The Makioka Sisters Read-along: Book Three

By the very end of Book II, Itakura has died; we know, at the very least that Taeko will not end up with him. But, the focus has already shifted back to Yukiko, and we see yet another attempt at finding a suitor for her as Book III opens.

It is around this theme, finding a suitable husband for Yukiko, that the whole novel has revolved. Within this context, we see the closeness of the sisters, and their disappointments. We see the trouble Taeko brings, and although she is much loved, surely she cannot be an easy sister to manage.

In Book III, Taeko becomes deathly ill with an intestinal catarrh, or dysentery, or could it even be gonorrhea? She stays with Okubata, even though she does not love him, and while visiting her sister there, Sachiko discovers what the two have been doing for money. It seems that Taeko and Okubata have had no qualms about stealing jewels from his family’s store, and selling them not only for daily expenses, but for great luxuries.

Eventually Taeko does overcome this illness, though I feared she may not, and attention returns to Yukiko’s future. A suitor is found once more, and through more polite machinations than I can even begin to describe, arrangements are made for her marriage. It seems a very well grounded one, but before the wedding can take place, two unsettling things happen.

The first is that Taeko has been found to be with child. She is sent off with the maid, O-haru, to live in secret. Has she no thought of what this situation could do to hamper Yukiko’s marriage arrangements still in the making? Then, worst of all, the baby dies at birth due to the doctor’s unintentional negligence. Taeko returns to live with the baby’s father, ironically leaving the home before Yukiko does, after all.

And Yukiko? This quiet, extremely shy sister finally agrees to the wedding, which we the reader never see. We are left with the knowledge that she has diarrhea, and no joy about the arrival of her wedding kimonos. Instead, she sighs, and responds to her sisters’ questions with a verse:

On clothes I’ve wasted

Another good day.

Weddings, I find,

are not always gay.

There is so much to think about within the pages of this novel. I do not have a sister, let alone three, and I have not experienced the dynamics of their relationship personally. But, I am most intrigued by the strength of one, the selfishness of another, and the emotional reservedness of a third. Let us discuss these things in a week, as we wrap up the read-along, giving time, I hope, for all who were reading to complete the novel.


Sunday Salon: Reflections on the Week That Was

I added a new insert into my Midori Passport this week. I felt it was important to document the week, the arrival of the Coronavirus and how it has affected the world in which we live.

These thoughts are only my thoughts, of course, which I recorded for my own memory. My own sorting out. Wakako, of Baum-kuchen, said in her newsletter of March 5: “Whether it’s a messy scribble or neat handwriting makes no difference in the power of writing as long as we keep writing. I hope you write to remember. I hope you write to heal. And I hope you write to dream and grow.”

I share these thoughts from the past week to see if they resemble your thoughts. To share mine. To document a moment in time I have never seen before.

On February 28, I mention the Coronavirus for the first time in my journal, likening it to Stephen King’s novel, The Stand.

On March 10, the news declares more than 80,000 people are infected with the Coronavirus, and Italy has shut down. “It isn’t effecting the U.S. quite so hard,” I write.

On March 13, I learn that Wheaton College has closed. All the students are being sent home; my cousin’s daughter is clearing out her dorm room. The Irish dinner that my sister-in-law and I had been planning for a big family party is cancelled, the Forest Walk at the Morton Arboretum is cancelled, the Wade Center at Wheaton College is cancelled, and even my small book club is cancelled.

On March 14, my husband comes home from grocery shopping at Jewel and tells me the dairy case is empty. No cream. No milk. People are hoarding groceries, and Twitter has clips of women fighting over toilet paper. My son says, “I need more paper towel for my apartment.” “Why?” I ask. “Just use rags and wash them.” “Oh,” he says. “Right. There’s no shortage of laundry detergent.”

On March 15 we stream church service live, and learn that the Leaders’ meeting for Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) must also be streamed on Zoom. Our pastor preaches on John 14: “Let not your heart be troubled.” “Let,” he says, “is a permissive word.” In other words, “Do not allow your heart to be troubled. Don’t give it permission to embrace anxiety.”

My parents go to Whole Foods and bring a carton of cream for me, and a gallon of milk for our elderly neighbor. “There are plenty of things in the grocery stores,” my father says. “You just have to know where to look.” He scorns public distress.

”Self quarantine” has become a common phrase now. Meetings of more than 25 people are forbidden; restaurants, bars, libraries, health clubs are all closed, and Tucker Carlson warns that small businesses will crumble.

I go to have a manicure on March 16, and the shop is almost empty. The girls are dependent on their tips, and so I leave MyMy triple what I usually do, hoping it is somewhat helpful, feeling when I get home that it is not.

