Discussion · Japanese Literature · review · Review Copy

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

Men Without Women

Hardcover, 224 pages
Published May 9th 2017 by Doubleday Canada
Source: Publisher

There’s something about the way Murakami tells a story. I know I have whined on occasion about his habit of detail, his fascination with cats and ears, and the way his characters always seem to be stir-frying vegetables or making pasta but there’s something about the way he tells a story that not many people do. I don’t know if it’s because they are emotionally resonant even when the protagonist is strange in a much stranger world or because there’s an honesty, a truth, inherent in his fiction but I am unable to resist his books.

By his own admission, Murakami prefers writing short stories to novels and my goodness, he is a master of them. His stories in Men Without Women are all excellent but I have my faves. The one about the guy who, after discovering his wife red-handed with a lover, opens up a bar and runs into supernatural stuff and the one about the actor whose wife has died and he has to adapt to a new female driver are two of the stories that linger with me.

Murakami knows how to build tension, keep the pace, and most importantly, how to end the story. Many writers either end a story too soon or too late. Murakami sometimes leaves the reader gasping for more and surprised there isn’t because he couldn’t leave the story there, could he? And he can and has.

I have read a lot of Murakami books (only two remain before I’ll be done with all that have been released in English) and I can say with the authority this has earned me that Men Without Women is one of his finest works. I recommend it.

Diversity · Japanese · Japanese Literature · review · Review Copy · Translated work · translations

Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 (The Rat #1-2) by Haruki Murakami, Ted Goossen (Translation)

23995263

Hardcover, 256 pages
Published August 4th 2015 by Bond Street Books
Source: Publisher

As a preface to Hear the Wind Sing, Murakami the narrator says:

If it’s art of literature you are interested in, I suggest you read the Greeks. Pure art exists only in slave-owning societies. The Greeks has slaves to till their fields, prepare their meals, and row their galleys while they lay about on sun-splashed Mediterranean beaches, composing poems and grappling with mathematical equations. That’s what art is.

If you’re the sort of guy who raids the refrigerators of kitchens at three o’clock in the morning, you can only write accordingly.

That’s who I am.

This bind-up of Haruki’s first two novellas gives readers the chance to experience for themselves the wordsmithery of a young and (one supposes) more idealistic Murakami. There is an irreverence in his work that is dazzling. His refusal to pander to previously set standards of ‘literature’ is also intoxicating. As the above excerpt proves, Murakami set out to write a story in a way that only he could tell and with Hear the Wind Sing he succeeded. There is an energy to the work that his later work lacks. At this point in his career, he has no idea what writing is and he’s playing by the ear and writing largely for his own self and this comes across loud and clear.

“So you don’t read books by living writers?”

“No, I don’t see the point.”

“Why not?”

“I guess because I feel like I can forgive dead people,” I said.

Murakami’s two characters gain flesh and meaning in Hear the Wind Sing. Murakami captures the fleeting essence of the friendship between the two men and their bartender who seems to have as much of a role as they do. I loved how simple the story is. Perhaps it is this very quality of the story that makes it have a more profound impact that something more complicated and convoluted.

Pinball 1973 didn’t resonate with me as much Hear the Wind SIng because the pacing is slower and the focus more determinedly trained on the unnamed narrator’s dead lover. Even the pinball obsession comes in largely as an afterthought. However, the story did speak to the transience of life and the people who populate yours. I appreciated this look into Murakami’s psyche. I feel like these two stories are largely responsible for the kind of writer he has become in his later years and if one were to analyze these stories in any depth, we’d see seedlings of his future stories planted here and there among the narrative.

This is a good place to start for those new to Murakami. The weird factor is there but it was in its nascent stage at this point, it won’t weird out the newer reader. Happy reading.

Diversity · Japanese · Japanese Literature · review · Translated work · translations

Review: Life of a Counterfeiter by Yasushi Inoue, Michael Emmerich (Translator)

20763171

Paperback, 140 pages
Published August 14th 2014 by Pushkin Press
Source: Publisher

This was my first Yasushi Inoue title but it will definitely not be my last. Life of a Counterfeiter is a collection of three short stories including the titular story, “Reeds,” and “Mr. Goodall’s Gloves.” All three stories are excellent and go a long way in establishing the kind of storyteller Mr. Inoue is. There is a certain stream of consciousness-esque element to these stories that I really liked. In Life of a Counterfeiter the main character is supposed to be a biographer of a famous painter Onuki Keigaku but while researching Keigaku, the narrator comes across Keigaku’s former friend Hara Hosen who he discovers is a counterfeiter of Keigaku’s works. The narrator is unwillingly fascinated by this counterfeiter and exerts considerable effort to find out more about him, driven perhaps by more than just curiousity about this counterfeiter. He feels an empathy for Hosen, the counterfeiter, inferring that Hosen’s brush with Keigaku’s genius may be what propelled the man down such a dark lane and then to his tragic end. The story is told in anecdotal bursts and the narrator relays his findings while he goes around living his life and surviving the war that Japan is in the middle of losing at the time. I could well imagine myself seated in a cafe or some such place listening to the story. The tone is welcoming, a bit self-deprecatory, and entirely wonderful. The other two stories continue much in the same vein.

