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

Amazon page

 

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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BOOK REVIEW: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the WorldHard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This novel intersperses two story lines, the connection between which only becomes clear near the book’s end. The first story arc is set in a realistic world in which a few futuristic and bizarre science fiction elements intrude on an otherwise ordinary Tokyo scenescape. Let’s face it, Tokyo is one of those cities that it’s easy to believe hides some unexpected truths inside its gargantuan sprawl.

In the first story (i.e. the odd-numbered chapters), a Calcutec (i.e. the narrator) is hired by a mysterious elderly scientist who’s running an independent laboratory. Calcutecs are individuals who’ve been trained to use their subconscious for data encryption and storage. As the offense / defense of data encryption has become a contact sport in this world, the narrator isn’t initially surprised when he gains some unwanted attention from nefarious types, but gradually he comes to discover that nothing is as it seems.

The second story arc plays out in a surreal dream world. In this world, the lead (also a “narrator”) is a dream reader who spends his nights taking in old dreams from the skulls of the beasts who reside in the countryside nearby and which die off in massive numbers each winter. All and all, this narrators life is relatively calm and tranquil, though he does suffer some anxiety over the fact that he’s been separated from his shadow, and that said shadow seems to be dying off.

For a story that plays out in the surreal imagery of the subconscious mind and which hinges on the esoteric world of the brain, it’s incredibly readable and easily followed. This is trippy reading, but it’s not difficult to follow. If you enjoy movies like “Inception,” “Source Code,” “Memento,” or “The Machinist,” this book will be right up your alley.

I’d highly recommend this book for those who enjoy mind-bending fiction.

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5 Thought-Provoking Novels About Mental Illness


5.) Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Premise: A young woman who attempted suicide is told that in the process her heart was damaged and she now has only five days to live. While it might seem that this would be all the same to a suicidal patient, it turns out to matter.




4.) Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Premise: The lead character, Toru, doesn’t suffer from mental illness, but his life is shaped by those who have. He must decide between two women. One of whom, Naoko, has been institutionalized since her boyfriend, Kizuki, committed suicide. Kizuki had been Toru’s high school best friend, and this weighs heavily in Toru’s feelings of obligation. Add into this Naoko’s roommate–a sage influence in Toru’s life, despite being institutionalized herself.



 
3.) Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Premise: An adolescent boy, Caden Bosch, is transformed from a model student to a paranoid schizophrenic. The title refers to the deepest point on Earth, down in the Marianas Trench, and comes into play because the institutionalized Bosch believes he’s on a ship who’s Captain thinks all the treasure in the oceans got swept to the deepest point.




2.) Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Premise: The unnamed narrator meets the eccentric Tyler Durden and soon Fight Club is born. It’s fueled by a feeling that men have been tamed to be turned into consumers. However, the underground fights are only the beginning, and our lead character is dismayed to discover that from the Club has sprung Project Mayhem with a nefarious terrorist plot.




1.) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Premise: Randle McMurphy has convinced authorities that he’s insane for the purpose of getting out of hard labor in prison and into a “cushy” insane asylum. The ward is run by the iron hand of Nurse Ratched. McMurphy on the other hand is rebellious and unruly. The clash is inevitable. McMurphy increasingly disrupts Ratched’s sedate and harmonious ward (re: heavily drugged and cowed into submission.) The story is told from the perspective of a patient named Chief Bromden who has the staff convinced that he’s deaf and mute. Like McMurphy, he’s not what he appears. The book is a scathing indictment of how mental health care was conducted in Kesey’s day.

5 Novels in Translation That You Should Read

Reading translated novels is a good way to gain insight into the culture and history of a country in a way that is both entertaining and that exposes the deep nuances of national character. I’ve selected works that both highlight aspects of culture and / or history and that are pleasant reading–some are humorous and others are adventures, but none are drudgery.  (Includes two Nobel Prize winners and one guy who gets nominated every year only to have the prize handed to folk-rock musicians or the like.)

[The hyperlinks go to my review of said book in GoodReads.]

 

1.) The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek (Czech): The lead character in this farcical comedy is a bumbling, but likable, idiot who is drawn into military service. The book highlights the fact that in times of war the greatest acts of idiocy are not perpetrated by greatest idiots.

goodsoldiersvejk_en

 

 

2.) After Dark  by Haruki Murakami (Japan): One can’t go wrong with Murakami. I almost picked Norwegian Wood, which is more a work of realist literary fiction, but this novel about what happens when the trains stop running in Tokyo may shed a little more light on Japan. (anti-pun not intended.)

afterdark_murakami

 

 

3.) Eclipse of the Crescent Moon by Géza Gárdonyi (Hungary): The story of how a small Hungarian castle village held out against a siege by the Ottoman juggernaut.

eclipseofthecrescentmoon_gardonyi

 

 

4.) Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru): When three men disappear from a small mining village in the Andes, the Army sends a Corporal and his deputy to investigate.

death-in-the-andes_llosa

 

 

