Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Diving Pool By Yoko Ogawa

From The Washington Post
These three quiet novellas, composing the first of Yoko Ogawa's books to be translated into English, share an eerie quality of nightmare, the precarious sense that beauty and distress are equally possible at any moment. Ogawa's fiction reflects like a funhouse mirror, skewing conventional responses, juxtaposing images weirdly. Depending on the viewer, it can induce wonder or a vague nausea

My review pending

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Tales of Moonlight and Rain

by Ueda Akinari

“First published in 1776, the nine gothic tales in this collection are Japan’s finest and most celebrated examples of the literature of the occult. They subtly merge the world of reason with the realm of the uncanny and exemplify the period’s fascination with the strange and the grotesque.” Quote from the front flap of the book.

These nine tales of ghosts, demons and spirits range from the mild ghost stories involving civil conversations with entities that just happen to be ghosts to the truly horrific involving tenacious demons and cannibalism. In general my favorite stories in this collection were the more sensational ones but I also really enjoyed one that wasn’t scary at all.

The Carp of My Dreams was simply a lovely story with a hint of the supernatural. A monk likes to paint carp and spends many hours studying them in the lake and painting them. He becomes ill and in his delirium dreams that he is a carp swimming in the lake, or is it a dream? He recovers from that illness and lives a full life. When he knows the end is near he takes all the carp paintings to the lake and releases the carp which swim off the paper and into the lake. It reminded me of something Borges could have written. I didn’t find anything gothic about it but I certainly enjoyed it.

I also really enjoyed the Reed-Choked House about a peasant that goes off to the capital to attempt to become a merchant but cannot return home because of civil unrest. Six years later he finally returns home and finds his home unchanged and his wife dutifully waiting for him. He awakes the next morning. “Feeling something cold dripping on his face, he opened his eyes, thinking that rain was seeping in: the roof had been torn off by the wind, and he could see the waning moon lingering dimly in the sky. The house had lost its shutters. Reeds and plumed grasses grew tall through gaps in the decaying floorboards, and the morning dew dripped from them, saturating his sleeves. The walls were draped with ivy and arrowroot; the garden buried in creepers - even though fall had not come yet, the house was a wild autumn moor.” He finally realizes that his wife is long dead.

In two other stories the women are not such benign ghosts. In the Kibitsu Cauldron a husband runs off with a prostitute. Instead of waiting for him to return the wife becomes an angry spirit, kills the prostitute and gets revenge on her husband. In A Serpent’s Lust a handsome young man is seduced by a beautiful serpent demon. Although he eventually catches on that she is not a young lady all his attempts to escape her and live a normal life are to no avail. These are two of my favorite stories in the collection but make me wonder a little about the author’s relationship with women.

In the Blue Hood an abbot at a monastery becomes infatuated with a beautiful young servant boy. When the boy becomes ill and dies the abbot is driven mad, becomes a demon and terrorizes the nearby village by digging up graves and eating the corpses. A traveling priest is able to help the village and the abbot attain peace. These are just my favorite tales but I did enjoy all of the them.

The book itself has a lengthy introduction and each story has its own introduction and contains numerous footnotes and endnotes. I found that what worked best for me was to read each story straight through without all the additional material as a simple gothic tale. I don’t think it is necessary to read anything but the tales themselves to enjoy them as stories. Simply because I was interested, I then went back and read it again with all the supplemental information which certainly added another dimension to the work. The supplemental information was exhaustive and while much of it was way more information then a casual reader would need, much of it was really fascinating. For example, the homosexual overtones of the Chrysanthemum Vow totally escaped me until I read the supplemental material. As it has been a long time since I took Japanese history classes in college I had forgotten how important a role Chinese culture played in the development of Japanese culture. I found the comparisons to No theater interesting. I enjoyed the supplemental material but if you want to simply read it as a collection of gothic tales that works too.

The Laws of Evening by Mary Yukari Waters

The Laws of Evening by Mary Yukari Waters

'In the wake of World War Two, a generation of Japanese women found itself frozen, as if in amber - the last representatives of an exquisite, ancient culture slowly being crushed between the realisation of its own brutality and the coming American Century' Amazon synopsis

This is a lovely collection of tales, exploring different generations of women during and after WW2.
In an ever changing society their hopes, dreams and recollections are explored in this extraordinary collection of stories.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

THE TOKAIDO ROAD by Lucia St. Clair Robson

I have added this book to the Japanese Literature Challenge, it will be read while taking my time, in between my other reads.
Go to my blog to see more regarding this historic fiction:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology by Hiroaki Sato

Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology by Hiroaki Sato

This is a great anthology pf women's poetry, from early songs to present day poems.
There are over 100 poems, covering all verse forms, on a variety of differnet themes>
I particularly like the early poems in the sections 'Poems from the Man'yoshu' and 'The Age of Tanka' which are very beautiful.

A couple of my favourite poems from the anthology are posted on my blog here

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Basho: The Complete Haiku and Giveaway

It seems hard to believe that a little less than one year ago, I had never heard of Basho. The Basho, touted as the most famous Japanese writer of all time.

In November of 2007 I went on a walk while the colors in Illinois were changing, took photographs of them, and then searched for poetry to express their beauty. I found haiku by Basho, and the post ended up looking like this.

Again this summer, I posed a few beautiful photographs with Basho's haiku accompanying them, and then I received a delightful surprise.I was contacted by Kodansha America, Inc. to review an anthology of Basho which was released this July.

The minute I opened the book I was entranced. It is a beautiful hard cover book of approximately 400 pages of the creamiest paper you ever saw. They are illustrated with original sumi-e ink drawings by Shiro Ysujimura; each poem suspended on the page as an entity of itself.

