2

The Book Trail: From ‘Kitchen’ to Short Stories

I am beginning this particular Book Trail post with a translated novel I reviewed last month, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to generate this list.

 

97805713427231. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Kitchen juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan. It is a startlingly original first work by Japan’s brightest young literary star and is now a cult film.   When Kitchen was first published in Japan in 1987 it won two of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, climbed its way to the top of the bestseller lists, then remained there for over a year and sold millions of copies. Banana Yoshimoto was hailed as a young writer of great talent and great passion whose work has quickly earned a place among the best of modern literature, and has been described as ‘the voice of young Japan’ by the Independent on Sunday.’

 

2. Woman on the Other Shore by Mitsuyo Kakuta
‘This compelling novel, widely acclaimed for its perceptive portrayal of the everyday lives and struggles of Japanese women, struck a deep chord with readers throughout Japan. In 2005 it won the prestigious Naoki Prize, awarded semiannually for the best work of popular fiction by an established writer.  Sayoko, a thirty-five-year-old homemaker with a three-year-old child, begins working for Aoi, a free-spirited, single career woman her own age who runs a travel agency-housekeeping business. Timid and unable to connect with other mothers in her neighborhood, Sayoko finds herself drawn to Aoi’s independent lifestyle and easygoing personality. The two hit it off from the start, beginning a friendship that is for Sayoko also a reaffirmation of what living is about.  Aoi, meanwhile, has not always been the self-confident person she appears to be. Severe classroom bullying in junior high had forced her to change schools, uprooting her and her family to the countryside; and at her new school, she was so afraid of again becoming the object of her classmates’ cruelties that she spent most of her time steering clear of those around her.  The present-day friendship between Sayoko and Aoi on the one hand, and Aoi’s painful high school past on the other, form a gripping two-tier narrative that converges in the final chapter. The book touches on a broad range of issues of concern to women today, from marriage and childrearing to being single and working for oneself. It is a universal story about both the fear and the joy of opening up to others.’

 

3. Now You’re One of Us by Asa Nonami 856275
In the tradition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, here is a new classic about the bride who’s no longer sure what to think. All families have their own rituals, secrets, and credos, like a miniature religious cult; these quirks may elicit the mirth or mild alarm of guests, but the matter is rather more serious if you’re marrying into a household. If its’s a Japanese one with a history, the brace yourself: some surprising truths lurk around the corner.’

 

4. Beyond the Blossoming Fields by Junichi Watanabe
‘As a young girl from a wealthy family, Ginko Ogino seems set for a conventional life in the male-dominated society of 19th-century Japan. But when she contracts gonorrhea from her husband, she suffers the disgrace of divorce. Forced to bear the humiliation of being treated by male doctors, she resolves to become a doctor herself in order to treat fellow female sufferers and spare them some of the shame she had to endure. Her struggle is not an easy one—her family disowns her, and she has to convince the authorities to take seriously the very idea of a female doctor and allow her to study alongside male medical students and take the licensing exam. Based on the real-life story of Ginko Ogino—Japan’s first female doctor—Jun’ichi Watanabe does full justice to the complexity of her character and her world in a fascinating and inspirational work of fiction.’

 

6169535. Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara
‘In her collection of brief poems, Tawara explores the fleeting emotions and momentary experiences that comprise modern life and love.’

 

6. Astonishments: Selected Poems by Anna Kamienska
‘Kamienska came of age during the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Poland and lived under Communism. These experiences, as well as the sudden death of her husband, led her to engagement with the Bible and the great religious thinkers of the 20th century. Her poems record the struggles of a rational mind with religious faith, addressing loneliness and uncertainty in a remarkably direct, unsentimental manner. Her spiritual quest has resulted in extraordinary poems on Job, other biblical personalities, and victims of the Holocaust. Other poems explore the meaning of loss, grief, and human life. Still, her poetry expresses a fundamentally religious sense of gratitude for her own existence and that of other human beings, as well as for myriad creatures, such as hedgehogs, birds and “young leaves willing to open up to the sun.”‘

 

7. From the Fatherland, With Love by Ryu Murakami 17794325
From the Fatherland, with Love is set in an alternative, dystopian present in which the dollar has collapsed and Japan’s economy has fallen along with it. The North Korean government, sensing an opportunity, sends a fleet of rebels in the first land invasion that Japan has ever faced. Japan can’t cope with the surprise onslaught of Operation From the Fatherland, with Love. But the terrorist Ishihara and his band of renegade youths – once dedicated to upsetting the Japanese government – turn their deadly attention to the North Korean threat. They will not allow Fukuoka to fall without a fight.  Epic in scale, From the Fatherland, with Love is laced throughout with Murakami’s characteristically savage violence. It’s both a satisfying thriller and a completely mad, over-the-top novel like few others.’

 

8. The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Theodore W. Goossen
This collection of short stories, including many new translations, is the first to span the whole of Japan’s modern era from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day. Beginning with the first writings to assimilate and rework Western literary traditions, through the flourishing of the short story genre in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Taisho era, to the new breed of writers produced under the constraints of literary censorship, and the current writings reflecting the pitfalls and paradoxes of modern life, this anthology offers a stimulating survey of the development of the Japanese short story.   Various indigenous traditions, in addition to those drawn from the West, recur throughout the stories: stories of the self, of the Water Trade (Tokyo’s nightlife of geishas and prostitutes), of social comment, love and obsession, legends and fairytales. This collection includes the work of two Nobel prize-winners: Kawabata and Oe, the talented women writers Hirabayashi, Euchi, Okamoto, and Hayashi, together with the acclaimed Tanizaki, Mishima, and Murakami.   The introduction by Theodore Goossen gives insight into these exotic and enigmatic, sometimes disturbing stories, derived from the lyrical roots of Japanese literature with its distinctive stress on atmosphere and beauty.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which pique your interest?

