out of human hair, the hair of the wives and daughters of the male carpet makers. It takes an entire lifetime to weave a single carpet, which is then given to the Emperor. This seemingly patriarchal society allows the husbands to have multiple wives – a head wife, and a sub wife. Daughters are welcome, but surplus sons are killed.
The distant planet is part of the Gheera province. It is thousands of years old and has been part mothballed, part forgotten by the Empire. The planets which form part of Gheera province no longer have contact with the central powers of the Empire and live in a lot of ignorance. When rumours start to spread that the Emperor has been overthrown, people are executed for uttering such heresy.
When the narrative jumps to an exploratory expedition set up by the new government, it becomes clear that the Emperor has indeed been executed by a group of rebels, who are now in charge. The exploratory spaceship is hovering over the mysterious planet and one of the crew members, Nillian, decides to descend. What he finds there shocks him. An endless stream of hair carpets are being sent to a planet that is hidden within a black hole. But no one knows why.
The Hair-Carpet Weavers is a 1995 science fiction novel by German writer Andreas Eschbach. It reads very much like a cross between Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Stansilav Lem’s Solaris. That is, the novel has Asimov’s muscular plot structure and Lem’s brilliant sense of irony and eerie atmosphere. Together they make for an utterly compelling story. One of the main themes of the book is how our habits, customs and religious beliefs are formed by hopelessly outdated historical forces. We hold prejudices and are willing to fight wars due to millennia old events. Not only that, we haven’t got a chance of breaking out of these patterns of thinking, as we have no idea of their actual starting point. The hair carpet weavers in Eschbach’s novel have created a whole political and religious system around servicing an ancient Emperor’s ridiculous whim.
A mind-blowing space opera powered by a superbly imagined plot.
The Hair-Carpet Weavers, by Andreas Eschbach. Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A way-out looking menial worker catches the attention of a young school boy.
A young boy is obsessed with a woman who works the sandwich bar at a local supermarket. She wears ice-blue eye shadow and handles the sandwiches – putting them into their little plastic bags – with mesmerising dexterity. The boy calls her “Ms Ice Sandwich” and goes almost everyday to buy the cheapest sandwich, an egg one. Ms Ice-Sandwich never looks the boy in the eye, making her almost a deity in his eyes.
At school, the boy has a friend, named Tutti. She’s a bit offbeat herself. When she invites him around to watch a movie, she likes to play over and over her favourite battle scenes and even act them out. When she finds out that her friend is obsessed with Ms Ice Sandwich, she gives him an ultimatum: he must introduce himself. Tutti has a personal philosophy behind this. She believes even the most fleeting relationships should be deepened where possible. But when the boy returns to the supermarket sandwich bar, he discovers that Ms Ice-Sandwich has quit. Has he left things too late?
While ostensibly Ms Ice Sandwich is an adult novel, it can easily be read as children’s fiction. The story is sweet and quirky, while also dealing in a subtle way with themes of death. Both main characters have lost a parent. The boy’s grandmother is also dying. Tutti emphasises the need to make human connections and cherish people – from those closest to us, to even transient acquaintances.
A gentle, somewhat eccentric, but ultimately life affirming story that will leave you with a spring in your step.
Ms Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami. Published by Pushkin Press. $19.99
Three young children flee Russian tanks as Hitler loses the Second World War
It's 1945 and the Wolf family is apprehensive, like many of their fellow Prussians. Russian soldiers are advancing; the German army is losing the war. So bad is the German position they are sending out the elderly and under-aged to fight. Eleven-year old Liesl, seven-year-old Otto and toddler Mia have said goodbye to their physically disabled father, as he has been drafted into the war. The family keeps telling themselves everything will be alright, despite the soldiers advancing. Liesl steadfastly believes in the goodness of Hitler, while Otto has had enough and curses the Fuhrer. When the tanks and bombs start rolling in, there's nothing left to do but flee. They grab as much as they can carry and run with their mother (Mama) and grandparents (Oma and Opa).
It's a life of immediate hardships and they soon have to leave Oma and Opa by the roadside. As they traverse rivers covered in ice and wade through forests, they lose sight of their Mama and the three children must fend for themselves. They feel constant hunger, suffer cold and lose energy. Their hunger means they are often reduced to eating slugs and killing wildlife. From time to time they are lucky and find a barn to sleep in and a cow to milk. Often they rely on the rare kindness of strangers.
