About Bellezza

Reader of translated literature, member of the Man Booker International Prize shadow jury since 2015

The River by Peter Heller (Edgar Award Nomination for Best Novel)

The tension is palatable from the very beginning.

What they wanted by giving themselves almost a month, more, to cross the lakes and run the river was a voyage with no end date…Most of their previous river trips had been a hustle, because they were students with jobs and so their time off was short. They wanted to try this, to feel.what it was actually like to live in the landscape a little. But now everyrhing had changed. The fire they’d seen the other night and the early frost changed it. (p. 19-20)

The fog, and the impending fire, are not the only things that threaten Wynn and Jack, two friends canoeing in Canada. They encounter two men who are drunk, and then they overhear an argument between a man and a woman coming through the fog. Later, they stop a man in a canoe from going over the falls, and when he approaches them they can see he is in a state of shock. His wife, it seems, has disappeared. Did he kill her? Were they attacked by the two drunks? Was it a bear that caused such harm?

He (Jack) was forming a theory. He was gathering evidence and he would indict and convict the man before they even met him again. Wynn wouldn’t. It was plausible. It was. A whole handful of possibilities. The Texans with their quiet motor could have stalked the couple in the fog. The poor man, Pierre, in the grip of terror, had lost his wife and fled this new bear here by the falls, or fled them. Thinking that they had been the ones who had taken her in the mist and were now probably after him. (p. 106)

The two young men care for the woman, struggle to keep them all alive, and outrun both the fire and the man ahead of them whom they suspect is a threat. It seemed unrealistic in places, that they could escape the fire or escape their hunger. My interest waned…and then, at the end, my heart broke. I thought I would like it much more than I did, as the beginning was so strong, and the ending so piercing. Maybe I just didn’t like how upsetting it was, and for the ability to imbue that much emotion, Peter Heller ought to win something.

I have read four of the five books listed for Best Novel. So far, my favorite two are Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham and Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland. After a brief summary post of the Edgar Award contenders, I will return to Japanese literature. And, soon there will be a few books reviewed for Boekenweek which begins March 7. (Boekenweek is a ten day celebration of Dutch literature which first began in 1932.)

Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland (Edgar Award nomination)

Art has a way of putting everyone at their most transactional. I’m invisible until someone calculates my value. (p. 37)

I devoured this book like I did the latte macchiato and ginger cookie from Peet’s, the traces of which you see above. It absorbed me completely and drew me into the art world in ways I have never been aware of before.

As I began to pull my thoughts together for this post, I realized that the narrator (for it is told in first person) never identifies herself. All we know is that she is a young painter, with an alcoholic mother left behind in Gainesville, Florida, and that she admires a group of artists called Pine City beyond what some might call normal admiration.

Who of us hasn’t been enchanted with a figure which seems to loom larger than life? Be it an artist, a writer, a singer, we seem to look for heroes, and then elevate them to impossible heights. Such is the way with Pine City, artists who are on the cutting edge, who cling to themselves and carve a successful path for their work to be recognized.

Somehow it doesn’t matter how old you grow, or how sophisticated you become. The people who impress themselves upon your consciousness at nineteen ill never shrink of fade from memory. They will always be just a few steps ahead, and you’ll both hate and worship them for it, because you cannot help but compare yourself. (p. 80)

Pine City is not the only object of her admiration; there is also her friend, Max, a woman who seems to have it all: style, fame, and a rich husband from the art world. They live in a house designed by one of the members of Pine City, Carey Logan, who has used sculpted hands for doorknobs, the crook of an elbow at the top of a landing of stairs…

The novel centers around Carey, a woman who has allegedly committed suicide by sticking her feet in boots filled with cement and filming herself walking into a lake where she drowns. The whole thing is filmed, as her final piece of art. Carey evolved from sculpture showing bodies in decay to performance art, where she hugged people, or smelled their breath, or did equally bizarre things that constitute art in the art world.

“I’m creatively lonely all the time.”

