Japanese Literature Challenge 12 (State of The Challenge #1)

15460976539741909298943.jpg

I was so happy to find that several blogging friends wished to participate in the Japanese Literature Challenge yet again. Although we are not numbering in the hundreds, as in the early days of 2006, these are the faithful few endeavoring to read Japanese literature throughout the months of January, February and March.

Participants:

The Master Key by Masako Togawa (Japanese Literature Challenge 12)

The novel begins with a woman wearing a red scarf being struck by a car and killed. Only, she is not a woman, but a man, as was later discovered by the medical examiner.

Suddenly the story shifts to an earlier time, where this man has carried a Gladstone bag which is apparently quite heavy (for within it is the body of a child), into a building. He and a woman bury it in the floor of a bath house which has long been in disuse.

Leaving all that behind, the story continues with the people who live in an apartment building solely for women. There is a strange assortment of characters, from the receptionist who sneaks naps while at her desk, to the concert violinist whose middle finger became paralyzed in her thirties, to the woman who steals fish heads and bones to build up her calcium, to a retired teacher. (Like me.) Who relieves her loneliness by writing to all her former students one by one, thereby bringing the mystery to its conclusion.

I liked this novel, but I did not love it. The mystery was clever enough, yet I found the translation irritating in many places. Not that I can read Japanese; the English simply sounded forced.

While spending the month here in Florida, I plan to indulge myself in translated literature. I have begun the rightfully praised trilogy of Miklós Bánffy, They Were Counted, and then I shall pick up Ruth Ozeki’s Tales for The Time Being.

In the meantime, it thrills my heart that so many bloggers have joined The Japanese Literature Challenge 12, and are reading such exciting books. I will publish a post of links soon.

My Top Ten Books for 2018

 

It is no surprise that when I review the list of approximately fifty books I read in 2018, the ones which are my favorite are all (but one) in translation. But, that does not make them inaccessible for readers who do not normally pick up translated literature. In fact, if you are tired of the same boring mysteries, the same boring love affairs, the same boring story told over and over again, I can’t recommend each one of these enough.

My Top Ten for the Year 2018:

  1. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk: Because it deserved to win the Man Booker International Prize this year for its breathtaking writing and memorable recounting of our lives.
  2. From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan: Because I have never seen three disparate stories woven together so seamlessly, or with such power.
  3. The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti: Because it won both the Strega Award and the Prix Médicis étranger, and faultlessly told the story of two boys’ friendship, as well as their relationship with one’s father.
  4. Fever and Spear by Javier Marias: Because Javier Marias is my favorite Spanish author; everything he writes is downright lyrical.
  5. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata: Because I was enchanted by this quirky character who loved convenience stores, the reason for which I could completely understand when I was in Japan this October.
  6. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami: Because it is an accessible, brilliant novel by my favorite Japanese author whom I never pretend to fully understand.
  7. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig: Because the tension mounted with every move, and the author wrote it in less than 100 pages.
  8. Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck: Because of the compelling side she shows for the immigrants who have no home.
  9. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz: Because it was the most startling and upsetting book I read this year (ever?) and I will never forget it.
  10. Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard: Because Mattias Enard captured Michelangelo in a fresh, new way when I thought I knew him already.

And now, I wish you a Happy New Year, and many joyous reads ahead in 2019!

Japanese Literature Challenge 12

Several dear blog friends have inquired about hosting another Japanese Literature Challenge, which touches me as it is an interest for which my heart never wants to let go. In the previous eleven years, I have run it from June to January, but now I am beginning with January and ending in March. I think we should have at least three months in which to indulge this passion, especially as I believe that Frances and I spoke of reading The Pillow Book in February.

There will be give-aways during the challenge, which I will send internationally. One of them is the advanced reading copy I have of Mishima’s book Star which will be published by New Directions Publishing April 30, 2019. Another is a book I have from nyrb entitled The Gate by Natsume Soseki. I will also give away a copy of The Emissary by Yoko Tawada which recently won the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature. Of course, what would a Japanese Literature Challenge by without Haruki Murakami? I will give away a Vintage Mini copy of his book, Desire, in which the “five weird and wonderful tales collected here each unlock the many-tongued language of desire, whether it takes the form of hunger, lust, sudden infatuation or the secret longings of the heart.” (back cover)

Since blogging has expanded into other social platforms, let’s use #JLC12 on Twitter or Instagram. And if you’ll leave a comment here, on this post, I will publish a weekly update including the book(s) you read and a link to your post if you wrote one.

