Scattered All Over The Earth by Yoko Towada (translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani) for Women In Translation Month…sadly, I abandoned it.

Scattered All Over the Earth has a label on it reading “Science Fiction.” But, I wonder how accurate that classification is. Consider these quotes, which seem entirely possible:

…since China has stopped exporting goods, America must produce all its daily necessities domestically, but no one there knows how to sew anymore. This being the case, they’re desperately trying to recruit immigrants who can speak English and are good with their hands. Europe, on the other hand, has developed a comprehensive welfare system that covers everyone, including immigrants, but with national budgets running low, they would rather have all the foreigners who can speak English move to America.

(p. 43)

In the beginning of this novel, Knut, Hiruko, and Akash go to dine in an Indian restaurant, which serves pizza, before visiting the Umami Festival held at the Karl Marx House in Germany.

Knut is studying linguistics; Akash is a Comparative Cultures major. He is also transitioning from male to female. “So you can change your sex, but not your caste,” Knut says to him. Her.

“That’s right,” I (Akash) said a little flustered. “Our bodies are always changing from moment to moment. In these baths (in Trier) the ancient Romans surely felt that. They’d have unwanted body hair plucked away, get their hair and nails cut, enjoy a massage to loosen their muscles. The body changes when we sweat in the sauna or drink water. And that’s not all. Even our brains change sex every second – depending on the book we’re reading, we become men or women.”

p. 57

Yet some of the points of view are disconcertingly accurate. Here is one from a character named Nora:

Just at that time, I was reading a book in which contemporary society was compared to a multi-tenant building. The tenants are not bound together by common ideals. While they share a desire to protect the building from fire, the inner sufferings of other tenants mean nothing to them. Nor do they care about equality or human rights. Basic principles the state once held in esteem have broken down, so that even if a neighbor is covered in urine or feces, as long as one’s home doesn’t smell, one doesn’t interfere.

(p. 68)

While I made it almost halfway through, I must admit to defeat: I lost interest at page 90 of 219. The insights are profound, and the future they point to almost terrifying (what if everyone stays inside and just orders what they need through the internet?), but it felt repetitive. Perhaps you will fare better than I, but Scattered All Over the Earth was ultimately not for me.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Book Two (July – October 1984): Bird as Prophet. “When it is time to wait, you must wait.”

So many riddles. What is in the light that Lieutenant Mamiya described while he was at the bottom of the well in the desert of Outer Mongolia? What is the evil that Noboru seems to represent? Who is the woman, whose name she claims that Toru knows, but can’t remember? What does Malta know about good things and bad things that are entering his life at this time? What is that Kumiko wanted to tell him, but didn’t? And, finally, what (or whom) is the wind-up bird which winds up the world’s spring?

In Chapter One of Book Two we discover that Kumiko never came back one night. After one o’clock Malta Kano calls him to say, “I must tell you, Mr. Okada, I believe that the cat will almost certainly never be found. I hate to say this, but the best you can do is resign yourself to that fact. It is gone forever. Barring some major change, the cat will never come back.” (p. 118) Then she asks if there is something else with which she can help? It is as though she knows that Kumiko is the one who not to be found.

Two chapters later, Malta and Noburo meet Toru for coffee at the Shinagawa Pacific Hotel, where Toru met Malta before. Noburo tells him quite bluntly that Kumiko has taken another lover and left him. He goes on to say that Toru was wrong from the start; his head is full of garbage and rocks. Apparently, Kumiko had not only met with her brother to tell him she had taken a lover, she had met with Malta, after discussing the disappearance of the cat. “You will have to win with your own strength,” Malta tells him. “With your own hands.” Is it in his power to find his wife, Kumiko? To bring her back?

“Mr. Okada,” she (Malta) said, “I believe that you are entering a phase of your life in which many different things will occur. The disappearance of the cat is only the beginning.”

“Different things,” I said. “Good things or bad things?”