“Right? It’s so dissonant. I want to be an individual. I want my work to be so unique that everyone says there’s nothing like it, but then, I’m always looking around, like who’s making tracks? Who can I follow? How am I supposed to do this? (p. 156)

Really, as I think about it, Fake Like Me is more about what happens when the objects of our admiration can not bear up to our affection. It is about the loneliness inherent, perhaps, to each of us. It is about finding a place of contentment with who we are and what we do. I found it extremely well written, and very powerful.

Two of the Five Books listed as finalists for the Edgar Award this year: Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham and The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

I have taken a short break from Japanese literature because guess what? Our library has all five of the five books listed for the Edgar Award’s Best Novel. Really, it is nothing short of a miracle, and as all five of them are in my hands at the moment, I decided I must go ahead and read each one.

Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham was excellent. I actually cared more about the girl who was discovered hiding in a secret room, coming out only to feed two chained up dogs when she felt she couldn’t be found, than I did about the murder of a teen-aged figure skating champion named Jodie.

The characterization in this novel was fabulous, particularly the relationship which was forged between the traumatized girl, Evie, and a psychologist named Cyrus. He was strong enough, and compassionate enough, to provide a safe place for her, for he, too, knew what it was to have endured a most terrible tragedy as a child.

So, Jodie’s body is found in the path. Suspects are interviewed. The murderer is found, and it is all done quite skillfully. But, it is Evie and Cyrus who will remain foremost in my mind for a long, long time.

In many ways, The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths could be thought of as similar to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. There is a school, Talgarth High, around which murders happen, and a delicious gothic feel to the whole academic environment. But, it did not strike me nearly as powerfully as The Secret History, a novel I most assuredly admired.

The Stranger Diaries is based on the ghost story entitled, The Stranger, written by a R. M. Holland, a writer who used to live at the school about one hundred years ago. His study was on the top floor of the Old Building, and it is within his study that he seems to appear again one autumnal night.

The Stranger depicts a marvelous portion in which initiates to the Hell Club must climb blindfolded, with a candle, to the first floor landing’s window. There, they had to light their candles and shout, “Hell is empty!” Only then could they remove their blindfolds and return to their friends for feasting and revelry.

“Hell is empty and the devils are here,” is a line taken from The Tempest. It is an oft repeated refrain throughout this book, and perhaps my favorite part, for truly, I found the story of the murders themselves rather mundane.

Tonight I will begin Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland, as I make my way through all five nominations. The winner will be announced in New York City on April 30, 2020, but I will be sure to tell you my favorite long before that.

Sunday Salon: a Japanese literature treasure trove edition

I have been waiting for the mailman most impatiently this week. Finally, yesterday, he delivered all that I’ve been anticipating (except Samantha, the tabby).

First, there is The Forest of Wool and Steel by Natsu Miyashita. With over one million copies sold, it is the winner of the Japan Booksellers’ Award, “selected by bookshop staff as the book they most wanted to hand-sell.”

Set in small-town Japan, this warm and mystical story is for the lucky few who have found their calling – and for the rest of us who are still looking. It shows that the search for the purpose in life is a winding path – one filled with treacherous doubts and, for those who persevere, astonishing revelations. (Inside cover)

Then, there is The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue sent to me by Pushkin Press for review. It is called “A tragedy in three letters: the masterpiece of one of Japan’s greatest writers.”

Born in 1907, Yasushi Inoue worked as a journalist and literary editor for many years, only beginning his prolific career as an author in 1949 with Bullfight. He went on to publish 50 novels and 150 short stories, both historical and contemporary, his work making him one of Japan’s major literary figures. In 1976 Inoue was presented with the Order of Culture, the highest honour granted for artistic merit in Japan. He died in 1991.

Finally, I received the Red Circle Minis from Red Circle Press. I first read about them in an article from The Japan Times as books to look for in 2020, and indeed, they are most special.

Red Circle Minis is a series of short captivating books by Japan’s finest contemporary writers that brings the narratives and voices of Japan together as never before. Each book is a first edition written specifically for the series and is being published in English first. (Red Circle)

Look for reviews of each of these books during the next few weeks, and of course, a give-away or two, as we progress through the Japanese Literature Challenge 13.

