BOOK REVIEW: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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One might think that a book narrated by Death and set in Nazi Germany during the Second World War would be bleak from cover to cover. But one would be wrong. “The Book Thief” heaps hope and humor upon the reader, saving tragedy for the final course – besides a few sprinkles throughout. It’s not that the story lacks a tension born of many close calls and morally compromised situations, but it’s a very human story – with the appropriate mix of blemishes and beauty.

The protagonist is a girl named Liesel who is sent to live with foster parents during the first year of World War II. Traveling to meet her new family, her brother dies, leaving her alone with new parents in a new city on the doorstep of the most lethal war in human history. In the cemetery, after her brother’s impromptu funeral, Liesel finds a fallen book and keeps it. It’s the first of several books she will “steal,” acts that will define her but which are comic sins in the shadow of the mass murder in progress. Fortunately, Liesel’s foster parents are salt of the earth folk. They aren’t wealthy or erudite, but they offer Liesel a loving home. It’s a little harder to see this affection in her foster-mother, who has a stern and gruff exterior — in contrast to her papa who is endearingly sympathetic.

The story is about this family, and others in the neighborhood, trying to get through life under a regime they recognize as tragically absurd, but which is terrifying none-the-less. Besides surviving, characters like Liesel’s papa try to do the right thing whenever they can, in whatever way won’t get them killed. Life gets harder as the war wears on. Liesel’s papa is a house painter, an occupation that is not a year-round occupation in Germany. Liesel’s mother does laundry, a luxury that most can’t afford as the war rages. On the other hand, this doesn’t make them worse off than most of the others on Himmel Street, which is – figuratively speaking – on the wrong side of the tracks.

While this is an engaging story, Death as narrator is the feature that really makes this book exceptional to me. Much of the lightness and humor comes from the fact that the narrator is not grim, but rather has humor and a stilted form of humanity about him. From a narrative perspective, Death offers a unique point of view, but it’s the circumvention of expectations that comes from the fact that Death can recognize the tragedy of what is unfolding before him. He’s not emotional about it in the way a human would be, but neither does he ignore the brutality and absurdity of it. The other factor that catapults this book beyond the realm of run-of-mill war story, is how the desire for literature and learning — which would usually be lost in a war story’s struggle for survival – is given a prominent role.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s an intensely human story, neither saturated in sorrow nor ignoring the horrors of war and genocide. I highly recommend it for fiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of VeniceThe Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story hinges on the (now proverbial) pound of flesh. Bassanio is a poor gentleman in love with a rich lady, Portia. While Bassanio is upfront with Portia about his poverty — and she could care less — he can’t bring himself to propose to her without a few coins to his name. So, he goes to Antonio, the titular merchant of Venice and a close friend, and asks for a loan. Antonio is free and easy about making loans without requiring interest payments. Antonio says he’d gladly hand over the money to Bassanio, but all his money is tied up in his ships at sea. He, furthermore, tells Bassanio that if anyone will make him loan, the merchant can easily cover it. Antonio has tons of merchandise arriving in the next couple months from all around the world. The loan amount is small compared to what Antonio intends to earn from selling his goods.

The problem is that the only other game in town for loans is a Scrooge-esque lender named Shylock. Shylock is hard enough to deal with as it is, but he has it in for Antonio, in particular. Besides the fact that Antonio frequently offers interest-free loans — cutting into Shylock’s business — Antonio has also kept Shylock from collecting collateral by paying off other people’s loans before said loans went into default. (Maybe that’s why there were no other lenders in all of Venice?) To be fair, Shylock claims that his gripe with Antonio is that the latter is always leveling antisemitic slurs and other insults at the lender. At any rate, Shylock says he’ll make the loan of 3,000 Ducats, but, instead of ship or merchandise, he requires a pound of flesh as bond. Antonio, for reasons of friendship and the fact that he believes he will have a windfall by then, agrees to Shylock’s terms. If he doesn’t repay the 3,000 ducats in three months, Antonio will have a pound of flesh cut from his chest.

