Category archives: Fiction

Japanese Literature: Some Advice on Where to Begin

by March 26, 2014 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

Japanese Literature: Some Advice on Where to Begin

Seven or eight years ago I was burned out reading what felt like the same type of book, by the same type of author. In my effort to resolve this I decided I wanted to read something “foreign”, and so ended up picking up Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase. Since then I have read over fifteen books written by Japanese authors and, while I am certainly not an expert, I feel like I can at least offer some recommendations on where interested readers could start.

Ultimately, I think there are three different ways to start reading Japanese literature, depending on your reading goals and your long term commitment. You could start at any of these points, or use them to build upon one another, but I’ll present them from least to most commitment required. Finally, this list is by no means exhaustive, but simply an attempt to provide a less daunting path in.

Getting Started

The easiest place to start is with Haruki Murakami, the most popular Japanese author worldwide. Murakami’s books cover a wide range of subjects, and themes, while still being filled with consistent elements across books. These consistencies are especially fun as you read more of his novels because they bring a sense of familiarity to his often otherwise bizarre and surreal worlds. For me, Kafka on the Shore is the most well-rounded and approachable of his novels. It epitomizes Murakami’s ability to convince both reader and character that the surreal world they encounter is completely believable, while also having great pacing. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is actually my favorite by Murakami, but many of the themes are similar, and it’s significantly longer, as well as slower in certain places.

If my oblique references to surreal, postmodern worlds doesn’t sound appealing, however, you could read Norwegian Wood instead, which is the most down-to-earth of Murakami’s novels, effectively just telling a love story, though in an undoubtedly Murakami way.

Broadening Horizons

For those interested in slightly less modern works, Natsume Sōseki provides a large selection of excellent novels. His works, set during the Meiji era of Japan, capture the struggle happening in that time of transition, while also remaining perfectly approachable for the modern reader. I Am a Cat is a collection of short stories told from the perspective of a cat, and its satirical insights are consistently funny.

If, however, you prefer less talking cats or sarcasm, Sanshirō provides something a little more straightforward. Moreover, whether you are reading it before or after Murakami, you will see many influences from Sanshirō, building on your appreciation for some of the developments in modern Japanese fiction.

The Long Road

For the bravest reader, I recommend the following path through the history of Japanese literature starting (where else?) at the beginning. The Tale of Genji is, quite literally, the very beginning, as it is considered the first novel ever written. However, in spite of its antiquity, this story of love, lust, ghosts, intrigue, and royalty is worth the effort. Yes, it is a long read and yes, it can be slow at times, but there is so much depth to it that the patient reader will not be disappointed.

After Genji, you will basically work your way back up the list, tackling Sanshirō next, and then Kafka on the Shore. But you’re not done yet! Once you have finished all of these, Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes, featuring Kikuji, is the final stop. Both as a character, and in the events that happen to him, Kikuji represents the perfect nexus of this literary path.

First of all, his initial confusion, innocence, and simultaneous obsession over women is strikingly similar to that of Sanshirō. His affairs, the prevalence of ceremony, and the way “ghosts” and the dead appear to stick around is reminiscent of Tale of Genji. Finally, the dreamlike quality of sex, and his relationship with an older woman bear a strong resemblance to Kafka on the Shore. All of these familiar elements, combined with the inherent beauty of the novel, make for an amazingly rewarding experience.

As I said at the beginning, I’m no expert, but if you are looking to broaden your horizons, Japanese fiction has a lot to offer. If you pick even a single book from the list above, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, and you may even find a new favorite author along the way.

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First Line: Sanshirō

by March 28, 2012 in Books, First Line, Fiction, Recommended

First Line: Sanshirō

There are going to be a few thematic spoilers to this book, but I'll be careful not to spoil too much for those who want to read Sanshirō.

"He drifted off, and when he opened his eyes the woman was still there."

Despite its simple appearance, this is a really great first line. Even without being informed by the rest of the novel, we can learn a lot about Sanshirō as a character from this opener. If we build the imagery of what is happening here in our minds, we see that Sanshirō took enough interest in the woman nearby to notice her, but allowed himself to drift off to sleep. When he does awake from his brief rest, he immediately notices the woman again.

What does this mean? Clearly women are something of interest to Sanshirō, evident by the fact that nothing else about his surroundings is mentioned as he falls asleep, or as he wakes up. And yet, there is something about the choice of the word “still” that implies Sanshirō is not entirely comfortable with the woman nearby. As though by closing his eyes and drifting off to sleep Sanshirō hoped the woman would be gone ...

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Catch-22

by Jan. 25, 2012 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

Catch-22

You’ve just read a book so good that you want everyone else to read it immediately, but you know that if you approach the subject with too much enthusiasm, you risk overselling the book and causing the opposite outcome. In fact, the more you say, the more likely you’ll mention something that person hates about books, thus ensuring they never read it. Or, in your haste and excitement, you might offer your own rash interpretation, implying the book is about something it isn’t, and thereby cause yet another person to pass on a wonderful piece of literature. Such is the unresolvable dilemma I find myself in with Catch-22.

Suffice it to say, I absolutely loved reading this book. It starts slowly, as Heller’s writing style (and the way he jumps back and forth through time) has its own unique rhythm. Once you grow accustomed to it, however, it becomes utterly engrossing. This is an especially odd thing to say because there’s nearly zero plot in the book. Instead, it focuses almost entirely on characters, and the crazy, bizarre, emotional, disturbing, horrifying, hilarious antics that fill their lives during war.

Yes, Catch-22 is a book about ...

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Pitching Max Werner

by Jan. 9, 2012 in Books, Fiction, Science Fiction

Pitching Max Werner

Max Werner, 15, can see in the dark - a secret not even his best friend Tom knows. More sly than brave, Max has used his special gift for years to roam the streets of his neighborhood committing petty crimes and various acts of harmless delinquency. He prefers hiding from danger, safe in the shadows that only his sight can penetrate, rather than confronting anything head on.

His misdeeds bring him more than a few stolen goods, however, when he runs across a band of inhuman thieves that don’t take kindly to Max invading their territory. These strange bandits kidnap Max’s little sister as punishment for his indiscretion, forcing him to put what little courage he does have to the test.

Afraid to make the rescue attempt alone, Max must first convince Tom to join the adventure. Even with his perfect night vision, the giant spiders, bottomless pits, and blood-thirsty criminals that stand between Max and his sister may mean that none of them make it out alive.

A Selective History of Max Werner is a young adult adventure for all those who have ever wondered what secrets lay in the deepest shadows, the blackest cave, or the darkest ...

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Canvas or: the One That I Wrote

by Aug. 17, 2010 in Books, Fiction

Canvas or: the One That I Wrote

Last November I participated in National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo for short). I've always wanted to write a novel, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. The core concept of NaNoWriMo is that, while there is a time for careful writing and editing, there is also a time for boundless creativity. NaNoWriMo is all about output; quantity is emphasized over quality, and it has to be if you are going to finish a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days.

It was crazy, but fun, and at the end of 30 days, I had a novel that I could be proud of. It was coherent and complete, and that's about all I was asking of myself. In the mean time I've done some editing, but the text itself has remained pretty much what is was as of November 30, 2009. Now, thanks to some cool technology, and some risk-free publishing services, I can actually share my novel with others.

Before I continue, let me be honest for a moment. This is not a professionally published novel. If I were reviewing it on the blog I would probably say something like:  "While there are some interesting ...

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The Tale of Genji

by July 30, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

The Tale of Genji

If you've been reading this blog recently, you know that I've been reading (and enjoying) The Tale of Genji.  I'll do my best not to reiterate anything I've said already, but that shouldn't be hard considering there are so many great things happening in this book.