Malice by Keigo Higashino

I’d had my eye on him ever since his books started hitting the shelves. Half of me was proud that my childhood friend had made it, while the other half was envious of his success. We’d often talked about becoming writers when we were kids. We both loved books and were constantly recommending our favorites to each other, reading and swapping them when we were finished. Hidaka turned me on to Sherlock Holmes and Arsene Lupin. In return, I gave him Jules Verne. (p. 146)

Several fellow bloggers on Twitter have mentioned that Malice is one of their favorite books by Keigo Higashino. While my personal favorite of his, so far, is Naoko, I have thoroughly enjoyed the puzzle within Malice.

The story revolves around a famous author, Kunihiko Hidaka, who is found brutally murdered in his apartment the night before he is to move to Vancouver. His best friend, Osamu Nonoguchi, is interviewed with surprising revelations.

Keigo Higashino takes us back to elementary school, in fact, to the very prejudices we are brought up with as children. Through a series of interviews and analysis from police detective Kyochiro Kaga, a former classmate of Osama Nonuguchi’s, we come to the startling truth. It is a revelation of the power of malice, long coddled in a child’s heart.

About the author: Keigo Higashino is the bestselling and most widely read novelist in Japan, as well as several other Asian countries, with hundred of millions of his books sold worldwide. His work has been adapted for dozens of television series and films in several countries and languages. He won the Naoki Prize for The Devotion of Suspect X, the first novel featuring his character Detective Galileo, and the English translation was a finalist for the Edgar Award for the Best Novel and the Barry Award. He lives in Tokyo, Japan.

An Artist of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

There was a pause, then my father said: ‘Tell me, Masuji, have you any idea what kind of a world artists inhabit?’

I remained silent, looking at the floor before me,.

’Artists’, my father’s voice continued, ‘live in squalor and poverty. They inhabit a world which gives them every temptation to become weak-willed and depraved.” (p. 46)

Well, that is not a very auspicious beginning for Masuji Ono, the artist of the floating world. From the very beginning he is advised not to become an artist by his father, who is fearful that there is no honor in it.

Honor is one of the many themes that Kazuo Ishiguro explores in An Artist of The Floating World. Masuji’s daughter, Setsuko, advises her father to be careful with his youngest daughter’s marriage negotiations. (Her first prospect was withdrawn on the pretext that their family was somehow inferior to Ono’s.)

‘You must forgive me, Father…I merely wished to see that it is perhaps wise if Father would take certain precautionary steps. To ensure misunderstandings do not arise. After all, Noriko is almost twenty-six now. We cannot afford many more disappointments such as last year’s. (p. 50)

And so, he visits old acquaintances and friends, trying to bridge misunderstandings. Resentments. Bitterness from the past. It is the kind of writing which makes me, at this time of my life, also look back and consider what I have done. What I haven’t done.

I must say I find it hard to understand how any man who values his self-respect would wish for long to avoid responsibility for his past deeds; it may not always be an easy thing, but there is certainly a satisfaction and dignity to be gained in coming to terms with the mistakes one has made in the course of one’s life. In any case, there is surely no great shame in mistakes made in the best of faith. It is surely a thing far more shameful to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge them. (p. 124-5)

Mori-san, who is the the teacher of Masuji and others, devoted his time and wealth to his students, with the goal of changing the “identity of painting as practiced in our city.” They explored the “floating world” – the night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink which formed the backdrop for all our paintings.”

Surely the world is made up of more than dancing, singing, drinking, and story-telling, especially in the late forties after World War II. Mori-san confronts Ono one evening, about the paintings his pupil has produced which portray a far more serious theme, such as the one with three prominent politicians, and three poverty-stricken boys who had become soldiers, holding bayoneted rifles.