[Spoilers follow.] Bassanio takes the cash and goes traveling to make his proposal. First, he is required to play a “Let’s Make a Deal” game in order to earn the opportunity to wed Portia. The game involves three boxes (i.e. caskets): one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Inside one of them is a portrait of Portia, but the others are losers. All a prospective suitor has to go by is a brief inscription. By the time Bassanio arrives the reader has seen two Princes’s failed attempts at this courtship game. The inscriptions with the gold and silver boxes flatter Portia and the suitor, respectively. The inscription on the leaden box acknowledges that the marriage will not be all sunshine and roses, and that is the box Bassanio has the wisdom to choose. Unfortunately, shortly after he does so, he learns that a couple of Antonio’s ships wrecked at sea and the others haven’t been heard from, and – by now – the loan is in default.

Bassanio heads out to Venice with triple the Shylock’s money from his generous and wealthy new wife, planning to dispose of the situation. However, Shylock won’t budge on the terms of the bond. A drama plays out in the courtroom. Portia, anticipating the Shylock might not take the lucrative offer, has her butler take a letter to a legal expert and has said servant return with the lawyer’s reply posthaste. Portia and her handmaid disguise themselves as men – a lawyer and legal clerk, respectively – and catch up with the legal proceedings in Venice. After no one (i.e. the Duke, Bassanio, nor Portia-in-disguise as lawyer) is able to reason with the Shylock, Portia-as-lawyer tells him that he may proceed with cutting away the pound of flesh. However, the bond document says nothing about blood. So, if Shylock spills any of Antonio’s blood, he will be guilty of assault (at the least) and murder in the likely event that Antonio dies. Not to mention, going an ounce over a pound would be a breach of contract to be severely countered. This turns the tables, and Antonio and friends end up exploiting the situation to force the Shylock to convert religion as well as dictating the disposition of the lender’s estate (not to mention he’s still out his 3,000 ducats.)

[Spoiler end.] This play has a tense story line, particularly for a comedy, and is a gripping read. However, it’s also one of the most controversial Shakespearean works for its antisemitic and racist comments. On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that Shakespeare might have been engaging in satire. First, I mentioned that Shylock doesn’t cite loss of business as his quarrel with Antonio, but rather that the merchant has repeatedly insulted and slandered him. While we don’t see direct evidence of this behavior, the fact that Antonio rapes Shylock with his religion (by that I mean forcing a conversion using the threat of State force,) makes it ring true. Second, but continuing on this theme, there are a number of points during which the Shylock is sympathetic, most notably the famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?…” monologue. Third, we learn that Shylock has a delightful daughter named Jessica, leading the reader to the conclusion that perhaps Shylock isn’t a jerk because he’s a Jew, but is a jerk who happens to be a Jew. Finally, the degree to which Antonio and his friends rake Shylock over the coals at the end of the court scene tarnishes Antonio’s virtue and makes Shylock sympathetic once again. The “turn the other cheek” approach of Christianity gives way to Old Testament vengefulness.

Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (notably “The Taming of the Shrew”,) accusations of sexism are also common, but if there were an award for BOSS of this play it would go to Portia, hands down. True, she has to pretend to be a man to get it all done, but those were those the times. The need for disguise also facilitates a prank that she and her handmaid play on their new husbands, regarding their wedding rings. While they are forced to comply with the dictates of the age, the women in this play certainly hold their own as strong characters. Still, I can’t say the degree to which Shakespeare was a satirist versus an anti-Semite / racist / sexist, but it’s a testament to the richness of his stories and the depth of his characters that his works can be interpreted so diversely.

It’s a masterpiece. Read it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Dogs of WarDogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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What will it mean when there are other entities that (who) are intelligent on a human scale (e.g. master of technology, complex planning, and long-term planning?) This is a question that science fiction has addressed many times and in many ways. Tchaikovsky’s approach is interesting because it doesn’t just ask what if one produced a computer intelligence or if another biological species became (human-style) intelligent, but – instead – it imagines an entity that combines human and animal intelligence with computer capabilities and protocols?