President Trump called Sunday, March 15 a National Day of Prayer. Franklin Graham is taking Samaritan’s Purse to Italy to set up a make shift hospital with 68 beds. My sister-in-law who works at Edward Hospital says people are stealing face masks and wipes from the Emergency room.

I go to see Dr. D. for an appointment I had made weeks ago, and I must stand, not sit, in his waiting room. The receptionist is wearing blue plastic gloves as she works at her desk.

At first I felt relieved about so much being cancelled. “Free time to read!” I think. And then, I go to Trader Joe’s, and I’m subdued because shelves are bare. A big sign at the entrance says, “Out of consideration for others, do not take more than two of any one item.”

All kinds of churches are calling for fasting, and I read in my daily Bible reading this verse from Isaiah, reminding us we are to live our fasting with care for one another:

”Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen; to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the the naked to clothe him, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and and the Lord will answer, you will cry for help and He will say Here am I.” ~Isaiah 58:6-9 (ESV)

My mother bakes trays of her oatmeal raisin cookies and takes them to all their neighbors.

The thing is, no one knows how big this pandemic is going to get, or how long it will last. The Edward Fitness Club said ”Closed until March 30.” District 204 has planned e-learning until April 2. But, no one knows if things will be better by then. And, we must face a troubled economy when all this goes away.

On March 20 the streets and shops are virtually empty as people practice terms I’d never heard of a month ago because Governor Pritzger called for Illinois to shut down: #social distancing, #shelter-in-place, #self-quarantine, #life in isolation. As things get more and more restrictive, it is important not to lose hope.

”Meredith,” my father says to me yesterday. “There is a beginning, a middle and an end to everything. This is the beginning of the end (of the virus).” We can only trust that is true, for the saddest thing I heard last night was that hundreds of people in Italy died all alone, as they were required to be in isolation.


These snippets are from my week. I wonder if they resemble anything like yours? I wonder if you will join me in embracing hope, rather than anxiety, trust rather than fear?

Bless you all, Meredith

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Booker International Prize 2020) An incredibly unusual, and important, book.

When my son was in second grade, Tamagotchis were all the rage. I bought him one, as he longed to fit in with the other kids, and he spent hours “feeding” it, amongst the other things required to “keep it alive”.

“But,” my parents said, “it’s not real!” They could not understand the significance of a virtual pet, and I must say that I agreed with them. How do you keep a machine alive? How can a machine be a pet?

Twenty years later we come to Samanta Schweblin’s magnificent novel, Little Eyes. I was riveted from the first page, and I stayed that way throughout my reading. For it is about technology, and socializing, and the way that people can put feelings on a plastic animal covered with felt or feathers.

They are called kentukis, these creatures costing $279.00 which come in a box and must be activated with a special code. People who buy them become ‘keepers’, while those who are connected to them via technology are called ‘dwellers’. The two people never meet, yet their lives are intimately woven together as the kentuki has ‘eyes’ which serve as cameras, and wheels allowing them mobility; the apartments which they occupy, and the privacy therein, is shown in all its reality to strangers with whom they are connected.

However, the strangers gradually cease to feel that they are anonymous. Suddenly, they find themselves caring deeply about the lives of the people who own the kentuki; worse,they care deeply about the kentuki itself, as if it was real. Or, capable of human emotion.

…it seemed like the idea of kentuki liberation had just been invented. It occurred to someone that mistreating a kentuki was as cruel as keeping a dog tied up all day in the sun, even crueler if you considered that it was a human being on the other end. Some users had tried to found their own clubs and free kentukis that they considered were being abused.

I have never read a book like this. The imagination of Samanta Schweblin is extraordinary, and the world she brings to life is frightening. For I do not believe we are far from the power that machines can exert on our lives.

About the Author: Samanta Schweblin was chosen as one of the 22 best writers in Spanish under the age of 35 by Granta. She is the author of three story collections that have won numerous awards, including the prestigious Juan Rulfo Story Prize, and been translated into 20 languages. Fever Dream is her first novel and is longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Originally from Buenos Aires, she lives in Berlin.

The Makioka Sisters Read-along: Book Two

a066bc10-6f18-4f66-b701-678b2eeff1aeBook Two begins with the awareness that Okubata’s favor is resting lightly on Taeko’s heart. Whereas once they had tried to elope together, and created a scandal which even the newspaper picked up, now their relationship seems significantly cooled, at least on Taeko’s part. She tells her sisters that she wishes to learn sewing, to study in France, and thus have the skills required to support herself if necessary. This does not sit well with the oldest sister and her husband, living in the main house now in Tokyo; they feel that Taeko is being too “modern”. Why does she need a job?

