Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Aghwee The Sky Monster" by Kenzaburo Oe

Aghwee The Sky Monster  by Kenzaburo Oe

Greetings to My Visitors from Malolos
I am located in Quezon City
if you have any questions on this story or
any other matter please feel free to leave a comment

I had never heard of Kenzaburo Oe.   On starting my third work by Oe I now know to  expect a strange, wonderful work of art that will test and probably transcend my powers of understanding.    Aghwee the Sky Monster is a ghost story that almost serves as a coda to William Blake's more ethereal engravings.

      The narrator of the story, which is set ten years ago when the narrator was 18, recounts the first job of the narrator.  The opening remarks of  the story intrigued me

"Alone in my room, I wear a piratical black patch over my right eye.   The eye may look all right, but the truth is I have barely any sight in it...when I look at this world with both eyes I see two worlds perfectly superimposed.  A vague and shadowy world on top of one that is bright and vivid.  I can be walking down a paved street when a sense of peril and unbalance will stop me like a rat just scurried out of a sewer..Or I'll discover a film of unhappiness and fatigue on the face of a cheerful friend and clog the flow of easy chat with my stutter" 

Our narrator is a college student of eighteen and needs to get a job to make some money to buy books he wants.   His uncle introduces him to a wealthy businessman.   This man wants him to be a sort of watchdog for his thirty year old son.   The son is a fairly well known composer and is considered a rising star in the Japanese musical world.   The son has a serious problem. He has begun to imagine that a ghost in the form of a six foot tall baby will on occasion descend from the sky and be visible only to the composer.  Of course everyone comes to think of the composer as suffering from several delusions, including the composer himself.  The composer, called "D" seems attuned to another world when this ghost visits him.   Here is how D's nurse describes
the sky monster:

"He says it's a fat baby in a white cotton nightgown.  Big as a kangaroo...It is supposed to be afraid of dogs and policemen and it comes down out of the sky and its name is Aghwee.  If you happen to be around when the spook gets hold of him, you'd better just play dumb, you can't afford to get involved.   Don't forget you are dealing with a looney."

At this point I have a choice to make.   I can either go on to tell more of the plot of this marvelous story and spoil the surprises (there are some great ones) for first time readers or I can just talk a bit about why I like this ghost story so much.  

Here are a few of the reasons I like Aghwee the Sky Monster
as much as I do.  It helped me to understand what ghosts maybe. It shows us how the dead intrude on the living.   (We learn something terrible about the composer.)   We learn how there is no present, only the past intruding on the future.   How life is created by a story.   How guilt can make us feel our lives are frozen in place.  There is a deep sadness to this work but a sadness that is preferable to happiness.   There maybe a way out of loneliness.   Ten years after his employment with D terminates something horrible happens to the narrator through no fault of his own.   From this he learns to understand the sky monster.  

This work is only 38 pages long.   It is included in Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness.   This is a collection of four short novels translated from the Japanese by John Nathan.   It was first published in 1964.   There are any number of themes in the work that I have not talked about.   Many may be intrigued by other things in the work.   It helped me understand why I sometimes see cats in the sky.   From now on I will look for them.   


Friday, September 25, 2009

"Miss Chopsticks" by Xue Xinran

Miss Chopsticks by Xue Xinran 
Translated by Esther Tyldesly from Chinese

Miss Chopsticks (2007) is an entertaining, good, very pleasant story about three country girls who go to the big city in search of their fortune.   The book is set in rural China and  the city of Nanjing.  Nanjing is a city of  about 6.5 million.   (It is also often called Nanking).  It is located in south China.   In the 20th century it is remembered for the Nanking Massacre in 1937 during  which the Japanese Imperial Army killed around 300,000 civilians men, women, children and infants in an orgy of rape and murder fully sanctioned by Japanese military leaders.

The time is a few years after the great cultural revolution in which millions of city people were sent out in the countryside to labor with and supposedly learn from the peasants.    In rural China a couple that had only daughters were a laughing stock.   A man was not considered a real man if he could  sire only daughters.
 The father of the girls who are the central characters of Miss Chopsticks  was so humiliated when his wife gave birth to only girls that he just gave them numbers not names.   So the girls ended up
being called One, Two, Three, Four, Five and Six.    The six girls are a potentially crushing burden on the father.  He fears no one will want to marry them as they come from a father who can sire only girls.    He finds a husband for two of his daughters and one of his daughters takes herself out of the story.   

Sisters Three, Five and Six go into the nearest big city, Nanjing, to seek their fortune, aided by Uncle Two.
The girls are very naive in the ways of the huge and wicked city.    Three gets a job in a traditional restaurant right next to McDonalds and KFC.   The restaurant does great business as it serves wonderful traditional food at fair prices.      Five gets a job at The Water Dragon.    The Water Dragon is a health spa where the clients take mineral and herbal baths and get foot massages.   Five's sisters and uncle are a little worried as they have heard some stories about what can happen to country girls in such place but the Water Dragon is a completely legitimate and honest business.    Five adopts as her mentor the chief engineer of  the business and ends up learning a huge amount and becoming a great helper to her employers.    Six was the most educated of the girls.   Six loves books.    She ended up with a dream job working at the Book Taster's Tea House, surrounded by wonderful books, both traditional Chinese and western.    

As the story proceeds on one of the girls will stare down an angry mob.   One will fall in love.   One will handle a visit with government officials as good as any Confucian sage could have.  The girls have some adventures and learn a lot about the big city, eat a lot of very well described food, learn some good life lessons and have some fun.       

I laughed out loud when one of the older women in the book lectured the girls on how they missed out on the great experience of being sent to work among the peasants.     I really enjoyed seeing how Six was able to develop her love for reading and begin her Reading Life while working  in the tea house owned fellow book lovers.    The characters are well drawn.    Some sad things happen to the girls but nothing that is not a part of growing up.  We learn a lot about the conflict of generation in China between those who lived through the cultural revolution and those born after it.   We see age old conflict of city versus country people.   We learn about the inner working of tea houses, bath houses and restaurants.   We get a pretty close look at sibling relationships.