The protagonist, Rex, is a supersized dog-man optimized and super-powered for warfighting. Rex’s general intelligence is about at an elementary school level, but his instincts, programming, and capacity to process and analyze complex and abundant information make him much more competent than that level of intelligence would suggest. The dog-part of Rex has the simple animal instincts that make dogs both loving pets and devastating predators, with both capacities rolled into one (even if one side often remains latent.) His human capacities include a limited ability to reason and – crucially – the ability to communicate via language. The computer part of Rex, besides giving him the ability to process and respond to multiple information streams at once effectively, keeps him in check by creating a hierarchy of command and by giving feedback by way of a crude proto-emotional system (i.e. feelings of being a “good dog” or “bad dog.”)

Rex is the leader of a squad of creatures of various speciation. There is a giant bear named Honey, who serves as the team’s heavy weapons platform. She’s easy to see but packs a wallop in weapons and strength. There is a reptilian member called “Dragon” that genetically shares certain lizard characteristics. Dragon is a sniper. He is stealthy, and exists to take out particularly designated targets. Staying hidden is essential because Dragon doesn’t have the fantastic durability of Rex or Honey. The final team member is Bees, a swarm intelligence of bees. Bees can go anywhere by flight, can disperse or gather as needed, and can sting with various styles of poison. The individual bees of Bees are fragile. However, losing a few here and there has little effect on Bees capacity, but its intelligence does degrade with continued loses, and the ability to act and think as a unit disappears altogether at some level of loss.

The antagonist throughout most of the book is a man named Murray, who is an overzealous military contractor carrying out a brutal war in Central America using teams like Rex’s, but also laying waste to the Geneva and Chemical Weapons Conventions as he sees fit. (The book imagines a world in which the United Nations and global corporations are strong, but national governments are weak – at least relatively.) To cover up his war crimes, Murray kills a technician named Hartnell who is beloved by Rex (though below Murray – his “Master” – in Rex’s hierarchy,) but not before Hartnell can jettison Rex’s command hierarchy. This puts Rex in a rudderless position of having to make his own decisions. While the hierarchy is gone, Rex still has canine instincts and gets signals from his feedback chip. He doesn’t have to follow orders, though it’s still his inclination to do so. Two classes of individuals sit easy with Rex. Friends are individuals that one protects at any cost. Enemies are individuals that one destroys at any cost. Rex has sufficient intelligence to recognize that not everyone fits smoothly into one of these classes, but he doesn’t know how to respond to such individuals.

After Rex and team go “off-leash,” he is adrift in a world he doesn’t quite understand and there are events going on behind the scenes that he can’t fathom. Left entirely to his own devices, Rex might yield to his instinct to try to return to his Master (Murray) and try to get back to life as usual. However, while in command, Rex has gotten used to taking the advice of Honey because he realizes that she is more intelligent than he. (What he doesn’t recognize is that Honey was accidentally over-engineered and is super-intelligent – i.e. smarter than the smartest humans. She is quietly using that intelligence in the background, including finding allies.) While Rex is an autonomous decision maker, he isn’t at ease with this autonomy, and finds himself processing conflicting arguments to make challenging moral decisions throughout the book. Using the combination of his canine instinct to protect friends and fight enemies and his (albeit limited) human capacity to draw conclusions based on information, Rex tends to make satisfying decisions. Though the author does show Rex making cringe-worthy decisions as well. This way the reader feels the stakes, and recognizes that Rex’s mish-mash of instinct, thought, and programming could lead to a poor moral choice at any moment. (If this internal conflict seems complicated, it’s not so much different from the potential wars between the reptilian, mammalian, and human [prefrontal cortex] brains that we see in human beings.)