In “Reeds” the same narrator talks about fragments of memories a person has that is usually matched with the fragment of memory someone else has and illustrates his point by elaborating in some detail his memories about his grandmother, and a couple he remembers from when he was very young but whom he can’t identify. “Mr. Goodall’s Gloves” concerns the same narrator’s grandmother, who was a mistress of his grandfather and not his true wife, and her interaction with a foreigner, Mr. Goodall, who gave her his gloves when she was left outside in the cold to wait for his grandfather. The stories concern the human condition and are characterized by the gentleness that I have come to associate with Japanese literature. Michael Emmerich’s translation is superlative and there is never an instance where I felt that anything was lost in translation.

If you enjoy Murakami, you will enjoy Yasushi Inoue. Though Inoue’s work does not have elements of magical realism that Murakami’s is famous for, it has the same vibrancy and earnestness that make Murakami’s work so fantastic. Strongly recommended.

Adult · Japanese Literature · Translated work

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

18166126

Paperback, 192 pages
Published May 1st 2014 by Portobello Books
Source: Library copy

“I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper adult. I had been very grown-up in primary school. But as I continued through secondary school, I in fact became less grown-up. And then as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person. I suppose I just wasn’t able to ally myself with time.”

You may or may not have noticed a dearth of reviews around this side of the blogosphere. There are many reasons for that but mostly because I do not feel like writing reviews for the books I read in my own time. Having my analytical cap on perpetually is not something I can help but putting my analysis to words can easily become a chore–something I wish to avoid at all costs. Seeing my fellow bloggers (Renae and Glaiza, in particular) talk so passionately about books they chose to review and were not sent for the explicit purpose of reviewing made me rethink the whole venture. As in, why do people review? Obviously it is to share books they love with the rest of the world, but I think that is not the sole reason. Reviewing books allows the reader to immerse him/herself into the world a little bit longer–I am talking about books that were interesting to read. A negative review is a whole different kettle of fish and needs a different post to addressed properly.

Anyway, as I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, reviewing can also be a method to continue immersing yourself into a wonderful world that you had to regretfully leave behind once you read the book.

So, I read this one a few weeks ago and I keep on thinking about how beautiful the book was. How gently it flowed, how quietly profound it was. The book is about Tsukiko who is in her late 30s (as the back copy says) and one day in a bar she runs into her high school teacher, her sensei. He recognizes her immediately but she takes a while to reconcile the older man in front of her with the teacher from her youth. He taught Japanese literature and Tsukiko wasn’t a very good student.

Sitting next to her teacher, whom she simply addresses as Sensei, she finds out gradually that they have the same taste in food and drinks. Their conversations are meandering and their intimacy grows very gradually. The book mostly takes place in the bars where the meet in the evenings for a meal, to talk, or to drink. Or all three. They go to a reunion, go on a trip, meet at the teacher’s house for more drinking. Their relationship flows like a river, slowly gathering depth and gaining meaning.

I loved how Kawakami expressed the humanness in all of us via her characters. The book has no epic romance, it has no strong heroines, or a thrilling plot. It is merely a promenade through the very simple life of two people who find in each other something they didn’t know was lacking in their lives. The book made me think on the vagaries of existence and the connections we have to not just the people around us but also to ourselves at any point in our lives.

Tsukiko’s small journeys to the bar and back home, her relationships with her mother, her sense of isolation spoke to me as a modern woman for whom loneliness is less about being lonely than it is about peace. I enjoyed this novel immensely and if you like the slightly sad but deeply rewarding books about being human and having love, you may enjoy this too.

Japanese · Japanese Literature · library · Literary Fiction · Magical realism · review · Review Copy · Short Stories

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami: A Review

23128304

Paperback, 96 pages
Published December 2nd 2014 by Knopf
Source: Publisher

Haruki Murakami’s short story/novella The Strange Library is reflective of his style and full of the strange and weird convolutions of the imagination. The plot is pretty simple: a high-school aged boy visits a library in order to look up information about the Turkish tax system. He is sent to the basement to meet the librarian who will help him get the book but the librarian traps him in a small room, commanding him to memorize the book the kid requested. He is visited by strange and fascinating people during his stay there.

The book is as strange as the title suggests. It is written very simply (though whether that is true in the original, I am not sure, the translation may have robbed us of the complexities and wordplay apparent in its original Japanese). The story is deceptively simple and one can either take it at face value or search for further meaning, conducting a detailed in-depth analysis of the characters and symbols. The most provoking bit of this short story is the end where in a moment of retrospection, the protagonist of the piece wonders about the meaning of alone-ness.

I enjoyed this short story a whole lot more than I have enjoyed Murakami’s past two books. I suppose style and writing are bound to change with age (as he speaks of frequently in his nonfiction What I Talk About When I’m Running which is what I’m currently reading) but as a reader, I think I definitely prefer his earlier works than his more recent ones. This one is absurd in the best way and most unexpectedly profound. Recommended.

