Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

June 25, 2014

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetIn his best known novels (such as Cloud Atlas), David Mitchell uses many literary techniques—multiple points of view and storylines, radically shifting locations and time periods. But in his fifth and most recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell forgoes these to write a straight forward, third-person historical novel which takes place in Japan in the year 1799. At this time, the Japanese had almost entirely severed contacts with the West, having recently banished, persecuted, and executed Catholic missionaries and converts. The only Europeans allowed into Japan are the Dutch—and they are restricted to a small strip of land, Dejima, in the port city Hiroshima.

The book focuses on the experiences of young Jacob de Zoet, who has joined the Dutch East India Company to make the fortune that will allow him to return to Holland and marry his fiancé, Anna, a plan at odds with his scrupulous honesty as bookkeeper. While in Hiroshima, de Zoet encounters and falls in love with Orita Abigawa, a young Japanese woman learning (against both the folk superstitions and gender roles of her culture) the basics of Western medicine from Dr. Marinus, a Dutch physician and representative of 18th Century Enlightenment values. Because of her medical education, Abigawa is then forced into an horrific religious cult, led by the evil Enomoto.

Will Abigawa be rescued from the clutches of Enomoto and his henchmen? Will Jacob earn his fortune and return to Anna? Will he overcome Japan’s racial code and marry Abigawa?  Will Jacob and Dr. Marinus survive bombardment from an English warship? And what will happen to the escaped monkey named William Pitt?

These questions may suggest that Mitchell’s novel is a conventional suspense thriller. While suspenseful, however, the novel transcends its potboiler qualities through Mitchell’s many thematic concerns: corporate and capitalistic exploitation, the struggle between superstition and science, religious fundamentalism, and the struggle between Eastern and Western culture.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet can be read as a straight-forward adventure tale, a historical romance, and also an examination of the seeds of our own age as they began to germinate in one small place two centuries ago.

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The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

May 16, 2014

houseookcover.phpIn a small town on the Inland Sea of Japan, a housekeeper who works for the Akebono Housekeeping Agency receives a new assignment.  She will keep house and cook meals every afternoon for a professor who sustained brain damage in an automobile accident.  As the professor’s sister-in-law informs her, the professor has only eighty minutes of short-term memory at a time.

It takes the housekeeper some time to get used to the professor’s odd ways, but after a while she begins to enjoy the ritual by which he greets her every afternoon, asking her questions about herself as if he has just met her.  His clothing is studded with notes to help him remember, so the housekeeper attaches a new note with a whimsical drawing of herself.  Each day when she comes, she points to the drawing.

Their relationship really begins to develop when the professor meets her 10-year-old son.  He has a flat top to his head, so the professor calls him Root, for the square root sign. Everything the professor remembers is somehow connected to mathematics, because that is what he has taught, lived, and breathed his whole life.  With the infinite patience of one who has no appointments to keep, the professor helps Root and his mom understand math in a way they never have before, and they too start to see the beauty of numbers all around them.

Math becomes a means of comfort and communication for them all.  Root has someone to talk with about his beloved baseball statistics. The professor, harried by details he cannot remember, takes refuge in the permanent, ordered world of math. The housekeeper gains a new understanding of the world and of her own intelligence by learning about logarithms, Mersenne primes, and Fermat’s Last Theorem.

This is the bare bones of the plot, but the story is so much more than that.  The Housekeeper and the Professor is a quiet, gently humorous book about love, belonging, and friendship, about the rewards of patience and small acts of kindness, gratitude, and remembrance.  As such, I will remember it for a long time.

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Not Love but Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy by Fumi Yoshinaga

June 13, 2012

A female gay porn artist enjoys fine food. It’s a strangely appropriate set up for a manga that, at its core, is itself porn. Already you have decided that this selection is too trashy for you and probably beneath the dignity of this otherwise respectable blog. But I happen to know it’s not beneath your dignity. I know what you do on the internet: pulling up photos of Golden Braised Artichokes with Garlic and Mint – drooling over that recipe for Blueberry Soup. Stop acting like it’s beneath you when it’s not. You love food porn. Admit it.

That’s what this is – a manga filled with graphic depictions of food. Our under achieving protagonist drags her quirky acquaintances out to various real-life Tokyo restaurants where they, and we, take part in detailed gastronomical orgies highlighting the unique delights offered by the particular ethnic style of the cuisine as seen through Japanese eyes. The fun comes from the descriptions of our guests as they sample the foods. Some are fellow “foodies” while others are pushed outside their comfort zones to try various gourmet tidbits. Relationships are sort of explored over the meals, but part of the charm of this one-shot is that the relationships center more around the food itself. Sometimes there’s almost something more, but the characters always revert back into their quirky dysfunctions which are only bridged by the food they share.

