Friday, November 28, 2008

My Challenge Completed

I've read 4 books for Dolce Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 2, and since I'm getting ready to dive into some new challenges, I thought I would post a wrap-up of this very enjoyable one. This is my second time reading Japanese literature with Bellezza, and I enjoyed it again very much! Her challenges are elegantly done, and I always look forward to them. Thanks, Bellezza for hosting another fascinating challenge!

Books read:
  1. After the Quake, Haruki Murakami
  2. Twenty-Four Eyes, by Sakae Tsuboi
  3. Tales of Moonlight and Rain, by Akinari Ueda
  4. Knit Kimono, by Vicki Square
I liked all four books, but the sentimental Twenty-Four Eyes was my favorite.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Goodbye, Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto

“From the time she was born Tsugumi was ridiculously frail, and she had a whole slew of ailments and defects. Her doctors announced that she would die young, and her family began preparing for the worst. Of course everyone around her spoiler her like you wouldn’t believe. Her mother carted her around to hospitals all across Japan, not sparing any effort, offering up every ounce of her strength to try and extend Tsugumi’s life even just a little. And so as Tsugumi toddled her unsteady way towards adulthood, she developed a personality that was just as pushy and insolent as it could be.”
The narrator of this story is Maria, Tsugumi’s cousin. Despite Tsugumi’s unpleasant personality, the two grow to be very close friends. Goodbye, Tsugumi is the story of the last summer they spend at the seaside town where they were born and grew up. Maria returns after having moved to Tokyo with her family, and Tsugumi is stoon to leave because her parents are going to sell their inn and open a pension in the mountains.

It’s not surprising, given the title, that this story is about saying goodbye in several different ways. Goodbye, Tsugumi is filled with bittersweet nostalgia and with a deep awareness of the passage of time. Look at this passage, for example:
Summer was coming. Yes, summer was about to begin. A season that would come and go only once, and never return again. All of us understood that very well, and yet we would probably just pass our days the way we always had. And this made the tickling of time feel slightly more tense than in the old days, infused it with a hint of distress. We could all feel this as we sat there that evening, together. We could feel it so clearly that it made us sad, and yet at the same time we were extremely happy.
But there are, of course, issues other than the summer coming to an end at stake in this story. There’s growing up, and becoming distant from people who once filled your whole life. And there’s mortality, as Tsugumi’s frail health makes her, and those who surround her, deeply aware of death, and constantly unsure of whether each passing day will be her last.

So what Goodbye, Tsugumi is is a lovely book about vulnerability and change. And despite the fact that one of the main characters is a teenager who might not live to see another year, the result is not nearly as bleak as you’d expect. But worry not, it’s also not artificially optimistic or cheerful – the tone is absolutely perfect.

I think my favourite thing about Goodbye, Tsugumi was the narrator’s voice. Maria sounds so intimate and nostalgic. Sometimes she’s funny, sometimes she sounds sad, and she’s always so insightful and sincere. There isn’t all that much of a plot to this book, but unlike what can sometime happen with more character-oriented novels, this one isn't slow-going in the least. I read it for the read-a-thon and I think it was a perfect choice. The focus of the story is the characters, their relationships and how they change, but it’s told in a way that keeps you eagerly turning the pages until the end.

This might sound odd, but the tone of Goodbye, Tsugumi reminded me a little of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books. And I mean this as a compliment, of course. Reading this book made me forget all about my previous disappointing experience with Banana Yoshimoto. So Kitchen, here I come.

One more memorable passage:
Right around the time when the hustle and bustle of preparations for the festival take a hold of the town, all of a sudden you find yourself noticing that autumn had begun to weave itself into the rhythm of your days. The sun is still just as strong as before, but the breeze blowing in off the sea has turned just the tiniest bit softer, and the sand has cooled. Now the rain that quietly drenches the boats ranges along the beach carries the damp, misty smell of a cloudy sky. You realize that summer has turned its back on you.
This is my third book read for the challenge, so officially I've completed it. But since there's still plenty of time, I want to see if I manage to read another book or two. I'm enjoying myself too much to stop :)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Woo Hoo!