I enjoyed this book tremendously. I found it hard to put down. It does have intense scenes of violence, but that raises the stakes. Because, the book also asks an interesting question about what “someone” like Rex would be considered and what the legal and moral response to it would be. Is Rex a person, with all the the rights and responsibilities of that condition? Is he an animal that faces the same logic we apply to dogs (i.e. no animal cruelty allowed, but dogs that bite must be put down?) Or is he something else, and what does that mean? Can Rex be decommissioned like a bomb or a tank? What is the legal and moral obligation to an intelligent creature that can be [but isn’t necessarily] a killing machine? Is it right to create an intelligent entity and then install a command hierarchy such that it is a slave to the wishes of others?

If you enjoy science fiction, I believe you’ll find this book intense and entertaining.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dream Machine by Su-Yee Lin

Dream Machine (A Short Story) (Kindle Single)Dream Machine (A Short Story) by Su-Yee Lin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This surreal short story is a reprint from “Day One” magazine that is available as a Kindle Single. The story is about a factory in an industrial part of Shanghai that seems to make metal objects / shapes, the purpose of which no one seems to understand. The protagonist is – at the start of the the story – the newest of the half-dozen employees who work at the plant. The story has a sparse feeling that ranges from the fact that the characters are designated only with a single letter to the fact that we really don’t get much indication of the broad and bustling city of Shanghai in which the story is supposedly set.

It isn’t easy to convey a world that isn’t quite right – seemingly like the world we are familiar with, but just a little off. I thought the author did a good job of this.

I enjoyed this story immensely. I thought the author used strategic ambiguity nicely. There are a few ways I believe one could reasonably interpret this story. If you are the kind that needs to have iron-clad clarity, that might be a bit aggravating. [If you’ve seen the Christopher Nolan movie “Inception,” and you liked that it left an open ending, this story is for you. If you insist that there is no ambiguity to the ending and that the top definitely toppled or didn’t, you might not enjoy it as much.]

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BOOK REVIEW: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic VersesThe Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Anyone who’s ever written for public consumption knows that having one’s writing despised is not the worst of fates. While it might be preferable to have a work loved than loathed, it’s far better for it to be loathed than to be greeted with a “meh.” Like many, I read “The Satanic Verses” because any work of fiction that generates an emotional response of murderous intensity must have something going for it. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the release of this novel in 1988 triggered a fatwa (an Islamic decree) ordering the author’s murder. While the Iranian government retracted support for the killing in the late 1990’s, Rushdie lived in hiding for decades.

So, that is my full-disclosure confession, I probably would never have gotten around to reading this novel if not for the response it incurred. It’s not the first work I’ve read by Rushdie, and I’d hazard to say it’s not considered his best (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was his best-selling book, though it may not be because it’s banned in India – a huge book market.) If I were more well-acquainted with Islamic mythology, the book probably would have been much more readable, but as things stand it was a bit of a slog. There is a huge cast of characters (a couple names, e.g. Ayesha, are used for multiple characters over different time periods – on purpose, but still….) And the story – far from a clear and readable narrative arc — is a thicket of plot, subplots, and happenings that may have some symbolic purpose but don’t seem germane to the story. Also, some scenes are meant to reflect a dreamlike or surreal quality, and the switching between states requires a high degree of attentiveness in reading. Some of the story is work-a-day realism and some is dreams and transformations. Most of it is present day, but some of it is during the dawn of Islam.

The main plot revolves around two characters who survive falling out of a plane blown up by terrorists over the English Channel. The two characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, play the role of archangel and demon, though there isn’t a clear imprimatur of good and evil to distinguish the two. Of course, rejection of the notion that good and evil are clearly distinguishable opposites is the theme of this novel. (After all, the title refers to a controversial belief that a few of the revelations presented to the prophet Mohammad [renamed “Mahound” in the novel] were the whisperings of the devil.) While one might think angels and demons above the mundane concerns like relationships, we spend a great deal of time learning about Gibreel’s relationship with his mountain-climbing girlfriend and Saladin’s troubles with his adulterous wife.

