Japanese Literature Challenge 12: We Have Come To The End

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It has been such a privilege to read Japanese literature with you these past three months. I want to extend a big thank you to Gnoe who inquired about it last Summer, and Mel U who has participated since the beginning years of the challenge; they were enough to let me know that at least three of us would be reading Japanese literature together. But, there have been so many more who read with us, both old friends and new. Andrew Blackman joined for the first time, as did Gretchen. My friend from the Man Booker Shadow Panel, Vivek, has expressed an interest in joining in next year. Hooray!

Gnoe read and reviewed one of my favorite books for the challenge this year, The Traveling Cat Chronicles. I was intrigued by how she threw it across the room, declaring her hate for it, and in the next sentence saying how much she loved it. Because it is sad and joyful at the same time, I think.

Akylina has read my favorite crime writer, Keigo Higoshino, whom she mentioned is one of her favorites as well. She reviewed A Midsummer Equation by Keigo Higashino, noting that unlike many other Japanese crime novels, we don’t find out what happens until the end.

Andrew Blackman wrote the finest review of The Pillow Book by Sei Shonogon that I have ever seen. I enjoyed his perceptive, in-depth, and interesting thoughts as much as I enjoyed her “diary” giving us an account of life in the Empress’ court.

Nadia of A Bookish Way of Life reviewed several stories from the Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, a collection I’m now longing to buy myself as she mentioned two of my favorite authors.

Nishita of Nishita’s Rants and Raves has begun Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 for the challenge proving it’s never too late to pick up a Japanese novel even if this particular challenge is over.

Suko of Suko’s Notebook has read and reviewed Kafka on the Shore, my favorite of all Haruki Murakami’s novels. It is not an easy job to define his work, and she does a brilliant job of highlighting the most important aspects of this book.

Michelle of su[shu] has read and reviewed Penance by Kanae Minato, and novel I enjoyed as much as her novel, Confessions. Michelle, too, compares the two novels, and says this of Penance: “It felt like a little study of character. It was as if the book was the answer to the question, “If a friend is assaulted and murdered, how would it affect you? Where would you end up?”

Although the challenge is officially over, I have two books waiting for me when my Man Booker International Prize long list reading ends. One is If Cats Disappeared From the World by Genki Kawamura and the other is Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima. I hope that you, too, will continue to enjoy Japanese Literature as we “wait” for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 to come around next January. Thank you for the books we’ve shared together this time around.

Japanese Literature Challenge 12: State of the Challenge #10

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Gretchen of Gladsome Lights has written a beautiful post entitled Four Sad Poems from the Japanese, taken from a collection of One Hundred Poems From the Japanese, gathered and edited by Kenneth Rexroth in 1964.

Here is another post of hers highlighting two poems. One is entitled At The Boundaries of Life and Death by Jun Takami, and the other poem is by Kusatao Makamura.

She has also read Kusamakura by Natsume Sōseki, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, and Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki, although I did not see reviews of the last two books. (How much I would like to know your thoughts on the Murata book, Gretchen!)

Michele of su[shu] has written a review of Hideo Yokoyama’s book, Six Four, a novel I have started at least three times and always abandoned as I was intrigued by the mystery, but found the police bureaucracy so tedious!

She has also read and reviewed The Emissary by Yoko Towada, published outside of the States as The Lost Children of Tokyo.

Akylina of The Literary Sisters has read and reviewed Three Short Stories by Akutagawa and Others. Whenever I see the name Akutagawa, I think of Japan’s literary prize named in memory of him, especially as he is known as the “Father of Japanese short story.”

Sylvie, of Sylvie’s English and French blog, read and reviewed Farewell My Orange by Iwaki Kei. It sounds like an unusual and touching book, reflecting Sylvie’s caring heart when she wrote this sentence: “Written with great warmth, Farewell, My Orange offers optimism in the face of adversity.” It won the Kenzaburo Oe prize.

There is only one week left in March, and so I will write a wrap up post for the Japanese Literature Challenge 12 on Sunday, March 31. I have enjoyed writing a weekly post highlighting what I know has been read and reviewed, but I am certain I have not caught all the posts written or books read for the challenge. Do let me know if I can link to something I have missed.

With the Japanese Literature Challenge coming up to the time that the Man Booker International Prize long list is announced, I find my interests rather divided. I am thinking that next year, the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 will be for only one month: January. What do you think of that? While the duration is shorter, the intensity is more concentrated, and that appeals to me, but I am always interested in suggestions and improvement. Until next Sunday, then, happy reading!

Star by Yukio Mishima (A review and give-away for the Japanese Literature Challenge 12)

“Not once had I been able to forget so entirely that a town was all hollow, all facades and make believe.”

Rikio Mizuno is a star, playing the leading role of a yakuza, followed by screaming young girls he cares nothing about.