Miss Chopsticks  is worth reading and will repay our time with enjoyment and edification.

Xue Xinran was born in Beijing in 1958.   She was a very well known radio journalist in China before she wrote her best known work The Good Women of China.   I look forward to reading this book.

Mel u

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"One Man's Justice" by Akira Yoshimura

One Man's Justice by Akira Yoshimura  (1978-trans. by Mark Ealey)

One Man's Justice by Akira Yoshimura presents a vivid finely detailed portrait of how life was for the
ordinary Japanese right after the end of WWII.  Post war Japan was a horrible place.   The newspapers were predicting that ten million or more will starve to death in the next winter.    All the cities are in near total ruin.   Everyone seems to be doing all they can to ingratiate themselves to their new American masters.   Prior to
surrender the Japanese people had been told that the Americans would be sending in special "Rape Squads" of all black soldiers.   (Of course the Japanese media never covered what happened to the women of  China under the Japanese rule.)   As it turns out, it appears to many conservative Japanese  that the women of Japan are eager to  form bonds with the American soldiers.    Many sell themselves to the Americans.    American soldiers are free to treat the Japanese citizens with utter contempt.   Famine and Plague are lose on the land.   

     As the novel opens I feel myself with no sympathy or concern for the sufferings of the people of Japan or the characters of the book.  I know what they did to the Philippines and other countries they
conquered. The central character in the novel, Takuya, was an officer in the Japanese imperial army.   He was attached to an antiaircraft unit in south Japan.   This was a critical area of defense for the Japanese as this is where they predicted the American invasion would begin.   Takuya witnesses first hand the terrible destruction caused by the raids of the American heavy bombers     Much of the bombing is concentrated on nonmilitary targets and is calculated to kill women and children.   Massive raids  with fire bombs are carried out on cities with nearly all wooden housing.   Takuya sees the charred bodies of babies and goes with one of his subordinates looking for the man's mother.   They find her burned to death.   To Takuya the deliberate killing of civilians in an area with no military importance seems to be a war crime.   Of course he knows nothing about the actions of the Japanese military outside of Japan.   Takuya's unit has in its control a  number of  Americans who became captives when their  B-52s were shot down.   He resents greatly the need to feed them.   

   " Subsequent reports described citizens who had fled during the night returning to survey the smoldering embers of what had been their houses that morning.   Later several dozen people gathered around the front
gate of the headquarters complex, clamoring for the execution of the captive fliers.   There were said to be a large number of women among the crowd, and some of them were weeping as they screamed for crewmen to be killed."

Takuya agrees with the crowd.   His superiors make a decision to execute all of the captive American.   Before this can be done every thing changes in a few terrible seconds.

   "Western Command staff tried to contact the Central Regional Command Head Quarters in Hiroshima..they received an update from Imperial Command in Tokyo to the effect that Hiroshima had been completely devastated, and tens of thousands of people had been killed or wounded...Takuya and his colleagues realized that this bomb must possess a fearful destructive power far exceeding that of a normal bomb" .

The Russians now decide to declare war on the Japanese and clearly intend to invade from the north.   Another unfathomable explosion takes place over Nagasaki.   To Tayuya the Americans seemed intent on removing all Japanese from the face of the earth, as if they were the lowest of vermin.   Remember, he does not know what the Japanese have done to those they conquered or what there plans were had they won.

Then his superiors tell everyone to assemble.   At first he does not believe it when he hears the 
Emperor announce that Japan is surrendering unconditionally    A man thought a god  says the unthinkable over the radio (and evidently in what some have said was a very high pitched voice).   Japan has been defeated.   At first Tayuga thinks it may be a ploy to get the Americans to come  ashore where they could then be destroyed by the millions of Japanese raised since birth to die for their Emperor.

The commanders of his unit decide to carry on with the executions of their American captives even though Japan has surrendered to the Americans.   The defining and proudest moment of Tayuga's live comes when he is able to remove the head of a captive American with one swipe of his sword..

Within a few days Americans are everywhere.   Some lucky women find American boyfriends, to Tayuga's great shame.   No one can be found who supported the war effort.   Everyone takes as their official position that the Japanese people were the victims of the leaders of the Imperial Army.   The Emperor, for whom they would once have gladly given their lives, is seen as either as a pawn and fool or a war criminal.     Their living God is a figure of jokes.    Tayuga reads some horrible news.   Japanese soldiers who merely slapped an American soldier are being sent to the gallows.   (Japanese officers routinely slapped their own soldiers for minor offenses.)   Through out Japan the Americans aided by a legion of Japanese officials (all of whom, of course, had nothing to do with any even slightly improper behavior) are relentlessly looking for thousands of people classified as war criminals.   Tayuga knows he is among them as the Americans have arrested the commander of his old unit as a war criminal.   He denies giving an order to execute the Americans and says his lower officers acted on their own against his policy in carrying out the executions.  Dishonor is everywhere.  People score points with the Americans and settle old scores by turning in neighbors.   People who had planned to die fighting the Americans run eagerly after their trucks hoping the Americans will throw them some food.

Tayuga knows he has to go underground to avoid death on the gallows.   The story is so well told that I begin to feel a vestige of sympathy for him.    At first he stays with old army friends but their wives do not want him around bringing danger to the family and eating their short in supply food.   He assumes a false name and life history.   We come to see what the samurai imperial tradition has been reduced too.   I began to almost wish that Tayuga will escape capture.  (This is a leap for me as my Father served with the U S Army during WWII in the Philippines and New Guinea and if captured Tayuga would have been proud to execute him.)    I do not wish to detail any more of the plot as I really hope that others will read this book.

The story is wonderfully told.   It is in part a universal tale of a defeated soldier returning home to a country that does not want him around,  as a reminder of what happened.    Japanese will experience this book in a different way than westerners, I think.   Those of us whose fathers, grandfather, and great grandfathers fought
on the other side will see it differently.   It is a simple fact that given the opportunity the Japanese and Germans would have carpet bombed the USA, UK  and Australia with atom bombs.   To me the fact that the book can make us see an enemy as human shows the artistic wonder of One Man's Justice.  