For those of you who are Words of Affirmation people (like me), look at the rating we just received from blogged! Way to go, all of you Japanese literature reviewers!!! You make me proud.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

After the Quake

Many of my blogging friends are reading and enjoying the books of Haruki Murakami, so I was very interested in reading something by him for Dolce Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 2. I chose his book, After the Quake, a collection of six short stories, each one connected indirectly with the 1995 Kobe Earthquake in Japan.
Another reason I chose this book was because I live in "earthquake country" and have personally experienced an earthquake and some of the emotional after-effects that inevitably follow such an event. In 2001, the Nisqually quake shook Western Washington. It did not have the destructive power of the Kobe quake, but there was significant damage to structures in the area and to everyone's sense of well-being. Even though I'd felt earthquakes before, on that day I felt the earth's crust ripple beneath my feet and I will never be the same. The earth simply doesn't feel as solid to me as it did before that experience.
"Strange and mysterious things, though, aren't they -- earthquakes?" the man says. "We take it for granted that the earth beneath our feet is solid and stationary. But suddenly one day . . . the earth, the boulders, that are supposed to be so solid, all of a sudden turn as mushy as liquid."
Murakami, in these six short stories, writes about the emotional upheavals and after-effects that follow a major disaster. Lives are changed in little and in big ways, and he writes about individuals that are searching for themselves and for meaning in a world changed by disaster. And I liked this comment from an unofficial, but very interesting, Murakami web site:
But the most compelling character of all is the earthquake itself--slipping into and out of view almost imperceptibly, but nonetheless reaching deep into the lives of these forlorn citizens of the apocalypse. The terrible damage visible all around is, in fact, less extreme than the inconsolable howl of a nation indelibly scarred--an experience in which Murakami discovers many truths about compassion, courage, and the nature of human suffering.
After the Quake was well-written and powerful. I will definitely read more of Murakami's books.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Junko Aoki has the gift of pyrokinesis: she can set anything on fire with her energy. When she retreats to an abandoned factory to displace some of her energy into a huge pool of water there she inadvertently witnesses a murder.

The Asaba gang has kidnapped a woman and killed her date; they are trying to throw his body into the pool of water so that it won't be detected.

Junko is so incensed at what she sees that she kills three of the gang members by burning them, and as the leader escapes she promises herself that she will seek to destroy him as well.

A parallel part of the story tells of Chikako Ishizu, the only woman in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, who seeks the person who is setting these fires as well as burning criminals.

A third strand tells of the Guardians, a special group which made me think of the Mob in a way: they have taken it upon themselves to "deliver justice" and formed a band of members with special abilities who also try to do away with criminals. The Guardians woo Junko into their midst, luring her with gifts and the promise of love from one of its members.

There are several fascinating aspects to this story:
  • the whole idea of pyrokinesis (and other abilities such as telekinesis)
  • the loneliness of those who are set apart by their gifts or hidden talents
  • the way families are effected by those with such gifts
  • the question of justice

When we discover that the crossfire is between the victim and the criminal, between the law and those who have taken it upon themselves to deliver justice, we're faced with two critical questions:

Does anyone have the right to kill another?

Is there ever a right reason to take a life?

I found this book profound on many levels, not only as a mystery/thriller, but also a treatise on ethics. It was excellent.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

This is a beautiful book, first published in 1906.

'Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday life' p3

The book describes the history of tea, it's origination's in China and it's adoption in Japan with the rise of the Japanese Tea Houses.
How in the 4th & 5th centuries CE 'leaves were steamed, crushed ina mortar, made into a cake, and boiled together with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk, and sometimes even onions.' p23
In those days you had the choice of this teacake, powdered tea, or seeped leaves, the latter being todays prefered method of choice!

The book goes onto tell us how the Japanese Tea Ceremony arose from Zen Buddhist rituals, and describes the art and beauty associated with the ceremony.

A lovely book. Beautifully written. Simple and delightful as a well made cup of tea itself.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishguro is a unique novel in that I read the first few chapters thinking that I knew what the story was about then realized there was much more to the story than I first thought . The story is narrated by Kathy a student from an elite boarding school somewhere in Britain and she remembers growing up there and tells of the special bond between her friends Ruth,Tommy and herself. It asks questions that really made me wonder about value of life. I liked this book and I also found it hard at times. It would be easy to give away too much info in a review,read the book before reading more reviews or you will lose the edge of learning each new twist and turn. Never Let Me Go is a Man Booker finalist.

about the author
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954, and moved to Britain around the age of five or six. He attended the University of Kent at Canterbury and the University of East Anglia where he studied creative writing. He is the author of The Remains of the Day, an international best-seller that won the Booker Prize and was adapted into an award-winning film, as well as A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, and The Unconsoled. In fact, Ishiguro has received many honors and awards including an Order of the British Empire for service to literature in 1995, and in 1998 was named a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. His work is known internationally and has been translated into 28 languages. He currently lives in London with his wife and daughter. ~