I was exhausted. The girls could scream their way to hell for all I cared. Their shrill voices splashed over me like rancid oil. If only I could line them up and march them all into the mouth of an incinerator. (p. 22)

This jaded attitude is shocking from a 23 year old, just turning 24, who knows that real stars never attend a party even if its for their own birthdays.

It’s better for a star never to be around. No matter how strict the obligation, a star is more of a star if he never arrives. The question of whether he’ll show up gives the event a ceaseless undercurrent of suspense. But a true star never shows. (p. 27)

As I read, I found myself rereading paragraphs several times over, sensing that Rikio was speaking about the set as well as real life. The two seemed intertwined, almost indistinguishable from one another

I was no longer on a set, but in an undeniable reality, a layer inside the strata of my memory. (p. 34)

Over and over again, we are pointed to the isolation he feels. Certainly being a star does not bring the fulfillment he desires.

It’s useless trying to explain what it feels like in the spotlight. The very thing that makes a star worth watching is the same thing that strikes him from the world at large and makes him an outsider. (p. 47)

When the American Academy of Awards displayed the stars hoping to win an Oscar Award on February 24, 2019, I remained largely as unimpressed as I ever have been. Their empty world of facades and images means nothing to me. What is a star more than a flawed character filled with desparation at living for fame?

It’s become a tradition for me to pin up the life-size poster from my current project right inside the front door. That way every night when I get home I’m the first one there to greet me.

The self adoration is so ridden with loneliness it’s heartbreaking.

Written shortly after Yukio Mishima himself had acted in the film “”Afraid to Die,” this novella is a rich and unflinching psychological portrait of a celebrity coming apart at the seams. With exquisite, vivid prose, Star begs the question: is there any escape from how we are seen by others? (back cover)

An even more important question may be, “Is there any escape for a star to care about how he is seen by others?” Because one of the most freeing things in the world is to be fully secure in oneself, secure enough that it doesn’t matter what opinions others may hold.

I found this novella very piercing, one which had me pausing every few pages to ponder the subject of stardom, weighing it against the values I hold dear. It is one of the books for which I am hosting a give-away. If you would like to enter, leave a comment with your opinion on what it means to be a star. I will announce the winner a week from Sunday, March 17, 2019.

Japanese Literature Challenge 12 (State of the Challenge #8, and the winner of Desire by Haruki Murakami)

img_0312Strange Weather in Tokyo, giving us a heartfelt response similar to the one I experienced myself after reading it. (Although my edition of the same book was entitled The Briefcase, oddly enough.)

Juliana has done a masterful job of reviewing The Pillow Book by writing a letter to Sei Shōnagon here.

Andrew Blackman has also read The Pillow Book, mentioning it in his February post, promising to publish his thoughts which I am eager to read.

I have read and adored The Emissary and Hideo Yokoyama’s latest book, Seventeen.

As promised, I have a winner for Desire which was offered as a giveaway last Thursday. The easiest, and fairest, way to find a winner was to simply pull a name from those who left a comment on the original post. And so, I am pleased to announce that Abby has won this particular book. I will email you, Abby, to ask for your mailing address. Thanks to all who entered and enjoy Japanese literature!

The Emissary by Yoko Tawada (Winner of The National Book Award for Translated Literature Prize in 2018, Winner Of My Heart This Weekend)

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My husband became quite ill in the night with the flu, and the weather outside is typical of February in Illinois: rain mixed with sleet and cloudy overhead. Not that I mind very much. Poor weather always gives me an excuse to indulge my passion for reading.

I have begun reading All Hallow’s Eve by Charles Williams for a reading group at Wheaton College. He was one of the Inklings, a group comprised of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on whom I would dearly love to eavesdrop were they still alive.

And, I am reading the rest of what I have planned to read for the Japanese Literature Challenge 12 because other events are also calling to me in March. (Boekenweek, celebrating Dutch literature in the Netherlands, and the announcement of the Man Booker International Prize long list for 2019.)

But, this. This book, The Emissary. It is everything I love about reading translated literature. Tawada’s writing is lyrical; the translation, masterful. I cannot imagine how words in Japanese can be so smoothly transitioned into English. Take this example:

Long ago, this sort of purposeless running had been referred to as jogging, but with foreign words falling out of use, it is now called loping down, an expression that had started out as a joke meaning “if you lope your blood pressure goes down,” but everybody called it that these days. And kids Mumei’s age would never have dreamt that adding just an e in front of it the word lope could conjure up visions of a young woman climbing down a ladder in the middle of the night to run away with her lover.

It is a wonderful book of a world turned upside down, in Japan, where the old get older and stronger, while the young become weaker. It turns what is often assumed to be true into a new truth, made visible through Tawada’s imaginative writing. I am enamored of Mumei, the apparently special needs great-grandchild of Yoshiro, who despite his gruff nature, is as tender and caring as anyone could hope his grandfather to be.

