Sunday, 2 February 2014

Nichi-Yōbi News: Week 5 - Sayōnara!

Well, it's been fun, but January (sadly) is over for another year, and it's time to pack away our kimonos and bid farewell to January in Japan.  Before we shut up shop for 2014 though, I just wanted to remind everyone of what's been going on over the past month :)

The past few Sundays have seen some great links in our Nichi-Yōbi News round-ups.  I'm hoping to find a few quiet minutes to store them all on the J-Lit resources page for posterity, but for now, you can always check out all the pages for some great news, reviews and links to free online J-Lit.

We've also been very fortunate, spoiled even, by the number of books offered for our
Golden Kin-Yōbi giveaways.  So far, we've had twelve happy winners, and our final giveaway (which closes on Thursday!) will produce six more.  Many thanks again to all the contributing publishing houses: PM Press, Pushkin Press, Columbia University Press, Kurodahan Press, Stone Bridge Press and Peter Owen Publishers.

This year, we've continued every Wednesday with our J-Lit Giants series, and 2014 has seen five more greats of Japanese Literature inducted into our pantheon.  This time around, we even managed to make up for some of last year's oversights - both Nobel laureates (Kenzaburo Oe and Yasunari Kawabata) were honoured, and Yoko Ogawa and Banana Yoshimoto became the first female members of our hall of fame. Many thanks to Matt Todd for his excellent contribution on Shusaku Endo too :)

Finally, we had a few more events happening this year.  Many people have submitted their reviews (see the 2014 Book Reviews tab at the top of the page), and the linky will remain open for a week or so for you to get your late reviews in.  Jacqui was kind enough to submit a guest review of Hiromi Kawakami's Strange Weather in Tokyo (AKA The Briefcase), and we also had two group readalongs.  The first, Yoko Ogawa's The Diving Pool, was a great success - the second, Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood... wasn't ;)

Thanks to everyone who has taken part over the past month, whether that entailed taking part in the readalongs, posting reviews, leaving comments or just trying to win books - it all helps make the event what it is :)  But that's it for 2014; it's been a lot of fun, but pretty frenetic too (I'm due for a rest now...).

If you're lucky, I might see you all in 2015... ;)

Friday, 31 January 2014

Golden Kin-Yōbi: 5 - Stone Bridge Press & Peter Owen Publishers

Welcome to the last Friday of January and the final Golden Kin-Yōbi for 2014!  While parting may be sweet sorrow, I'm trying to ease the pain a little with a very special post - today's giveaway is a double :)

Two more publishers of quality J-Lit have kindly offered some prizes - American-based Stone Bridge Press and British-based Peter Owen Publishers.  These giveaways will be geographically limited:  the Stone Bridge Press books will be US and Canada only while the Peter Owen books will be for everyone outside those countries.  All clear?  Then it's time to introduce today's books :)

Stone Bridge Press have kindly put three of their recent publications up for grabs, two of which are from acclaimed writer Junzo ShonoEvening Clouds is a short novel, an elegant, lyrical description of everyday life in suburban Tokyo, while Still Life and Other Stories is a collection of tales which Stone Bridge publisher Peter Goodman describes as "one of the books I'm most proud to have published at Stone Bridge Press."

The third Stone Bridge offering is Masaaki Tachihara's Wind and Stone, a short novel which is described as "a disturbing tale of seduction, based on Japanese aesthetics and the artistic pursuit of destructive beauty."  The writer won the popular Naoki Prize and was twice nominated for the Akutagawa Prize, so this is bound to be a good read :)
The selection offfered by Peter Owen Publishers is also an impressive one.  There are two excellent novels by Shusaku Endo to be had: Volcano, a simmering tale of life in the shadow of sin and the natural world (my review here); and When I Whistle, an excellent story about dealing with right and wrong in the modern world (my review here).

The third of the books on offer is Ryunosuke Akutagawa's Kappa, a rare longer outing for Japan's supreme short-story writer.  Let's face it - if you have a country's major literary award named in your honour, your books must be worth a read... 

So, if you'd like to win one of these books, simply comment below, leaving your name, an e-mail address and the name of the book you'd like to win.  There's no need to follow me, either here, on Facebook or on Twitter (unless you want to, of course!) - anyone can enter (in their geographical zone...), and everyone has an equal chance of winning :)

Entries will close at 8 p.m. (AEST) on Thursday, February the 6th (that's 9 a.m. on Thursday, London time), and the winners will be posted here once they've been announced (the winners, naturally, will be chosen using some kind of random on-line draw thingy).  So, what are you waiting for?  Get commenting, and good luck! 