There are a lot of things to be learned from this novel.   We learn how the match industry worked in post war Japan.  We learn about food rationing and the post war diet.  We see what once proud military officers will do to avoid the gallows. The same officers who would  once have proudly lead suicide attacks now grovel before the Americans.  

     To me One Man's Justice is a great novel.   It should be "must" reading for anyone seeking to understand the Japanese experience of defeat.   Nothing in their tradition or religious views prepared them for defeat.
Their old faith in the Emperor and the samurai tradition  seems like the faith of fools and pawns,  a faith almost calculated to produce a nation of slaves.

     One Man's Justice is exciting from start to finish.   It is an easy to follow narrative.   I recommend it without reservation.  

  Mel u
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Kitchen" by Banana Yoshimoto

Kitchen  by Banana Yoshimoto-(1988-translated by Megan Backus)

After Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara and The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears  by Kenzaburo Oe I felt a need to read something a bit less grim.   Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (whose Goodbye Tsugumi  I really enjoyed reading) sounded like a perfect book for my next read for the The Japanese Challenge III .

Mikage, the central character, was raised by her grandmother after her parents died.   We meet her shortly after he grandmother dies.   She ends up moving in with her male friend Yoichi and Yoichi's mother.   It turns out Yoichi's mother used to be her father.    Mikage  feels  very alone without her grandmother.

I feel an immense loneliness.   I was tied by blood to no other creature in this world 

 Mikage at once is awestruck by the beauty and grace of Eriko, now the mother of Yoichi.

"Mikage', he said, "were you a little bit intimidated by my mother?"
"I have never seen a woman that beautiful"
"Guess what else--she's a man".   He could barely contain his amusement.

Mikage loves kitchens.   In the joy of being in a kitchen I liked so well, my head cleared.

Mikage has learned some lessons in life at a young age.

When was it I realized that, on this truly dark and solitary path we all walk, the only way we light is our own?
Although I was raised with love, I was always lonely. 
Mikage begins  a sort of relationship with Yoichi, her housemate.   A lot turns on her love of cooking and kitchens which is lovingly detailed for us.   She has a dream job as the assistant to a cooking show host.  She never can escape her deep loneliness:   at the bottom of a deep loneliness that no one could touch.

Mikage hides from her loneliness in the kitchen, cooking is her refuge.   

There are some exciting plot events here.   We learn something about staging of a cooking show.

I liked both this book and her Goodbye Tsugumi  very much.    I would characterize her books as likable in that you could see her books as friends.

One could go deeper in this work than I have done here.   It is a tale of bottomless loneliness, a worship of beauty for its own sake, of masks and of the love of food.    Maybe I needed a break from the pure grimness of some of the works I have recently read for the Japanese Literature III Challenge.

Maybe the fact that a tale that turns on loneliness and transvestism for its theme can be somehow seen as 
sort of light tells us something about the post war Japanese novel.

Mel u

Monday, September 21, 2009

"Snakes and Earrings" by Hitomi Kanehara- Sunday Salon

We have seen these women on television, in the movies or even in style and high fashion magazines.   They are the post midnight denizens of the clubs, tattoo parlors and all night noodle shops on Tokyo's Ginza Strip.   Their faces are replete with body piercings.   Their hair is every color but black or brown.   Their style of dress is calculated to offend as many people as possible.   Their make up and hair are done with maximum shock effect in mind.    Heavy body tattoos are a given.   They make themselves into a work of art and achieve a jarring kind of beauty.    No one seems to have a regular job or anything as mundane as a traditional family or a husband.   If you know the last name of the person you slept with last night you are considered to be in a long term relationship.

This is the world that Hitomo Kanehara takes us into in Snakes and Earrings.   At 15 Ms Kanehara dropped out of high school.   At age twenty Snakes and Earrings,  her first novel, sold over a million copies and she won the prestigious Akutagawa Price in 2004.

Lui, the lead character, is 19 and she works as a companion and trade show hostess.   She goes to prestigious events with business men.   At first she denies it then she sort of lets it slip that maybe  once or twice she has engaged in more lucrative activities.   It beats working in a shop or as a late night noodle seller.

Lui's big goal is life is to have her tongue split so as to look like the tongue of a snake.   We learn exactly how this is done and yes it does really hurt a lot and no it is not done by a graduate of Tokyo University Medical School.    Lui does not spend a lot of time reflecting how this will come across in a future job interview should she ever decide to enter the corporate world and she for sure does not reflect on how it will look should she ever live long enough to be a grandmother.    We get to know a good bit about tattoo parlors in
Tokyo.   We find out what is involved in getting a full back tattoo.   Lui pays for her tattoo through having sex with the tattoo artist.

Here is her first meeting with one of her two lovers:

"He had piercings in his eyelids, eyebrows, nose, and cheeks.   So much so that they hid his expression, making it almost impossible to tell what he was thinking".

Here is her meeting with her second lover:

"The night I met Ama, we had hit it off talking about forked tongues, and he had taken me back to his place.
Ama had taken photos of the entire tongue splitting process...after that Ama showed me an underground Web site with video footage of the tongue-splitting process.   To Ama's amazement, I watched the footage over and over.   I don't know why it excited me so much.  Later on that night I slept with him."

The characters of the novel do engage in some philosophical and religious reflections.

    If you were God, what kind of human would you create?   I asked
I wouldn't change how they look.  But I would make them as dumb as chickens.   So dumb they'd never even imagine the existence of a god".

Lui is pretty much of a sexual doormat:   "I have been with sadists before, and you never know what they're going to do".   

Here is the deepest thought in the mind of the tattoo artist:   "God has to be a sadist to give people life".

Like several other characters in works I have posted on for this challenge, the world of her raising seems dead to her now.  (In my mind she is the daughter of one of the teenage girls in Real World.   Her great grandfather returned to a defeated and destroyed Japan but he never adjusted real well and he never wanted to talk about his years in Manchuria).

I recall the great care and attention given to the tradition of the kimono in The Old Capital .    At one of her trade shows Liu and the other girls  get paid extra for wearing kimonos.   The only problem is most of the girls have no idea how to put them  on.   

Things proceed in the novel.   I will not give away too much of the plot.  There is an abundance of very graphic sex in Snakes and Earrings.   This may help explain why it sold over a million copies    Liu is treated in what will seem to many an abusive fashion but she does not seem to mind.

Part of the appeal of this book is clearly from the sensational almost voyeristic mode of the book.   We enter a world very different from our own, a world at times dangerous.    A murder mystery is central to the plot of the book.  

We learn somethings in this book.   We learn why tattoo artists prefer the skin  of young female subjects for their most supreme works of art.    We learn why those inclined to weight gains should avoid tattoos.

One of the pleasures of reading is entering into very  different worlds  from our own.    Snakes and Earrings
succeeds well in this.    It allows us to see the humanity in people very different from most of us.     If there is a common theme to the eight authors whose works I so far posted on for the Japanese Literature Challenge III it is the detailing of a world of lost values.   Old ways are destroyed-old Gods demasked-the Emperor and the imperial army become objects of near contempt but nothing takes their place.   

I sort of endorse this book as a quick entertaining read (it is near x rated in parts).   If you push it deeper themes will emerge.   The full price of this book in $12.95.   I paid about $4.00 for it at the Manila Book Fair-you can buy it on Amazon for about that and that seems fair.    

Mel u

Friday, September 18, 2009

"The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears" by Kenzaburo Oe

The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears  by Kenzaburo Oe was first published in Japan in 1972 and translated into English by John Nathan in 1977.   It appears in a collection  of four of his works called Teach Us to Out Grow Our Madness   edited by John Nathan.   Mr  Nathan's
introduction is very interesting and provides some useful culture context information.    

I previously posted on his long short story Prize Stock   One of my goals is to read a number of types and genres of Japanese prose works.   At 110 pages most  would classify this work as a novella.

The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears is an exceedingly bizarre narrative by a 35 year old man lying in a hospital bed wearing underwater goggles covered in cellophane.    This man, whose name we never learn,   may or may not have cancer but he believes and seriously hopes he does.   For sure this is the strangest work I have read for the challenge.   The narrator is unreliable.    His perception and memory of past events are at best confused.   The novel is set in hospital in post war Tokyo.    Maybe the narrator saw too much at too young an age and it drove him mad.   Something for sure did!   At more than one point in the
work I felt like yelling out to him "What are you crazy or something?"    I simply have to quote a bit of the opening few lines of the book

"Deep one night he was trimming his nose that would never walk again into sunlight atop living legs, busily
feeling each hair with a Rotex rotary nostril clipper as if to make the nostrils as bare as a monkey's, when suddenly a man, perhaps escaped from the mental ward..or perhaps a lunatic who happened to be passing with a body abnormally small and meagre for a man save only for a face as round as a Dharma's and covered in hair, set down on the edge of his bed and shouted, foaming,  What in God's name are you?  WHAT?...I'm cancer, cancer LIVER CANCER it is me".

In the world of this book, passing lunatics screaming the truth at us, or is  it,  perfectly ordinary.   When one is possibly dying of cancer, of course,  your top priority might be to trim your nose hairs.

The vast majority of the work consists of an interior monologue spoken out loud..   For brief periods the person who the narrator has designated as the administrator of his will comment on the monologue  and once and a while even his mother has a comment or two to make.   He flashes back in time from the times of the Japanese Invasion of Manchuria (where someone very important to him may have been killed-maybe his brother or stepbrother), to the period right after the Emperor of Japan in August of 1945 came on the radio and advised the Japanese people he was not a god .   As conveyed indirectly in The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears   this affects the narrator and the Japan as a culture much as if the Pope were to say he had been advised by God to inform the people of the world that Christianity was a fraud.    Perhaps the impact was worse as the Emperor of Japan was seen as divine himself.   He himself was seen as God, not God's messenger.     The more one believes in old ways the harder is becomes to accept new ones.

Through out the narrative we hear about "a certain person" who may be the narrator's brother or step- brother.   He may have died a hero's death in Manchuria or he may be a deserter hiding away while plotting to kill the Emperor.   Just to muddy the waters a bit more, the Emperor may also be confused at times with the narrator' s father.   He seems never to have known his father.   Here is how the narrator sees his cancer, real or not

"When he began to feel cancer growing in his body cavity with the vigor of fermenting malt...his cancer appeared to him as a flourishing bed of yellow hyacinths or possibly chrysanthemums bathed in a faint, purple light."

Everything matters in this narrative.   It seems as carefully crafted as  a work of Flaubert.    Hyacinths grow with extreme rapidity and chrysanthemums are sacred  to the Emperor.      

Here are some words from the administrator  about another chrysanthemum

"blind to all things  in reality but the colossal chrysanthemum topped with a purple aurora illuminates the 
darkness behind his closed lids more radiantly than any light he has ever seen". 

Maybe we know now why he wears underwater goggles with cellophane on them.

Part of the story is about the narrator's hatred of his mother which seems s to stem either from her preference for his brother or issues with the narrator's never seen by him father.   We learn enough about the narrator to partially reconstruct his interior world.

"My mother was isolated...from the days those ashes returned...she began to ignore every man, woman and child in the valley even when they were right under her nose.   Which left me, a kid to run around the valley..collecting our rations ...and making sure a certain party, who was gradually becoming obsessive over his food, had enough to eat."     

I cannot really begin to convey the strange and wonderful qualities of this work.   Imagine if Rabelais (Oe was a student of French literature and philosophy at the University of Tokyo), Jean Paul Sarte and William Burroughs collaborated on a work right after eating some very bad blow fish and you have an idea of what 
 The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears   feels like as you read it.   

This book is about a lot of things and it is about itself.   It is about loss of faith, feelings of profound loss,
survivor's guilt,   and the destruction of old values.   We feel the effects of the war everywhere.
The Japanese culture provided  no role models or cultural archetypes to help them cope with what could not happen, total defeat.   

There is a long established literary tradition of using the insane to say what cannot be accepted by those in fully sunlit worlds.    The narrator of  The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears has very deep roots in western culture.    His ancestors were in the plays of Euripides, his great grandfather was Dostoevsky's  underground man,   he speaks through Crazy Jane.   Oe has stated that he has come to understand the meaning of his own works through reading the poetry of William Butler Yeats.   

I do not mean to convey  that The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears is a closed work that cannot be enjoyed or even followed without great effort.   It can be enjoyed just as a narrative of a crazy person.  As such we will pick up a lot about the aftereffects of the war on Japan.    We will see how the Japanese people felt when they heard the Emperor speak on the radio, and we will learn something about the home front in rural Japan.   The book is also funny-imagine the very straight laced executor of the narrator's estate being threatened with the loss of his work as administrator of the narrator's estate (who appears to have nothing to pass along anyway and probably is not going to die soon either) by a man in underwater goggles.    

My first judgment is that Oe is as deep as the Russians and as careful as Proust and Flaubert and knows as much about people as Dickens.  

What I Like Best About My Blog-Where I Hope my Blog Will Be In a Year

The management of Book Blogger Appreciation Week   has asked everyone to write a short post for the last day of the week.

Setting Goals!
Write in 50 words or less…what do you like best about your blog right now and where would you like your blog to be a year from now?

What I like best is knowing I am not alone in my love of books.   I have read 1000s of  book blog posts over the last year.   I often see book bloggers  talk about retreating into a world of books.    Many bloggers share their experiences of having been socially awkward, shy bookish children.   Some were supported by their parents in their love for books, some came to The Reading Life in their own ways.   There are as many versions of  The Reading Life as there are readers.

In a year I hope to establish more contacts in the book blogger world (I already have some great ones!), to go further beyond my Euro-centric education by joining in great reading challenges, to increase my technical and design capabilities
but most of all I hope to read a lot of great books in the company of my fellow book bloggers.   

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Blogger Apreciation week Meme

Here are some questions I am answering for book blogger week.    I hope everyone will feel free to jump in with their comments.

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack?
I do not normally snack while reading-I do drink iced green tea a lot while reading.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of
writing in books horrify you?
I mark in my books-I underline-I make notes in the margins

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears?
I dog ear all my paperbacks-I bookmark Hardbacks.

Laying the book flat open?
I never lay the books flat open.   I never read at a desk.

Fiction, Non-fiction, or both?
Mostly fiction but I read royal biographies and literary biographies also.

Hard copy or audiobooks?    Hard copy-I never listen to audio books any more-when I commuted I did.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you
able to put a book down at any point?     I am able to put a book down at any point.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up right away?   50/50

What are you currently reading?   Henry V,   Teach Us to Out Grow Our Madness by Kenzaburo Oe,   Emperor of Japan:  Meiji and his World-1852 to 1912- by Donald Keene

What is the last book you bought?   Teach Us to Out Grow Our Madness by Kenzaburo Oe

Are you the type of person that only reads one book at a time or can
you read more than one at a time?   I always read at least 3 to 6 books at a time.

Do you have a favorite time of day and/or place to read?    maybe between 900 am and 300pm

Do you prefer series books or stand alone books?   No Preference

Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over?     Not really

How do you organize your books? (By genre, title, author’s last name, etc.?)    Sort of by author but not real rigid on it-

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Prize Stock" by Kenzaburo Oe

Price Stock  by Kenzaburo Oe (1957, 67 pages) is the first long short story or novella I have read for
The Japanese Literature III Challenge.   Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize in 1994, is the seventh
literary artist whose work I have so far posted on for the challenge.

Price Stock  center of attention is an American soldier taken captive in a rural village in Japan in WWII.
It is the fifth work I have posted on for the War Through the Generations:  WWII Reading Challenge, and the first one dealing with the Japanese experience during WWII.

Price Stock (some times translated as The Catch) depicts an utterly different world than that
conveyed to us in The Old Capital  by Yasunari Kawabata, Japan's other Nobel Laureate.
(My previous review for the challenge was The Old Capital.)  The Old Capital  sets forth elements of  a society with traditions and beliefs that go back to ancient roots that only the most cultivated can hope to understand.   A  life time can be spent debating the beauty of varying kimono styles.   Price Stock takes us
quickly into a very different  ugly violent world where racism is the norm,  sexual abuse of children is seen as a fitting subject for a joke,  and no one has any authority over anything that does not come from the power to harm.

The story takes place in a small isolated rural village in Japan during WWII.   All we see in the village are children, early teens, women and the elderly.   The men who would have ruled the village only a few years ago and kept traditions in tact are all gone.   Some times the story shows things so crazy happening I had to read it more than once to be sure I was reading it correctly.   One day something huge happens.   An enemy plane
crashes near the village.   Everybody rushes to the crash sight.   They  find two dead soldiers and one living one, a black man.   The villagers place a bear trap on a chain on one of his legs and take him to a cellar to be locked up.   Here is how the narrator, an early teen age boy (any older and he is off to war) sees the captive-
"With the other children I ran out to greet them, and saw a large black man surrounded by adults.   Fear struck me like a fist".   No one in the village has ever seen a black man before.   The village elders debate about what to do with him-"Until we know what to do what the town thinks, rear him.   Rear him like an animal".    They decide they need to feed him, they call him "The Catch".   Here is the narrator's description of part of this feeding process-"Then the bottle was tipped, the black soldier's thick rubbery lips opened, large white teeth aligned like parts inside a machine were exposed, and I saw milk flowing back into a vast, pink, glistening mouth".   The view of the prisoner begins to change-"I began to perceive him as a gentle animal, an obedient animal--the black soldier was as gentle as  domestic animal".   They take the bear trap from his leg and begin to take him for walks around the area.   "To us the black soldier was a rare and wonderful domestic animal, an animal of genius".   Things can change fast-"a black beast that rejected understanding".

