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‘Tokyo Decadence: 15 Stories’ by Ryu Murakami ***

There are some books which I do appreciate but do not really love and would definitely not return to again. I appreciate them because, even though some (or all) of their content was unsuitable to my tastes or thoroughly disturbing for me, I do recognize the author’s literary prowess and/or messages they were aiming to convey. Murakami Ryu’s Tokyo Decadence belongs to this precise category and thus, it is unbelievably difficult for me to find the correct words to talk about this book. But I shall attempt to do so anyway.

jp0049First of all, Tokyo Decadence is a short story collection. The stories selected for this anthology all come from different short story collections and usually the stories from each collection share a common theme or characters. For example, the first stories are derived from Run, Takahashi! (published in 1986) and they somehow involve a certain baseball player called Takahashi, while some other stories come from Swans (published in 1997) and they each revolve around a song by the Cuban singer Javier Olmo. I do enjoy individual short stories, but recurring characters and themes immediately win me over.

In all of the stories contained in this collection, Murakami Ryu portrayed the ‘decadence’, the deterioration of his characters’ lives, their struggle to live through horrible situations and circumstances. Even though most of the themes tackled and described are disturbing and sad, most of the stories do have something positive in them or even a generous dose of humour (especially the first four). Some characters have dreams which they strive to materialize and ambitions they struggle to make true. I truly liked seeing such a mixture of strong and weak characters because this made them all the more realistic.

Some stories (especially those coming from the Topaz collection) were rather painful for me to read, since they dealt with themes and contained specific scenes which made me squeamish and filled me with a desire to drop this book and never pick it up again. Instead of doing that, though, I merely skimmed through those parts and got on with the rest of the stories, which were much lighter (some of them) and with completely different thematology.

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Ryu Murakami

Glimpsing through the lives of call girls, penniless young people striving to make their dreams come true, transvestites, drug dealers, office ladies and psychopathic murderers, Murakami makes a very loud and lasting point about Japanese society and its darker side which may be usually ignored but it undeniably exists.

For me, this book was terrifying. Terrifying because it threw a side of society which exists and thrives everywhere but is deftly hidden most of the times right to my face and also because the realisation of how real the characters and events described in these stories were, made me cease my reading and look around me warily more than once.

Despite the unpleasant and disturbing scenes contained in some stories, Murakami’s writing is simple and matter-of-fact yet so very powerful. Those shocking scenes manage to alarm the reader and make him aware of the decay surrounding both the characters and the city they reside in. Murakami certainly managed to gain my attention but I’m not sure whether I’m ready to attempt reading one of his books again soon.

This is the second book that was sent to me by Kurodahan Press upon my request, but this does not affect my opinion of it in any case.

 

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‘Blue Bamboo: Tales by Dazai Osamu’ *****

Dazai Osamu is an author quite well-known amongst fans of Japanese literature. Born in 1909, he contributed greatly to the Japanese literary tradition with works such as No Longer Human (1948), The Setting Sun (1947) and a plethora of other novels and short stories, before taking his own life in 1948. He is mostly known for the darker and depressing themes he tackles in his work, which were mostly drawn by the horrendous events of World War II.

jp0040lBeing acquainted with the bleak and dreary side of Dazai’s writing, I was quite surprised when I started reading Blue Bamboo, a collection of seven tales inspired by Asian tradition and mythology. As Ralph McCarthy, the translator, informs us in the Introduction, all of the tales contained in this collection, apart from one, belong to Dazai’s “middle period”, one which is often neglected by both readers and scholars.

The first story, “On Love and Beauty”, caught my interest initially because of its structure. It begins by introducing us to the members of a family that consists of five brothers and sisters. Despite being completely different in their characters and interests, they have the tradition of making stories together. One of them comes up with the beginning and each one of the rest of them subsequently adds their own parts until the story is concluded. Dazai revisits this very interesting family in the last story of this collection, “Lanterns of Romance”, where we get the opportunity to become more acquainted with this curious family, as they embark on the journey of retelling a version of Brother Grimm’s “Rapunzel”.