She tilted her head. “Good things and bad things. Bad things that seem good at first, and good things that seem bad at first.” (p. 44)

Another letter from Lieutenant Mamiya arrives, with information that he feels Toru alone would understand. Mamiya’s memories only get stronger with each time he tries to push them away. The time that the light struck him while he was in the well he saw a shape of something there, but he could not make out what it was. “It is trying to come to me, trying to confer something upon me very much like heavenly grace.” (p. 208) What he suffered with, more than hunger and thirst, was not being able to attain a clear view of what it was in the light. “Had I been able to see it clearly, I would not have minded dying right then and there. I truly felt that way. I would have suffered anything for a full view of that form.” (p. 209) But, just as Mr. Honda had told him, he could not die, even though he would have preferred physical death to liberate him from the pain of being himself.

Toru decides to go the bottom of the well in a vacant lot himself, to think. While at the bottom of the well, Toru has a dream that isn’t a dream that “happened to take the form of a dream.” He is talking to the woman who had first called him. She is in a room with a bouquet of freshly picked flowers with quite a heady scent. She tells him that he already knows her name. “All you have to do is remember it. If you can find my name, then I can get out of here. I can even help you find your wife; help you find Kumiko Okada. If you want to find your wife, try hard to discover my name. That is the lever you want. You don’t have time to stay lost. Every day you fail to find it, Kumiko Okada moves that much farther away from you.” (p. 246)

In the early years of their marriage, Kumiko became pregnant. While Toru wished her to have the baby, she decided it wasn’t good timing in their lives, and when he was away in Sapporo for a business trip, Kumiko had an abortion. Afterward, when they were talking about it, she told Toru she had something to tell him, but she just couldn’t yet. “I’m not hiding it from you. I’m planning to tell you sometime. You’re the only one I can tell. But I just can’t do it now. I can’t put it into words.” (p. 252)

And so, like Toru, I am waiting. Not at the bottom of the well, certainly, but pondering all these puzzle pieces as I ponder my own life and the people who have entered, and left, as we go on our journeys. And, while waiting, I can’t help but wonder if the name that Toru is looking for is Forgiveness.

I am reading this with Stephen, of Swift as Inspiration, as a shared read-along.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Book One (June and July, 1984): Magpie “A Well Without Water. A Bird That Can’t Fly. An Alley Without An Exit.”

Book One, The Thieving Magpie, takes place in June and July, 1984. But, it ends with the most horrible scene that I can imagine: the skinning alive of a Japanese man named Yamamoto, that happened decades ago. The Russians had demanded a document from him, which he would not give, even under pain of torture by the Mongolians. This story, told by Lieutenant Mamiya, pierces the quiet, dreamlike mood of what has come before in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

The novel opens with Toru Okada asking the question, “Is it possible, finally, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?…We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?” (p. 24)

It seems that Toru knows very little about anything. He does not know the woman who is calling him at 10:00 in the morning asking him for ten minutes of his time. He does not know where his wife’s cat, Noboru Wataya (named after her brother) might be. He does not know what he wants to do with his career, quitting his job in a law firm even before taking the bar exam. And, he does not understand these strange people who are entering his life at this moment of time.

There is Malta Kano who asks him to meet her in a tearoom, telling him that his brother in law, Noburo Wataya, had recommended her to help find the missing cat. Her name comes from Malta, and Kana is translated “god of the water.” She tells him that he is entering a stage in his life when many different things will occur; the disappearance of the cat is only the beginning.

Then another fortune-teller, this time Mr. Honda, tells Toru that legal work might be the wrong thing for him. “The world you belong to is above that or below that.” When Toru asks him which is better, he says not to “resist the flow…now’s the time to stay still. Don’t do anything. Just be careful of water. Sometime in the future, this young fellow could experience real suffering in connection with water. Water that’s missing from where it’s supposed to be. Water that’s present where it’s not supposed to be. In any case, be very, very careful of water.” (p. 51)

After that, a sixteen year old girl who lives in Toru’s neighborhood, May Kasahara, shows Toru a dry well in an empty house near their own. Mr. Honda had told him, “When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom.” What does all this mean?

Malta Kano’s sister, Creta, whose real name is Setsuko, comes to visit dressed as a woman from the sixties. She says that Malta sent her, and when pressed for more information about herself from Toru explains that she has had tremendous pain, physical pain, for most of her life. Headaches, menstrual cramps, bruises appearing such that she never wanted to go swimming. Furthermore, she became a prostitute and was brutally attacked by Noboru Wataya. Before she can explain more, she abruptly leaves Toru’s home.