5.) Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan (China): A wealthy land owner is executed during the Communist revolution and must live out several lives as various animals in the service of the family of his [former] beloved hired-hand. The books shows the generational change between when China first became Communist through the reform period that led to a more market-friendly approach.

lifedeath_moyan

BOOK REVIEW: After Dark by Haruki Murakami

After DarkAfter Dark by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

[Note to readers unfamiliar with Tokyo: There are a couple of facts about the city that one must understand for this book to make sense. First, while Tokyo is a city that’s always moving, the trains don’t run between roughly midnight and five am (your results may vary by station.) Second, because many people live far out in the suburbs and the cost of living is high, taxis aren’t an option for much of the population. These two facts add up to a slew of business for those industries that cater to the population caught out “after dark” (i.e. after the trains stop running–not after sundown) including: all-night diners, love hotels, c-stores, bars, pachinko parlors, bowling alleys, and manga bookstores.]

This novel takes place in Tokyo during the wee hours of a single night. Murakami satisfies a form of voyeuristic impulse by giving us a peek into the lives of a few of the people out and about while the masses are home slumbering, or—at least–whiling away insomnia-ridden hours in the privacy of their own homes.

The protagonist is a young college student named Mari. As she sits in a 24-hour Denny’s reading, Mari immediately triggers curiosity. She isn’t typical of the disheveled, boozy, or garish crowd out “after dark.” In a post-witching hour world of drunken salaryman, micro-miniskirted hostesses, tattooed yakuza gangsters, and nightlife-savvy travelers, the bookish young woman stands out. We soon learn that Mari didn’t miss the last train on accident, but rather is staying out all night on purpose to be out of the house. This further raises the level of intrigue.

In the Denny’s, Mari is approached by a gregarious young man named Takahashi who is grabbing a quick snack before going back to his nighttime hobby of jamming in a jazz band. Takahashi introduces himself as someone who already knows Mari from a party. He’s a couple years older than the young woman, and was a classmate of Mari’s sister, Eri. The party at which he met Mari was mostly attended by kids the age of Eri and himself, and Mari was just along for the ride with her more popular sister.

Eri is another major character in the book, although her mysterious presence is mostly in a sleeping state. Eri, unlike the plain Mari, is drop dead gorgeous, and has been doing modeling jobs since she was a child. Takahashi is but one of the young men infatuated with Eri—though we get the feeling that Takahashi realizes that Eri isn’t in his league. He’s a pragmatist—if begrudgingly so. The rest of the book hinges on this chance encounter between Mari and Takahashi.

Suspicions that the grim hours of circadian disruption are the domain of crime and vice are confirmed when a bulky former female wrestler turned love hotel manager, named Kaoru, rushes into the Denny’s seeking Mari. Kaoru is an acquaintance of Takahashi (who has since left the diner to play jazz) and she is seeking Mari because Takahashi told her that Mari spoke fluent Chinese. A Chinese prostitute was beaten up at the love hotel, the Alphaville, and Kaoru needs to talk to the foreign woman to get to the bottom of the matter. Kaoru’s investigation is in part driven by the fact that the Chinese hooker’s John dashed on the hotel bill, but the former wrestler also has a soft spot for the beaten girl and wants to do the right thing by her—though Kaoru knows the police can’t be involved because the Chinese working girl will, at a minimum, be deported by the authorities, or, worse, be punished by the Chinese mafia who pimp her.

As with a few of Murakami’s other books, this book might be labeled “slipstream.” Slipstream is a genre that blends mainstream literary fiction with supernatural elements / speculative fiction. However, the scenes that aren’t realist generally involve the sleeping Eri in her room by herself. So, it may be that Murakami is just conveying the hazy and illusory world of sleep and life at the edge of sleep. I’ll leave it to the reader to make their own interpretations of this. There are also coincidences that could strain credulity, but this may just be an attempt to convey that the world of Tokyo “after dark” is a small pond.

I’d highly recommend this novel. Murakami gives us likable characters and one can see why said characters are draw to each other despite their very different existences. Then he puts them into situations that demand resolution. It’s a short, readable, and interesting novel.

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READING REPORT: May 1, 2015

Becomingbatman

Most of my reading time this week was divided between two books, one of which was also a new purchase. The newly purchased book that I spent a lot of time with is E. Paul Zehr’s Becoming Batman. This book isn’t at all what one might expect from the title or the cover. If one were to notice that it’s put out by Johns Hopkins University Press, one might realize that it’s not a fanboy fantasy work. What it is is a book about the science of exercise and conditioning for athletes that uses “Batman” as a pedagogic tool to make more digestible scientific information like how our muscles grow or how we make our movement more efficient through practice. It’s a fascinating book if you are interested in science and martial arts (or movement arts more generally.)

 

Wired for StoryThe other book I’ve been tearing through is Wired for Story, which I wrote about last week. It’s a book that explains how human brains are wired to be intrigued by story, and how writers can put this information to good use.

 

Meeting the Dog Girls

The one book that I finished this week is Gay Terry’s Meeting the Dog Girls. This is a collection of short stories (some of which might be classified as flash fiction) that could be called tales of the weird or supernatural fiction. Most of the stories have a quirky sense of humor.