“The Crysanthemum Spirit” and the title story, “Blue Bamboo”, are both stories based on old Chinese tales, but Dazai manages to add some elements of his own and make them quite distinctive. “Blue Bamboo” in particular, according to McCarthy’s notes, was even originally written in Chinese as Dazai meant for the Chinese people who were already familiar with the traditional tale to read and enjoy his own take on it.

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Dazai Osamu

Another retelling of a Japanese story this time was “The Mermaid and the Samurai”, which I did enjoy but it definitely was my least favourite. “Romanesque” is Dazai’s earliest story, written in 1934, and it is preceeded in the book by “Alt Heidelberg”, the only story which is not based on any myth or legend but which instead is a biographical account of the days Dazai spent whilst writing “Romanesque”.

Without meaning to sound biased, I absolutely adored this collection of short stories. I was already quite fond of Dazai’s writing from what I had read before, but seeing a literary face of his radically different from the significantly darker one presented in most of his later work, made me appreciate his literary aptitude and realize that apart from a deft storyteller and analyst of the human psyche, he is also a truly versatile author who is inspired by the tales of the past and doesn’t merely stick to writing a specific type of books.

Furthermore, I truly enjoyed the fairytale atmosphere and the humorous tone most of the stories contained. Myths and fairytales fascinate me no matter where they originate from and discovering old and new retellings of them is more than enough to make me excited. Regardless of whether or not you are familiar with Dazai’s work, I would highly suggest picking up this collection, as it is a real treasure.

I received a review copy from the publisher upon my request, but that does not affect my opinion of this book in the slightest.

6

‘We Have Always Lived in The Castle’ by Shirley Jackson ****

We Have Always Lived in The Castle is a book I’ve been seeing around in bookish blogs and BookTube videos quite frequently and it had piqued my interest from the very beginning. Only recently, though, did I get the chance to acquire a copy of my own and finally read it. 26852229

The gothic and ominous atmosphere permeats the book and I have to admit that I felt perplexed whilst trying to figure out what is going on in the story and what kind of events led our characters to their current situation.

Mary Catherine Blackwood, or simply Merricat as her sister calls her, is the narrator of the story. She is the youngest daughter of the family and she is currently living with her sister, Constance, and uncle Julian, since the rest of their family have died due to food poisoning for which Constance was held accountable but was soon acquitted of the murder charges.

Even though Merricat merely wants to live a peaceful life with the remaining of her family, things do not seem to be all that favourable. The rest of the village is still scared of the Blackwood daughters and they avoid them as much as they can, they accuse them or they even make fun of them by concocting rhymes such as:

“Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?”
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?”
“Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.”

As a result, Merricat appears to nurture feelings of hatred towards everyone outside her family and she does everything she can to protect this little sanctuary of hers. However, Cousin Charles makes an appearance to the Blackwood household and this peace and quiet seems to be about to vanish.

It is difficult to talk about this book without mentioning any spoilers, even more so since it’s a rather slim book of approximately 146 pages. The truth is that apart from a couple of truly important events, not much happens in the present of the story. There are some references to the murder of the family that happened in the past and some hints here and there about what might have truly happened, but since the narrator is Merricat and she doesn’t seem to be very stable all the time, it is hard to distinguish the truth. I would have liked some more closure, to be honest, and that is the reason why I didn’t give this book the 5 stars it would definitely deserve.

Shirley Jackson’s writing is superb and vivid and poetic and she manages to keep the reader’s interest piqued until the very last page. Merricat’s character is certainly the most interesting in the entire book and the most complex one as well. Even though it is a gruesome and sad story, I would recommend it not only to fans of gothic fiction but also to those who enjoy well-written prose and well thought out characters.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

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‘The Gracekeepers’ by Kirsty Logan ****

Kirsty Logan is a Scottish author for whom I’ve been hearing so many things around the bookish internet lately. Her first novel, The Gracekeepers, was published last year in a beautiful hardcover edition and the paperback, which I own, came out a couple of months ago. Most of the reviews and opinions on this book and Logan’s storytelling abilities in general, which I had encountered prior to purchasing this book, were more than enthusiastic, so I was very much looking forward to reading this.

