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.

For the Japanese Literature Challenge 12: The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

There are so many things in life that are beyond our control.

I didn’t always love cats. But since my son’s girlfriend gave him a tabby that was no bigger than my fist when she came into our home, I have come to understand the attraction obsession.

Told largely from the point of view of the cat, Nana, we see the imagined perspective of the mostly white cat (“with the number-eight markings and the crooked tail like a seven”) who was found on the hood of a silver van and taken into the home of Saturo.

Because of unavoidable circumstances which make it impossible for him to keep the cat, he drives Nano to several possible homes in the hopes of finding a new owner. But, we know that neither one wants to leave the other. And, as Saturo’s character becomes revealed through the interactions between him and his friends, a mounting sorrow grows in my heart.

It is the longest time I have ever taken to read a book which is less than 300 pages. I set it down to let my feelings subside a bit until I can pick it up again…

My students gave me a tissue box decorated to look like the book Charlotte’s Web one year. “Because you always cry when you read it,” they said.

Perhaps the best books about people and animals are like that.

(Thanks to Penguin Random House for my copy of The Traveling Cat Chronicles.)

Mailbox Monday: Four I Am Eager to Read

Children of The Cave is published by Peirene Press. It is the winner of the 2017 Finnish Savonia Literature Prize and the Kuvastaja prize for the best Finnish Fantasy Novel. It is described as, “A Gothic Victorian tale about forest children, which address the limits of science and faith…written as a diary this postmodern, ethical narrative asks questions about how we encounter the ‘other’.”

The Nocilla Trilogy includes Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Exprience, and Nocilla Lab published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on February 19, 2019. It I has been translated from Spanish, and is described as “a shot to the heart of the traditional novel.” ~J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip, Babelia

The End of Loneliness has been translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, and was published on January 29, 2019 by Penguin Books. It spent over eighty weeks on Germany’s bestseller list, won the European Union Prize for Literature, and was selected as German independent bookstores’ favorite book of 2016. It has been translated into 27 languages, and is described as “a profoundly moving portrait of what can be lost and what can never be let go.”

Seventeen is a Japanese novel by Hideo Yokoyama, bestselling author of Six Four. It is described as “an investigative thriller set amid the after math of disaster.” It is, of course, something I will read for the Japanese Literature Challenge 12 which ends April 1, 2019.

More Mailbox Monday books can be found here.

Japanese Literature Challenge 12 (State of the Challenge #3)

32 Minutes has a review of Masks by Fumiko Enchi.

Tony has already read five Japanese books, as he likes to begin January with Japanese Literature. (An idea I find most appealing as well.) Find reviews to The End of The Moment We Had by Toshiki Okada, Unbinding The Pillow Book by Gergana Ivanova, Farewell, My Orange by Iwaki Kei, To The Spring Equinox and Beyond by Natsume Soseki, and Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories by Taeko Kōno.

Mel of The Reading Life has reviewed The Elephant and its Keeper by Akiyuki Nasaka, and The Emissary by Yōko Tawada.

Nadia of A Bookish Way of Life has reviewed The Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Makura, and The Tale of The House of Physics by Yoko Ogawa.

Gretchen of Gladsome Lights gives us a picture of tea, Japanese stories, and reading plans here.

Robin has reviewed the classic Japanese film, Ikiru.

I have downloaded Cream, and Nadia has reviewed it here; it is a short story by Haruki Murakami first brought to my attention by Mel of The Reading Life. It is available from The New Yorker here.

Finally, Frances and I have decided to run the read-along of The Pillow Book quite loosely. We will read it as our schedules allow throughout the month of February, perhaps posting interesting bits here and there, perhaps not. At the end of the month, I will write a review, and hopefully Frances will have time to do so as well. Please join us if you like, tweeting, posting, or reading as it works for you.

(Find an updated list of all the participants under the page for the Japanese Literature Challenge 12 in the menu; three of them use Twitter or Instagram as their primary platform. Once again, all are welcome.)

Japanese Literature Challenge 12 (State of the Challenge #2)

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Find reading plans from Juliana at the [blank] garden, Nadia at A Bookish Way of Life, and Gnoe at Graasland.

Bee Honey by Banana Yoshimoto, Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami, and The Master Key by Masako Togawa are reviewed by Mel U of The Reading Life.

Birthday Girl by Haruki Murakami is reviewed by me.

Reminder to read The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon in February with Frances and I, if you would like to do so.

Birthday Girl by Haruki Murakami (a short story translated by Jay Rubin)

 

One rainy Tokyo night, a waitress’s uneventful twentieth birthday takes a strange and fateful turn when she’s asked to deliver dinner to the restaurant’s reclusive owner. Birthday Girl is a beguiling, exquisitely satisfying taste of master storytelling, published to celebrate Murakami’s 70th birthday. (from Penguin)

I cannot stop thinking about Haruki Murakami’s short story, Birthday Girl. 

The setting begins in an Italian restaurant, and then it moves to room 604 of the same building. The room overlooks the steel skeleton of the Tokyo Tower, while outside the wind whips the raindrops which tap unevenly at the windowpane. The waitress who twentieth birthday it is has been asked to bring dinner to the owner of the restaurant, a job usually reserved for the manager who has suddenly been taken ill. After she lays his meal out for him on the plastic laminate coffee table, the owner asks her to stay a moment for he has something to say to her.

‘Happy birthday,” he said. “May you live a rich and fruitful life, and may there be nothing to cast dark shadows on it.”

They clinked glasses.

May there be nothing to cast dark shadows on it: she silently repeated his remark to herself. Why had he chosen such unusual words for her birthday wish?

Perhaps it is because the girl is so young, only twenty; perhaps she can make wishes which will not darken the years ahead of her. Yet, which of us can escape the consequences of our wishes, not having the ability to see what they will bring?

He then makes it clear that he wants to give her a present, although this makes her uncomfortable.

“The kind of ‘present’ I have in mind is not something tangible, not something with a price tag. To put it simply”—he placed his hands on the desk and took one long, slow breath—”what I would like to do for a lovely young fairy such as you is to grant a wish you might have, to make your wish come true. Anything. Anything at all that you wish for—assuming that you do have such a wish.”

This girl has not had anything special happen all day, and no one had even wished her a happy birthday, so she makes a wish. While we are not told what her wish is, we are told that it is not what an ordinary girl might wish for. She did not wish to become prettier or smarter or rich.

Whatever it is that she wished for, she later tells an unnamed narrator that it did, and didn’t, come true. “I still have a lot of living left to do, probably. I haven’t seen how things are going to work out to the end.”

When this narrator asks her if she regrets what she wished for, she replies that she is married now, with two children, an Irish Setter and an Audi with a dented bumper. Is this an answer of a fulfilled wish? It could be. Or, perhaps wishes cannot be fulfilled after all.

“What I’m trying to tell you is this,” she said more softly, scratching an earlobe. It was a beautifully shaped earlobe. “No matter what they wish for, no matter how far they go, people can never be anything but themselves. That’s all.”

So as you can see, this story of merely seven pages has a myriad of meanings. Once again, Murakami leaves us wide open to possibilities. But, I like thinking about the mysterious mood he portrayed, the idea that a fastidious man can grant one wish, and overriding all of that, we can never be anything but ourselves.

Since my birthday is at the end of the month, I had to read his short story, Birthday Girl. (It is available to read online here.)

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

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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.