While I’ve presented the book like it’s a complete morass, I should point out that it has moments of lucidity, and — in those moments — it makes for both evocative and though-provoking reading. I would say the best example of this is the subplot that plays out through the penultimate chapter. This arc involves a woman in India with cancer who is marching to the sea because she strongly believes that when she gets to the coast the waters of the Arabian Sea will part, and she’ll be able to march on to Mecca. Along with this woman are 140 pilgrims led by one of the book’s three Ayeshas. This woman’s husband is a merchant and a secular Muslim. He is more than willing to take his wife to Mecca, but would like to do so by plane. He thinks that she’s a bit off her rocker, owing to the disease, but his love leads him to follow her to the sea (riding along in an automobile.) I got caught up in this story line as it has this tension between believers and non-believers (more accurately secular religious types who belong to religion but don’t buy into the supernatural), and an intrigue about whether the seas will – in deed — part.

If you’re up for a challenging read, I’d recommend this book. It deals with some fascinating questions. It has a mix of humor and drama, and presents interesting characters and conundrums. That said, it isn’t the type of story one get’s lost in. It’s the kind of reading that requires a high degree of attention, and which can be a bit mentally exhausting. As for whether it’s worth reading because some people don’t want you to, my guess would be that the people who wanted to murder Rushdie (and some who still do) never got past the title, probably don’t understand the theological debate that the title references, and definitely didn’t get to the subplot of the book in Chapter 3 that deals in historic events. In other words, the violent response didn’t result from reading the book, but rather from hearing about the title. [In general, I suspect the Venn intersect of “reads books” and “wants to murder people about ideas” is – if not an empty set – pretty slim pickings.]

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BOOK REVIEW: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, the Serial KillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This clever novel revolves around two sisters who seemingly couldn’t be more different, but who are never-the-less bound by blood and fate. The protagonist, Korede, is a diligent nurse who is respected for her rock steady and no-nonsense nature. She’s precise, meticulous, hardworking, but plain looking. The relevance of that latter bit is that her sister, Ayoola, is stupid beautiful (i.e. the kind of pretty that turns people into blithering idiots in her presence), is a little flighty, and is a serial killer.

While Korede is too smart to fall for Ayoola’s self-defense explanations for deceased boyfriends completely, Korede never-the-less assists Ayoola with disposing of bodies while trying to let Ayoola’s explanations soothe her conscience. But while Korede is morally-conflicted and guilt-ridden, the blood bond is such that her stance is never in question. That is until a handsome young doctor that Korede has a crush on and a friendship with becomes infatuated with Ayoola. This development sets up the ultimate test of the sisters’ bond.

Braithwaite does a great job of peeling away the layers of the characters. The beautiful sister / serial killer is only the most obvious example of the risk of taking people at skin depth. We learn that other characters aren’t as they appear when we can see them more fully. And as the morality tale is playing out, we are offered a lesson in how beauty (as with any other envied trait) can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

I found this book to be gripping and highly readable. The story is strong and the character development is well done. If you’re looking for an entertaining read in a strong story, I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Venus in FursVenus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This novella revolves around the relationship of Severin and Wanda. Severin is obsessed with Wanda (the titular “Venus in Furs”) to the extent that he seeks to deify her and to submit to her as a slave. The problem arises that Severin can only take this proposition to a middle ground. He isn’t contented with a traditional spousal arrangement, but yet he is unable to submit to the fullest extent of what it means to be enslaved. He, as have many others, believes that if he submits himself fully, he will become the center of Wanda’s world and she will have no need of other relationships. And, as it has for many others, this “domination through submission” scheme frays and fails in time.

Wanda, for her part, recognizes this disparity and is conflicted about the idea of having a slave. Her rational mind thinks it’s a bad idea, her own cravings are for a man with a more commanding personality, but her hedonistic pleasure centers find it a not altogether objectionable state of affairs. After an extended period of spurning the proposition, she goes all in and agrees to test the proposition. If she is reliable, she does this in order to teach Severin a lesson – though one can never tell about the reliability of claims on motive, particularly when made by a character who is conflicted. What is clear is that Severin’s desire to be both her man and her slave is untenable because what she wants in the former is not seen in the latter. As the story unfolds, Severin is exposed to greater and greater challenges to his ability to maintain the façade of slave.