If reading about a group of gourmands not quite connecting over servings of delicious victuals sounds like a good time, then grab this book. I wouldn’t want it to be any longer than it is, but for a literary equivalent to a Food Channel soap opera, it serves quite well. And if you really enjoy it, you can visit the actual restaurants and order the same meals. The author provides a map with the nearest subway stop and even offers advice on how much money to bring. It’s the perfect dish for food voyeurs.

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The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

May 11, 2011

Just before the outbreak of World War II, a Chinese youth with tuberculosis is sent to a small Japanese village by the sea, where his family hopes that he can rest and recover from his illness.  At first, Steven feels very lonely here, away from his home in Hong Kong and the university where he had been studying.  He finds some comfort, however, in painting the beautiful seashore scenes and the peaceful garden that Matsu, the old family servant, lovingly cares for.

Steven meets several young girls in the village and tries to befriend them, but the fact that their beloved brother is in the Japanese army fighting the Chinese makes the cultural divide hard to bridge.  As he has no one else, he tries to get to know Matsu, who has been taking care of Steven’s family cottage for decades.  The taciturn man repulses him at first, but the persistent young man breaks through his reserve layer by layer.

Once he begins to trust Steven, Matsu decides to take him along on a journey up the mountain to a hidden village.  Here, like the garden that reveals its beauty gradually, dwells the secret community which gives Matsu’s life its meaning.  Steven’s new experiences have a profound effect on his ideas about both the beauty and the pain of life.   Matsu neither pushes nor babies him, and slowly Steven starts to find his own strength and begin to heal.

Opening his heart to these new friends helps Steven to become emotionally as well as physically stronger.  He benefits from the restraint and calmness of his new Japanese friends, and they blossom under the influence of his forthrightness and exuberance.  Like the beautiful garden which flourishes unseen except by those who seek it, Steven gradually regains the courage to live life to its fullest, and inspires others to do the same.

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Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

December 13, 2010

Near the end of his life, Kawabata wrote a short story called “Gleanings from Snow Country.” The tale was a miniaturization of Snow Country, the novel that brought the author his greatest acclaim and contributed to the Nobel Prize he received in 1968. Kawabata had been working on Snow Country for 14 years when it was published in 1948 (it first made its appearance as a short story in January, 1935), and the final result was a quiet and subtle book – it is poetry in the shape of prose, written with sublime sensitivity.

The elements of the novel are fairly typical for Kawabata, so there is love, longing, beauty, a certain emotional coldness, and loss. And a young woman. The author’s protégé Mishima once said that Kawabata worshiped virgins and that this was “the source of his clean lyricism”; there is no virgin in Snow Country, but there is a young woman, Komako, who is a geisha.

But she is not like the geisha (“art person”) of Tokyo or Kyoto. Komako is a hot-spring geisha on the northwestern coast of the island Honshu, and cannot hope for the long-term support of a wealthy patron. Instead she has to make herself agreeable to paying customers week after week. Her social status is low, but at the same time Komako and other geisha like her are the foundation of the economy in the region. When Komako meets Shimamura, a wealthy loner from Tokyo, the geisha falls in love with him. Shimamura, on the other hand, seems incapable of love, although he likes Komako and appreciates the affection the young woman shows him. However, the Tokyoite – who is a self-appointed expert on Western ballet – visits Komako repeatedly, and she (perhaps in an attempt to deepen his feelings for her) polishes her technique on the traditional samisen by untraditionally relying on sheet music and radio.

Quietly Snow Country grows deeper, as layer after layer is added to the story: it turns out to be a story about men and women, rich and poor, city and countryside, tradition and change, East and West, and not the least about the fleeting nature of all things.

Snow Country is in many ways intricate and elusive, but it’s also a novel that is instantly supremely rewarding. A main reason for this is Kawabata’s writing in which nature and culture merge. This is perhaps what makes Kawabata so intensely Japanese and, at the same time, what makes him universally compelling.

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Dog Man: An Uncommon Life On a Faraway Mountain by Martha Sherrill

April 7, 2010

There’s a quirky animal book for everyone.  For a long time I didn’t think that was true. I usually can’t stand them. I found the author of Marley and Me to be smug and irritating. Dewey was just too twee. I’m not a Sneaky Pie Brown fan, and I grew out of Watership Down long ago. Disagree all you like, but, to me, those books are just so overrated. I admit I’m still partial to the works of Farley Mowatt like Never Cry Wolf and The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be (not owned by Wake County), but for the most part I’ll pass on the latest pet elegy making the rounds or your favorite anthropomorphosized animal epic.  I like Jane Goodall, I suppose, but I suspect she doesn’t quite deserve the near religious aura of enlightenment which is sometimes ascribed to her. Flame me. It’s your right. But, understand, I love animals. Real ones, that is. I have three dogs and two cats, and I would have more but my wife made me get rid of the little Spitz puppy that was tearing up the house.  I’ve always been ready to like animal books, but it took a long time to find one that I enjoyed.

