Penguin Moderns: ‘Three Japanese Short Stories’, and ‘The Veiled Woman’

Three Japanese Short Stories by Akutanagawa and Others *** (#5)  9780241339749
I have not read much Japanese fiction that I have really enjoyed to date; rather, I tend to find it a little hit or miss, and usually a bit off the wall in its plotting for my particular taste. I was intrigued by this collection, however; it consists of ‘three beguiling, strange, funny and hair-raising tales of imprisonment, memory and atrocity from early twentieth-century Japan’, all of which have been newly translated by Jay Rubin. Overall, I found the collection difficult to pin down; I very much enjoyed the first story, but was not much of a fan of the second or third.

‘Behind the Prison’ by Nagai Kafu is told in the form of a letter, addressed to ‘my dearest excellency’. The narrator is a thirty-year-old man who, after living in the West, has returned to Japan to live ‘in a single room on my father’s estate, which is located behind the prison in Ichigaya.’ He describes quite how this came to be, when his greatest desire was to hide away amongst people who have no knowledge of him, or of his family. I found the writing in this story poetic, and quite absorbing.

The second story, ‘Closet LLB’, is a third person perspective story written by Uno Koji. It provides an account of an unambitious law graduate, whose only wish lies in becoming a novelist. He has delusions of grandeur about his person, and is both self-important and self-obsessed. This story was not quite to my taste; I found the character almost loathsome, and the tone of the narrative felt a little off to me.

The third and final story collected here is ‘General Kim’ by Akutanagawa Ryunosuke. This is rather a short story in comparison to those by the previous two authors. It follows two ‘powerful Japanese generals, who had crossed the sea to assess military conditions in the neighbouring kingdom of Korea’. In some ways, this was quite interesting, but it was also, almost overwhelmingly, bizarre.


9780241339541The Veiled Woman by Anais Nin **** (#6)
I adore what I have read of Nin’s work so far; I have read a few of her books, but have much of her oeuvre left to get stuck into. Here, ‘transgressive desires and sexual encounters are recounted in these four pieces from one of the greatest writers of erotic fiction’. These stories were first published in the 1970s, three of them taken from <i>Delta of Venus</i>, and one from <i>Little Birds</i>.

Nin writes incredibly well; the scenes which she depicts have a vividness and vivacity to them. Her female narrators feel realistic, and impart their deepest thoughts and desires to the reader. Nin’s character descriptions hum with life and richness; for instance, from ‘The Veiled Woman’: ‘She was extraordinarily lovely, with something of both satin and velvet in her. Her eyes were dark and moist, her mouth glowed, her skin reflected the light. Her body was perfectly balanced. She had the incisive lines of a slender woman together with a provocative ripeness.’

Nin’s visions are strange and unexpected. These particular stories are all quite highly erotic ones; it is a genre which ordinarily I would steer away from, but there is beauty in these tales regardless. The four stories here are perfect examples of the kinds of tales which Nin’s reputation has sprung from.


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The 1977 Club

As is sadly becoming habit, my studies and my current book-buying ban have left me with relatively little time to find a title from 1977 to contribute to the excellent ‘club’ run by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.  Whilst I have therefore been unable to contribute a full review, I thought I would collect together ten titles published in 1977 which I am looking forward to reading in future.


1. Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym 27411950
In 1970s London Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia work in the same office and suffer the same problem – loneliness. Lovingly and with delightful humour, Pym conducts us through their day-to-day existence: their preoccupations, their irritations, their judgements, and – perhaps most keenly felt – their worries about having somehow missed out on life as post-war Britain shifted around them.  Deliciously, blackly funny and full of obstinate optimism, Quartet in Autumn shows Barbara Pym’s sensitive artistry at its most sparkling. A classic from one of Britain’s most loved and highly acclaimed novelists, its world is both extraordinary and familiar, revealing the eccentricities of everyday life.


2. Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
In Delta of Venus Anaïs Nin penned a lush, magical world where the characters of her imagination possess the most universal of desires and exceptional of talents. Among these provocative stories, a Hungarian adventurer seduces wealthy women then vanishes with their money; a veiled woman selects strangers from a chic restaurant for private trysts; and a Parisian hatmaker named Mathilde leaves her husband for the opium dens of Peru. Delta of Venus is an extraordinarily rich and exotic collection from the master of erotic writing.