First of all, the briefest of synopses.  The Tale of Genji follows 4 generations of individuals in Japan's Imperial court during the late 10th Century (which is also when it was originally written).  Though Genji is the main character, he is not the only one we get to know in this epic tale.

Ultimately, though, it's not what happens in The Tale of Genji that makes it so appealing (not to say that there isn't a lot that happens.  Here's a quick rundown off the top of my head: sex, rape, death, cuckolding, spirit possession, exorcism, suicide, inclement weather, exile, love, jealousy, infidelity.)  It is the characters, and the reality of their hopes, fears, joys, heartaches, desires, and transgressions that make Genji such a compelling work of fiction.  Or, in Genji's own words:

"Not that tales accurately describe any particular person, rather, the telling ...

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Tale of Genji - Update 3

by July 27, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

Yes, you are seeing that picture correctly - I finished reading The Tale of Genji over the weekend.  I'll do a final post, database entry, etc later in the week, but for now I just want to bask in the glory of finishing an epic book.  Now I'm going to spend a week collecting my thoughts and trying to condense a months worth of reading in a few thousand words....

Quick aside - considering the numerous characters, titles, and interconnected relationships in The Tale of Genji, I'm also considering putting together a few tools to help anyone who wants to read it. More on that if I actually have the energy to compile the necessary data.

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Tale of Genji - Update 2

by July 21, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

If you are at all familiar with the Summer of Genji reading schedule, you will probably notice that I'm a little ahead of where I'm supposed to be at this point:

There are two reasons for this.  First of all, I really want to finish before going on vacation in the first week of August.  Bringing a book this big onto a plane simply seems absurd.  Second, though, is that the nature of this book begs for it to be read in huge chunks.  There are so many characters, often identified only through generic, frequently changing titles, that if you stop reading for even a day, it's easy to forget completely who you are reading about.

Plus, many of the best moments in the book consist of a subtle shift in the relationship between characters over the course of 50 or more pages.  If you didn't read it all at once, however, it is much harder to pick up on these shifts.  I've noticed several times that the first 20 minutes I spend reading in the evening are slow, and at times dull.  30 minutes later, however, I don't want to put the book ...

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First Line: Tale of Genji

by July 9, 2010 in Books, First Line, Fiction, Recommended

Let's jump right into it:

"In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty's Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor" (1).

This immediately reminded me of the opening line for Don Quixote, another lengthy, historic tale.  Just as Cervantes's claim that he can't remember quite where in La Mancha Don Quixote was from is brimming with irony, Genji's introduction strikes me as slightly ironic as well.  It may not be immediately evident (unless you consider just how long the book is), but Genji is rife with details about ancient Japanese court lifestyle.  Considering that, there must be some intentional humor in the narrator's claim that she can't quite remember whose reign it was.

Yet, at the same time, we must also consider the fact that this is a female author telling us about the behavior of an Emperor in somewhat unflattering terms.  Periodically throughout the book the narrator will address the reader directly, making claims about how it would not be appropriate of someone of her rank to reveal too much about what happened between these more noble characters.  This could simply be ...

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Tale of Genji - Update 1

by July 6, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

I feel like I've been reading The Tale of Genji nonstop since I started last weekend.  Even so, though, I've still hardly made a dent in this massive book:

Don't get me wrong, though, it's really quite enjoyable.  As the characters were being introduced in the first few chapters it felt more like a collection of isolated short stories, but at this point things are coming together in a much more cohesive manner.  Additionally, the discussions happening over at the Summer of Genji blog are entertaining and informative.  To make things even more interesting, the translator of this edition of the book (Royall Tyler) has joined in on the conversation. I'd post more, but I need to get back to reading if I'm going to finish this book any time soon.

Oh, on a completely unrelated tangent, I implemented a new comment security feature to help prevent all the spam I've been getting recently.  If for some reason you are unable to successfully post a comment, please send me an email at scott [at] somesmart [dot] com.

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