The Japanese Literature Challenge 16 (This is a sticky post.)

Welcome to the Japanese Literature Challenge 16!

During January and February of 2023, we will read Japanese novels, short stories, mysteries, thrillers, or even poetry if you so choose.

Please leave a link to that which you have read by clicking on the Mr. Linky widget below. That way, we can all have a chance to enjoy what you chose.

I so look forward on sharing this virtual trip to Japan with you!

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada (Japanese Literature Challenge 16)

I remember how as a young bride I enjoyed staying at home and caring for my husband. We lived in Germany at the time, and I would walk to the Konditorei for bread to make us lunch which I would then carry to where he worked.

It was an idyllic time, yet I eagerly grabbed the opportunity to teach when the new school year came. Could I have been happy being a homemaker forever? It is something I’ll never know, for I taught until I retired, occasionally yearning for the privilege of “only” caring for the home; having one job, instead of two.

Maybe it is as simple as wanting what we cannot have, for when Asahi’s husband is transferred to a small village, she, too, gives up her job in Tokyo. Which is not something she loved in the first place, being a part time employee. Yet she and a colleague fantasize about the prospect of not having to go to work any more. Until it becomes a reality for her.

I’d wake up a little before six, pack my husband’s lunches, make his breakfast, see him off, go shopping, clean the house, or maybe run the laundry – but, after that, I didn’t have anything to do. Living the dream? Really?

p. 17

One day, her mother-in-law calls from her work to ask Asa if she will make a deposit at the bank for her. The bills and deposit slip are waiting on the counter, where she forgot them that morning. So Asa sets off in palpable Summer heat, I can feel it through the description on the pages, and suddenly falls into a hole.

The hole felt as though it was exactly my size – a trap made just for me.

p, 23

It is a hole she did not see, could not anticipate, and therefore could not avoid falling into. A metaphor for the life she is now living in a remote village, with no job, no friends, no entertainment, and a husband who is only described as either sleeping or scrolling though his cell phone.

I knew what I was getting into. But that doesn’t mean I knew everything.

p. 40

When do we know everything? We blindly go forward, making the best choices we can, and some of us pray for wisdom along the way to guide us. But now, added to this “simple” story, Asa begins seeing strange animals. Meeting strange people, like the Sensei at the 7 Eleven, and children flipping through comics who don’t look at her. She encounters her husband’s brother, whom she didn’t even know existed, and he warns her of a sleeping animal’s fangs when he points it out at the bottom of another hole.

“Fangs? That kind of animal had fangs? Then again, how would I know? I didn’t know anything.

p. 41

And so we encounter a discouraged wife who also seems to be seeing things, or at least imagining them, and reality is mixed with a bit of surrealism. Still, I found plenty to ponder in this slim volume packed with powerful observations.

People always fail to notice things. Animals, cicadas, puddles of melted ice cream on the ground, the neighborhood shut-in. But what would you expect? It seems like most folks don’t see what they don’t want to see. The same goes for you. There just be plenty you don’t see.

p. 46

“It takes a writer of great talent to mold the banality of the everyday into the stuff of art, and to build an entire world around a metaphor other writers might quickly deploy and cast aside, but Oyamada is in complete control of her talent. “

Japan Times

The Hole by Hiroko Okayama, translated by David Boyd, won the Akutagawa Prize. It is a short book, which I read in one afternoon and highly recommend.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda (Japanese Literature Challenge 16)

I must admit to feeling equivocated about this book. I loved the cover, as if that matters, and the concept of two people struggling over the course of one night to discover why their guide died during a mountain trek they had taken. They each suspect the other of murder, as neither was in the other’s line of sight when he fell to his death.

But, it took me almost a week to read 204 pages because I just couldn’t engage with it.

Actually, the story ended up being more about these two, Aki and Hiro, than about the death of their guide. We don’t even know how he died, exactly, other than Aki’s suppositions at the end. What we are embroiled in is the relationship between Aki and Hiro, their combined memories, and what they mean to each other.

It was a little confusing, at first, as they both speak in the first person, and I wondered who it was that was telling me their perspective. The chapters alternate between each voice, so after awhile it became clearer. But, as far as Japanese literature goes, and especially a book from Riku Onda, I felt it far from thrilling.

I am going on now to The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd, which won the Akutagawa Prize.

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

For him, I was the daughter and son he’d never had, the confidant he’d always sought, the business and art partner who’d boldly advocated for his goals, and the lover he’d dreamed about but held in abeyance. For me, he was the father I’d lost, the companion with whom I could discuss the day’s minutiae, the business mentor who’d supported me beyond my wildest dreams, and the lover for whom is longed but could never have. (p. 248)

I had to break away from my reading of Japanese literature, and books for the Nordic Finds, to complete this month’s Book Club choice: The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. I quickly found myself immersed in the story of Belle de Costa Greene, who was the extraordinary librarian for J. P. Morgan in the early 1900’s.