The story is  told in a flat way.   Events unfold in an exciting and unexpected way.   The war is not spoken about a lot.   It is just a normal part of their lives to always have it in the background.   The massive bombing is a thing largely for town dwellers to worry about.     The war is a backdrop.

Savage and funny things happen in this story.   We end up kind of liking the narrator.   We never get to know the soldier at all.   Price Stock  is to me a brilliant story of the dehumanization of the other and the corrosive power of war.   I endorse it without reservation as a supreme example of the art of the story teller.

It appears in a collection of four of Mr. Oe's works,  in Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (translated and with a very informative introduction by John Nathan).    I am in the process of reading another of the stories, a work that would be classified as novel of 110 pages or so.   It is very strange is all I will say for now.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Ten questions with Heather of "Maiden's Court"-by BBAW interview partner

My interview partner for Book Blogger Appreciation 
week is Heather of The Maiden's Court.

Heather's blog focuses on historical fiction and royal biographies with a special interest in the Tudor area.  She also writes very interesting reviews of 21th century novels.   I found her reviews to be open, honest, consistently insightful and flawlessly written.   She loves books and her blog shows it.    

We were asked to send our partner ten questions.   Here are the questions I sent Heather and her answers.

  1.    How did you get started as a blogger?
  I started blogging in May of this year.  I had started following a
couple of  brand new blogs about a month before and was encouraged by their success and decided that I could start my own.  I had been writing reviews for books I  had read and been posting them on other websites and always loved to look up facts about the books I had read - it made perfect sense to create a blog and put it all in one place.
  2.   If you could time travel back in history to any era and place
prior to  the 20th century where would you go and why?
  I would travel back to Egypt during the reign of Ramesses II. 
I have always  been interested in Egyptian history - this was the first period I was ever  interested in.  I would love to meet Nefertari and ask her so many  questions.  It would be so amazing to get to explore the ancient culture and
  see how things looked so long ago.

  3.   How soon after you read a book do you post on it?
  I try to write my review within a week and usually post about it on
my blog  soon after.  I will usually post on Goodreads and Shelfari  as
my blog  written.  Sometimes I will hold onto the review for a short while if I am
  using it for an event on my blog.

  4.   How interested are you in tracking your blog traffic?   Do you
keep  track of numbers of visitors, countries, web pages they were on prior to your board?
   I have a counter to track the number of visitors to my blog.  I
haven't  tried tracking where they are from - that might be something I would be  interested in that in the future.

  5.  What do you hope to take away from BBAW?
  I would like to take away the chance to meet new people, find new
blogs to  enjoy and also gain further exposure for my own blog.  enjoy and also gain further exposure for my own blog.

  6.  Do you moderate your comments and do you feel you should reply to all

  I do not moderate my comments - so far I haven't had the need to. 
I think  that everyone should have the right to say what they think, as long as it  isn't attacking anyone's thoughts.  I don't feel that I have to reply to all  comments.  I try to reply to as many as I can - especially if someone asks a
  question or makes a great point.

  7.  What three writers would you most like to interview for your blog?
  I would love to interview Michelle Moran, Philippa Gregory, and
Angie Fox on  my blog.  I have loved Michelle Moran's books - they are the best Egyptian  fiction I have read and she has been able to bring to life the figures that I have loved for so long.  I think it would be an absolute dream to have  Philippa Gregory guest-post or be interviewed on my blog. Her books, The
  Constant Princess and The Other Boleyn Girl, were one reason I
really became  interested in historical fiction and I have read almost all of her Tudor
  series; I just have The Other Queen left.  There would be SO many
things  that I would love to ask her about.  Angie Fox is not a historical fiction  writer, she writes paranormal romance.  I had read her first book to help  someone out with a review and loved it.  She is a newer author and I would love to help others get to know her and her work.

  8.  How has blogging changed your reading habits?
  Blogging has changed my reading habits immensely.  One reason I
really  decided to blog was because it would keep me reading.  I had been on a long  break from reading and I really wanted to get into it again.  I have joined  several challenges that get me to read books that I may not have considered  before.  I have taken up listening to some audio books (mostly because of my  long commute to work) but also to expand upon what I read.  I have read more
  books since I started my blog in May, than I had read in the previous 2

  9.  How do you feel about devices like the Kindle or Sony's Book Reader?
I do not have either of these devices but I think that they are a
great  idea.  I would get one of these if I did more traveling - that way I wouldn't have to lug a bunch of books with me.
    I like the ability to get  what you want at any time and have it not take up a lot of space.

  10.  Do you keep your blog on a preset course or do you take it
where ever  your reading leads  your or somewhere in  between?
  My blog is never on a preset course.  I have realized that every
time I try  to plan out what I want to do, it changes.  I try to make a general plan, in  theory, and then as I go along with a book, whatever comes up I will post  about.  Sometimes I try to correspond things to different events I am  hosting - but I don't plan them out far in advance.

I will be following Heather's blog from now on and look forward to seeing what she reads in the years ahead.

Monday, September 14, 2009

"The Old Capital" by Yasunari Kawabata-

The Old Capital

The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata (1962, 182 pages)

The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata (translated by J Martin Holman) is my the six Japanese novel for 
The Japanese Literature Challenge III challenge.    Yansunaru Kawabata was the first Japanese novelist to win the Nobel prize, winning in 1968.    He is considered one of the main forces behind thel English Language Literary Establishments initial  interest in the post WWII Japanese novel.

The story line is not complicated.   A young woman of twenty, Chieko, was taken in while a foundling and raised by the owners of a small Kimono Factory in Kyoto.  She latter discovers she has a twin sister still living and tries to find out about her real parents.  
The Old Capital  is about the pairing of opposites.    Chieko's parents lives were destroyed by events beyond their control.   Her adopted parents produce artifacts of another time,  via artistic conventions set long ago.    The conventions have become almost part of nature to her parents.    There are numerous references to images of purity through out the work.    When we look st the world out side of the Kimono shop we see the old ways do not mean what they once did.    The beauty of nature with marvelous references to cedar trees is a common theme.    Chieko is very dedicated to her parents.   She is torn between trying to find her past, reunite with her lost at birth twin sister,  and finding her own way in life.