This novella, first published in 1870, is a bit slow-moving, particularly in the early part of the arc. However, it is an interesting study in psychology and how mismatched motives kill relationships. If it seems intriguing, read it, but it’s not a premise everyone will find intriguing. Some will find it disturbingly kinky, though — it should be noted — others will find it far too tame and lacking in explicit sexuality for a book about an intimate relationship.

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BOOK REVIEW: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)All Systems Red by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella’s protagonist is a security cyborg that is corporately-assigned to protect a survey team of human scientists. What makes the story intriguing, not to mention humorous, are the features that we consider human frailties that are witnessed in the thoughts and behaviors of this cyborg. There is his discomfort in interacting with humans. He refers to himself as a “murderbot” and displays some of the awkward mannerisms that are familiar to me as an introvert, though — in this case — they aren’t so much about being easily overstimulated as being uncomfortable with the fact that humans see him as giant robot with great capacity for violence. (Hey, it dawns on me that maybe it is the same with me.) The Murderbot also displays the human traits of laziness and desire to be entertained, and is often watching serial shows when an ordinary robot would either be doing work-a-day tasks like downloading protocols or would be off-line.

The most salient human trait is that he bonds – if awkwardly — with part of his team, and – even though he’s lazy by nature – he goes to great lengths to make sure they survive. Because the Murderbot is notably lazy, the reader must consider whether his willingness to put his life on the line comes from something beyond his protocols. The reader doesn’t know to what degree the cyborg is free, though we do know it has hacked the governor unit that overrides autonomous functions, and so one knows it’s freer than most units in its line of work. [Of course, “putting it’s life on the line” isn’t necessarily as solemn a matter as with humans because murderbots are notoriously difficult to kill, and can suffer severe damage and be quickly repaired / healed – provided they have access to the requisite facilities.]

I won’t get into specifics of story except to say that it takes place on a remote planet that is newly being charted, and the Murderbot’s team is one of a couple teams independently surveying different parts of the planet. Things go wrong and the Murderbot’s team of humans must find out who is the culprit, why said culprit has done what they did, and get out alive.

I enjoyed this novella. The subversion of expectations that comes from the cyborg being perhaps the most neurotic of the characters provides plenty of opportunity for humor, not to mention light philosophizing about the nature of being human and how trust forms. Readers of sci-fi will certainly enjoy this story, non-genre readers should give it a try as well.

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BOOK REVIEW: Intimate Ties by Robert Musil

Intimate Ties: Two NovellasIntimate Ties: Two Novellas by Robert Musil
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume collects two recently-translated novellas written by the Austrian author, Robert Musil. Originally published in Musil’s native tongue in 1911, the novellas in question are: “The Culmination of Love” and “The Temptation of Silent Veronica.” Both novellas revolve around a woman tormented by love relationships and indiscretion. In the first, the woman is haunted by marital infidelity, and in the second, the titular character is entangled in an unconsummated love triangle gone awry.

While I can’t speak to how true the translations are to the original, I will say that the language is beautiful and is the highlight of book. However, these works shun story, and so readers of popular fiction will find them unengaging, and may come away thinking that the book’s greatest feature is its brevity. I will say, that “The Temptation of Silent Veronica” was more pleasurable to read as it built up some tension. Readers of prose poetry may enjoy the play of words and emotional content of these novellas.