Her courage, strength, and intellectual ability are inspiring, as we learn of the way she gained Mr. Morgan’s complete respect. He gave her great financial allowances to bid for the books he wanted at auction.

Belle perfected the ability to “hide in plain sight,” as she sought to present herself as a White woman in a highly prejudiced society. Yet, she was not the only one with secrets. Anne, J. P. Morgan’s daughter, was involved in a “Boston marriage” with another woman.

This book is a perfect choice for Book Clubs, as it includes a myriad of topics: race, feminism, adultery, friendship, and the very powerful relationship between an extremely wealthy man who needed this extremely intelligent and brave librarian.

Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson (Nordic Finds Challenge)

When I was in third grade, there was a girl I greatly admired in my class who checked out a Moomin book from the library. Wanting to be like her, I also checked one out.

I hated it. I didn’t get it, I thought it was boring and so I returned it. And I haven’t picked up a Moomin book since.

Some of you may know of my passion with Traveler’s Factory Notebooks. I have begun a small collection of them, since 2016, and when I saw the special collaboration I hungered after one of these:

It is a brown passport size traveler’s notebook with an embossed picture of Little My on the front, and it is only sold in Japan. “Well,” I thought, “at least I have access to the book.”

And so, I began reading Moominland Midwinter last night, and this time I am utterly entranced. It is one of those books, in my opinion, which is written for children but is really better suited to adults. For the sentences and phrases are powerful when you know enough to appreciate them.

Consider the descriptions of snow:

At dawn the snowdrift on the roof began to move. It went slithering down a bit, then it resolutely coasted over the roof edge and sat down with a soft thump.

p. 5

Or:

The valley was enveloped in a kind of grey twilight. It also wasn’t green any longer, it was white. Everything that had once moved had become immobile. There were no living sounds. Everything angular was now rounded.

p. 9

Moomintroll awakes when a bit of moonlight shines right in his face, and he cannot fall asleep again. He feels terribly lonely, where, “in the drawing room also, grouped around the biggest porcelain stove of the house, the Moomin family lay sleeping their long winter sleep.” And so, he goes out to find Snufkin who went to the South in October.

Of course, Moontroll doesn’t make it, for how could the story continue without his interactions with Little My, Too-ticky, or the Groke? Each character is so charming and so original, that I read this book with great delight.

Favorite quotes:

And suddenly Sorry-oo (the dog) knew that he had made a mistake. They weren’t his brethren at all, and one couldn’t have any fun with them (the wolves). One could only be eaten up, and possibly have the time to regret that one had behaved like an ass. He stopped his tail, which was wagging from pure habit, and thought, “What a pity, I could have slept all those nights instead of sitting here and longing myself silly…”

p. 109

and:

Little My had always had the gift of having fun on her own, and whatever she might have been thinking about spring, she felt no need to talk about it.

p. 117

and:

“Why didn’t you talk like that in the winter?”said Moomintroll, “It’d have been such a comfort. Remember I said once: ‘There were a lot of apples here,’ and you just replied: ‘But now there’s a lot of snow.’ Didn’t you understand that I was melancholy?”

Too-tricky shrugged her shoulders. “One has to discover everything for oneself,” she replied. “And get over it all alone.”

p. 118

and:

“I must get up before the others next spring,” Moominmamma said. “How nice to be on your own for a bit and do what you like.”

p. 130

Read this for Anna Book Bel’s Nordic Finds Challenge 2023 as, of course, Tove Jansson is from Finland.

A Death in Tokyo by Keigo Higashino (Japanese Literature Challenge 16)

Ever so slowly, Keigo Higoshino leads us precisely through the murder investigation which begins with a man named Takeaki Aoyagi stumbling down the sidewalk as though drunk, and then dying at the foot of a kirin statue on the Nihonbashi Bridge.

When a young man in possession of Aoyagi’s wallet is struck by a car as he’s running away, it is assumed he was the killer. After all, he had called his girlfriend before he was struck to leave this message:

“I’ve done something awful…Something terrible’s happened. I don’t know what to do.” Those were his exact words…He sounded hysterical.

p. 176

But, that would’ve been too simple.

Instead we learn that these two have the same workplace, Kanaseki Metals, and that terrible accidents have been covered up. Is this the cause for murder? One major headline in the news reads:

Did Aoyagi order the cover-up of workplace accidents? Factory manager reveals all.

p. 137

But then, why are hundreds of folded origami cranes left at shrines, most particularly the Suitengu Shrine which is where people pray for the safety of babies as well as protection from drowning…?