Paperback edition cover

I find it rather difficult to describe The Gracekeepers giving it the justice it deserves, but I will do my best. The story is set in a world where land is scarce and there are some people, called damplings, who spent all their lives on boats at sea and cannot fathom life on land. There is an array of different characters presented in the book, but the two main ones are Callanish, a girl who has undertaken the task of a gracekeeper (they take care of some birds which are used in funerals) and North, a girl who works and travels with a floating circus along with her bear. We follow their stories separately at first, and we get to know their characters and the circumstances surrounding them.

North’s circus consists of many other characters such as Jarrow or Red Gold, the circus master, Avalon, his wife who dislikes the circus and longs for a quiet life on land, Ainsel, Jarrow’s son, as well as many other acrobats, clowns and so on. Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character (but it’s still a third-person narration), with more emphasis given on Callanish and North. I found this constant change of perspective quite confusing and unnecessary at first, since some chapters present the point of view of very minor characters, but some important information was given to the reader through these perspectives, since lies and deception are dominant characteristics of most characters in this novel, to the point where it became very hard to distinguish the truth.

As far as the plot is concerned, I found it very intriguing and unique and it certainly kept my interest piqued until the very last page. The story was filled with twists and certain turn of events were more than surprising. Logan’s writing was beautiful and lyrical throughout the novel and she definitely managed to create a whimsical and heart-breaking tale. What stood out the most for me, though, apart from the beautiful language, were the characters. She managed to craft such complicated and multifaceted characters, who could easily reflect any people from our lives. Especially Avalon, was one of those characters who I immediately disliked and whose actions only added more reasons for me to feel that way towards her. However, through the different perspectives, I had the opportunity to learn more about her motives and reasons why she acted the way she did, and even though I still disliked her, I felt like she had a solid background and wasn’t merely unnecessarily mean.

The only thing which prevented me from giving this book five stars was the ending. Well, perhaps not the ending itself, but rather some of the subplots which were left hanging and unwrapped up, with only some indications provided as to what may happen. Nevertheless, this was a book I wholeheartedly enjoyed and, being the very first book I read in June, I felt like it was the ideal book to start my summer with. I’m more than looking forward to devouring more of Kirsty Logan’s writing now.

Have you read The Gracekeepers or any other book by Kirsty Logan? I’d love to hear your opinions 🙂

3

‘Speculative Japan 2: “The Man Who Watched The Sea” and Other Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy’ ****

Fantasy fiction is one of my very favourite genres to read since I grew up with it, and I’ve been trying to find some Japanese fantasy for the longest time. However, my search had been mostly fruitless until I stumbled upon a fellow blogger’s review of the “Speculative Japan” series of fantasy and science fiction short stories. Needless to say I was more than happy to finally acquire a volume for myself.

This second volume consists of 13 short stories by a different author each. Even though all of the stories fall under the category of fantasy or sci-fi, they are so diverse and they handle their themes in such a different yet interesting manner.

In the Introduction of the book, Darrell Schweitzer accurately observes that most people expect samurais, geishas, kimonos and “a ritual suicide or three” whenever they think of inherently Japanese elements and while I do agree with this remark, I also felt like those stories couldn’t be more Japanese, even though most of those elements which first come to one’s mind were absent.

Whilst fantasy and science fiction do not seem to be very popular in Japanese fiction (at least when translated into English), they dominate the anime/manga and video game world, which I believe makes such an interesting contradiction. For instance, Kitakuni Koji’s “Midst the Mist”, a story revolving around a specific breed of aliens that lived inside human bodies as parasites, strongly reminded me of the anime/manga series “Parasyte”.

Most of the stories contained in this collection were focused mostly on sci-fi rather than fantasy, but it was still great to read them as they offered a very fresh perspective and approach on the themes they chose to follow compared to the sci-fi stories that I have read so far, which are mainly American. Moreover, some of the stories such as Tani Koshu’s “Q-Cruiser Basilisk”, a space story about ghost ships, and Ogawa Issui’s “Old Vohl’s Planet”, a story about the evolution of (alien) species, contained quite a few scientific terms and it was evident that the authors had conducted a very thorough research before writing anything down. I can only imagine how challenging the translation of these stories might have been!

Of course, in short story collections it is very rare for all the stories to equally be of one’s liking, and therefore there were some stories I didn’t enjoy as much as the others. “Freud” by Enjoe Toh was one of them, which I found rather uninteresting. On the other hand, some of my favourites were “The Whale That Sang On The Milky Nework” by Ohara Mariko, “Emanon: A Reminiscence” by Kajio Shinji and “The Man Who Watched The Sea” by Kobayashi Yasumi, which was also featured in the title of the collection.