Purchase from The Book Depository

3

‘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.

 

5

A (British) Book Haul

After spending approximately 10 days in the UK, visiting my uncle and his family in Peterborough and taking a flash trip to Edinburgh, I’m back home in scorching hot Greece. Needless to say that I managed to acquire some books during this trip of mine, which I intend to show you today.

Since my uncle’s house is located rather far away from the city centre, I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to browse through Peterborough’s bookshops. I did, however, purchase those three books from lovely Waterstones:

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  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • A Faraway Smell of Lemon by Rachel Joyce

I’ve already read The Vegetarian and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and reviews for those two will be up soon.

Even though I travelled to Edinburgh with very little luggage and promised to myself not to buy more than two books, I left with six new ones in my bag. Oh, well.

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From Blackwell’s I got:

  • The Muse by Jessie Burton
  • The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane

From Oxfam I got:

  • A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton
  • Negotiating With the Dead by Margaret Atwood
  • The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien

And last but certainly not least, from Barnardo’s I got:

  • 官僚を国民のために働かせる法 (Kanryou wo Kokumin no Tame ni Hatarakaseru Hou / The Way to Make Bureaucracy Work for the Citizens) by 古賀茂明 (Koga Shigeaki)

I never expected to find a Japanese book in a non-specialized bookshop, so I immediately grabbed it and brought it home with me. It’s a non-fiction book and I have to admit that its subject matter doesn’t particularly interest me, but it will certainly become great practice for my Japanese reading skills.

Upon arriving back home, I found a package waiting for me. It was from Kurodahan Press and it contained those wonderful books sent to me for review:

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  • Blue Bamboo by Dazai Osamu
  • Tokyo Decadence by Ryu Murakami
  • Long Belts and Thin Men by Kojima Nobuo

They are all short story collections and I am more than excited to delve into them as soon as possible.

So, these are all the books I acquired since the beginning of July and they all make me so very happy. Have you read any of these? What books have you acquired so far for this month? 🙂

2

‘Audition’ by Ryū Murakami **

Ryu Murakami’s ‘Audition,’ Paperback; 2009.

In part due to my recent declaration to renew my avid horror genre reads, I imagined it would be the appropriate starting point to begin with Murakami’s Audition, published originally in 1997 and further translated by Ralph McCarthy in later 2009. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as impressed with Murakami’s story. Although somewhat successful in its vile and repulsive imagery – thus rendering the isolation of the story almost perfected in its surrealism and horrification – it almost felt too flat in its execution. The plot follows middle-aged Aoyama, a documentary film-maker in Tokyo after the tragic death of his wife, Ryoko. During quite a heartfelt procession of overcoming said tragic passing, he is abruptly encouraged by his teenage son Shige to remarry and the thought begins to consume his mind. He feels compelled to find the ‘ideal’ wife, which further prompts him to – with encouragement from his fellow colleague Yoshikawa – hold ‘auditions’ for a fabricated movie idea in order to come into close contact with a splurge of females and therefore potential spouses.

As morally questionable as this sounds, it is this plotline which acts as the main drive for the novel and subsequently leads to the enamouring of Aoyama with a 24-year-old woman named Yamasaki, who seems a little ‘highly-strung’ and troubled. We are informed of several foreshadowing elements surrounding Yamasaki’s supposed past, yet Aoyama is blinded by his insatiable lust to care for this girl who seems to have undergone such suffering.  Inevitably, it is this error which causes the horrifying and most tragic cataclysm.

As most know, I am an undeniable fan of Japanese literature, and find it infinitely engaging. Similarly to film, I find Asian horror emphatically more chilling than Western, which is why such titles tend to surface among my favourites in both horror literature and cinema. Albeit a debatable genre, I personally believe horror should have the capacity to scare through the metaphoric ‘cold hand on the shoulder’ affect, in place of somewhat comical splattering of gore and guts. Usually I am satisfied by Japanese tales as they tend to either substitute gore for eerie material – few may recount the long-haired ghost girl from the Ring and the similarly begrudged woman in The Grudge – or justify such by disclosing severe psychological issues behind.  Audition is, quite simply, a psychosexual thriller, so although we are prone to repugnant amounts of explicit torture, Murakami has nevertheless attempted to employ some narrative behind it with regards to Yamasaki’s backstory. Yet this never appears to lead anywhere, and personally I felt quite offended by how little we are told of Yamasaki’s intentions.  I squirmed during moments I felt when the novel appeared to tread slightly among misogynistic waters, with the lunacy of Yamasaki and little attention to other female characters (let alone Aoyama’s forgiven yet blatant infidelity to his previous wife) adding a darker and objectifying tone to the novel. Two other titles of Murakami’s, Coin Locker Babies and In the Miso Soup are on my ‘to read’ lists as other pieces of Japanese horror, but to suffice to say  I am a little underwhelmed and slightly unnerved by the prospect of reading them. Perhaps I will look more towards other Japanese horror novelists to satisfy my appetite for the spooky.