Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Master Key by Masako Togawa - 1962 -152 pages - translated by Simon Grove

My Introductory post for JLC12

Works I Have So Far Read for Japanese Literature

  1. “Insects” - a Short Story by Yuchi Seirai, a post Atomic Bomb work,2012
  2. The Great Passage by Shion Miura, 2011, a deeply moving work centered on the creation of a Japanese Language Dictionary 
  3. "The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine" A Short Story by  Akiyuki Nosaka- 2003- translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori - 2015
  4. “Bee Honey” - A Short Story by Banana Yoshimoto- 2000 - set in Argentina during the annual Mother’s March for Disappeared Children.
  5. Killing Commendatore: A Novel by Huruki Murakami- 2017
  6. The Master Key by Masako Togawa - 1962 - translated by Simon Grove

The Japanese Literature Challenge,  #jlc12, runs until March 31.  Everyone is invited to join us.  Maybe as happened to me by participating in JLC 3 back in 2009, ten years from now you will count numerous Japanese writers among your favorite writers.

The Master Key by Masako Togawa is a very interesting highly creative novel, set in Tokyo circa 1960 in an apartment complex for single women. The complex opened in 1951.  The rules are strict, all outside guests must register and overnight male visitors are not allowed.  The apartment building is to be moved soon.  This move sets the plot working.

There are chapters focusing on several residents, all single, mostly lonely and isolated.  There are three flashback segments from seven years ago.  In one a resident and a man dressed as a woman, to skirt the rules, bury a child under the communal bath.  His body could be revealed when the building is moved.

In another episode, we learn of the kidnapping of the four year old son of an American Army officer and a Japanese woman, who once lived in the building.  Marrying an American was slightly frowned upon.  

One of the residents was at one time a well known concert violinist.  I found the complex details involving her really intriguing. It includes a very strange fellow resident more than a little bit unbalanced.

The violinist decides to send letters to her former pupils.  She has a list of about  350 names and addresses, many from seven years ago.  Most go unanswered, some students moved. However, one of the students turns out to be the mother of the kidnapped boy.  This sets in motion a complicated series of events out of a detective story.

There is a key that will open all of the apartments, the master key, when it is stolen, things begin to get really weird.  The two receptionists play a big part in the plot.

The descriptions of the lives of the residents are  masterful.  Perhaps the best part of the book for me.  There is even a religious cult involved, a stolen stradavarious violin, a hoarder, a resident who steals milk bottles, recalled one night romances.

I never saw the ending coming,in which all the mysterious issues are resolved.

I am quite glad to have read The Master Key.

Pushkin Press has published a translation of another of her novels, The Lady Killer, which sounds interesting.

Bio Data from Puskin Publishing

In 2016, beloved Japanese crime writer and LGBT activist Masako Togawa sadly passed away. We’re delighted to be able to bring you her prizewinning debut novel The Master Key, originally published in 1962, as the latest in the Pushkin Vertigo crime series.

Masako went on to publish over 30 books and was described by the Times Literary Supplement as “The P.D. James of Japan.” She was as gregarious as she was talented, finding success in many different careers over the course of her rich and varied life. Here are some of her highlights:
Singer/songwriter: She made her singing debut in the well-known nightclub ‘Gin-Pari’ in 1954. Music and performing remained a big part of her life and she released several records including “Lost Love” in 1975 and “Bon Voyage” with her son Nero in 2015.

Club owner: In 1967, she decided to turn her sister’s coffee shop into a live music hall, calling it Aoi Heya, or “Blue Room.” The intimate 150-person venue in Tokyo’s vibrant Shibuya district hosted artists and composers, simultaneously serving as a Chanson club and a lesbian night club.
LGBT icon: After years of encouraging LGBT artists at Aoi Heya, she came out as bisexual on television in 1999. In 2002, she was one of the first Japanese television personalities to take an active role in the Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade.

Actress: From 1969 to 1974, she played the lead character in a television show called Playgirl about a mystery writer who creates an all-female detective agency specialising in white collar crimes. She also starred in a film The Hunter’s Diary (1964), an adaptation of several stories she had co-written.
Music teacher: In 2012, she started teaching Chanson classes, calling the programme the “Blue Room Grand Cabaret.” They proved highly popular, taking place on the first and third Wednesdays of each month and broadcast via web channel “Scatch TV”.

I was given a review copy of this book by Pushkin Press 

Mel u

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Commendatore: A Novel by Huruki Murakami - 2017 - translated by Phillip Gabriel and Ted Gossen, 2018, 702 pages

Works I have so far read for Japanese Literature 12 

  1. “Insects” - a Short Story by Yuchi Seirai, a post Atomic Bomb work,2012
  2. The Great Passage by Shion Miura, 2011, a deeply moving work centered on the creation of a Japanese Language Dictionary 
  3. "The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine" A Short Story by  Akiyuki Nosaka- 2003- translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori - 2015
  4. “Bee Honey” - A Short Story by Banana Yoshimoto- 2000 - set in Argentina during the annual Mother’s March for Disappeared Children.
  5. Killing Commendatore: A Novel by Huruki Murakami- 2017

After Midnight by Huruki Murukami was my introduction to Japanese literature.  I read it in 2009 during JLC3.  As of today, I think I have read all his novels but Secret Library, plus several of his numerous short stories.

Killing Commendatore, his latest novel, has all the elements we have come to expect in his work.  The narrator, a 36 year  old recently divorced portrait painter, having given up his ambition to be a master artist to support his wife and himself.  When we meet him he has moved out of the apartment he shared with his wife.  He drives around at random for a while but soon settles in a house in the mountains owned by an old friend.  The friend's father, a famous artist, lived and worked in the house for a long time but is now in a nursing home.  The narrator, we never learn his name finds in the attic a painting the man left.  It is based on a scene from Mozart's Don Giovanni in which a character, Commendatore, is killed.  Thus the title of the book.  The narrator becomes obsessed with the painting.  He wonders why it was left hidden in an attic when it should be in a museum.  This becomes intregal to everything that follows.

The plot is involved, lots of unexpected things happen.  I don't want to layout thenplot, just make some observations.

There is lots of magic realism, characters out of the painting come to life, all are little people.  There is a mysterious wealthy neighbor.  Lots of great classical music references, jazz also, plus modern rock music.  There are plenty of literary allusions.  The narrator teaches art and is having an affair with one of his students, a married woman a bit older than him.  He meets his neighbor who commissions him to paint his portrait, offering him a very generous fee.  The neighbor asks him to do a portrait of a thirteen year old girl, one of his students.  The wealthy man thinks the girl might be his daughter.  From here things begin to get very weird so I won't go on.

I am preplexed by the constant references, sometimes two a page, to the breasts of the female characters. The thirteen year old girl is obsessed with worry over her lack of development and talks about it with the narrator as he paints her.  There are also numerous descriptions of nipples.  Every female character has her breasts judged, the bigger the better.  Just seems odd to me.

There are lots of great descriptions of the mountains, of food, of clothing, and much more.  There is a very suspenseful plot starting about halfway in that kept me wanting to know what will happen next.

I really enjoyed this book.  The characters are all very well developed.  There are literary tropes to ponder.  Murakami fans like me will smile through the little people, the magic realism.  As to all the constant breast references, well maybe Murakami just has a fixation or perhaps there are deep symbolic meanings.

What do you think?

Somethings are subject to cultural relativism.   I checked and the age of consent for sex is 13 in Japan.  In the Philippines it is 18 as it is in most of the USA and UK.   The Los Angeles Review of Books reviewer said Marukami's obsession with breasts seems a bit "pervy".     Does it seem that way to you?