What is an artist’s responsibility? Is it to portray a world of beauty and light, or one of violent darkness? Ono says,

‘I have learnt many things over these past years. I have learnt much in contemplating the world of pleasure, and recognizing its fragile beauty. But now I feel it is time for me to progress to other things. Sensei, it is my belief that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light. It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world. My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world. (p. 179-80)

Within the exploration of art, and an artist’s role, we see Masuji Ono with his charming grandson, Ichiro, and his rather bossy, dismissive daughters. We see his colleagues, and his teachers, and the woman who opened a tea-house long before their city became consumed by restaurants. For me, the novel is as much a portrait of Japanese culture as it is a portrayal of art.

I loved it.

About the Author: Kazuo Ishiguro was born in NAgasaki, Japan, in 1954 and moved to Britain in 1960. His first novel, A Pale View of Hills, won the Winifred Holtby Prize of the Royal Society of Literature and has been translated into thirteen languages. An Artist of the Floating World was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the 19816 Whitbread Book of the Year Award; it has been translated into fourteen languages.

The Dancing Girl of Izu by Yasunari Kawabata (Japanese Literature Challenge 13)

On the road, a traveling companion; and in the world, kindness.

~an old Japanese saying

I first heard of this short story from Masa, our travel guide, when I was visiting the Izu Peninsula in Japan two years ago. He asked if I had ever read it, as it was one of his favorites, but I told him I had not.

Just now I have finished this lovely, gentle story by Yasunari Kawabata. It tells of a twenty year old student from Tokyo as he briefly follows itinerant entertainers who perform for people in tea houses. He has noticed the beauty of the dancing girl and cannot bring himself to leave her, or her family, until he runs out of money to travel and must return to Tokyo.

There is no consummation of their relationship; there is not even an embrace, let alone a kiss. But, her hair brushes his shoulder as they play a game with stones called “Five-in-a-row.” She asks him to read her “The Story of The Lord of Mito.“

I picked up the book, with a certain expectation in my heart. Just as I hoped, the dancing girl scooted over beside me. Once I began reading, she brought her face close enough to touch my shoulder, her expression serious. Her eyes sparkled as she gazed at my forehead without blinking. It seemed to be her habit when she was being read to.

She asks him to take her to a silent movie when they come to town, but when he does, her mother forbids her to go.

They have nothing between them but a strong connection, a great affection particularly on his part. He finds something within the traveling group, within the dancing girl herself, which provides some comfort to his spirit. It isn’t until the end of the story that we find out why.

Twenty years old, I had embarked on this trip to Izu heavy with resentment that my personality had been permanently warped by my orphan’s complex and that I would never be able to overcome a stifling melancholy. So I was inexpressibly grateful to find that I looked like a nice person as the world defines the word.

I read this beautiful, melancholic short story (first published in 1926) for free by downloading it from Internet Archive, which proves to be a wonderful resource for borrowing literature. It is perfect for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13, and the first short story I’ve read for the Deal Me In Challenge.

The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezz (Winner of the Shogakukan Manga Award in 1974)

It is not my typical practice to go straight to the manga section of the library. But, when I sat down with one of Keigo Higashino’s books to read for a bit, I looked up and saw a display of newly arrived YA books. The Drifting Classroom caught my eye, and after I flipped through the beginning pages I checked it out and brought it home.

Within an hour or so I had finished it, completely drawn in by the story and the drawings.

Out of nowhere, an entire school vanishes, leaving nothing but a hole in the ground. While parents mourn and authorities investigate, the students and teachers find themselves not dead but stranded in a terrifying wasteland where they must fight to survive.

VIZ Signature Edition (cover)

The novel has an element which would certainly appeal to the sixth grade student: frustration with one’s parents, longing to be independent but unable yet to do so, searching for strength and even admiration from one’s peers…

And, there is an element of imagination that drew me in as if I was watching a film…

But, one of the most interesting things to me was that I found the presence of morality. The kids take leadership, find courage, band together against evil.

I’m not saying that manga is literature. In fact, I feel a bit strange including it in what I’ve read for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13. But, the facts remain that it is from Japan. There is text. And, I found it utterly fascinating.

I am now awaiting the arrival of Volume 2 at our local library.

The Drifting Classrom was the winner of the Shogakukan Manga Award in 1974.