Japanese Literature Challenge 12: State of the Challenge #7, Plus a Few Important Events Coming This March

There is much going on in my reading world, particularly this March. Before we get to that, I would like to point out a few links for the Japanese Literature Challenge 12. It is lovely to have Michelle, of su[shu], join in the challenge once again. She has read and reviewed Genocide of One by Kazuaki Takano. (Please let me know if you have reviewed a book for the JLC12 so that I can add your link.)

I have been reading Star by Yukio Mishima, for which I will host a give-away in March before it is published this April. I am currently giving away a collection of short stories published by Vintage Minis entitled Desire. Please enter to win if you would like, as the give away ends Thursday. I have also posted thoughts on The Pillow Book which turned out to be a delightful surprise. It kept a slow pace, just what I need before starting the mad rush involved in reading for the Man Booker International Prize 2019.

I am thrilled to be a member of the Shadow Jury once again, as we read the long list and put forth what we, as readers, deem the most worthy of the prize. Several of us are already hopeful of seeing a few titles when the long list is revealed on March 13. (For example, I hope to see Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead, and Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, and The Governesses. I would be especially thrilled if a Japanese title were to be included; even though Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami has received mixed reviews, I thought it was wonderful.)

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Also, an event called Boekenweek is coming up in March for which I am reading three books from World Editions. (I will host give-aways for each of these books, too.) Boekenweek is a literary event of ten days celebrating Dutch literature in the Netherlands; it has been celebrated annually in March since 1932. Stay tuned for my reviews, and give-aways, on March 28, 2019.

Until then, may your reading be joyful! May you find yourself lost within the pages of your books as I find myself to be.

The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon

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Picture source here.

It seemed to me precisely like a scene from those tales where the storyteller gives her imagination free reign and describes it all in the most extravagant terms. (p. 170)

The Pillow Book is a book after my own heart, although it was written centuries before I was born. It’s a book where things such as calligraphy are important, as well as the sleeves of a gown and how they hang; it describes a world where the proper response to a message can bring awe or laughter depending on what is required.

I wish that I had read some of Sei Shōnagon’s headings while I still taught in the elementary classroom. For that matter, I savor them as possible journal entries of my own, for while my answers may differ, the subjects require great thought. Consider these examples (some my favorite responses of hers are in the parentheses):

Dispiriting things – (“An ox keeper whose ox has died.”)

Infuriating things – (“A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on.” Or, “Some newcomer steps in and starts interfering and lecturing the old hands as if she knows it all.”)

Things that make you feel nostalgic – (“Things children use on doll play.” Or, “Last year’s summer fan.”)

Things that cannot be compared – (“The man you love and the same man once you’ve lost all feeling for him seem like two completely different people.”)

Things that look enjoyable – (“The conductor of the sacred kagura music.”)

Splendid things – (“Chinese brocade. Ornamental swords. Long, richly colored clusters of wisteria blossom hanging from a pine tree.”)

Things it’s frustrating and embarrassing to witness – (“Someone starts talking about another person, unaware that he’s sitting within earshot.”)

Startling and disconcerting things – (“The way you feel when an ornamental comb that you’re in the process of polishing happens to bump against something and suddenly snaps.”)

Things that are hard to say – (“The reply to a rather overawing person who’s sent you a gift.”)

Interspersed with these “list” kinds of entries are those describing the arrival of a famous person, or a place of scenery, or an object in nature.

She has a careful eye, this writer, under which very little passes unnoticed. The cumulative effect not only records the daily life of an era long past, but encourages me to take notice of ours as well.

How much goes unnoticed, let alone undocumented, as we bury ourselves in our phones, noses toward interactions that involve essentially no one else at all? Instead, I want to relish the sound of  imagined koto music while thinking of the world that Sei Shōnagon has recreated for us in her book, popping up from time to time to take notice of my own.

(And you? Have you had a chance to join us in this read-along for February? If so, please leave me a thought or two of how The Pillow Book struck you.)

Desire by Haruki Murakami (A review, and give-away, for the Japanese Literature Challenge 12)

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Desire is a collection of short stories which focus on our longing, “whether it takes the form of hunger, lust, sudden infatuation or the secret longings of the heart.” (Vintage Mini cover)

The first story in this small volume is entitled The Second Bakery Attack, in which a young couple wakes in the middle of the night with a hunger so intense they wonder how it can ever be satiated. While consuming a few cans of beer, which is all that is left in their refrigerator besides some butter and a few shriveled onions, the husband tells his wife of a time when he was so poor that he and a friend attacked a bakery for its bread. They were asked by the baker to listen to an album of Wagner overtures in return for all the bread they wanted, and he feels that he has subsequently lived under a curse. His wife feels the same.