799093. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
An exhilarating look at a place that still retains the exotic mystery of a far-off, unseen land, Bruce Chatwin’s exquisite account of his journey through Patagonia teems with evocative descriptions, remarkable bits of history, and unforgettable anecdotes. Fueled by an unmistakable lust for life and adventure and a singular gift for storytelling, Chatwin treks through “the uttermost part of the earth”— that stretch of land at the southern tip of South America, where bandits were once made welcome—in search of almost forgotten legends, the descendants of Welsh immigrants, and the log cabin built by Butch Cassidy. An instant classic upon publication in 1977, In Patagonia is a masterpiece that has cast a long shadow upon the literary world.


4. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa’s brilliant, multilayered novel is set in the Lima, Peru, of the author’s youth, where a young student named Marito is toiling away in the news department of a local radio station. His young life is disrupted by two arrivals.  The first is his aunt Julia, recently divorced and thirteen years older, with whom he begins a secret affair. The second is a manic radio scriptwriter named Pedro Camacho, whose racy, vituperative soap operas are holding the city’s listeners in thrall. Pedro chooses young Marito to be his confidant as he slowly goes insane.  Interweaving the story of Marito’s life with the ever-more-fevered tales of Pedro Camacho, Vargas Llosa’s novel is hilarious, mischievous, and masterful, a classic named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review.


5. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector 762390
The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector’s consummate final novel, may well be her masterpiece. Narrated by the cosmopolitan Rodrigo S.M., this brief, strange, and haunting tale is the story of Macabéa, one of life’s unfortunates. Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a poor living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola, and her rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marylin Monroe, but she is ugly, underfed, sickly, and unloved. Rodrigo recoils from her wretchedness, and yet he cannot avoid realization that for all her outward misery, Macabéa is inwardly free. She doesn’t seem to know how unhappy she should be. Lispector employs her pathetic heroine against her urbane, empty narrator–edge of despair to edge of despair–and, working them like a pair of scissors, she cuts away the reader’s preconceived notions about poverty, identity, love, and the art of fiction. In her last book she takes readers close to the true mystery of life and leaves us deep in Lispector territory indeed.


6. Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
‘The puzzling murder of three African directors of a foreign-owned brewery sets the scene for this fervent, hard-hitting novel about disillusionment in independent Kenya. A deceptively simple tale, Petals of Blood is on the surface a suspenseful investigation of a spectacular triple murder in upcountry Kenya. Yet as the intertwined stories of the four suspects unfold, a devastating picture emerges of a modern third-world nation whose frustrated people feel their leaders have failed them time after time. First published in 1977, this novel was so explosive that its author was imprisoned without charges by the Kenyan government. His incarceration was so shocking that newspapers around the world called attention to the case, and protests were raised by human-rights groups, scholars, and writers, including James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Donald Barthelme, Harold Pinter, and Margaret Drabble.


3387497. The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd
In 1903, a young Scotswoman named Mary Mackenzie sets sail for China to marry her betrothed, a military attaché in Peking. But soon after her arrival, Mary falls into an adulterous affair with a young Japanese nobleman, scandalizing the British community. Casting her out of the European community, her compatriots tear her away from her small daughter. A woman abandoned and alone, Mary learns to survive over forty tumultuous years in Asia, including two world wars and the cataclysmic Tokyo earthquake of 1923.


8. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters by Anne Sexton (edited by Lois Ames)
An expression of an extraordinary poet’s life story in her own words, this book shows Anne Sexton as she really was in private, as she wrote about herself to family, friends, fellow poets, and students. Anne’s daughter Linda Gray Sexton and her close confidant Lois Ames have judiciously chosen from among thousands of letters and provided commentary where necessary. Illustrated throughout with candid photographs and memorabilia, the letters — brilliant, lyrical, caustic, passionate, angry — are a consistently revealing index to Anne Sexton’s quixotic and exuberant personality.


9. Monkey Grip by Helen Garner 7405876
In “Monkey Grip”, Helen Garner charts the lives of a generation. Her characters are exploring new ways of loving and living – and nothing is harder than learning to love lightly. Nora and Javo are trapped in a desperate relationship. Nora’s addiction is romantic love; Javo’s is hard drugs. The harder they pull away, the tighter the monkey grip. A lyrical, gritty, rough-edged novel that deserves its place as a classic of Australian fiction.


10. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Milkman Dead was born shortly after a neighborhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at flight. For the rest of his life he, too, will be trying to fly. With this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison transfigures the coming-of-age story as audaciously as Saul Bellow or Gabriel García Márquez. As she follows Milkman from his rustbelt city to the place of his family’s origins, Morrison introduces an entire cast of strivers and seeresses, liars and assassins, the inhabitants of a fully realized black world.


Have you read any of these?  Which is your favourite book published in 1977?


The Fifty Women Challenge: ‘A Spy in the House of Love’ by Anais Nin **

During June, an accidental library haul occurred.  A Spy in the House of Love, first published in 1954, was one of the books which I could not resist taking home with me, loving Nin’s work as I do.  Sadly, upon reflection, I should have left it behind.

I chose A Spy in the House of Love for mine and Yamini’s 50 Women Challenge, it being the only book of Nin’s upon the library shelves which I hadn’t yet read.  The novella – for the whole is comprised of under 130 pages – tells of Sabina, a woman who ‘leads a double life inspired by her relentless desire for brief encounters with near-strangers.  Fired into faithlessness by a desperate longing for sexual fulfilment, she weaves a sensual web of deceit across New York.  But when the secrecy of her affairs becomes too much to bear, Sabina makes a late night phone-call to a stranger from a bar, and begins a confession that captivates the unknown man and soon inspires him to seek her out…’.  I was rather intrigued by the premise, and have been impressed in the past by the way in which Nin handles more adult themes within her fiction.

The opening line of A Spy in the House of Love certainly sets an interesting tone for what follows: ‘The lie detector was asleep when he heard the telephone ringing’.  My favourite element of the novella, without a doubt, is the striking descriptive power which Nin wields, ranging from ‘a lax, spangled, spiralling laughter’, to her depiction of Sabina: ‘dressed in red and silver, she endured the sounds and imagery of fire engines as they tore through the streets of New York, alarming the heart with the violent gong of catastrophe’.

Sadly, I cannot say that I at all enjoyed A Spy in the House of Love.  It is the most sexually explicit of Nin’s work which I have encountered to date, and whilst I do not mind that per se, I did question the point of it here at times.  It seemed to be eroticism for eroticism’s sake (if there is such a thing!), and did not add a great deal to the story.

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Short Story Series: Part Five

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like. I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections. Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb. I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. The Birds by Daphne du Maurier
‘A classic of alienation and horror, ‘The Birds’ was immortalised by Hitchcock in his celebrated film. The five other chilling stories in this collection echo a sense of dislocation and mock man’s sense of dominance over the natural world. The mountain paradise of ‘Monte Verita’ promises immortality, but at a terrible price; a neglected wife haunts her husband in the form of an apple tree; a professional photographer steps out from behind the camera and into his subject’s life; a date with a cinema usherette leads to a walk in the cemetery; and a jealous father finds a remedy when three’s a crowd …’

2. Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman
‘Tenderly, observantly, incisively, Edith Pearlman captures life on the page like few other writers. She is a master of the short story, and this is a spectacular collection.’

3. Lying Under the Apple Tree by Alice Munro
‘Spanning her last five collections and bringing together her finest work from the past fifteen years, this new selection of Alice Munro’s stories infuses everyday lives with a wealth of nuance and insight. Beautifully observed and remarkably crafted, written with emotion and empathy, these stories are nothing short of perfection. It is a masterclass in the genre, from an author who deservedly lays claim to being one of the major fiction writers of our time.’

My review can be found here.

4. Delicate Edible Birds and Other Stories by Lauren Groff
‘”Delicate Edible Birds” includes nine stories of vastly different styles and structures. “L. De Bard and Aliette” recreates the tale of Abelard and Heloise in New York during the 1918 flu epidemic; “Lucky Chow Fun” returns to Templeton, the setting of Groff’s debut novel, for a contemporary account of what happens to outsiders in a small, insular town; the title story of “Delicate Edible Birds” is a harrowing, powerfully moving drama about a group of war correspondents, a lone woman among them, who fall prey to a frightening man in the French countryside while fleeing the Nazis. With a dazzling array of voices and settings, “Delicate Edible Birds” will cement Lauren Groff’s reputation as one of the foremost talents of her generation.’