The translations were also all very good and they had a very natural flow. Even though I read Japanese literature often, I wasn’t familiar with any of the authors featured in this collection, so I was very happy to discover some new authors whose work I would very much like to follow. It would have been nice, though, if some information about the authors were also included in the collection.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading these short stories and I definitely discovered some gems in there. It was very well put together and I will definitely seek out the rest of the series’ volumes in the future.

4

‘The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror’ by Joyce Carol Oates **

Joyce Carol Oates was one of those authors whom I had been hearing a lot about but had never had the opportunity to experience myself. Seeing one of her newest short story collections, I hurried to get a hold of it and read it, anticipating great things from it.

26831729However, the stories were not at all what I expected. As the title of the collection indicates, all the stories included here are ‘tales of terror’. Even though I haven’t read much horror fiction and I have a very vague idea of what a horror story entails, I daresay that these stories didn’t frighten me all that much. They did contain some very disturbing images and notions and there was this ominous atmosphere permeating the stories (not to mention that all of Oates’ characters seemed deranged or crazy in some way or another), but something in their execution didn’t add up to evoke my being scared enough.

Also, I’m sad to say I didn’t enjoy all the stories. Apart from the first one, which also happens to be the title story and the last one, “Mystery, Inc.”, which takes place in a bookshop, the rest of them were rather average for me. Generally, I felt like the author was way too “chatty”, perhaps in order to make the stories appear longer, but the plot seemed to be lost in unnecessary details most of the time. The very open ending of most of the tales also kept me unsatisfied – even though I can appreciate an open-to-interpretation ending sometimes, the ending given to some of these stories seemed too vague and hurriedly given at times, thus providing no actual closure to the story.

Of course, the language and writing style were very satisfactory and the ideas behind some of these stories, although disturbing, were very interesting.

All in all, I was quite disappointed by this book, as I expected a mindblowing read, but I do plan on giving Oates’s writings another try in the future. If you have read and enjoyed Oates’s books, feel free to give me your recommendations 🙂

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‘Native’ by Sayed Kashua ***

Sayed Kashua is an Israeli-Arab writer and journalist who was born in Israel but is currently residing in Jerusalem and writes in Hebrew. Native is a collection of many different essays of various lengths and topics, which were originally written for the newspaper the author works for. Kashua is mostly known for his humorous writing and that is an element that was present throughout this book. 28858646

Native is a book brimming with the author’s wit, sarcasm and poignant point of view. His thematology is quite broad, as he covers issues such as discrimination, freedom of speech, his daily life, his life as a reporter and even some family moments (much to his wife’s dismay). All the stories he tells come from his personal experiences and that adds a very personal but also authentic tone to the essays, in my opinion. Being completely unaware of the situations and lifestyle of people living in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to take a glimpse into it through Kashua’s essays.

The book opens in quite an original and unexpected way; with a letter written by the author’s wife, in which she claims that the version of herself and their kids which appear in Kashua’s articles is very distorted and purposefully made much meaner for the sake of creating drama for his readers. I found this a very interesting way to begin this book, as it definitely caught my interest and made me much more aware of the way Kashua presented the people that appeared in his stories and their overall attitudes.

One essay that really stood out for me is the one where the author recounts his receiving a complaint by one of his readers about the content of his newspaper column. That said reader claimed that since he (the author) wasn’t censored by anyone, he could write about anything he wanted and express his political opinions freely, and yet he chose to write about trivial everyday things. Kashua describes how this comment affected him in such a degree that he contacted this reader immediately and seeked advice for the content of his essays from him. The author manages to encompass sarcasm, political and social commentary and his personal experiences in a such a short but powerful piece of writing.

Kashua’s writing was delightful and easy to read. I believe the translator did a very good job as well, since the text flowed very smoothly, with no real sense of detachment or foreignness. However, I had the impression sometimes that his essays finished too abruptly and that they were missing their point, or that no real meaning was attached to the stories.

It was my first time reading such a diverse author and I certainly enjoyed the experience.