There are no great tragedies in the book but a feeling of sadness and loss hangs over the work.   The book is about the destruction of a culture steeped in beauty and ritual.    There is no mention of the horrific events of the 1940s  but it is never far away.   One of the things I was moved by in this work was the underlying sense that it was not the true Japanese culture that lead to the death of millions of their own people but the perversion of this culture by those who only half understood it.     The Old Capital  is about beauty-the beauty of a kimono, a ceder tree,  flowers and  Chieko and her twin sister.     It is about old religions we will never really understand.  It is about loneliness.   "Good fortune is short, while loneliness is long".  

Along the way we can learn some things from this book.   We learn about the economics of the kimono business, we see ancient rituals and practices.    We also see how rituals can keep us from joy while they protect us from losing ourselves.   The Old Capital  is a wonderful book that would repay numerous readings.   Of the six Japanese novels I have read so far, it seems the purest attempt to create beauty out of nothing.    Unlike the other works, it does not rely heavily on plot line to keep one reading.

To me Dolce Bellezza's The Japanese Literature Challenge III challenge is the very apex of what Book Blogger Appreciation week is all about.

I will next review an utterly different work Price Stock  by Konzabura Oe.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"Adventures of a Child of War" by Lin Acacio-Flores 2002

Adventures of a Child of War by Lin Acacio-Flores (2002-144 pages)  is a very well written, simply and straightforwardly told story of the  experiences of a young middle class boy growing up in Manila during the period of the Japanese occupation.   (The years covered are 1940 up to 1947.)

Eduardo has a very good comfortable life.   He is the only child of a teacher and an Engineer living in a nice part of Manila.   His family has a full time cook and gardener, as all middle class people did.   He has some German playmates on his block.   Slowly Eduardo begins to see his normally relaxed father becoming tense and nervous all the time.   He observes his parents constantly talking over  "the news".    They have never done that before.

One day he sees his father, who probably has never done a days manual labor in his life, begin with the help of the gardener to dig a big hole in the ground.   He hears his parents fighting over  the hole.   They do not fight very often.   His mother says that she will not hide in a hole in the ground no matter what happens.    His father then says "Ok we can stay in the kitchen as the walls are thickest there".   Eduardo knows soon enough that they are talking about a bomb shelter.  His father tries to make the family feel safe.

"No one will attack us.   Who wants to fight the Americans anyway?   Not the Japanese.   It would be like
cockroaches wanting to fight tigers!"    Eduardo knows his father does not quite believe this.    One day Eduardo's German playmates tell him that they are moving back to Germany as their father says war is coming.

The radio begins to advise people about practice bomb attack drills.   The young men of the neighborhood
treat it as a game.    Then one day "Japanese planes came.  Fast, thousands of saws on steel.   The planes dropped their bombs on Manila...The air-raid siren would scream any moment of the night or
day...I felt tired all the time like I hadn't slept for a hundred years."    The family hides in the kitchen.   The raids seem to go on forever.   They are lucky, no bomb falls on their house.   Eduardo's father goes out to check on family members.   He comes back to report the many deaths and  the destruction of a beautiful city.  "I saw a dead child your age on one of the streets of Santa Cruz...what if it had been you?".   One day the family look out the window and see a terrible sight, Japanese soldiers marching down their street.   They are horrified as the Japanese bang on their door.   The father goes  to the door trying his best to be calm.   The family is lucky.   They have a small house so they Japanese do not want it.   Their neighbors with bigger houses are being put out of their homes with nothing.   Soon Eduardo's mother Lourdes is afraid to go out of the house for fear of being molested by the Japanese.   The Japanese soldiers begin to take all the pigs, chickens and most of the rice.   Lourdes uses her ingenuity to feed the family as best as she can.   "Mama said we are running out of rice and we had to make what we have last longer.   She had camote leaves and katuray flowers floating in the lugaw as well as bits of tuyo which made the soupy rice quite tasty."

Eduardo begins to see his father and other men in the neighborhood talking when there are no Japanese around.   Eduardo asks his father what they are talking about.   For the first time in his life Eduardo's father raises his hand as if he will strike him and tells him to go away.   It turns out the men are working on a plot to steal back the rice from the Japanese.   If Eduardo had heard about this and repeated it anywhere everybody
involved would be killed.   The plan works and they get more rice.   One day shortly after this the Japanese walk into the family house at dinner time.   They look in the pots and all over but they do not find any stolen rice as Lourdes had hid it well.   When the soldiers find a full pot of quality rice in a neighbors kitchen the father is taken away.

Life goes on and people begin to adjust and cope.   People have to feed and protect their families.   A lot of people have to compromise their integrity to do this.   It might be easy to say you would give up  your life rather than do that but if you had a wife and three children who would die also the decision is not so clear.
On the other hand, if you are seen  by other residents as helping the Japanese you could be killed as a collaborator.   Likewise spiteful neighbors or business associates could  report you  to the authorities as anti-Japanese, in exchange for a few kilos of rice for their families.

One day Eduardo hears a horse coming down the street.   It is being ridden by a Japanese captain.   This is an amazing sight to Eduardo.   The captain eventually become friends with the boy.   One day the captain shows him his pictures of his beloved wife and his father and  the Japanese begin to seem a bit more human.

Well known historical events are brought into the story.   The much revered General MacArthur keeps his promise to return.   We see the Japanese digging a huge hole in the ground and carrying all sorts of  big boxes into the ground.   In due time the Japanese are beaten and surrender.   We find out that the Japanese captain had left a mysterious map where Eduardo could find it once the captain died.   We do not see him die but we know he did.   Eduardo and his father spend two days studying the map until they see it as the clue to buried treasure.