All of these occurrences, these characters with strange and seemingly disparate stories, combine to form a mysterious aura. Although I have read the book before, I cannot remember being so careful with each piece as I am now because I want to know how they fit together properly.

Coming back to where this post began, Lieutenant Mamiya, who told the horrible story of torture, was sent to Toru’s home by Mr. Honda, a man who had also witnessed the torture. Mr. Honda had given Mamiya the mission to present a keepsake he had especially selected for Toru, something from his closet just for him. When Toru unwraps layer after layer of wrapping paper he finds a Cutty Sark box. It is completely empty inside.

Clearly, the themes from Book One are water. A well. An emptying of oneself. War. I am eager to continue reading, while keeping the image of Jacob from the Old Testament, who was thrown into the empty well by his brothers, in the back of my mind. It may, or may not, have anything to do with this story, but I know that coming out of the well can be a form of transformation. At least it was for Joseph, who went in a hated brother, and came out to be a ruler in Egypt.

I am reading this book with Stephen, of Swift as Inspiration, looking forward to his insights as we proceed.

Sunday Salon: A Messed-Up Foot and A Wind-Up Bird

I was born with bones in my feet which refused to align. My mother would put rubber spools between my toes when I was a baby in order to encourage them to grow straight, but alas, they would not. Thankfully, I was always able to walk, but not without discomfort.

I had a surgery on both feet in 1975, after which they were casted for the entire summer. I had another surgery in 2006, which turned out much better. After that one, I had to wear tennis shoes for six weeks which was a huge improvement over plaster casts. On Monday, I had surgery on my right foot; when that heals, I will have the left done.

It is not entirely woeful. I love having time to read. It is so sweet that my husband brings me every meal, my parents bring me bread pudding and jelly beans, my son brings me roses and aranciata San Pellegrino. All that, and being an introvert at heart, makes being quiet at home a sort of paradise.

As there is a lot of time needed for recovery from this third procedure, I asked a new blogging friend of mine at Swift as Inspiration if he had any interest in reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami with me. It is a rather lengthy book, one which I would love to discuss because I’m not entirely sure I understood all of it the first time around.

Then, I thought I would widen the invitation. If you have any inclination to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle with us, the schedule will go as follows:

Book One: The Thieving Magpie for the week of July 18

Book Two: Bird as Prophet for the week of July 25

Book Three: The Birdcatcher for the week of August 1

After each week, we will write a post with our thoughts and observations; hopefully you can engage in our discussion should you wish to read along (and post as well?).

Meanwhile, I am finishing books for Paris in July 22, and 20 Books of Summer. I have only read 12, if you count two I could not finish: Book of Night by Holly Black and Geiger by G. Skordeman. But, the French books have been an utter delight: Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley, Paris by Edward Rutherfurd, Maigret and The Reluctant Witness by Georges Simenon, and The Martins by David Foenkinos.

And you? Are you finding time to read? Enjoying anything related to France? Finishing your 20 Books of Summer?

Sunday Salon: Twenty Books of Summer, a Taste of Spring in Illinois, and anticipation for the International Booker Prize Winner.

It’s great that Cathy allows flexibility in her Twenty Books of Summer challenge because I have been tossing around lists in my mind since she first announced it. “Should I cull all the books I’ve wanted to reread?” I asked myself, for they are legion.

“Or, should I read all the review copies which have been sent my way this Spring while I was focusing on the International Booker Prize list?” (and what an exceptional list it is!).

“Maybe the best thing to do is open the Japanese literature books that I gathered for the Japanese Literature Challenge 15 but never got around to reading…,” I thought, and that is how I’ve decided to begin.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami is, of course, a reread for me. But, all the others are new, especially Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda. The WSJ says this of it: “Part psychological thriller, part murder mystery – it is audacious in conception and brilliant in execution.” I am so eager to begin this book sent to me by Bitter Lemon Press.

I must confess to already beginning Me by Tomoyuki Hoshino, as I have been listening to it on my walks. Publishers Weekly says, “Hoshino’s ambitious novel is pleasingly uncomfortable,” which indeed it it. It seems there is a bit of unreliable narrator going on, and I can see that it will look deeply at what our identity is. I particularly anticipate the afterword by Kenzaburo Oe. (You can find a review on Tony’s Reading List, who clearly has read it before I have.)