5. Under a Glass Bell by Anais Nin
‘”Under a Glass Bell” is one of Nin’s finest collections of stories. First published in 1944, it attracted the attention of Edmond Wilson, who reviewed the collection in “The New Yorker.” It was in these stories that Nin’s artistic and emotional vision took shape. This edition includes a highly informative and insightful foreword by Gunther Stuhlmann that places the collection in its historical context as well as illuminates the sequence of events and persons recorded in the diary that served as its inspiration.’

6. Selected Short Stories by Virginia Woolf
‘Virginia Woolf tested the boundaries of fiction in these short stories, developing a new language of sensation, feeling and thought, and recreating in words the ‘swarm and confusion of life’. Defying categorization, the stories range from the more traditional narrative style of “Solid Objects” through the fragile impressionism of “Kew Gardens” to the abstract exploration of consciousness in “The Mark on the Wall”.’

7. Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson
‘What is the real world? Does it exist, or is it merely a means of keeping another reality at bay? Not the End of the World is Kate Atkinson’s first collection of short stories. Playful and profound, they explore the world we think we know whilst offering a vision of another world which lurks just beneath the surface of our consciousness, a world where the myths we have banished from our lives are startlingly present and where imagination has the power to transform reality. From Charlene and Trudi, obsessively making lists while bombs explode softly in the streets outside, to gormless Eddie, maniacal cataloguer of fish, and Meredith Zane who may just have discovered the secret to eternal life, each of these stories shows that when the worlds of material existence and imagination collide, anything is possible.’

8. Selected Short Stories by Honore de Balzac
‘One of the greatest French novelists, Balzac was also an accomplished writer of shorter fiction. This volume includes twelve of his finest short stories many of which feature characters from his epic series of novels the Comedie Humaine. Compelling tales of acute social and psychological insight, they fully demonstrate the mastery of suspense and revelation that were the hallmarks of Balzac’s genius. In The Atheist’s Mass, we learn the true reason for a distinguished atheist surgeon’s attendance at religious services; La Grande Breteche describes the horrific truth behind the locked doors of a decaying country mansion, while The Red Inn relates a brutal tale of murder and betrayal. A fascinating counterpoint to the renowned novels, all the stories collected here stand by themselves as mesmerizing works by one of the finest writers of nineteenth-century France.’

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Flash Reviews (8th October 2013)

40 (Canongate) by Various Authors **
2013 has marked the fortieth anniversary of several publishing houses, two of whom have already released celebratory volumes (Picador and Virago).  Within the responses to the theme of ‘forty’ in this volume, there are fragments of memories, lists, illustrations, poems, reminiscences of fortieth birthdays, and even a couple of comic strips and a recipe.  There is also rather a nice section which includes the first lines of the forty bestselling Canongate books of all time.  Some of the authors are familiar (Charles Schulz, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Atwood), and some are not.  <i>40</i> is an interesting amalgamation of forty inspired art, but sadly there is nothing very outstanding within it.

The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green ****
I feel, after finishing this absorbing murder mystery, that I should have read it some time ago.  This is the first of Green’s books which I’ve encountered in my foray into crime fiction, and I found it a very enjoyable book on the whole.  The writing throughout matches the unfolding storyline perfectly.  Although it is not original to the modern reader, per se, the mystery itself and the way in which it has been carried out was, I imagine, relatively ‘never before seen’ to its original Victorian audience.  The plotlines which carry less emphasis combine wonderfully to produce the coherent whole, and everything is neatly tied together.  The story kept me guessing throughout, which is a must to me with such novels.

The Four-Chambered Heart by Anais Nin ***
I am always so excited when I receive or buy a new Nin novel, enamoured as I am with her stunning writing and often quiet but memorable plots. The Four-Chambered Heart, particularly in its beginning, is a beautifully written novel, particularly with regard to its Paris setting. Nin captures her characters so well. Whilst none of the protagonists – Djuna, Rango and Zora – are likeable for the mostpart, they have a marvellous depth to them, and are made up of a complex mixture of emotions. Their relationship with one another, tumultuous as it often is, is portrayed with such clarity on the part of the author.

Sadly, The Four-Chambered Heart is by no means my favourite of Nin’s books, and it pales entirely in comparison to Collages and Under a Glass Bell, which are both incredible works of art. I very much enjoyed the writing, but as I was in no way sympathetic towards the novel’s characters and did not find much of worth in its plot, I feel I cannot award it more than three stars.

Recommended playlist:
‘The Everglow’ by Mae
‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ by The Smiths
‘Think I Wanna Die’ by Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin