The Essential Reading list for Fall 2018
By Corinne Kennedy
Dokusho no Aki - 読書の秋, or “Autumn, The Season for Reading” is a common saying in Japan, and it’s a popular time of the year for all kinds of themed reading lists to be published. As the days grow colder and the nights get longer here in Seattle, books are a welcome companion. For your fall enrichment, Corinne Kennedy has compiled a list of 11 titles that she recommends: ten works of fiction and one memoir/travelogue that combines poetry and prose. All but one are English translations of works by Japanese writers.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Basho. Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa (1967). Matsuo Basho (1644-94) was a Japanese poet and diarist whose work was largely responsible for haiku becoming a serious art form. His poetry is noted not only for its depictions of the natural world, but also for its “vision of eternity in the transient world around him.” Born into a family of samurai, he briefly entered feudal service, but left it to devote his life to poetry. In later years, he embarked on several long and dangerous journeys. The resulting travel sketches combine poetry and prose, a writing style known as haibun. “He wrote of the seasons changing, of the smell of the rain, the brightness of the moon and the beauty of the waterfall, through which he sensed the mysteries of the universe.” (quotations from the publisher)
I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume (serialized 1905-06). Translated by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson (1972). Considered a classic of Japanese literature and a “comic masterpiece,” this novel satirizes upper-middle-class Japanese society of the Meiji period (1868-1912) through the adventures of a stray cat. It’s “a nonchalant string of anecdotes and wisecracks, told by a fellow who doesn’t have a name, and has never caught a mouse, and isn’t much good for anything except watching human beings in action…” (New Yorker review)
Japanese Tales from the Past: Stories of Fantasy & Folklore from the Konjaku Monogatari Shu. Translated by Naoshi Koriyama and Bruce Allen (2015). This collection of traditional Japanese folktales has been drawn from the most famous work of classical Japanese literature – the Konjaku Monogatari Shu (translated as “collection of tales from times past”). Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, they display “keen psychological insight, wry sarcasm, and barely veiled critical commentary on the doings of clergy, nobles, and peasants alike.” (from the Forward)
The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (1943-48). Translated by Edward Seidensticker (1957). In Osaka and Tokyo, in the years before World War II, the four Makioka sisters try to preserve their upper-class way of life. According to the novel’s publisher, Tanizaki creates “a poignant yet unsparing portrait of a family – and an entire society – sliding into the abyss of modernity.”
CLASSIC & CONTEMPORARY FICTION:
The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories (2018). Introduction by Haruki Murakami. Edited and with Notes by Jay Rubin. Various translators, including Jay Rubin; 517 pages. “A major new collection of Japanese short stories, many appearing in English for the first time… This fantastically varied and exciting collection celebrates the art of the Japanese short story, from its origins in the nineteenth century to the remarkable practitioners writing today… Stories by writers already well known to English-language readers are included--like Tanizaki, Akutagawa, Murakami, Mishima, Kawabata, and Yoshimoto--as well as many surprising new finds. From Yuko Tsushima's "Flames" to Yuten Sawanishi's "Filling Up with Sugar" to Shin'ichi Hoshi's "Shoulder-Top Secretary" to Banana Yoshimoto's "Bee Honey," The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories is filled with fear, charm, beauty, and comedy.” (from the publisher)A major new collection of Japanese short stories, many appearing in English for the first time, with an introduction by Haruki Murakami, author of Killing Commendatore
A Penguin Classics Hardcover
This fantastically varied and exciting collection celebrates the art of the Japanese short story, from its origins in the nineteenth century to the remarkable practitioners writing today. Edited by acclaimed translator Jay Rubin, who has himself freshly translated some of the stories, and with an introduction by Haruki Murakami, this book is a revelation.
Stories by writers already well known to English-language readers are included–like Tanizaki, Akutagawa, Murakami, Mishima, Kawabata, and Yoshimoto–as well as many surprising new finds. From Yuko Tsushima’s “Flames” to Yuten Sawanishi’s “Filling Up with Sugar” to Shin’ichi Hoshi’s “Shoulder-Top Secretary” to Banana Yoshimoto’s “Bee Honey,” The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories is filled with fear, charm, beauty, and comedy.
CONTEMPORARY FICTION (POST WORLD WAR II)
The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuki Horie (2001). Translated by Geraint Howells (2018). Described by the publisher as “dream-like tales of memory and war,” this collection of 3 novellas won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. “Horie weaves fables out of everyday existence in these three captivating tales of relationships and lives revisited.” (Publisher’s Weekly review)
Any short story collection by Haruki Murakami. The following are excellent collections: The Elephant Vanishes (1991). Translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin (1993). Or after the quake (2000). Translated by Jay Rubin (2002). Or Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (written 1980-2005; published in Japan in book form, 2009). Translated by Phillip Gabriel and Jay Rubin (2006). Like his novels, Murakami’s short stories display his characteristic surrealism – a blending of mundane reality with dreams and memory. However, the stories are generally more accessible to Westerners reading him for the first time. Murakami himself gives us clues about the reason for this difference: “To put it in the simplest terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other, creating a complete landscape that I treasure.” (from his introduction to the English edition of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman)
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2003). Translated by Stephen Snyder (2009). Ogawa’s short novel is a quiet exploration of “what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family.” The Professor, a brilliant mathematician, has suffered a serious head injury in an auto accident, and although his memory of the time before the accident is still intact, his short-term memory fails after just eighty minutes. He gradually bonds with his caregiver, the Housekeeper, and her 10-year-old son, Root – even though she must re-introduce herself to him each morning and multiple times throughout the day. Nevertheless, “the Professor’s mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. And the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son.” (quotations from the book jacket)
Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto (2010). Translated by Asa Yoneda (2016). In this novel, Yoshie’s musician father has died in a suicide pact. Trying to leave the past behind, she moves out of the family home to Shimokitazawa, a fashionable Tokyo neighborhood. Her mother soon follows and moves in with her. Nevertheless, Yoshie continues to have nightmares about her father looking for the phone he left behind, and about her own attempts to call him on that phone. “With the “lightness of touch and surreal elements that are the hallmarks of her writing, Banana Yoshimoto (creates) a poignant coming-of-age ghost story.” (from the publisher)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017). This finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction is an epic historical novel, written in English by a Korean-American, about a family that immigrates from Korea to Japan. Set in the years between 1910 and 1989, and exploring the lives of four generations, it opens with these words: “History has failed us, but no matter.” Lee’s characters experience poverty, near starvation, physical disability, shame, and Japan’s long-standing prejudice against Korean immigrants. Yet her novel is equally about their hopes and inner strengths, and the bonds, both positive and negative, of family.
Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki (2014). Translated by Polly Barton (2017). Winner of the Akutagawa prize, this short work has been described it as “a sharp, photo-realistic novella of memory and thwarted hope.” A divorced man, Taro, lives in a block of apartments that will be demolished when the few remaining tenants are gone. He forms a relationship with Nishi, a woman who lives upstairs, as she relates a strange tale -- discovered in the obscure photo-book, Spring Garden -- about the house next door. This sky-blue house comes to represent “what is lost… what has been destroyed, and … what hope may yet lie in the future for both of them, if only they can seize it.” (quotations are from the publisher)
Note: for reading lists on other themes, see blog articles from past years: in October 2017, Histories of Japanese-Americans in the Pacific Northwest and Japanese-American artists in the Pacific Northwest; in November 2016, Japanese-American fiction and Japanese gardens & garden design; and in November 2015, works of fiction and non-fiction, by Japanese and Japanese-American authors.
Corinne Kennedy is a Garden Guide, frequent contributor to the Seattle Japanese Garden blog, and retired garden designer.