Basho: The Complete Haiku is the first ever complete collection of the poet's work in English. It was translated with an introduction, biography and notes by renowned American haiku poet and translator Jane Reichhold, and includes Basho's 1,012 haiku as well as a detailed study of his methods.

I found this paragraph in the introduction particularly infomative: "Long before Gertrude Stein was espousing the importance of using the exact word in poetry or any writing, the Japanese had based their writing on creating images of actual things. Instead of telling the reader what to think or feel, words describing images were used as signposts. The placement of these signposts moved from one image to another, with one word and then another, the reader created the journey to the unspoken conclusion of the poem. This process of making the reader see or imagine parts of the poem has, on one hand, made it harder for people to learn to read haiku. Still this miracle of involving the reader in the creation of the poem has expanded our own definition and concept of poetry. No longer is poetry what someone tells us. It is the mental and emotional journey the author gives the reader.

This technique of juxtaposing images so the reader's mind must find a way from one image to another has greatly influenced how we perceive simile and metaphor. Metaphors were and are one of the cornerstones of poetry, and for years scholars told us that Japanese poets did not use them. They did. They simply made their metaphor in a different way. Instead of saying "autumn dusk settles around us like a crow landing on a bare branch," Basho would write:

on a bare branch
a crow settled down
autumn evening

The simplicity and economy of the words demand that the reader goes into his mind and experiences to explore the darkness of bird and night, autumn and bareness, and even how a branch could move as the dark weight of a crow pressed it down. The reader is writing the rest of the verse and making it poetry."

Understanding poetry does not come naturally to me. I must read these haiku, ponder them, and not be tricked by their simplicity into missing an important concept the poet is trying to convey. I like their brevity. I like the mental imagery. I like reading the works from a masterful poet who lived three hundred years before I was born.

I leave you with a few of my favorites for Fall...

as autumn draws near
our hearts feel closer
to this small tearoom

how pleasurable
sleeping late in autumn
as if master of the house

already autumn
even sprinkles of rain
in the moon's shape

and this promise of a prize:

Write a haiku for us (five syllables, seven syllables, five again) in the comments, and your name will be entered to win a copy of this book for your own shelf. Or, if you'd prefer, email me with your entry.

Contest ends September 30, 2008.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Geisha's Journey

by Komomo
Photographs by Naoyuki Ogino
Non-Fiction/Auto-biography/Photography, 2008
Kodansha International, hardback, 139 p.
This is the story of a contemporary Japanese teenager who, in a search for an identity, became fascinated with the world of geiko-as Kyoto's geisha are known-and discovered in herself the will and the commitment to overcome the many years of apprenticeship necessary to become one.

It is a story related by a young Japanese photographer who grew up overseas, and who also was captivated by the lives led by these women who choose to dedicate their lives to their art. He began following and documenting the life of the teenager, Komomo, as she studied and grew into her role.

The photographs are accompanied by autobiographical text and captions by Komomo, as she shares her thoughts and emotions, and describes the life of a Kyoto apprentice. It is an illuminating view of seven years in the life of a very unique young woman.
Given my fascination with traditional Japanese arts and my interest in photography, when I came across this book in the bookstore earlier this year, I knew that it had to come home with me!
The focus of the book is certainly the beautiful photographs, so the text is a bit sparse, but we still get an idea of the girl who became the geiko, Komomo, and the journey that took her there. I’ve read some other books on geisha, like Liza Dalby’s Geisha, or Geisha of Gion (Geisha: A Life, US title) by Mineko Iwasaki, but it was interesting to get a modern look at the hanamachi (geisha district) through the eyes of a “twenty-first century geisha”. And I’m sure I’ll return to it often to admire the gorgeous photos. Recommended.

© Naoyuki Ogino

Short interview with Komomo
Naoyuki Ogino's online photo gallery
More photos from the book can be seen here.

My Rating: 4/5
*cross-posted on my blog.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


by Natsuo Kirino

This is my first read for this Challenge and apparently it is quite popular! As the other reviews have explained, this story opens with four women working the night shift in a factory making boxed lunches. When one of them murders her abusive husband the others assist with the disposal of the body. In typical noir fashion, things go from bad to worse as these four desperate and broken women try to cope with the police investigation, a loan shark and another murderer. I don’t normally read crime fiction but I generally like dark stories and boy is this dark, sadistic, brutal and shocking. Although I enjoyed it, it is not for the faint of heart.

I thought it was very well written (and translated) and that the author really captured both her characters and settings very well. It really transported me to the outskirts of Tokyo to the lunch box factory, the night club or the characters' homes. Even though not a single one of the characters is likeable and all have committed despicable acts they were so incredibly real that I cared about them and wanted to find out what happened in their story. You could really feel the desperation that each of these characters experienced. There is certainly an undercurrent of gender conflict in the novel but it never becomes preachy or obtrusive.

The only criticism I have is that the ending was a little odd. The ultimate showdown is told twice from two different perspectives. Although it was interesting to get the two perspectives of the same battle, I think this could have been achieved a little more artfully without a complete second retelling which I felt disrupted the flow of the story. I would also warn that the ending was incredibly brutal and disturbing and I can think of many friends that would not be comfortable reading it.

Friday, September 5, 2008

What Utensil Are You?

You Are Chopsticks

People see you as exotic, unusual, and even a bit intimidating.

You are a difficult person to figure out.

In truth, you try to live a very simple life.

But most people are too frenzied to recognize the beauty of your simplicity.

Not a post on Japanese literature, I understand.

But, it is no wonder that I am the host of this challenge, being classified as a set of chopsticks for goodness' sake.

What utensil are you?