The rest include The Roads to Sata, Lonely Castle in the Mirror, and people from my neighborhood. Each one calls my name in its own way, as I am so hungry for Japan. Perhaps some of these may appeal to you, too?

May I show you a few pictures from our walks this Spring? Truly, Illinois has its beautiful moments. Before we get to our ghastly summers, which my husband aptly calls Hell’s Front Porch.

Finally, this week brings us the winner of the International Booker Prize, which will be announced on Thursday, May 26. Our Shadow Jury will declare our winner before that, and I will tell you they are strongly inclined to choose Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell, or Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur. I, however, will never sway from my opinion that Jon Fosse’s Septology is far and away the best I have read in years. So much so that when I finished A New Name it was many weeks before I could even read another book.

“…the past isn’t something you can go back to.”

It seems that I am reading everything but what I have put on my original list. The books come in from the library, where they’ve been on hold since I first heard about them, and I devour them before they are due. (Next up? Silent Parade by Keigo Higashino, also not listed in my sidebar as an intended read for the Japanese Literature Challenge 15.)

Touring The Land of The Dead is one of two novellas included in this book by Maki Kashimada. It is one of those Japanese books which is not really a story; it is more of a discovery. A tour of one’s past, if you will, to find one’s place in the present.

Nasuko has married Taichi, a man who developed a neurological disease such that he must walk with the assistance of a cane, or at least the support of someone. All four of his limbs are unable to coordinate properly, and yet this does not discourage him. When people help him onto the bus, he thanks them, and praises their kindness to his wife. When he gets to the baths, he lets others help him to the water, and basks in its comforting warmth. He finds joy in everything.

Not so the people in Nasuko’s past, what she has come to call that life. It is a life inhabited by a selfish, entitled mother and brother, who seem to find joy in nothing. They take. They accuse. They want more. It stands in stark contrast to her husband who has every reason to complain, yet never does.

Anyone else would no doubt have been fed up with it all, with the unfairness of everything. But, Taichi wasn’t like that. Of course unfairness still existed in the world – but he just swallowed it down whole. No matter how bad it was, no matter how poisonous.

p. 70

It’s a very interesting concept to think about, especially in these days of great discontent. Blame. Taking. Thinking of oneself before others. I wonder how it is that some people are able to swallow unfairness whole, while others choke on a single morsel.

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama (translated from the Japanese by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies) and Give-away

It isn’t a new copy, I bought if for myself from Book Depository, yet I am giving away one of the best pieces of crime fiction I have ever read. Six Four is an international best seller; it is the winner of the best Japanese Crime Fiction of the Year Award, but it is not just about crime by any means. It is about the Japanese: police, media, families, pride, shame, and perseverance.

But, that might sound boring. And Six Four is anything but boring. Gradually, the layers of the case are lifted, delicately, as though by a surgeon’s hand. The reader wonders, along with Mikami (once in the department of Criminal Investigation now transferred to Administrative Affairs) where his daughter is, and why did the case of Six Four go so wrong so long ago?

Six Four. The term for a fourteen year old case, the kidnapping and murder of a young girl named Shoko…It went without saying that Six Four was the Prefectural HQ’s greatest failure.

p. 33

Parallel to this case is the fact that his own daughter, Ayumi, has run away from home. Her parents have had no word from her, they do not know if she is alive or dead, only why it is that she has run away. One day, Mikami’s wife answers the phone while he is away, and hears nothing but silence. This happens two more times, and she is convinced that it is their daughter silently reaching out to them. Mikami is not so sure, as he learns of two other households also receiving these silent calls.

I dare not tell you the conclusion to the novel, of particularly the case, or even of Ayumi. I would not dream of spoiling one of the best pieces of crime fiction I have ever read. But, I do highly recommend this book with all my heart, and I will send it to one winner. Simply leave a comment below indicating your wish to be entered, and I will declare a winner at the end of January.

Winner of Six Four is the blog A Hot Cup of Pleasure. Congratulations! And, there will be two more give-aways before the conclusion of the Japanese Literature Challenge 15.

The Woman In The Purple Skirt, by Natsuko Imamura (for the Japanese Literature Challenge 15)

I am often deceived by the apparent simplicity of the Japanese. One stem can make a flower arrangement. A book of 224 pages can win the Akutagawa Prize. ”This isn’t a very dramatic story,” I tell myself as I read, and then I find myself unable to think of much else for a very long time.