So please, join The Reading Life, Graasland, Reading The World, Terri Talks Books, Tredynas Days, and me in this year’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12. I am eager to begin.

Of Wych Elms, Shiny Bells and a Star (Thoughts on Tana French’s latest, Henny’s color-along, and Yukio Mishima’s book coming in April)

It took me three weeks to finish Tana French’s The Witch Elm, partly because I’ve been quite distracted this Fall and Winter, and partly because I found it quite long. In between reading chapters about Toby and his cousins, and detective Rafferty’s exploration behind the finding of a body in the wych elm of their uncle’s garden, I have been coloring.

In particular, I have been enjoying Henny’s Christmas color-along of Shiny Bells on YouTube. The template was only $1.75, and she has been putting up daily tutorials here. I figure if more people come to see the origami pages I have published, than the thoughts I have on books, it can do no harm to post a few thoughts on colored pencil. While my drawing only vaguely resembles hers, it is great fun to follow along and learn what she has to say about shading and blending.

I found myself comparing The Witch Elm to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, one of my favorite novels. They are similar in that both authors create such an atmospheric mood, while bringing their characters to life. The Witch Elm was less than a mystery, I think, than an exploration of relationships, as well as the way that Toby had to manage a series of consequences that had deadly results. I liked it until the end, where I must absorb Toby’s new nature. Or, perhaps it was the nature he had within him all along.

In other news, I am ready to begin two new novels by Yukio Mishima.

One is entitled The Frolic of The Beasts. The other was send to me by New Directions Publishing, entitled Star which will be published April 30, 2019. It is described as such: “For the first time in English, a glittering novella about stardom from “one of the greatest avant-garde Japanese writers of the twentieth century” (Judith Thurman, The New Yorker)

My passion for Japanese literature never wans, and I will be sure to post some thoughts on these as soon as I have read them in case you would be interested in picking them up as well.

Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard (It’s just magnificent!)

Here is an indication of the glory within these pages, just in Énard’s ability to write about a notebook alone:

”Michelangelo owns a notebook, a simple notebook he made himself: some leaves of paper folded in half, held together with a string, with a cover made of thick cardboard. It’s not a sketchbook, he doesn’t draw in it; nor does he note down the verses that come to him sometimes, or the drafts of his letters, even less his impressions of the days or the weather outside.

In this stained notebook, he records treasures. Endless accumulations of various objects, accounts, expenses, supplies: clothes, menus, words, simply words.

His notebook is his sea chest.” (p. 14)

Mathias Enard has written exactly how I feel about notebooks, what I have known to be true about them, but unable to articulate, since I was a child.

And then there’s this:

”You conquer people by telling them of battles, kings, elephants and marvelous beings; by speaking to them about the happiness they will find beyond death, the bright light that presided over their birth, the angels wheeling around them, the demons menacing them, and love, love, that promise of oblivion and satiety. Tell them about all of that, and they will love you; they will make you the equal of a god.” (p. 54)

I could keep writing quotes until the novel ends…

The Governesses by Anne Serre (translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson)

They’re irresistible. The noblest of the three is Eleonore. The carriage of her head, her smooth auburn hair, which she wears in a chignon, and her Grecian profile with its pronounced, pale nostrils, conjure up a woman in an Ingres painting..More gentle and tender hearted, Laura is the most sensual in the way she moves around. As for Ines, she’s without question the liveliest of the three, pliant as the stem of a flower and very Spanish with her dark eyes and her ebony-black hair coiled like a snake around the ravishing curves of her skull. (p. 52-53)

One of the most remarkable things about The Governesses, to me, is the atmosphere. I feel that I am observing the governesses through the mist of a forest, as the little boys play with their hoops all around them. It is bizarre and winsome, at the same time.

There is a charge of sexuality underlying all that they do, or at least a very sensual aspect, as they dip their fingers into their food or let the wind whip their skirts over their heads as they lie on the wet grass in the meadow. Strangers come into the garden, and golden gates close behind them. These men are under the enchantment of the governesses, seemingly helpless under the women’s touch.

An elderly gentleman across the way observes them with a telescope through his window. He watches their antics, their cavorting with light in the garden, until one day, he turns away. Then the governesses start to fade.

This is a mystical tale, full of charm and ambiguity. It casts a spell on me as I yearn to decipher every meaning, but in the end, must simply accept it for what it is: a tale of women, a tale of men, a tale of young boys for whom the governesses were hired to watch, and the ephemeral quality of life.