”Why do you think we’re both so hungry? I never, ever, once in my life felt a hunger like this until I married you. Don’t you think it’s abnormal? Your curse is working on me, too.”

And so, they decide they must stage a second bakery attack to break the curse. They hold up a McDonald’s, which is all they can find open in Tokyo in the middle of the night, and they demand 30 Big Macs, not all of which they can eat. The hunger which was insatiable, is now strangely sated.

The second story is On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One April Morning. It is one of my favorite stories in this collection, perhaps in part because I feel that I understand it perfectly. It makes sense to me that a girl who is not exactly pretty, and a boy who is not particularly handsome, can find one another and know that they are exactly the ones who are meant for each other. And on some tiny, tiny idea that it’s wrong, they pass each other up. I fully believe in sad, unfulfilled love stories, and never once take them as a figment of one’s imagination such as I do with much of Murakami’s writing.

The third story is Birthday Girl, which I wrote about here.

The fourth story is Samsa in Love. The narrator has been transformed into Gregor Samsa, and is completely startled by becoming human (with an unprotected belly!). He, too, is starving and when he makes his way down seventeen stairs so that he can eat the prepared feast on the dining table, he discovers it has been quite suddenly abandoned. When the doorbell rings, he finds a hunchback woman who has come to fix a lock in the home. Samsa is attracted to her, yet knows not what to do with his human form and how it has changed when he desires her. She mistakes his attraction as being of a purely physical nature, while Samsa insists that he wants to know her. There is terror and destruction in the city surrounding his new home, but within it we sense an element of mysterious hope.

The fifth and final story in this collection is entitled A Folklore For My Generation: A Prehistory of Late-Stage Capitalism. Haruki Murakami is only 12 years older than I am, and when he writes of the 60s it is as though I have a big brother who is telling me of what is just ahead of me. I can catch what he is saying as it slips through my hand, holding enough of it to grasp the essence.

“Back in Our Age, nobody slapped down three-volume indecipherable owner’s manuals in front of you. Whatever it was we just clutched it in our hands and took it straight home – like taking a baby chick home from one of the night-time stands. Everything was simple and direct. Cause and effect were good friends back then; thesis and reality hugged each other as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And my guess is that the sixties were the last time that will ever happen.

A Prehistory of Late-Stage Capitalism – that’s my own personal name for that age.”

After this preface, the story evolves into a love story told to him by an old school classmate, someone who was good at math, and sports, and a natural leader. (“Personally, I’m not too fond of the type. For whatever reason we just don’t click. I much prefer imperfect, more memorable types of people.”) And this love story is once again a story that leaves you with an ache, a sorrow for what is lost when it could have been so much different. How is it that we come to fail each other, and yet never stop loving one another? I am crazy about Murakami’s writing for exploring these themes, yet never suggesting that he has the answer.

I have this slim volume, a truly special collection of Murakami’s work, to give away. Should you desire it, please leave a comment with the title of the story which sounds most appealing to you and why that is so. I will draw a name a week on Sunday, March 3, 2019.

The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, a read along for February

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I am finding this book utterly charming in its slow and quiet simplicity. The author was a gentlewoman in the court of Empress Teishi, in what is now Kyoto, Japan. She writes of daily life within the Imperial Palace, describing in great detail the clothing, the visitors, and the little games that are played with one another.

I have just finished a portion where a tremendous amount of snow has fallen which is formed into a snow mountain, and then guesses are made as to when it will melt. Sei feels deeply about her guess which at first seemed too far into the future, so much so that she asks the gardener to keep children from playing on the mountain to keep it preserved as long as possible. Much to her dismay, when she is ready to send a small jar of the remaining snow to Her Majesty, accompanied by a little poem, it is gone. But, it did not melt as Sei supposed; instead, Her Majesty had it removed in order to disprove Sei’s guess. This is the kind of delightful thing that once could have inhabited our daily lives; perhaps in the lives of us as children, when a mound of snow seemed so important, or perhaps in the lives we lived before technology consumed us.

It is wonderful to read poems that are written in response to requests, poems written as letters. The beauty of a piece of white paper is exquisite, even if it only encloses a piece of seaweed sent in response to a note.

The seaweed’s meaning, not understood by the man to whom she sent it, was revealed in a poem she later wrote on the edge of a piece of paper:

“The silent seaweed

said that you must never tell

the secret dwelling place

of the diving fisher girl

concealed in these hidden depths.”

As a journal keeper myself, I find no detail in Sei’s writing too small. I am immersed in Sei’s world, in her thoughts, in the simple life she lives within the gardens and walls of the palace in which she works. She is content, and her contentment brings me much the same feeling.