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.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (“Maybe I’m working because I want to be a useful tool.”)

Keiko Furukura wasn’t “born a convenience store woman,” as she carefully explains in the beginning. She was once a child.

But, she was a very different child from the others. When finding a dead bird on the playground around which everyone is crying, she wants to take it home for dinner. When two boys are fighting, and another child asks how it can be stopped, Keiko bashes one of the fighting boys over the head with a spade.

I see her as practical. Odd. And, I commiserate immediately. (There was a time in my childhood when the kids in our neighborhood were discussing how much they disliked John K.; when he knocked on the door of the playhouse we were in, I punched him in the stomach. Suddenly, everyone was made at me.)

Keiko is completely happy being a convenience store worker. She has found a mask, of sorts, that fits. She is scrupulous in her efforts, highly praised because of the efficiency and dedication she gives to her job. But, it isn’t until she invites a strange, and selfish, man, Shiraha, (who has been fired from the convenience store) home to live with her that she suddenly finds herself accepted by her fellow employees. They are suddenly eager to invite her out for a drink with them.

I’d never known before now, but apparently they all went out socializing together now and then.

Her sister, without even knowing this man, says how happy she is for Keiko to have found someone who understands her. The assumption is that living within accepted norms makes one accepted by society.

She (Keiko’s sister) is far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality–however messy–is far more comprehensible.

I loved this book, for its quiet explanation of the ways our crazy society is prone to think, but best of all for the way that Keiko remains herself. Perfect as she always was, in her very own way.

How about a read-along for Kazuo Ishiguro?

IMG_4639

I found it so exciting when Kazuo Ishiguro was determined the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature this week! So many recipients of previous awards the last few years (Man Booker, I’m looking at you) have not only been surprising to me, they have been utterly disappointing.

But, this is a new day! And we have so many works of Ishiguro’s to choose from. The Unconsoled is my favorite, but it is long, and therefore perhaps not the book for this busy autumn season. I suggest:

Never Let Me Go

or

A Pale View of Hills

or

Remains of the Day

Would any of you like to read one of these with me? (None of the three are more than 280 pages.) We could take our time, casually reading and discussing through what remains of October. Let me know what you think, for I would rather read with you than alone.

xo,

Bellezza

Update: It seems that some of us will read two: A Pale View of Hills and Remains of the Day. I think we should take October to read which we like, some even prefer Never Let Me Go, and at the end of the month I will host a round up. At that point, I will pose a few questions for us to discuss and post any links to your reviews.

Penance by Kanae Minato (for the Japanese Literature Challenge 11 and Women in Translation Month)

IMG_4161

I didn’t come to Tokyo for the upscale shopping or all the great places to have fun at. What I wanted was to melt into the crowds of people who didn’t know about my past, and vanish.

More precisely, because I’d witnessed a murder, and the person who committed it had not been caught, what I wanted more than anything was to disappear from his
radar forever.

Each chapter of this novel is told from another character’s point of view, all circling around one central theme: the murder of Emily, whose father was an executive with Adachi Manufacturing.

The company had come to their obscure little town because the quality of air was exceptionally clean and pure, a point which is repeatedly brought up, yet in stark contrast to the story each girl has to tell.

As children, they were playing volleyball in the schoolyard after hours when a man appears, dressed in workman’s clothes, telling them he needs to fix the ventilation fans in the school. He chooses Emily to help him, and when she is gone for a long time her friends enter the school to find her dead on the floor of the men’s washroom.

Each tells of the effect this horrific event had in her life: Sae always trembled in fear; Akiko refused to go to school; Yuka became a delinquent, shoplifting at night…

We wonder, as we read, if the murderer will be found before the limit for prosecution has run out. As the translator points out before the novel even begins, “Until 2010, Japan had a fifteen-year statue of limitations on the crime of murder.” And as Emily’s mother admonished the girls who played with her daughter:

“I will never forgive you, unless you find the murderer before the statute of limitations is up. If you can’t do that, then atone for what you’ve done, in a way I’ll accept.   If you don’t do either one, I’m telling you here and now – I will have revenge on each and every one of you.” p. 102

What a thing for an adult to say to children! These girls have been traumatized for the rest of their lives, reliving every moment of this horrendous situation, each wondering what they could have done differently. They are unable to trust, even themselves, let alone the adults around them. Everything in their young lives is called into question.

They arrive at their own ways to “make up” for witnessing this murder, or at least not being able to stop it. One girl says, “A coward’s penance is completed only by stepping up and confessing.”

Another says, “Penance? Never reach for anything beyond your station.”