And, of course, we need to announce the winners of last week's prizes!

Oh, Tama! goes to Mihai
The Nobility of Failure goes to Paul
Blue Bamboo goes to M
I will be in contact with the winners shortly - thanks again to Kurodahan Press for providing some great prizes :)

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Readalong Two: 'Norwegian Wood' by Haruki Murakami

Welcome to the home page for the second of our two January in Japan readalongs :)  This time we're looking at Haruki Murakami's breakthrough novel, Norwegian Wood, and below you'll find links to the reviews and thoughts of all the readalong participants (this will be updated as I become aware of the posts!).

Before that though, I just thought I'd leave a few posers for people to ponder (and perhaps reply to in the comments section):

1) What did you think of Toru and his behaviour?
2) Did the tone of nostalgia strike a chord with you, or did you find it hard to empathise with the characters?
3) Norwegian Wood is a much 'straighter' novel than much of Murakami's work - did you enjoy the realistic tone, or would you have preferred his usual twists on reality?

P.S.  Did you know that the original title is based on a mistranslation?  In the original song, the 'wood' referred to is a wooden floor, but the Japanese translation is actually 'wood' as in a group of trees...  Murakami kept the mistranslation as it suits his themes :)

If you'd like to comment on these questions (or anything else...), please feel free to ;)  And now, the reviews...


Wednesday, 29 January 2014

J-Lit Giants: 12 - Banana Yoshimoto

We're back on Wednesday with the final J-Lit Giants induction for this January, and it may well be the most controversial so far.  While one definition of 'giant' might be a writer whose work shines out from among that of other writers, another might be that of a writer whose personality and work somehow hits a chord with a generation of readers, both at home and overseas - which brings me to today's addition...

Banana Yoshimoto was born with the less fruity name of Mahoko Yoshimoto in 1964.  She grew up in a rather liberal family, where she enjoyed an unusual (for a Japanese woman) amount of freedom.  She later studied literature, deciding to choose her new name (while the pseudonym itself is unusual, the idea of taking one is a long-standing Japanese tradition).

She worked on her writing while she was working as a waitress, and her first story, Moonlight Shadow, was a big hit.  This was followed by Kitchen, a book which led to instant success at home, which was then mirrored overseas.  Yoshimoto was to become a J-Lit star, a Japanese export suited to a cutesy image people in the west were developing of the country; in fact, she was perhaps second only to you-know-who in her branding in the west.
She has since written several more books, with around eight of her works currently available in English.  The majority of her stories centre on familiar themes, such as the loss of a loved one, the difficulty of settling down into adult life and - of course - the supernatural...

While Yoshimoto is a big name in J-Lit, reviews of her work have not always been positive, and many see her work as light and superficial.  Her response?
"A lot of my critics like to point out the fun, escapist side of my writing. Some even say that it is superficial and specially catered for popular consumption. Sometimes, I feel guilty since I write my stories for fun, not for therapy. But I am not deterred from my ultimate dream of receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature."
Well, that's confidence for you ;)  I have to admit that this quote comes from a blog which may or may not be hers (click here to see it).  However,while the quote is no longer on her English-language Wikipedia page (it used to be), much of the rest of the blog post still is.  True or not, it's all part of the image that is Banana Yoshimoto :)

I've now read most of Yoshimoto's work available in English, and I'm still not convinced.  However, while I struggle with some aspects of her writing, there's always something there that makes me come back for another try.  But where should the new reader begin?

1) Kitchen - The English version of Kitchen actually contains the title story, a two-part novella and the short story 'Moonlight Shadow'.  Both deal with the theme of grieving for loved ones and finding a way to move on with your life, and the stories are perfect examples of Yoshimoto's style and ideas.  If you don't like these, then it's probably best to just keep moving...

2) Amrita - This is one of Yoshimoto's longest books in English, probably her only full-length novel.  A stressed-out woman, on the verge of entering her thirties, has her life turned upside down by a simple slip on some stairs.  What follows is a story which has as its moral the importance of seizing the day - with some added ghosts, of course ;)

3) The Lake - Yoshimoto's most recent novel in English was longlisted for The Man Asian Prize, and it's a more nuanced work than some of her earlier efforts (even if the metaphor of the fog, which dominates parts of the novel, is a touch heavy-handed for some).  This is another tale of a struggling relationship, but one with a slightly more tangible root to its problems...