The Woman In The Purple Skirt has been labelled a mystery. It has been compared to a thriller, such as Hitchcock’s Rear Window. But to me, it is more sorrowful than anything else. It is hard to imagine the depth of loneliness that this novel so “effortlessly” depicts.

The Woman in the Purple Skirt sits in the park every day, in her Exclusively Reserved Seat, eating a cream bun. The children come up to her from behind, and tap her shoulder, then run away laughing. But, The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan watches her.

She knows The Woman in The Purple Skirt’s every move, every detail, from the way she is able to skillfully maneuver through a crowd without being touched, to her stiff, dry hair. The Woman in The Yellow Cardigan gives her ’fresh floral’ shampoo, handing out the sample packets she has saved to passers-by until she can hand one to The Woman in The Purple Skirt. She also finds the Woman in The Purple Skirt a job as a housekeeper, so that they both are working in the same hotel.

It is an obsessive, stalking situation, which The Woman in The Purple Skirt seems not to notice. Not once do we see them interacting on a personal level; we only see one through the other’s eyes. The Woman in The Yellow Cardigan tells us of the affair The Woman in The Purple Skirt is having with the hotel’s director, and then the fight they have in which he falls from her balcony.

The Woman in The Yellow Cardigan happens to be wherever The Woman in The Purple Skirt is, somehow, such that no detail is too small for her to notice. When The Woman in The Purple Skirt is terrified at the supposed death of her lover, The Woman in The Yellow Cardigan devises an escape plan, hoping they can catch up with each other later.

But, she never sees The Woman in The Purple Skirt again and sorrowfully tells us, ”I’m still looking for her, even now.” (p. 198)

It is heartbreaking, really, how neither one has a friend. Neither one has someone who will really love her. Their isolation seems to reflect the way many people feel: living in a big city, surrounded by people, and yet utterly alone. Even their names are unknown.

Sunday Salon: Origami Ornaments and Two Japanese Literature Books

“When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”

Matthew 2: 9-10

Bible Study Fellowship International has been studying the book of Matthew this year. How perfect it is, then, that I can fold each member of my group a star in remembrance of that which appeared before the Wise Men.

These are only seven of the sixteen I folded yesterday. While my hands are a little sore, there is nothing I like quite so much as origami ornaments on my tree.

Here is a geometrical one, of many, which hangs on a miniature tree in our dining room. I don’t even recall how to fold it, as I made it many years ago with paper my parents brought back from one of their trips. True Japanese paper is very forgiving, almost like cloth; perhaps that is one of the reasons I like it for Christmas…

Ever since I put up the announcement for the Japanese Literature Challenge 15, I have been thrilled to see the response. There is a desire to continue with it, and #January in Japan, even after a decade and a half. So, I am compiling a list of my own, too, and I was thrilled to discover these two books at our local library:

There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura was published November 26, 2020. Bloomsbury Publishing says, “This is the first time Kikuko Tsumura–winner of Japan’s most prestigious literary award–has been translated into English. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job is as witty as it is unsettling–a jolting look at the maladies of late capitalist life through the unique and fascinating lens of modern Japanese culture.”

The Woman In The Purple Skirt by Natsukawa Imamura. Penguin Random House says, “A bestselling, prizewinning novel by one of Japan’s most acclaimed young writers, for fans of Convenience Store Woman, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, and the movies Parasite and Rear Window.”

So, I will definitely begin with these before moving on to others such as Haruki Murakami’s latest, Murakami T: The T-Shirts I Love.

And you? Are you planning to make anything to decorate your tree? Or, something to read for the Japanese Literature Challenge 15?

Any interest?

Photo of Tokyo taken from our hotel window, 2018

I am beginning to receive inquiries about hosting the Japanese Literature Challenge. When I notice the many venues for reading Japanese literature, such as are on Instagram for example, I wonder if there is interest in reading here as we have done?

Do let me know if you would like to read for the Japanese Literature Challenge 15 this year (from January through February). I have several books awaiting me, and I am certainly glad to sponsor some prizes of a literary nature.

If there is interest, I will begin setting up a review site and spreading the word.

Domo arigato!

(Thank you!)