There is one thing, however, that is not a form of penance: killing a different man in place of the murderer. As each of the girls comes to find out.

The only form of penance which has any positive effect whatsoever, is forgiveness. And, maybe, the person who needs to be forgiven the most is ourselves.

 

I read this book for my own Japanese Literature Challenge 11, and also for Women in Translation Month hosted by Biblibio.

Confessions by Kanae Minato

IMG_4160

“It’s not just that your bodies are growing and changing. I know what you’ve been up to.”

From the very beginning we are presented with tension between children and their teacher. From the very beginning we know why she is talking to her class about this year being her last.

“So why am I resigning? Because Manami’s death wasn’t an accident. She was murdered by some of the students in this very class.”

The teacher’s daughter, Manami, has been found floating in a swimming pool, and after a brief explanation she tells us at whose hands her daughter has died. And then, before dismissing the class, she reveals a terrible act of revenge on her part toward the two students who killed her child.

Through each subsequent chapter, confessions are revealed through the eyes of a classmate,  one of the murderer’s mothers, and even the murderers themselves.

The confessions are shocking and appalling, but the whole tone of the book is one of quiet resignation. It is almost as though each tragic event is a matter of fate, and must simply be lived out. It is, as my father has often said, like watching a slow motion horror film.

For perhaps worse than the confessions are the hearts of each character, for what they are willing to do instead of forgive. Or, even love.

JLC11I read this fascinating novel after reading the review on su[shu], and now I’m glad to know of another excellent Japanese writer for the Japanese Literature Challenge 11.

Kanae Minato is a former home economics teacher and housewife who wrote Confessions, her first novel, between household chores. The book has sold more than three million copies in Japan, where it won several literary awards, including the Radio Drama Award, the Detective Novel Prize for New Writers, and The National Booksellers’ Award, and was adapted into an Oscar short-listed film directed by Tesuya Nakashima. (from back cover)

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (“I Had Allowed Too Many Things to Distract Me From My Central Priorities…”)

IMG_4122

It’s been very tiring and even now, here in this city, there’s so much pressure on me. The people here. Obviously they’re expecting a lot of me. I mean, it’s obvious…”

But, it isn’t obvious at all. At first. Ryder has come to an unnamed European city and is welcomed to the hotel by no one. They had all given up waiting for him, as he is so late, and he doesn’t even remember viewing the schedule for the series of events in which he will be expected to appear. It seems he is a pianist of some reknown, and that he will give a much anticipated performance. However, there is a great deal he needs to sort out first.

Everyone is asking something of him. The porter, Gustav, wishes him to meet with his estranged daughter, Sophie, to see what is wrong, but when Ryder goes to the cafe where she will be it is evident they know each other already. They even have no small degree of anger and frustration between themselves. How can this be? We realize that this is a dream (with many qualities of a nightmare), or an alternate reality, or at the very least some degree of amnesia on Ryder’s part. This mystical quality is exactly what I love most about Japanese literature.

I read on with trepidation, feeling the same sensations I do when I experience an unresolved dream sequence of my own. Do you recall a terrible struggle to get some place to which you can never arrive, or do something that you somehow can no longer do? I think of trying to run when my feet feel mired in clay. I think of dreams I’ve had appearing in my classroom for the first day, woefully ill prepared, or worse, undressed.

Each page holds some element like that. One small example is this: Ryder follows a little red car to lead him to the Karwinsky Gallery, but stops en route at his wife’s urging at a pastry shop where his son enjoys the doughnuts. There is a sense of urgency about him arriving at the reception in the gallery, he is already late, and yet here they are looking at delicacies through the glass case. When he arrives st the gallery he sees the ruins of his family’s car, from when he was a child, and he climbs in remembering the times he played in it.

Gradually, we learn of more and more distress in his life, from his unhappy marriage to his mother’s emotional instability, and we wonder how any of this will be resolved. Perhaps, the very journey through these pages is a working out of his life. Yet, Ryder’s life is not the only one full of unconsolations. Gustav, the porter with an indomitable will, weakens and lies inert backstage on a cot; Brodsky, the conductor, must face his alcoholism and longings for his ex-wife, Miss Collins; Miss Collins, a psychologist, loves Brodsky but is reluctant to become entangled in his issues yet again; Ryder and Sophie seem unable to arrive at a peaceful relationship for long, much to the distress of themselves and their son, Boris.

This is a beautiful novel, elegantly told, which speaks to the complications and heartache in life of which I am so fond of reading. It is my first book for the Japanese Literature Challenge 11, and one I highly recommend.