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Bee Honey - A Short Story by Banana Yoshimoto - 2000 - Translated by Michael Emmerich

My Introductory Post to The Japanese Literature 12 Challenge 

Gateway to Banana Yoshimoto on The Reading Life

Works I have so far read for Japanese Literature 12

  1. “Insects” - a Short Story by Yuchi Seirai, a post Atomic Bomb work,2012
  2. The Great Passage by Shion Miura, 2011, a deeply moving work centered on the creation of a Japanese Language Dictionary 
  3. "The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine" A Short Story by  Akiyuki Nosaka- 2003- translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori - 2015
  4. “Bee Honey” - A Short Story by Banana Yoshimoto- 2000 - set in Argentina during the annual Mother’s March for Disappeared Children.

I first read a work by Banana Yoshimoto, Goodbye Tsugumi, during Japanese Literature 3, in August of 2009.  I was so taken with this wonderful novel that I went on to read three more of her novels, Moshi Moshi, Lake, and Asleep.  I also have posted on several of her short stories.  She is just one of the numerous writers that the JLC has made an important part of my reading life.

The story is set in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  The narrator is a Japanese Women.  She is sitting on a bench in front of La Casa de Gobierno, the main government office. (The building is pink, the narrator makes the intriguing to me observation that the pink color was obtained by mixing ox blood with the paint.)  From 1976 to 1983 Argentina was controlled by a fascistic military group of generals called “The Junta”.  Students were in the forefront of protests and many were horribly brutalized or simply disappeared. (Mothers seeking information on their lost children helped Argentina to find the will to over throw the Junta.  About thirty thousand people, mostly young, simply disappeared, all government records of their existence vanished.). Now every year on January 26 the mothers of the disappeared assemble in front of the government headquarters. As the Japanese narrator watches, she buys a commemorative T-Shirt and watches the pigeons, another Japanese woman approaches her.  She talks of the terrible times under the Junta. Our narrator has just broken up with her husband.  When she calls her mother back in Japan to tell her she thinks of her own pampered childhood.  She stays with a Japanese friend, married to an Argentine tango instructor, who is a tour guide for visiting Japanese.  We never learn in this five page story how the Japanese wound up in Argentina.

I read this  story in The Penguin Book of Japanese short stories.  It was as good as I hoped it would be.

Banana Yoshimoto (よしもと ばなな or 吉本 ばなな) is the pen name of Mahoko Yoshimoto (吉本 真秀子), a Japanese contemporary writer. She writes her name in hiragana. (See also 吉本芭娜娜 (Chinese).)

Along with having a famous father, poet Takaaki Yoshimoto, Banana's sister, Haruno Yoiko, is a well-known cartoonist in Japan. Growing up in a liberal family, she learned the value of independence from a young age.

She graduated from Nihon University's Art College, majoring in Literature. During that time, she took the pseudonym "Banana" after her love of banana flowers, a name she recognizes as both "cute" and "purposefully androgynous."

Despite her success, Yoshimoto remains a down-to-earth and obscure figure. Whenever she appears in public she eschews make-up and dresses simply. She keeps her personal life guarded, and reveals little about her certified Rolfing practitioner, Hiroyoshi Tahata and son (born in 2003). Instead, she talks about her writing. Each day she takes half an hour to write at her computer, and she says, "I tend to feel guilty because I write these stories almost for fun." - from Goodreads 

Mel u

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Little Boy’s Question - A Short Story By Avrom Reyzen - Translated By Curt Leviant

A Little Boy’s Question - A Short Story By Avrom Reyzen - Translated By Curt Leviant, 2014, first published in translation in Pakn Treger - The Magazine of the Yiddish Book Center -(I don't have first publication information on this story, if you know it please contact me).

Born - April 10, 1876 - Koidanov, Belorussia

Moved to New York City - 1911

He begins a very prolific literary career with thousands of published works, for many years he contributed a weekly short story to the Forvert, the leading Yiddish language publication in America

Dies - March 31, 1953 in New York City

As I read today's story, only five pages, I was brought to mind a very old proverb from the Philippines.

