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Category Archive for 'J – K – L'

In what is the most engrossing collection of stories I have read in years, author Haruki Murakami introduces and continues to focus on the very meaning of reality and how one approaches it, participates in it, and finds ways to survive and enjoy it – through love, hope, trust, friendship, and any number of other imaginative ways. Though this may seem an esoteric and complex philosophical set of ideas, Murakami’s personality shines through here – and the resulting stories are not only surprisingly lively and enjoyable, but most often fun and funny. The subjects – including jazz, baseball, a talking monkey, and an unattractive woman who happens to share the speaker’s deep love of Schumann’s “Carnaval,” are offbeat but so brilliantly relatable that this reader, at least, was able to put aside any qualms about the exotic content in order to see and enjoy what the author would do with these subjects. As a result, I have now read this book twice, and can imagine reading it again regularly as a vivid reminder to take nothing for granted and to stay open to the unexpected.

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Winner of Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 2012, “Touring the Land of the Dead,” a novella by Maki Kashimada, has now reached a large American audience for the first time. Regarded in Japan as an avant-garde writer, Kashimada rejects many of the cliches we think of when we regard books by Japanese women as quiet, elegant, formal, and “polite.” Here Kashimada, translated by Haydn Trowell, sees the world in realistic terms and does not hesitate to depict what she sees as the sad, meaningless lives some people accept as their “due,” showing their inner turmoil and even rebellion as they try to improve life for themselves and, often, their immediate families. “Touring the Land of the Dead,” the longer and more emotionally involving of the two novellas in this debut, takes a close look at a one family which, in successive generations, has become less and less successful, reflecting the damage and even bullying imposed on some members of the family by others who take advantage of them. A hardworking wife struggles to stay afloat and caring of her husband. “Ninety-Nine Kisses,” however, is “thinner,” less thoughtful, and less involving than “Touring the Land of the Dead.” Supposedly modeled on Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, the overall atmosphere, mood, and thematic focus of “Ninety-Nine Kisses” remain very different from the Tanizaki novel.

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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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