On The Bus in The Rain, a novella by Haruka Kimura

Across the aisle and diagonally to my right, my exact double is sitting in a one-seater. No… technically, he’s me as a high schooler. Reflexively and vigorously, I rub at my eyes, and it sure isn’t hay-fever season.

While on the bus in the pouring rain, our narrator notices his seventeen year old self sitting to his right. Should he get up and tell his younger self that everything will be all right, at least until he reaches the age of twenty-seven? And, wouldn’t he like to know his future self at the age of thirty-seven?

This novella is an introspective look at who we were, who we are, whom we might become.

I know that I constantly examine who I was, and often wish that I could have told my younger self information that I only know now that I am older. But, would I really tell myself what would happen? What I should do? I have learned from making the choices I did, they have formed who I am today.

What would be gained by talking to my future self? Do I want to know the joys, or sorrows, of what will happen in the next ten years? Perhaps it is best to get off the bus without saying a word, to face each year with fresh innocence. Perhaps it is best that we don’t know all that we will choose, or all the events that will make us who we are, in advance.

“On the Bus in the Rain (雨の日のバスで)” won a Kobe Shinbun (newspaper) literary contest in July, 2019. You can read this novella yourself by clicking here.

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda (a most excellent beginning to the Japanese Literature Challenge 13)

I can’t help feeling there’s something inexplicable about this crime. I don’t know how to express it precisely, but there’s something incoherent or indefinable about it, something the human mind isn’t equipped to engage with. (p. 63)

How I love an intriguing mystery, a well written, well developed story that has not been manipulated for “twists and turns” but naturally unfolds it’s layers as a flower unfurls its petals. You can trust a Japanese author to do just that, and Riku Onda does it magnificently in her novel, The Aosawa Murders, which won the 59th Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel.

The story is told from multiple perspectives, beginning with a police interview conducted with Hisako Aoswara which only gives the barest glimpse into her account. Gradually we become aware of a certain crepe myrtle tree, a blue room, and a strange letter left under a vase for a single flower at the scene of the crime. The fact that Hisako is blind only serves to obfuscate her side of the story.

What becomes clear Is that seventeen people have died by drinking poisoned soft drinks or sake at a birthday party for Dr. Aosawa and his family. The drinks were brought and left by a messenger wearing a black hat and a yellow raincoat. Only one person in the family has survived: the beautiful young daughter who is blind, Hisako.

One by one we read the perspectives of the people who can give their account of what has happened. First, is a conversation with Makiko Saiga, the author of the book Forgotten Festival, which gives her side of the story as she was a neighbor Hisako’s age when the murder occurred. Then, we have the point of view of her assistant who points out a few discrepancies in Makiko’s book.There is an excerpt from Forgotten Festival, an interview with the housekeeper’s daughter, and the detective’s thoughts himself. From these testimonies, and several others, the truth is gradually revealed.

But, what is truth? How can any of us know what another’s experience has been? Consider this quote from the author’s assistant:

I hope you understand that truth is nothing more than one view of a subject seen from a particular perspective. (p. 59)

It was fascinating to read each account, to gain an understanding of what really happened as each piece was laid in place. It was a puzzle which was solved by seemingly unrelated pieces which fit together perfectly once they were laid down. I was surprised when all was known, but then again, I have never been a child in the blue room with a white crepe myrtle flower in full bloom.

About the author: Ricky Onda, born in. 1964, is the professional name of Nanao Kumagai. She has been writing fiction since 1991 and has published prolifically since. She has won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers, the Japan Booksellers’ Award, the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize and the Naoki Prize. Her work has been adapted for film and television. The Aosawa Murders won the prestigious Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel. It is Riku Onda’s first crime novel and her first work translated into English.

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda will be published in the U.S. by Bitter Lemon Press on February 15, 2020. But, I will send my copy to a participant of the Japanese Literature Challenge, U.S. only please. Simply leave a comment below, and I will draw a winner a week from today.

The winner of The Aosawa Murders is Nadia of A Bookish Way of Life. Thank you to all who commented here.