I have told more of the plot of this story than I normally would in a review as this wonderful book will be hard to obtain outside of the Philippines.   It is not on   This is a shame as this well told story deserves a place among young adult literature on WWII.   It is the only book of  its kind that I have seen on this topic.   I learned a lot from this well written book.  It kept my interest through out and I cared about Eduardo and his family.   There are no great horrors shown in the book.  It is a good look at Manila in WWII.   It demonstrates how values can be eroded by the compromises made to survive.  It spotlights well the suffering and heroism of the ordinary people of the Philippines.    I fear this book will never reach the wider audience it deserves.    People familiar with Manila will appreciate the local references. 

Mel U-Quezon City
The Reading Life 

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"The Univited" by Geling Yan Chinese Challenge

The Uninvited by Geling Yan (2006, 276 pages) is my first book for The Chinese Challenge hosted by Jeannie of Bibliofile.   It was published in the USA as Banqueting Bug.

The Uninvited
is a fun, fast paced, vivid account of the life of a Chinese peasant, living in contemporary Beijing, who changes his life when he begins to impersonate a free lance journalist one lucky day. 

Dan, the central character, finds out that by pretending to be a freelance journalist he can eat free at elaborate promotional banquets while at the same time being paid for his time in the hope that this will induce him to write an article favorable to the sponsor of the banquet.   Imagine
his shock when he discovers the fee is more than he could make in a month at his current hard labor job.   Plus the food is at a level and quantity he has never before experienced in his life.
We enter a food obsessed world.   (Of the 276 pages of the novel, at least 100 mention food.)

"minced pigeon breasts with mashed tofu  molded into tiny a big oblong plate lay 20 huge sea snails..he won't let her life pass without knowing what shark fins or sea cucumbers or crab claw tips taste like".

Modern Beijing seems a completely corrupt place.   It is taken for granted that bank loans require a gift of a TV set to the loan officer, that female college students will serve as plates in what is called a "Nude Banquet" to pay their tuition, and that the developer of a big condominium project will seek a way to cheat his workers out of their pay.    Under the morals of the regime, you are not allowed to take a cash payment of any kind but the gift of a car to a government official is normal.  

Dan grew up on boiled tree bark and grubs and soon gets used to his new way of life.   He begins to see going to banquets as his job.   He finds out that there are banquets all over town.   He even has some phony business cards printed up that identify him as a free lance journalist.
Dan meets some interesting people, has some adventures and does somethings that a man with a great wife like Little Plum should not do.   I do not want to give away a lot of the plot.

The book does not suggest that Beijing is an especially corrupt city.   it is a city in transition with millions of people once tied to old ways and the land now made adrift in a culture that provides no replacement values.   This occurs  when traditional values are destroyed or turned into a mockery of themselves.   I did note that all anyone seems to read in this book are newspapers.
No one has any real Reading Life.  

I liked The Uninvited a lot.  I learned some interesting things.   I toured a condominium
under construction, I learned a lot about Chinese food.   I found out why there are so many foot
massage places in Beijing.    I found out what preparations a woman must go through for her job as a human plate.  I saw a strong marriage, though not a perfect one.   I saw that not everyone is
in fact corrupted.     It is an easy to read, well plotted and deeper than it first appears.   I would happily read other books by Geling Yan.

Geling Yan has an interesting life history.   She was born in Shanghai.   She has been, among other things, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Chinese Army, serving in Tibet and Vietnam.   Several of her books have been made into movies, in China.   

Mel u

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Strangers" by Taichi Yamada A Japanese Ghost Story

Strangers by Taichi Yamada (2003-201 pages-trans by Wayne Lemmers) 

Strangers by Taichi Yamada is my fifth Japanese novel and my first Japanese ghost story.

This is very well told story captured and kept my attention all the way to the last page.    Of the five Japanese novels I have read this is the first one in which I could directly relate to the central character.    After Dark,  Goodbye Tsugumi, and Real World had female teenagers as their central characters.
My fourth Japanese novel The Crimson Labyrinth centers on a man who let one setback ruin his life.

In Strangers the central character,  Harada, is  forty eight year old TV script writer.   He is not a great success but he is also not a total failure.   His parents were killed when he was 12 but he coped.   His wife left him but he got on with his life without a lot of fuss.  He tries to enjoy the simple pleasures of life but he is not a slave to his senses.   He is alone a lot but he is ok with that and sort of likes it.  He lives in a big building that is mostly offices.   Basically he is a sensible normal person.   The story line does not depend or turn on him having glaring problems or issues with the world.

One day he decides to go down to the theater district of Tokyo where he lived with his parents thirty five years ago.  He meets a man that looks exactly as he recalls his father the last time he saw him.   He accepts the man's invitation to go home with him for a beer.   The man's wife has an uncanny exact resemblance to Harada's mother, as he recalls her.   She even  talks to him just like a mother would.   On his second visit the man is not there yet.   The lady notices he has a spot on his shirt and tells him to take his shirt off so she can wash it.   He is shocked-he thinks-what will the man think if he comes home and finds me with no shirt on?   He asks the lady her name.  She says, sort of annoyed, "Why would you ask your mother a silly question like that".   She thinks she is and seems to be his mother, dead since he was 12.   He at first begins to doubt his sanity.   Is he having a mental break down or has he come into contact with beings from another realm in the shape of his parents?
He begins to see them as the ghosts of his parents.   He knows he is risking his sanity but he continues to go back to see them, not knowing if they are real or not.  In the mean time he begins a romance with a strange acting woman who lives in his building.  People who see him start to tell him he is looking terribly sick as if he is on the door of death himself.   He looks at himself in the mirror and can see no changes.   He wonders if this is connected to the ghosts of his parents.   

The story keeps us interested and wondering right down to the ending.    All of the characters are well developed.   The dialogue is intelligent.   We get a feel for the theater district in Tokyo.   We learn a bit about how the TV industry works in Japan.   We visit some apartments of Tokyo residents, we go out for some meals.   

For me it did create a vicarious sense of fear without any special effects.   The fear that you are losing your mind or the fear that you have not.   The fear that what you  love the most will destroy you.
Anyone who has lost beloved parents will relate to this story.  I enjoyed the book a lot and think most people will.  

Mel u