"When there are five family members at the table and only four pieces of chicken, a mother decides she doesn't like chicken" - 

"A Little Boy's Question" by Avrom Reyzen is a heart warming story told from the point of view of a young boy.  He has never seen his mother eat.  He knows from his teaching that angels don't eat.  He decides he will keep watching his mother until he sees her eating.  When he asks her one morning she tells him she eats after her work is done.  We see the father eats after he says the morning prayers, after which he goes to the synagogue while his wife works very hard. 

In this story we get a glimpse of life in a eastern European shtetl family, seeing the way family support work is mostly "women's work"

Maybe this story was a bit smaltzy but if I had been a Forward reader circa 1950 I would have been happy to see more  contributions of Avrom Reyzen.

Bio data from the Yivo Encyclopedia of Eastern European Jews

Mel u

Sunday, January 13, 2019

A Manual for Cleaning Women - Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin 2015

A Manual for Cleaning Women Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin - edited and introduced by Stephen Emerson with a forward by Lydia Davis- 2015 (The 43 stories in the  collection were published in her prior collections and literary journals from 1977 to 1999.

Born November 12, 1936. Juneau, Alaska

Died November 12, 2004. Marina del Rey, California.  

Eleven years after her death Lucia Berlin has become a literary sensation, proclaimed as a genius.  During her life time she did influence other writers but she had very little commercial success. 

As I was reading the stories in the collection, read about one a day for six weeks or so, blitz reading her work would be a major brain scramble, just for fun I pondered who her literary grandparents might be. She spent quite a bit of time in Chile so given this and her admiration for the writer, one set would be Roberto Bolano and Katherine Mansfield.  For other set I decided on Clarice Lispector and Anton Chekhov.  

Berlin had a very varied life experience and she for sure drew upon this in her stories. Among other things, she was a cleaning woman. Her father was a very well paid manager for American mining interests in Chile and there are very interesting Santiago based stories.  

Everyone who writes on her stories focuses on the stories centering on a drug addicted, heroin when possible, alcholic single mother of four sons, which as her Life for years.  There is tremendous pain in these stories.  Written from Desolation Row, these stories show the reality of drug addicted poverty in America.  I was very disturbed by her depiction of an abortion in an illegal mass abortion clinic in El Peso.

Lydia Davis has contributed a very well done highly educational forward, a panegyric to a writer she loved.

These are stories to ponder slowly. 

I bought this collection as a Kindle Edition in a flash sale for $1.95, it is back up to $9.95 now.

A second collection of twenty two more stories has recently been published, I hope to read it but not right away, I might overdose.

From The Paris Review 

Lucia Berlin (1936–2004) worked brilliantly but sporadically throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Her stories are inspired by her early childhood in various Western mining towns; her glamorous teenage years in Santiago, Chile; three failed marriages; a lifelong problem with alcoholism; her years spent in Berkeley, New Mexico, and Mexico City; and the various jobs she held to support her writing and her four sons. Sober and writing steadily by the nineties, she took a visiting-writer post at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1994 and was soon promoted to associate professor. Her books include Welcome Home, Evening in Paradise, and A Manual for Cleaning Women, which was named one of the New York Times Book Review’s ten best books of 2015. In 2001, in failing health, she moved to Southern California to be near her sons. She died in 2004 in Marina del Rey

Friday, January 11, 2019

“Irina”. - A Short Story by Mavis Gallant. First published in The New Yorker December 2, 1974

August 11, 1922 born in Montréal, in 1950 she moves to France to pursue her dream of being a writer 

February 18, 2014, dies in Paris, a place she dearly loved

"In her preface to the present collection, Gallant advises her readers: “Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” Such advice may be superfluous. When you finish each of Gallant’s stories, it’s instinctive to stop and regroup. As much as you might wish to resume and prolong the pleasure of reading, you feel that your brain and heart cannot, at least for the moment, process or absorb one word, one detail more." Francine Prose in her introduction to The Collected Short Stories of Mavis Gallant