Martha Sherrill’s Dog Man turned out to be the one. It’s only as sentimental as it should be and also possesses the virtue of brevity. It’s not long, yet it does justice to its subject. Morie Sawaitashi is a dog nut who, perhaps single-handedly, rescued the Akita breed when it was reduced to a population of just 16 during World War II. He’s not necessarily a hero since he sometimes seems more concerned about the dogs than his own family. It’s funny really. While Japan was undergoing privation and borderline starvation, Morie kept his dogs secretly on his property in the remote mountains and sneaked outside to feed them the choicest food from his larder while he rationed out poorer food for himself and his family.  He thought all this went on beneath his family’s notice, but they all say they knew and resented it. Although he remains happily married many years later, his wife and children haven’t quite forgiven him, but they accept him for the eccentric he is.

Morie’s way of life living in communion with nature is as much a focus of the book as the many Akitas he remembers as though they were his children. He’s depicted as a stubborn holdover from an earlier time. Contemporary culture may never produce something like him again, but it is somehow gratifying to know he continues to live his life with his dogs on a distant Japanese mountain.

Dog Man: An Uncommon Life On a Distant Mountain

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

December 7, 2009

Most people who know me know that I can’t shut up about a certain Japanese literary phenomenon named Haruki Murakami.   Generally there are two Murakami books that I’m most eager to recommend; the fabulously surreal Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and the sad, but sweetly tender, Norwegian Wood.  Both of those are excellent places to start because they are completely different from one another in terms of style, yet they encapsulate all of the unique elements to Murakami’s storytelling. Both stories introduce the reader to many of his favorite tropes, (his recurring literary devices that draw you in).  These tropes familiarize you with his tone and, ultimately, captivate you with his overall identity.  In nearly every Murakami novel, there is a good, healthy dose of magical realism, (surreal dream sequences, spirit entities, mysticism, etc.).  One can also expect various musical references, typically avant jazz artists like Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and classic schmaltzy crooners like Bing Crosby and Burt Bacharach.  You will encounter many, many cats, (generally all black cats), in addition to some deliciously descriptive passages dedicated to the delights of Japanese food, (you will NEVER crave grilled eel or udon this badly!).  However, more than anything, in a Murakami novel you can expect some sort of protagonist who is a loner, not necessarily “lonely,” but a loner nonetheless.  These characters tend to be self-punitive men, victims of their own memories and introspection.  There is a quiet storm brewing inside of them, a painful longing to mend the shattered pieces of their pasts.

One of my favorite under-the-radar Murakami books that follows many of the aforementioned patterns, yet delivers a powerful dose of emotional intensity of its own accord, is the sadly overlooked South of the Border, West of the Sun.  Here we meet Hajime, a successful jazz bar owner, husband, and father of two, albeit a regretful man who examines his past, his present, and his future.  He lives in a constant state of confusion, often wondering if he’s made the right choices concerning his marriage, his career, and his life in general.  Although Hajime has done well in life, his thoughts return to his closest childhood friend, a stunning girl named Shimamoto who disappeared from his childhood, but whose memory haunts him nearly every day of his life.  One day he sees her, and everything changes. Hajime is shaken to the core, afraid of the choices he will make, but longs for the love a woman he has never forgotten.

In one amazing scene from the book, Shimamoto visits Hajime at the jazz bar he owns. They sit and share a drink as the musicians play Duke Ellington’s “Star-Crossed Lovers.” Hajime is really struck by the overall experience, and lets the music take him over and transport him to another place in time:

It wasn’t one of Ellington’s best-known tunes, and I had no particular memories associated with it; just happened to hear it once, and it struck some chord within me. From college to those bleak textbook-company years, come evening I’d listen to the “Such Sweet Thunder” album, the “Star-Crossed Lovers” track over and over. Johnny Hodges had this sensitive and elegant solo on it. Whenever I heard that languid, beautiful melody, those days came back to me. It wasn’t what I’d characterize as a happy part of my life, living as I was, a balled-up mass of unfulfilled desires. I was much younger, much hungrier, much more alone.
But I was myself, pared down to the essentials.

I could feel each single note of music, each line I read, seep down deep inside me. My nerves were sharp as a blade, my eyes shining with a piercing light. And every time I heard that music, I recalled my eyes then, glaring back at me from a mirror.

What happens between Shimamoto and Hajime is far from the typical story book romance, and Hajime’s not-so-forgotten past becomes even more of a grievous presence throughout the novel.

Click here to find this book in the WCPL catalog.

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