For readers of literary fiction and prose poetry, I would recommend “Intimate Ties.” However, I suspect readers of popular fiction will find the book tedious. Particularly, likely to think so are those who pick up the book thinking it is romance or – even more so — erotica. While the themes revolve around love and relationships, the “action” is more in the character’s mind than in the bedroom.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories ed. by Jay Rubin

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short StoriesThe Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories by Jay Rubin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book contains 35 short stories by many of the most prominent Japanese writers (at least among authors whose works are translated into English,) including: Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Natsume Soseki, Yukio Mishima, Banana Yoshimoto, Yoko Ogawa, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, and Haruki Murakami (who contributes the book’s Introduction as well as two stories.)

The stories are arranged into seven sections that are apropos for modern Japanese literature: “Japan and the West” (3 stories,) “Loyal Warriors” (2 stories,) “Men and Women” (6 stories,) “Nature and Memory” (5 stories), “Modern Life and Other Nonsense” (5 stories,) “Dread” (3 stories,) and “Disasters, Natural and Man-made” (11 stories.) This organization scheme, which might seem random applied to most literature, offers some insight into the Japanese mind and experience.

“Japan and the West” reflects a Japan in the vanguard among non-Western nations entering into developed nation status. For a time, Japan sat in the unique situation of being the only rich nation that wasn’t majority Caucasian, and the uneasy balancing act that many Japanese felt is reflected in these three stories. “Loyal Warriors” reflects the long shadow of the feudal samurai era, and – in particular – the custom of ritual suicide. It’s true that “Men and Women” has a certain universality to it, though the individual stories speak to the Japanese experience and history. The section entitled “Nature and Memory” is really more about the latter than the former, and the stories all reflect a concern about remembering, forgetting, and the imperfection of memory. “Modern Life and Other Nonsense” explores the modern corporate existence. “Dread” are the horror stories, a genre that has a lengthy history in Japan. “Disasters, Natural and Man-Made” reflects Japan’s experience with many devastating earthquakes and two atomic bombs.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll not describe or comment upon all the stories. Instead, I’ll pick out a few that I found particularly moving. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t many gems among the others. But my intention is merely to give the reader a taste of what is in this volume.

– “The Story of Tomode and Matsunaga” by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro: A writer receives a letter from a woman whose husband has a history of pulling extended disappearing acts. She asks for the writer’s help because she believes he may know her husband. The writer makes a connection to an acquaintance he has frequently socialized with in bars. The writer notices the man’s appearance in town seems to line up with the dates the woman gave for her husband’s disappearances. It might seem like a mystery solved, but the two men look nothing alike.

– “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima: A junior military officer comes home and tells his wife that he has been put in the untenable position of having to arrest his comrades. Deciding that there is no honorable path, he decides to commit seppuku (ritual suicide,) and – given societal norms – this means his wife, too, will be expected to end her own life.

– “Smile of the Mountain Witch” by Ohba Minako: A mythical mountain witch is transposed into a modern urban setting.

– “Peaches” by Abe Akira: A man revisits a memory from his youth involving his mother and a cart of peaches, realizing that events couldn’t have happened as he remembers, he reconstructs events as he re-imagines his story.

– “Mr. English” by Keita Genji: We meet an office worker who seems like a bit of a jerk, but as we get to know his story, he is humanized.

– “Hell Screen” by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: A prima donna artist painting a hellish artwork for his Lord insists that he must have seen scenes to accurately depict them, and thus he is drawn into the hellishness of his work.

– “Filling Up with Sugar” by Suwanishi Yuten: A woman’s mother has a rare and incurable disease in which the body slowly turns into sugar.

– “Hiroshima, City of Doom” by Ota Yoko: As the title suggests, this is a story of the devastation of Hiroshima by atomic bomb at the end of the Second World War.

– “Weather-Watching Hill” Saeki Kazumi: This description of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami reads a bit like a journalistic account.

– “Same as Always” by Sato Yuya: This is a chilling tale of a mother who uses the release of radiation as a result of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant melt-down as a pretext for murdering her baby in a way that won’t look like murder. It’s so wrong in so many ways, but extremely evocative.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. The stories are great, and I would highly recommend it for readers of short fiction – particularly if one enjoys the cultural insight that comes from reading translated literature.

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