We have reason to believe that Mr. Aoyagi was a regular visitor to Suitengu Shrine. Offering up origami cranes one hundred at a time. Does that ring any bells…

p. 300

The pieces of the puzzle seem obscure, and unrelated, but Detectives Kyoichiro Kaga and his cousin Shuhei Matsumiya are brilliant sleuths, able to find the cause and resolution of a most heartbreaking death.

This was a fascinating thriller, pleasing in more ways than having an interesting plot. Like all of my favorite novels, there is much deeper meaning, and application, to the lives of the father, Aoyagi, and his family than a typical American mystery provides. It proves once again why Kiego Higoshino is my favorite Japanese crime writer.

City Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita

The City was the nickname they gave the Walcott Building, because back in the sixties, when Point Mettier was an army port, they used to refer to it as “the City Under One Roof.” The City was where all the good stuff was when the military was there, but now it was just an abandoned building.

City Under One Roof

I don’t know if I enjoyed this book more for the setting, characters, or the plot. All of it is written with a mesmerizing style; I felt I lived in Alaska trapped by a snowstorm which rendered the tunnel inoperable. I felt that I, myself, was surrounded by an assorted bunch of rather odd people: Amy and her mother who ran Star Asian Food; the police consisting of J.B. and Chief Sipley; Mrs. Blackmon and her two sons: Spenser and Troy; Lonnie, who muttered nursery rhymes to herself and cared for her pet moose, Denny, while fretting that she would be sent back to the Institute. Worst of all was the arrival of a band of men with tattoos and weapons, brought by a particularly cruel leader named Wolf.

When Amy finds a foot, still encased in a boot, washed up on the beach, Detective Cara brings herself from Anchorage to this remote village. It is a village which dries up in the Winter when the tourists are gone, for it has none of the ice fishing, or skiing, or snowmobiling which would attract them. And so Cara finds herself staying with a group of rather odd people living in one building. One of them has killed the person whose foot, and hand, and later on, head, are discovered piecemeal.

Cara has brought herself into the investigation because she has lost her husband and son a year ago; by finding the killer, she hopes to find an answer to what has happened to her family.

I found this to be an exceptional thriller, both unique and literary. I recommend it to anyone who loves thrillers such as I do, and who can envision themselves in a remote Alaskan village surrounded by snow and a killer.

(City Under One Roof will be available for sale on January 10, 2023. Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group of Penguin Random House for the advanced copy.)

A Reading Year in Review: 2022

January~

  • Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama (Japanese Literature Challenge 15)
  • Touring the Land of The Dead by Maki Kashimada (Japanese Literature Challenge 15)
  • Harriet The Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (reread)
  • Silent Parade by Keigo Higashino (Japanese Literature Challenge 15)
  • A Man And His Cat by Umi Sakurai (Japanese Literature Challenge 15)

~February~

  • The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson (Nordic Finds Challenge 2022)
  • The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarzcuk (International Booker Prize 2022 longlist)
  • One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (reread)
  • The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

~March~

  • Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent (Reading Ireland Month 2022)
  • Heaven by Meiko Kawakami (Japanese Literature Challenge 15, International Booker Prize 2022)
  • Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro, translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle (International Booker Prize 2022)
  • The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman, translated from the French by Leslie Camhi (International Booker Prize 2022)
  • More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, (International Booker Prize 2022)
  • Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated from the Korean by Anton Hur (International Booker Prize 2022)

~April~

  • I Is Another by Jon Fosse
  • A New Name by Jon Fosse (International Booker Prize 2022 longlist)
  • Tomb of Sand (International Booker Prize 2022 Winner)
  • The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis (#1954 Club and #Narniathon21)
  • City on Fire by Don Winslow (DNF)
  • How Lucky by Will Leitch (Edgar Award 2022 longlist)

~May~

  • Happy Stories Mostly (International Booker Prize 2022 Longlist)

~June~

  • The Shell Seekers by Rosamund Pilcher (20 Books of Summer, reread)
  • All The Lovers In the Night by Meiko Kawakami (20 Books of Summer)
  • Cats of the Louvre by Taiyo Matsumata (20 Books of Summer)
  • Intimacies by Katie Kitamura (20 Books of Summer)
  • Book of Night by Holly Black (DNF) (20 Books of Summer)
  • Heights by Louise Candlish (20 Books of Summer)
  • Geiger by G. Skordeman (DNF, 20 Books of Summer)