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (for German Lit Month 2018)

The magic comes out of the books themselves, and I have no more idea than you or any of your men how it works. (p. 170)

“Magic comes out of the books themselves…” and I have always known this to be true. Cornelia Funke gives us a world of magic, a world of books, suitable for adults as well as the children for whom it is written. Any good children’s book is worthy of an adult as well.

What is the best part of this story? Is it the way that each chapter begins with an enticing quote from another book, helping us to predict what that chapter may hold (or luring us to reread the book from which it came)?

Is it the way that she has captured the bibliophile’s love of literature, with homes which are stacked with books in the hallways, stairs, and on every available surface?

Or, perhaps it is the adventure story itself, with such captivating characters as Silvertongue, who is able to read people out of, and into, books; perhaps it is Meggie, who longs for the return of her father who has been captured by Capricorn.

I know that for me, this fantasy novel has far more impact than any Harry Potter book. It’s surrealism hovers on the brink of reality for how well it brings the meaning of literature to life.

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig (German Lit Month 2018)

For four months I had not held a book in my hands, and there was something intoxicating and at the same time stupefying in the mere thought of a book, in which you could see the words one after another, lines, paragraphs, pages, a book in which you could read, follow, take into your mind the new, different, diverting thoughts of another person. (p. 51)

You can see the desperation of the man who has been held in solitary confinement by the Nazis, deprived of any diversion whatsoever. He is held hostage in a hotel room, with no paper, no pencils, no books, nothing but wallpaper, the pattern of which he has begun to memorize.

When he is taken for yet another interrogation, he notices a rectangle in the pocket of a jacket hanging against the wall and supposes it must be a book. Smuggling it into his waistband, he dares not reveal the title until he has successfully kept it hidden and returned to his room.

It is a book on how to play chess. At first, this comes as a terrible disappointment, and then, it is a source of great distraction. He can play game after game, memorizing the moves required to win. Eventually, however, he can only play against himself, never against a thinking, reasoning, opposition.

At the beginning my thinking was calm and considered, I took breaks between one game and the next in order to recover from my agitation. But gradually my frayed nerves refused to let me wait. My white self had no sooner made a move than my black self feverishly pushed forward; a game was no sooner over than I challenged myself to another, for one of the two chess selves was beaten by the other every time and demanded a rematch. (p. 63)

The hold that chess has on him almost makes him mad. In fact, after an affliction of ‘brain fever’, the doctor tells him that it would be better never to go near a chessboard again.

He cannot help himself, however, when on an ocean liner he observes a game between the world champion and other passengers. He inserts himself into this game, giving advice which earns him their utmost interest and respect. A game is set up between him and the champion to see who will emerge the victor.

Suddenly, there was something new between the two of them; a dangerous tension, a passionate hatred. They were no longer opponents testing their abilities in a spirit of play, but enemies resolved to annihilate each other. (p. 79)

It is a remarkably tense book for holding a mere 84 pages. I was caught up in the story of two individuals, each of them damaged in their own way, pit against each other in the very game of which they are both obsessed. It is a story of great tension, deceptively simplistic in its presentation. One wonders, upon its completion, if there truly is such a thing as winning.

 

How I Love Japan (Part Five)

I had read the book The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima, which helped me appreciate this site all the more. Still, my heart leaps at all things natural more than the man-made.

For example, this bamboo forest, along with the cedar forest in Nikko, takes my breath away.

Or, this shot of the Pacific Ocean as we drove south down the Izu Peninsula. (It’s obvious that the same ocean my friend Lesley sees in Oregon is the one I’m looking at in Japan, but that amazes me.)

I learned that there are two kinds of gardens. One is a strolling garden, usually with a water feature, through which one walks to enjoy the view. The other is a dry garden, in which one must use one’s imagination to interpret the rocks. Ryoan-ji Temple has such a garden which is famous.

This is only one end of it, as it is quite large. The garden has 15 rocks, none of which are able to be seen all at the same time. If you could see every one of the 15 rocks, you would have reached the stage of enlightenment. (I assume that is because you would have to be looking down on them from above.) I, myself, could count only 12 as I studied it from one side.

As we wandered through the Japanese gardens, my husband took many pictures as he hopes to duplicate some of their features in ours. This is a rain chain, a beautiful way to keep the rain falling from one’s roof instead of gutters.

I leave you with a smiling monk because he is so happy with his bird. He reminds me of my beloved friend, Jean, who is a bird whisperer.