 

ZebrasUlcers_Sapolsky

I bought two other books this week, both of which have been on my reading list for a while. The first is Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky.  As the title suggests, this book is about why humans are unique within the animal kingdom with respect to stress-induced illnesses. Stress reduction and mitigation have been an important question of inquiry for me as of late.

 

afterdark_murakami

The other book is Haruki Murakami’s After Dark. This will be the third or fourth book by Murakami I’ve read, and I enjoy his style. Ironically, this was the first book by Murakami that I noticed in the bookstore, but I never got around to reading it.

BOOK REVIEW: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian WoodNorwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Norwegian Wood is about a quintessentially normal and likable guy named Toru Watanabe who has a thing for women who range between eccentric and completely off their rockers. The story is delivered as a flash back as an adult Watanabe mulls over his college days, during which all of these relationships took place.

At the center of his various relationships is his love for Naoko, who had been the girlfriend of Watanabe’s high school best friend until said friend committed suicide. Naoko is a beautiful girl in a fragile state–haunted by her former boyfriend’s suicide and probably a little unstable of her own nature. On the other hand, Watanabe begins a platonic relationship with another girl, Midori, who is sane, but a bit of a wild child and not devoid of her own neuroses. While, of the two, Midori is better for him, he cannot bring himself to take their relationship to the next level as long as Naoko is around—even though Naoko is institutionalized. A third woman, Hatsumi, is dating Watanabe’s college best friend, and she seems to represent the sweet, stable woman who Watanabe doesn’t seem to attract. Incidentally, Hatsumi eventually commits suicide. [Warning: this book is rife with suicide and probably has the highest rate of suicide of any novel I’ve ever read—fortunately it’s a relatively small cast of characters and so this amounts to only a few deaths.]

The character development and story are both excellent. Though I will say the character of Naoko is underdeveloped, but I suspect that is on purpose. I couldn’t tell whether Watanabi had reason to be so madly in love with her, or whether that was his curse. (I suspected the latter.) In contrast, Midori is tremendously likable, and– despite her kookiness–she is the kind of person almost anybody would be drawn to at least as a friend—though some might find it trying to be in an extended romantic relationship with her.

Murakami intersperses humor into this book with its overall somber tone. A lot of this is in the form of dialogue between Watanabe and Midori, or Watanabe and Reiko (Reiko is Naoko’s roommate at the institution and is an older woman for whom Watanabe holds a measure of affection as well.) (Among my favorite quotes is [paraphrasing], “I don’t like being alone. No one likes being alone. I just hate being disappointed.”) These flourishes of humor both add to the readability and the realism of the story.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who enjoys literary fiction. Not that it’s hard to digest literary fiction. It’s very readable, but if you need something beyond realism to hold your attention, this is probably not the book for you. Unlike some of Murakami’s speculative fiction, this work is quite centered in realism. [Though, it does have a fairly high body count.]

There was a movie adaptation made a few years back. I haven’t seen it, and so couldn’t tell how closely it follows the novel, but from the trailer suspect it’s as close as can be expected.


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Book Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1Q84 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

1Q84 interweaves the tales of two people, a man and a woman, who stumble down the rabbit-hole into the same alternate universe. The male lead, Tengo, is a writer with an artful gift for language, but no success developing his own idea –the perfect ghost writer. The female lead, Aomame, is a personal trainer who, in her spare time,… let’s just say makes problems (abusive male problems) go away. The two had met briefly in their youth, but were separated. While they each have “the one that got away” thoughts for each other, both have given up on the notion that they’d ever be reunited. Even in the same alternate reality, the question of whether they will reunite remains.

Most 900+ page novels I’ve read would benefit tremendously from editing. However, Murakami makes good use of the space. Besides the two main leads, there are a number of other essential characters. For example,there is not a novel without Fuka-Eri, the teenage girl who seems barely literate but yet who managed mysteriously to write a story that is perfect once Tengo has recrafted it. There is also an engaging sub-story in “The Town of Cats.”

The name comes from it being Murakami’s take on Orwell’s “1984.” It takes place in 1984, but one of the MC’s take to calling the period in the alternative universe, 1Q84 (which plays on the Japanese pronunciation of 9 (kyu)). Murakami’s alternative universe is much subtler than Orwell’s (or Huxley’s or Atwood’s.)However, unlike those other alternate universes, there is a supernatural element that is mostly at the fringes in this one. Perhaps owing to Murakami’s look into the Aum Shinrikyo cult, the nefarious entity in this book is a massive powerful cult – as opposed to Orwell’s authoritarian leviathan.

I highly recommend this book. While it’s long, Murakami keeps one guessing by masterfully removing the onion layers gradually — giving one little victories and new mysteries along the way like nefarious enemies and immaculate conceptions. For the really deep literary types, the book is packed with symbolism that I’m sure I only vaguely got. For writers, we get advice from Murakami in the form of dialogue between Tengo and his editor Komatsu.

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