I've had my say - now it's over to you!  Are you a big fan of Ms. Banana, or is she a writer you love to hate?  Which of her books do you love (or loathe)?  Let me know in the usual place ;)

Monday, 27 January 2014

Guest Post - 'Strange Weather in Tokyo' by Hiromi Kawakami (Review)

Today's post is a break from the usual schedule as we play host to a guest review.  Jacqui (aka @JacquiWine on Twitter) has been a great supporter of January in Japan, and even though she doesn't have a blog, she wanted to share her thoughts on one of her reads - so I generously offered to hand the blog over to her for a day.  Jacqui's choice was Hiromi Kawakami's Strange Weather in Tokyo (previously released in the US under the alternative title of The Briefcase).  Over to you, Jacqui :) 

Sensei, I whispered. Sensei, I can’t find my way home.
But Sensei wasn’t here. I wondered where he was, on a night like this. It made me realise that I had never telephoned Sensei. We always met by chance, then we’d happen to go for a walk together. Or I would show up at his house, and we’d end up drinking together. Sometimes a month would go by without seeing or speaking to each other. In the past, if I didn’t hear from a boyfriend or if we didn’t have a date for a month, I’d be seized with worry. I’d wonder if, during that time he’s completely vanished from my life, or become a stranger to me.
Sensei and I didn’t see each other very often. It stands to reason since we weren’t a couple. Yet even when we were apart, Sensei never seemed far away. Sensei would always be Sensei. On a night like this, I knew he was out there somewhere.
p.59 (Portobello Books, 2013)

Strange Weather in Tokyo (translated by Allison Markin Powell) is the story of Tsukiko, a woman in her late thirties, who re-encounters one of her old high-school teachers (‘Sensei’, a man thirty years or so her senior) in a sake bar. They meet by chance one evening, and over the course of the following months a connection develops as they seek solace in food, beer and sake.  Their relationship feels quite unstructured; they rarely make arrangements to reconnect, and weeks can pass before their visits to the sake bar coincide. They are both essentially quite solitary individuals, but there’s a sense that they gain some comfort from these encounters.

The story is told through the eyes of Tsukiko, and there is an almost dreamlike, slightly surreal quality to the narrative as it unfolds over the course of the novel. We follow the couple as their relationship evolves and deepens; it starts with shared moments in the sake bar, and develops to include trips to a local market, a mountain hike to collect mushrooms and a cherry blossom party. There are some wonderfully-observed details in these passages; nature features as a theme, and we see the changing of the seasons as the months pass. Another passage features a description of Sensei’s house with its collection of railway teapots, and this adds to the slightly off-beat tone of the novel.  In a poignant scene, Tsukiko attempts to peel an apple whole, in one long curly piece (she had impressed a former boyfriend some years ago by managing to keep an apple skin intact). This time, however, the apple skin breaks part way round, and Tsukiko bursts into tears as the broken peel comes to signify her loss. Tsukiko had been very much in love with this former boyfriend, but she seemed unable to express her feelings, or demonstrate she cared for him. 

I loved the delicate, nuanced quality of the relationship between Tsukiko and Sensei. There are times when they seem to communicate predominantly through feelings, using few words, soundlessly conveying deeper emotions and an intimacy through thoughts and gestures. The unstated, yet deep, nature of their relationship contrasts somewhat with Tsukiko’s brief flirtation with an old classmate from school (Kojima) whom she bumps into at the cherry blossom event. There’s a sense that Tsukiko is only really content and able to ‘settle’ in some way when she is with Sensei:
Everything felt so far away. Sensei, Kojima, the moon – they were all so distant from me. I stared out of the window, watching the streetscape as it rushed by. The taxi hurtled through the night-time city. Sensei! I forced out a cry. My voice was immediately drowned out by the sound of the car’s engine. I could see many cherry trees in bloom as we sped through the streets. The trees, some young and some many years old, were heavy with blossom in the night air. Sensei, I called out again, but of course no one could hear me. The taxi carried me along, speeding through the city night. (p.92)

I found this to be a beautifully-written and moving novel, expertly and sensitively translated by Allison Markin Powell. I think it will stay with me for some time; the ending in particular brings real emotional weight to the story of Tsukiko and Sensei’s relationship. I read this last year and revisited it this month for Tony Malone’s focus on Japanese literature (January in Japan) and can recommend it to anyone interested in a quietly powerful book about loneliness, connections and the uncertain nature of relationships. 

Thanks, Jacqui :)  This was our readalong choice last year, and as I recall, most people enjoyed its understated nature.  But what do you think?  Was this one for you, or was it a little slow for your tastes?  And what's your take on the change of title (and cover...)?  As always, let us know in the comments - we'd love to hear your thoughts :)