Also, early in Book II, there comes a description of a most terrifying flood, which I read about with great trepidation. I was fearful for Etsuko away at school, Taeko away from home at her sewing class, and Teinsuke out searching for them while his wife, Sachiko, waits for news at home. But, who should be instrumental in saving Taeko? None other than the photographer Itakura, and surely it is more than mere coincidence that caused him to pass by the building she was in as the flood waters rose.

Yukiko’s story, involving the search to find her a suitable husband, is not as dominant in Book II. Instead, the focus is on Taeko, who has not had the advantages her elder sisters had while their father was alive. Neither does Taeko seem to act appropriately: she does not sit with her legs folded under her; she does not pour the tea, as the youngest sister ought; she searches out a career, and yearns to go to Paris. Most concerning of all, to her elder sisters, is her desire to pursue marriage with Itakura. Her former lover, Okubata, has acted deceitfully in the teahouse with the geisha, and one dancer who has even born a child. Surely he can not be considered a worthy candidate for marriage? Yet, the older sisters esteem him more highly than Itakura because he has a good job and refined clothes (which he did not want to muddy while in the flood).

It is interesting to me how much is built around appearance. Of course, The Makioka Sisters was first published in 1936, and much in the world has changed since then. But, the Japanese lead a very cultured life, one which is steeped in tradition and respect. They are refined and almost delicate physically, especially in comparison to those from other countries. Consider this description of their friend Katharina’s German friend:

One knew immediately that he was a German, she (Taeko) said: he was tall and strongly built, not so much handsome as rugged. (p.290)

This friendship of Katharina’s, and Etsuko’s friendship with the Stolz’s children (who once were their neighbors) is intriguing. We are on the brink of WWII, and I wonder if Tanizaki will bring these relationships with German people into his plot…

Are you enjoying it so far? Do you have any predictions? Will a husband ever be found for Yukiko? Will Taeko continue in her defiant ways? I am completely caught up in the world which Tanizaki is creating for us, and I am filled with curiosity about the Makioka family and their place in Japan.

The Makioka Sisters Read-along for March

Here is my edition of The Makioka Sisters by Juni’chiro Tanizaki, lying in wait on my piano with a few origami doves I folded years ago. March does not begin until Sunday, but as some of you are as anxious to begin as I, let us lay out a few thoughts on how to proceed.

First of all, please read at the pace you wish. It is terribly difficult for me to lay down a book, pick up another, and return to the first. When I lose momentum, I lose who the characters are, and I’m apt to ask myself, “Exactly what has happened again?” So, I will probably read it in one go.

However, Tanizaki has nicely laid out The Makioka Sisters in three ‘Books’. I thought it would be helpful to discuss them as we go, and so I will put up a post for each of the three ‘Books’ in March as follows:

March 10: Discussion on Book I

March 17: Discussion on Book II

March 24: Discussion on Book III

March 31: Discussion of The Makioka Sisters overall.

Please feel free to join in any of these discussions, or post thoughts and/or favorite parts on your blogs or social media at any time during the month of March. Let’s use #MakiokaSistersRead2020 on Twitter or Instagram, if you choose to do so. I hope you are ready to join in reading this book which has been thought of as one of the most important Japanese novels to be published.

This is the story of the extinction of the once rich and haughty sisters of a great family through pride and over-refinement, and a re-creation of the sumptuous, pleasure-filled upper-class life of Osaka just before the war. Tsuruko, the oldest sister, uncompromising, unadaptable, worn down by money doubles and a large family, is forced to move to the competitive world of Tokyo where the Makioka name means nothing. The second sister, Sachiko, is a woman of rare kindness and good sense, who tries her best to hold the family together and to preserve the wonderful life they knew as children. The central theme of the book is finding a husband for Yukio, the third sisters. She has all the accomplishments of an elegant Japanese lady, yet she finds the strength to refuse a long line of suitors. Taeko, the youngest sister, is a modern girl who tries to break away from her family and to establish herself in a career. She has series of love affairs, bears a child, and ends up as the wife of a bartender. The Makioka Sisters is at once a work of art and a unique record of a period and a district.

Juni’chiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), widely considered one of Japan’s finest modern writers, was born in the heart of Tokyo. He studied Japanese literature at Tokyo Imperial University. After the earthquake of 1923, he moved to the more cultured Kyoto-Osaka region, the setting for The Makioka Sisters. His most important novels and stories, many reflecting his taste for sexual perversity, his eye for social comedy, and his bitter humor, were written after his move. He received the Imperial Prize for Literature in 1949.

~Tuttle Publishing

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.