Contemporary · Japanese · Japanese Literature · review · Translated work · YA

Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto, Michael Emmerich (Translation)

589483Paperback, 186 pages
Published June 6th 2003 by Grove Press
Source: Library

Synopsis:
Banana Yoshimoto’s novels of young life in Japan have made her an international sensation. Goodbye Tsugumi is an offbeat story of a deep and complicated friendship between two female cousins that ranks among her best work. Maria is the only daughter of an unmarried woman. She has grown up at the seaside alongside her cousin Tsugumi, a lifelong invalid, charismatic, spoiled, and occasionally cruel. Now Maria’s father is finally able to bring Maria and her mother to Tokyo, ushering Maria into a world of university, impending adulthood, and a “normal” family. When Tsugumi invites Maria to spend a last summer by the sea, a restful idyll becomes a time of dramatic growth as Tsugumi finds love and Maria learns the true meaning of home and family. She also has to confront both Tsugumi’s inner strength and the real possibility of losing her. Goodbye Tsugumi is a beguiling, resonant novel from one of the world’s finest young writers.

Review:

You may have noticed the presence of a new page on my blog: “Translated YA.” I am making a conscious effort to read translated works of YA lit because I feel that not enough attention is granted to an immense body of work out there. I am deeply interested in the glimpses of societies and cultures given through these works. I am also curious about gender and narrative constructions in works by authors who are not North American.

Goodbye Tsugumi is a gentle book. It’s like a calm seashore. It has the potential to become a raging sea but it remains calm. The titular character is the narrator, Maria’s cousin and she is what a mean girl would look like if one were to go near one and poke them. Tsugumi is precocious and beautiful. She curses like a sailor and she speaks like a world weary woman. I guess having death waiting in the eaves gives her an excuse to speak as she would. She’s also beautiful and remarkably frail.

What I found fascinating about this novel, though I wouldn’t call it YA, is the absence of jealousy and envy which is always present when two women are present in the same scene in a novel. Just think about it. The protagonist is either insecure about her looks when the mean girl is present or is indulgent and patronizing when the best friend is present. This novel does not have that. There is a selflessness about the main character that struck me as curious. She talks about Tsugumi, narrating her terrible attitude and the way she is irresistible to boys but there’s no judgment in her tone at all. There is a boy present in the novel and were it a North American YA, both girls would immediately be interested in him and he would be interested in the protagonist while the best friend pouted and plotted on the side.

In this novel, Maria does not even consider him as boyfriend material and there is never any discussion of her own love affairs. Of course I found it a bit unsettling because it is so different from what I am so used to however, it was also refreshing. The story is not about romance though. It is about the relationship between the two girls and not in an explicit way. You glean their friendship from their conversations, from their exchanges and from what is not said.

This book may not be long but it contains one of the most beautiful stories I have read. About friendship, about life and about death as well. I recommend it.

Adult · Foreign Writer · Japanese · Japanese Literature · review · Translated work

The Diving Pool: Three Novellas by Yōko Ogawa, Stephen Snyder (Translation)

1337973Paperback, 164 pages
Published January 22nd 2008 by Picador (first published 1990)
Source: Purchased

Synopsis:
From Akutagawa Award-winning author Yoko Ogawa comes a haunting trio of novellas about love, fertility, obsession, and how even the most innocent gestures may contain a hairline crack of cruel intent.
A lonely teenage girl falls in love with her foster brother as she watches him leap from a high diving board into a pool–a peculiar infatuation that sends unexpected ripples through her life.
A young woman records the daily moods of her pregnant sister in a diary, taking meticulous note of a pregnancy that may or may not be a hallucination–but whose hallucination is it, hers or her sister’s?
A woman nostalgically visits her old college dormitory on the outskirts of Tokyo, a boarding house run by a mysterious triple amputee with one leg.
Hauntingly spare, beautiful, and twisted, The Diving Pool is a disquieting and at times darkly humorous collection of novellas about normal people who suddenly discover their own dark possibilities.

Review:

The Diving Pool was my introduction to Yoko Ogawa and what an introduction it was. The synopsis calls this collection of novellas disquieting and honestly, there is no better descriptor for it. It is written in a sparse style, as though every single word was chosen after great consideration. The outward emotional expressions of the characters in the novel are repressed but their inner lives are full of chaos. One of the more stunning achievements of the novellas is the characterizations of the players. They are mutable depending on the perspective one looks at them from.

In the first novella, a girl stalks her foster brother, watching him from what she presumes is a hidden place, lashing out at innocents because she has discovered that causing pain gives her pleasure and then, as the reader observes, horrified, fascinated, it is revealed that the class is not as opaque as assumed. In the second one, a girl feeds her pregnant sister and the reader has to decide when the act of giving food becomes darker than just an expression of frustrated affection. The third one is even more obtuse, set in a dormitory that is beset by rumors when one of the residents goes missing. The protagonist’s cousin, too, seems to never be around and in the rather sinister denouement, some light is shed but again, the mystery is solved explicitly and Ogawa depends on the reader’s intellect to find a satisfactory answer.

If you like Murakami’s work, chances are you will like Ogawa’s as well. They do not have the same style but they have similar depths to their writing that I appreciate a lot.