July 4th, 2018

book talk // japanese june.

I am lucky. I teach, therefore I get summers off, therefore I can set arbitrary reading goals for myself. This summer, I decided to take on the bookstagram-inspired idea of #japanesejune — essentially reading a pile of translated Japanese literature. I didn’t set a numeric goal, but I ended up reading ten total books in June, six of them were Japanese fiction. I also used this goal as an opportunity to shop my own bookshelf, I had accumulated quite a glut of translations, and try out some new authors.

Confessions by Kinae Minato

What happens when a middle school teacher’s daughter is killed by her students? Revenge, of course. Confessions is essentially a literary tale of revenge — something between horror, crime, and mystery, though we know from the first few pages what happened. Slowly, the author unveils detail after detail by utilizing alternating POVs, an unspooling of various confessions. There are some very surprising twists, I audibly gasped more than once, and a lot of well done dramatic tension. Dark and twisted, with sparse prose and unlikeable characters, this is the Japanese novel I never knew I needed.I finished this book with about two days left in the school year, which gave it a weird synchronicity.

Rating: 5/5

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

I was already a fan of Kawakami and had been meaning to read another book of hers. I already owned Manazuru and The Nakano Thrift Shop, but chose the latter for my reading project. The Nakano Thrift Shop is a quiet, slice of life book about a character named Hitomi and the people she works with at the Nakano Thrift Shop — a secondhand store filled to the brim with knick knacks. Aside from Hitomi’s POV, we never really see the characters outside of their connection to the shop. They are all defined by their relationship to love: Mr. Nakano has two ex-wives, a wife, and a mistress, Masayo (his sister) is a hopeless romantic and a sensitive, creative soul, Takeo is taciturn and doesn’t trust those around him, but Hitomi is drawn to him all the same. The seasons pass, there are conversations and simple meals. It is a deceptively simple book. And, as with Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo, I was swept away.

Rating: 5/5

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

Amusingly, I already owned a copy of Kokoro that was an earlier translation, however, when I spotted the new translation by Meredith McKinney (she has also translated Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book) at Half Price Books, I grabbed it. Translation is so interesting because, unlike books in my native language, people are often offering updated versions with current vernacular. At any rate, I wanted to read a Japanese classic and this was my first pick.

Kokoro is divided into two halves, the characters into two selves, and at the core are the complications of the heart. It tells the story of a student befriending an older mentor he refers to simply as ‘sensei.’ Sensei remains opaque to the student as he grows from boy to young man. Eventually, Sensei entrusts him with the story of his life, confessing his own secret guilt and pain, as the student struggles to understand it.

I finished this book with an audible, “woah.” It was such a powerful and emotional narrative that I felt both enraptured and depleted. A classic for a reason.

Rating: 5/5

 

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa

I’d heard good things about The Housekeeper and the Professor by Ogawa, so I picked this one up for a beach trip because it was described as an unsettling story in a crumbling seaside hotel — and that sounded charming and a little creepy. What it turned out to be was a BDSM summer romance story between a 67 year old man and a 17 year old girl written in a minimalistic style. This is the first book I’ve read by Ogawa, and perhaps it wasn’t a good place to start. Her prose is simple, fluid, and descriptive (the writing was 5 stars, for sure), but the subject matter alternated between being quite racy, sweet / unassuming, and incredibly dark. The subject matter just wasn’t my jam, but she’s definitely my kind of author.

Rating: 3/5

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

I loved this short, quirky gem of a book! It epitomizes much of what I enjoy about Japanese literature in general. This was also  the most recently published (in English) book I read.

Keiko Furukura is a 36-year-old, part-time convenience store worker. The convenience store hums like a life force around her, she stays fit to be a good worker, she is comprised of food from the store. She is a part of it. For her whole life, Keiko has tried to fit in to societal norms, and failed dramatically. People are outwardly kind to her, but, as she discovers, they secretly regard her as some kind of broken, useless object. A woman past her expiration date. The judgments passed on her are not new to any unmarried, childless woman in her 30′s, but Keiko is so sweet and unassuming — I wanted to throttle the rest of the judgmental characters! The part where she discovers her co-workers go out to drink without her especially made my heart break a little. As a result, Keiko experiments with fitting in, but ultimately discovers her own path to happiness.

It’s a life-affirming character study and the writing is lovely. Also, the author is still a part-time convenience store worker, which added another level of unexpected charm.

Rating: 5/5

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

This is my first time reading a work by Mishima, and his style surprised me. I expected pretension, but there was none. This is a novel of youthful love and naïveté, but it’s also a coming-of-age story about a boy who goes from shy youth to confident man. I truly loved Mishima’s description of the island and the islanders, especially the bath house and the diving women (though he definitely had a thing for breasts — there’s a lengthy breast contest scene between the divers). I kept anticipating tragedy, as is common for star-crossed lovers, but he mocks the concept openly. Like I said, it kept surprising me. I want to read more from him.

Rating: 4/5