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Category Archive for 'J – K – L'

Ha Seong-nan’s latest collection of stories, originally published in Korea in 2002, reflects the fresh, dynamic approach to writing which has made her writing so successful both in Korea and internationally over the past twenty years. Famous for her sharp, penetrating imagery, the author creates stories that capture the small moments which make the lives of her characters so memorable for the reader. At the same time, however, she often places these characters in circumstances which evoke unsettling thoughts and feelings, often close to horror, as the reader gains sudden new insights into what has happened in the past and what may happen in the future. High on my Favorites list for the year!

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Among the most prolific novelists and playwrights in Japanese history, Yukio Mishima wrote thirty-four novels, fifty plays, twenty-five books of short stories, and many books of essays, before he committed ritual suicide after he failed in a coup attempt in Japan in 1970, when he was forty-five. This novel, written in 1961, now translated by Andrew Clare into English for the first time, is one of his early novels, quite different from his major work, the Sea of Fertility tetralogy, which traces Japanese history throughout the twentieth century. Here, in a novel which has been described as a parallel to Japanese noh drama, with its wooden masks, Mishima writes an unusual psychological novel which begins with the ending, as the three main characters see themselves as “three fish caught up in a net…a net of sin.” As they pose for a picture in the small fishing port of Iro in West Izu, on a peninsula to the west of Tokyo, the reader has already become aware of “a final wretched incident,” the appearance of “droplets of blood [on the] dazzingly reflective surface of the concrete,” the “anguish” that Yuko, the main female character, feels within, and her comment about how “marvelous it would be to erect a tomb like this – the three of us lined up together.” The novel “progresses” backward as it develops relationships and themes.

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In this unique, ground-breaking novel, John Okada creates such a vibrant picture of the first- and second-generation Japanese-Americans during and immediately after World War II, that it is impossible to imagine readers of this book not being universally moved by what they read here. The Foreword alone, written by Ruth Ozecki as a letter to the author in April, 2014, when this edition was published, attests to the fact that Okada, who died in his forties in 1971, never knew how important No-No Boy would become – the only such book ever written by a Japanese-American about the plight of Japanese immigrants who came under immediate and universal suspicion the instant Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Over 110,000 people who had come to the US from Japan, some of them many years ago, were rounded up and sent to prison camps in the desert for the duration of World War II, forced to give up their homes, their jobs, their businesses, and their dreams. Young Japanese-American men, however, were offered a chance to prove how American they had become. A required questionnaire contained two questions regarding their loyalty: Were they willing to serve in combat duty in the US armed forces, and would they swear “unqualified allegiance” to the country and defend it from any attack by foreign or domestic forces. Those who answered “no” to these two questions were immediately sent to prison for two years, by which time the war was over. This book is an up close study of the effects of the imprisonment on one young no-no boy after he was released to a population which regarded him as a coward. A classic which will make every reader feel the pain of this young man and some of his friends as they try to reenter society.

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Life for Sale opens with main character Hanio in the hospital recovering from an overdose of a sedative, assumed to be intentional, though “He was not suffering as the result of some romantic breakup…Nor did he have any serious financial problems.” He had been working as a copywriter for an advertising company and had no particular thoughts of suicide. He decides to resign from his job and use his substantial severance pay to do whatever he wants in the life he has left. Returning to his apartment, he places a note on his front door: “Hanio Yamada – Life for Sale.” What follows is a series of adventures, as five different characters come to his door to hire him to work for them on projects so dangerous that Hanio could die. Since there are five different “sales,” it is obvious that something unexpected happens each time Hanio is hired, and it is these bizarre twists which make the episodes fun to read. It is tempting to “see into” some of these episodes to imagine some of the issues which the author himself may have been facing in his own difficult life, but the overall feeling here is one of clever trickery, rather than horror, with Mishima’s literary skill surviving even the accusation that this is “pulp” fiction.

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Shimada sets this newly translated 1982 “locked room” mystery, the second novel of his career, at the top of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, in a fictional building designed by the main character, Kozaburo Hamamoto. From the outset, the author stresses that Hamamoto’s house is a very special creation, with floors that are not level and a tower with the same five degree tilt as the Tower of Pisa. This unique fictional residence is the setting for a celebration of Christmas, 1983, as owner Kozaburo Hamamoto, a widower, has invited eight guests to spend the holiday weekend with him at the Crooked House, also called the Ice Floe Mansion. The mysteries begin almost immediately. At breakfast time, one guest does not answer his door, and outside the room a dark figure is lying in the snow. As the guests go outside to get closer, they see that there are objects strewn around the figure. The “body,” however, turns out to be one of Hamamoto’s antique puppet dolls from Czechoslovakia – a Golem – with a missing head. When they return to the house, however, they find the body of a chauffeur who has come with one of the guests, stabbed to death with a hunting knife which has a white string attached. Additional crimes occur, and the mysteries become much more complex, eventually requiring the work of a fortune teller, psychic, and self-styled detective to help solve one of the most detailed and complex locked room mysteries ever.

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