All during this period Liesl undergoes a conversion, from believer in the essential goodness of Hitler, to the realisation that he is responsible for the most hideous war crimes.
Katrina Nannestad has written an engrossing, nicely paced and plotted children's book that carefully balances its themes of war, hunger and extreme hardship against more uplifting and optimistic notes. We Are Wolves is quite an achievement: ambitious subject matter, smartly worked into a children's adventure story, with instructive lessons on war, politics and the importance of resilience.
We Are Wolves, by Katrina Nannestad. Published by ABC Books. $19.99
Four siblings describe growing up in Lagos as virtual orphans, left to fend for themselves.
Covering a period of twenty years (1996 – 2015), Nigerian writer Tola Rotimi Abraham’s debut novel, Black Sunday, describes the mixed fortunes of four siblings. There are the twin sisters Bibike and Ariyike, and brothers Peter and Andrew. Each sibling has an alternating chapter in which they chronicle their lives in a Lagos slum.
The book begins when the siblings are all young children. Their mother has lost her government job due to political reasons out of her control, and their father loses all his money in some dodgy business dealing. Both parents run out on their children, leaving them in the care of their grandmother.
What follows is the story of each child growing up in poverty and uncertainty, vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. There is no real plot to Black Sunday, it’s more a series of vignettes of Nigerian street life, even a rake’s progress as the children’s lives become more miserable and compromised. That makes Black Sunday sound pretty grim, and it is, but it’s also shot through with plenty of dark humour.
An unvarnished look Lagos’ urban underbelly, featuring a rogues’ gallery of street hustlers, crooked businessmen and hypocritical religious figures. The book paints a particularly disturbing picture of the life of young women – raped, exploited and demeaned, with little to no chance of getting ahead in a world where the cards are stacked against them.
Often uncomfortable, yet necessary reading.
Black Sunday, by Tola Rotimi Abraham. Published by Cannongate. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
William Melvin Kelley (1937-2017), an African-American writer, published his first novel A Different Drummer at the age of twenty-four to great acclaim. Two years later came the short story collection, Dancers on the Shore.
Written in crystal clear prose, these stories cover the complications of family life and examine race relations in America. Each story is simply told and compelling, giving them a classic, universal feel. A young woman falls pregnant and must turn to her family for help; a man contemplates marrying a woman he's not sure he loves; a drunken white man accosts a coloured man and presumes too much; a long forgotten musician experiences a comeback; a young man meets his intellectual hero, only to find disappointment.
Kelley's stories are perfect nuggets of emotional truth, perfectly capturing the human condition: wrong choices, the humiliations of life, awkward family relationships and the many ways that love can go wrong. A highly enjoyable collection that resonates deeply.
Dancers on the Shore, by William Melvin Kelley. Published by Riverrun. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
There are serious growing pains when teenager Ford McCullen feels his life being pulled in many directions at once.
Sixteen-year-old Ford McCullen lives in Coburg with his Mum and grandparents, Noonie and Pop. When his paternal grandmother, Queenie, comes into some money, she gifts him an enrollment at St Anthony’s in posh Toorak. Shuttling between the two suburbs, his violin in tow, Ford cops some flack from his Coburg mates. The violin playing is endured to keep his family happy, but is seen as pretentious by Coburg standards.
Ford is muddling through life, carrying a lot of emotional baggage. Some of his friendships are getting complicated, he longs for a girl named Ellie, his mother has serious mental health issues and his relationship with his father, who left his mother for another man, is strained. He sees his father as remote and disinterested, making Ford wonder where he fits in, if at all.
Tobias McCorkell’s debut novel, Everything in its Right Place, is a funny, heart wrenching and refreshingly frank portrayal of troubled youth. Ford’s story of increasing isolation and disconnection is told in the loutish street talk of boozing and brawling teenage boys, yet is smartly written and organised. A coming of age story that devastates with its sense of grief and loneliness.
Everything in its Right Place, by Tobias McCorkell. Published by Transit Lounge. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books