~July~

  • The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (20 Books of Summer)
  • Perestroika In Paris by Jane Smiley (20 Books of Summer, Paris in July 2022)
  • Paris by Edward Rutherfurd (20 Books of Summer, Paris in July 2022)
  • Maigret and The Reluctant Witnesses by Georges Simenon (20 Books of Summer, Paris in July 2022)
  • The Martins by David Foenkinos (20 Books of Summer, Paris in July 2022)
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami (20 Books of Summer, read along with Swift as Inspiration)
  • Outside by Ragnar Jonasson (20 Books of Summer)

~August~

  • Never by Ken Follett (20 Books of Summer)
  • Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada (20 Books of Summer, Women In Translation Month)
  • Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (20 Books of Summer, Booker Prize 2022 longlist)
  • life ceremony by Sayaka Murata (20 Books of Summer, Women in Translation Month)

~September~

  • Shogun by James Clavell
  • Tai Pan by James Clavell
  • Gai Jin by James Clavell
  • Horse by Geraldine Brooks (for Book Club)

~October~

~November~

  • BabelAn Arcane History by R. F. Kuang
  • Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt (celebrating its 50 year anniversary, reread for the fifth time)
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (reread for the fourth time)

~December~ 

  • The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (audio on BBC Sounds)
  • Three Assassins by Kotoro Isaka
  • The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray (for Book Club)

I spent less time blogging this year, and more time rereading some of my favorite pieces of literature throughout my life: Harriet the Spy, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Anna Karenina, The Secret History, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, The Shell Seekers, The Horse and His Boy, and I Is Another.

But, the year was not without great joy participating in favorite blogging events. I loved reading for the following:

And now, my favorite books of 2023 (in no particular order):

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • I Is Another/A New Name by Jon Fosse
  • Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama
  • Heaven by Meiko Kawakami
  • Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro
  • Intimacies by Katie Kitamura
  • Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
  • Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi
  • The Marriage Portrait by Maggie 0’Farrell

2023 beckons, with repeated favorite blogging events, and newly published books. I do not know if I will post as regularly as I have over the past 16 years, but I will pop up from time to time, particularly this winter as we embark on the Japanese Literature Challenge 16 in January and February. Please know, I do look for what you read, and do love the book passion we share.

Three Assassins by Kotaro Isaka (International Bestselling Author of Bullet Train)

I think it’s a good idea to make Isaka’s books into film, such as happened with Bullet Train. They are certainly more plot driven than anything else, and if it is action you seek, there is no other Japanese author I can think of to provide the drama that Isaka does.

This wasn’t exactly a book I would choose to read at Christmas time, for there certainly is neither love nor peace within these pages. But, it came in ‘New’ at the library, so I checked it out, then promptly spilled a mug of coffee all over it. “Was there cream in it?” my friend who works at the library asked. “Yes,” I replied. So, I have a stinking suspicion I just bought myself a book which isn’t even worthy, literally, of giving away.

The three assassins are the Cicada, the Whale, and the Pusher. They are introduced to us as their roles revolve around a man named Suzuki, who is seeking retribution with a company named Fräulein, or Maiden. The company has a boss whose “idiot son,” has crushed Suzuki’s wife with his SUV, just for the thrill of it.

But, before he can kill the idiot son himself, Suzuki sees the son run over. Apparently, a man named the Pusher has thrust the idiot son into traffic, and he is crushed before the crowd’s eyes.

The Whale “forces” people to commit suicide at his boss, politician Kaji’s, request. His favorite book, the only one he ever reads and rereads, is Crime and Punishment. When his copy wears out, he buys a new one. Lives under a tarp in the homeless section of Tokyo, where he encounters the ghosts of people he has forced to die.

The Cicada feels like a puppet, manipulated by the strings beyond his control…

These three interact with one another in a somewhat unbelievable fashion; it seems their paths cross because they are all in a powerful underground world of murder. The scenes shift quickly from one event to another, as The Times (London) has said, “(it)…has a Tarantino meets the Coen Brothers feel to it.”

If reading a book which feels like watching a movie is your sort of thing, then this thriller is for you.

The Japanese Literature Challenge 16 is coming soon…

I wondered if there would be an interest in hosting the Japanese Literature Challenge for the sixteenth year, and so I threw out the idea on Instagram last evening. It seems that there are, in fact, a few ardent fans for whom the event still holds great interest. As it does for me.

And so we shall begin in January, reading such literature as catches our eye and leaving links, if you so desire, to a sticky post which will be at the top of my blog. Let’s hold the event for January and February, giving us two months to indulge this passion.

I will be reading, and hosting a few give-aways for, the following books:

People From My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami
The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth (not technically Japanese literature, but still an exploration of the culture)
Lady Joker Volume 2 by Kaoru Takamura
Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura
My Annihilation by Fuminori Nakamura

Already, I can feel the excitement building within my heart. Can you?

Will you join in?

(On Instagram as #japaneselitchallenge16)