I have been reading short stories by Mavis Gallant (born Montreal 1922, died Paris, 2014) since 2013.  I was delighted when a blogger I have happily followed for years, Buried in Print, announced they would be reading and posting on all her many short stories (116 published in The New Yorker alone) on a scheduled basis.   I am reading along with Buried in Print as I can.  I am a bit behind now but hope to catch up.  For sure the stories of Mavis Gallant are best read slowly.

For a very good account of today’s story, “irina”, i refer you to the post of Buried  in Print.  As i read on in Gallant, i am beginning to see her as part of a great Grand and more than a little sad tradition of European literary treatments of people somehow focused on a now decayed Cultural tradition which perhaps reached its apex in pre-World War Two Warsaw and in the glory days of The Anglo Hungarian Empire. People in Gallant’s stories have not yet found a new Cultural home.  They are kind of lost characters.  The central characters of “Irina” for me fit this pattern.  Irina is an elderly grandmother.  Her late husband was a famous writer.  

The story opens near Christmas, one of Irina’s fourteen grandchildren, a young man, has been dispatched to move in with Irina and care for her.  The description of her late husband is, in my mind, supportive of my reading of Gallant:

“Few of Notte’s obituaries had even mentioned a family. Some of his literary acquaintances were surprised to learn there had been any children at all, though everyone paid homage to the soft, quiet wife to whom he had dedicated his books, the subject of his first rapturous poems. These poems, conventional verse for the most part, seldom translated out of German except by un-poetical research scholars, were thought to be the work of his youth. Actually, Notte was forty when he finally married, and Irina barely nineteen. The obituaries called Notte the last of a breed, the end of a Tolstoyan line of moral lightning rods.  an extinction which was probably hard on those writers who came after him, and still harder on his children. However, even to his family the old man had appeared to be the very archetype of a respected European novelist –prophet, dissuader, despairingly opposed to evil, crack-voiced after having made so many pronouncements. Otherwise, he was not all that typical as a Swiss or as a Western, liberal, Protestant European, for he neither saved, nor invested, nor hid, nor disguised his material returns.”

There is just so much in this story, as Buried in Print we have full pictures of several persons in Irina’s family, her husband, children and grandchildren .  We see generational issues, related to what I mentioned earlier.  

There is so much depth and wisdom in these words about the end of a long marriage.

“But Irina had not been intended for sickness and suffering; she was meant to be burned dry and consumed by the ritual of him. The children believed that the end of his life would surely be the death of their mother. They did not really expect Irina to turn her face to the wall and die, but an exclusive, even a selfish, alliance with Notte had seemed her reason for being. As their father grew old, then truly old, then old in mind, and querulous, and unjust, they observed the patient tenderness with which she heeded his sulks and caprices, his almost insane commands.  sort of love they had ever experienced or tried to provoke. One of his sons saw Notte crying because Irina had buttered toast for him when he wanted it dry. She stroked the old man’s silky hair, smiling. The son hated this. Irina was diminishing a strong, proud man, making a senile child of him, just as Notte was enslaving and debasing her. At the same time the son felt a secret between the two, a mystery. He wondered then, but at no other time, if the secret might not be Irina’s invention and property.”

I read this story in The Collected Short Stories of Mavis Gallant, which contains about half of her stories.

Mel u

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

"The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine" A Short Story by Akiyuki Nosaka- 2003- translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori - 2015

"The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine" A Short Story by  Akiyuki Nosaka- 2003- translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori - 2015

Included in The Cake Tree and other Stories by Akiyuki Nosaka

  1. “Insects” - a Short Story by Yuchi Seirai, a post Atomic Bomb work,2012
  2. The Great Passage by Shion Miura, 2011, a deeply moving work centered on the creation of a Japanese Language Dictionary 
  3. "The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine" A Short Story by  Akiyuki Nosaka- 2003- translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori - 2015

Please consider participating in Japanese Literature Challenge 12, this is my ninth year.  It runs from January 1 to March 31.  The homepage has lots of reading suggestions.

On July 18 last year I posted upon  great story by Akiyuki Nosaka, “The Cake Tree”, focusing on the very difficult timed of Japanese children living in very bombed out rural areas in late 1945, right after Japan surrendered. I decided then I should binge read the other fifteen stories in the collection but I lost sight of that goal, with so much I want to read.  Today's story, "The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine" renewed this intention.

"The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine", about a love sick sardine whale who has a problem:

"Sardine whales average about sixteen metres long, but our whale floating here so terribly listlessly was uncommonly large at twenty metres, and weighed in at thirty tons—and to make matters worse, he was a male. Unlike humans, female whales are bigger than males, and the bigger they are, the more splendid they are thought to be. And not just by the humans who hunt them for their meat and their oil, but by their very own fellow whales. For the males, it wasn’t so much a case of the smaller the better, but if like our whale they were bigger than the females, beyond what was acceptable, so to speak, then the females seemed to find them repulsive and refused to have anything to do with them....
Upon reaching adulthood, whales find a mate and travel the oceans together, giving birth to a baby whale once every two years. But this male was too big, and however hard he tried to attract a mate, emitting subsonic signals to alert the young females to a passing shoal of sardines or giving them gifts of shrimp, they simply ate their fill and then quickly swam away as if repelled at the mere sight of his enormous body. In other words, our whale was a complete flop with the ladies. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d just been bad-tempered or ugly—after all, there was some chance of finding a quirky female who was attracted to ill-natured males or odd looks. But being too big was a no-no. They were all scared of him."

We learn just how sad our whale is, you will like and identify with him, I did for sure.  He seems so nice.  I started out smiling at the start, by the end I felt so sad over the brutal fate of the whale, a gentle intelligent creature who would have made a great mate.  

These lines were so moving:

"Overhead a never-ending stream of aeroplanes flew northwards and then returned southwards, sometimes belching thin trails of smoke from their engines or flying so low and unsteadily that it seemed they would crash at any moment. These were the American bombers conducting air raids on the Japanese archipelago far to the north, although of course the whale didn’t know this. There were also numerous ships, big and small, ploughing through the waves in a great hurry. When the whale was little his mother had taught him that, if he ever saw a ship, he had to quickly dive into the depths and stay down as long as his breath lasted, swimming as far away from it as he could. Even if the ship was smaller than him, aboard there was an extremely cruel type of animal called a human. Upon catching sight of a whale, these humans immediately took it for an enemy and gave chase, firing harpoons at it. She herself had twice barely escaped with her life, and the horror of those memories still brought tears to her eyes as she told him about them. “Had you done anything nasty to them?” he’d asked, unable to comprehend why the humans would hate whales that much. “Of course not! On the contrary, we are the most intelligent animals in the sea and quite capable of befriending humans,” she replied, adding with a sigh, “If they were just a little kinder, we could even save them when they get into trouble.” This was true. Whales have the biggest brains of all animals, and are very intelligent."

The whale encountered a small Japanese submarine, one intended to be used in suicide attacks on the American fleet.  The crew of the submarine heard the Emperor announce Japan's surrender and debated over what they should do.

Our friend thinks the submarine, the same color as a sardine whale, is a very big female, one that might be willing to accept him as a mate.  He begins courting the submarine.  When he rubs against the sub the  crew is very afraid he may  destroy the sub. I will leave the ending untold.

From this I left wondering about the largely intold story of the impact of war on animals.  Like small children, they are the wholly innocent victim.  

I was also left very revolted by Japan's decision to resume commercial whaling.

Mel u

Works I have So Far Read for Japanese Literature 12