Monday, June 13, 2011

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima

Title: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
Japanese Title: 午後の曳航
Author: Yukio Mishima
Publication Year: 1994
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 192

Wow, I didn't expect this book to leave as much of an impact as it did!
I like Mishima's works, even though the author himself had sort of a strange life. Some people don't like his books because of the sex and violence, but that's not why I like his books. There's something so fascinating about his style, and it's ability to pull you in. I like his character's random discussions on society, and life, but I admit I hadn't read one of his books since a was a teen, so I wasn't sure it would still hold up.

Summary: A sailor comes into town, begins an affair with a woman in a town on the shore, and asks to marry her, but her 13 year old son, Noboru, and his band of friends, who reject the adult world, and practice a cruel form of "objectivity", will try to see that it never happens.

Plot & Characters: The book changes points of view between chapters often, giving the reader a "full" idea of what they are like. I thought it was good at capturing the "seriousness" of childhood, how simple things  often become world-altering problems to Noboru, the son. Some people say Mishima was a misogynist, and I can why, the mother in the book, Fusako, is not a very strong character, but this isn't the type of book to be looking for strong characters in, in the first place. While some scenes were sort of violent, so I wouldn't recommend it to anyone for whom violent things are really not their cup of tea, but the violent scenes were vividly written, and left me with a slightly unsettling feeling (in a good way) as I put the book down. While I think that sort of thing affected my teenage self more, indeed, Mishima has sort of an adolescent spirit, a dislike of the all the unjust things that happen in the world. Or maybe I just read too much into Noboru's character.

Prose: The prose flows nicely, and has a sort of charm to it that I can't fully describe, and did a good job of establishing the environment of the seaside town. Even though it was short book, the prose helped make it memorable.

Who I would recommend this to: Those who want a novel that stays with them after they have read it, those who are fond of dark stories.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Title: Finding George Orwell in Burma
Author: Emma Larkin
Publication Year: 2006
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 304

I think this and the English version of Yukio Mishima's  午後の曳航 (because the last time I tried to take on Mishima's works in Japanese it was just too much) will be the last English book I'll read for a while. Every once in a while I like to have an English book binge.

Summary:  In Burma, George Orwell is known as "The Prophet" because three of his works, Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and 1984, can all be looked at as books about Burma.  The first represents the British colonial days of Burma,  and the latter two are more closely tied into what modern day Burma is like.
A journalist travels inside Burma, where travel is hard and the government's eyes are everywhere, to see what the places where Orwell was posted as a military officer in his young look like today, and now much modern day Burma is just as dystopian as the settings of Orwell's novels.

Plot: It's amazing how much Burma (also known as Myanmar, but I will refer to it as Burma) is like a living dystopia. Tracing Orwell's steps is sort of a gimmick, and I would still  have read the book if it didn't have it, namely because I know so little about Burma, but being a fan of dystopian novels (Orwell's and, more recently, Kino no Tabi), it was both surreal and horrifying to know that something like what is in those novels exists. One of this things that immediately endeared me to the Burmese people was their love of books. Most of them were voracious readers of classic novels in English, as that was one of the few ways they learned anything about the outside world. The newspapers were always false, and the "official" view of history was often changed. Articles about Burma, and current events that might provoke people to revolt were taken out of imported magazines in English, so it was hard to get any "real" news at all.

Prose: Even though the author is an American (although she did go to a British college), the book was published in England first, under the slightly flashier title of  Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Tea Shop, and as such, has British spellings throughout. This is really a trivial detail but normally I have no problems with reading British English (as a big fan of Harry Potter, Monty Python, and having read a lot of, and even prefer British classic literature to American classics in most cases, because I find it to be generally more literary eloquent) but I dare say there were a few times when I found I had no clue what a few nouns were referring to ^-^; which made the novel even more exotic in a way... anyway, it didn't interrupt my enjoyment of the book much, and in general I found the prose flowing and lively, with more humor throughout than I expected.

Who I would recommend this to: Readers of travelogues or dystopian novels.

A Dark Night's Passing by Naoya Shiga

Title: A Dark Night's Passing
Japanese Title: 暗夜行路
Author: Naoya Shiga
Publication Year: 1993
Publisher: Kodansha America
Pages: 408

OK, so I read this one in English because I happened to spot it at the library and couldn't resist (Also, the Japanese version was a hundred pages longer). It's supposed to be an 私小説, and I loved the last one of those I read (Touson Shimazaki's 破戒). It also got very good reviews. This is why I shouldn't put so much faith in reviews..

Kensaku, a young man confronts his demons and family secrets.

Plot & Characters: Plot, what plot? Or rather, the plot was so rambling I was wondering when it would get to the good part. It was just too hard to connect to Kensaku. In some ways he was such a jerk that I wondered if the author had wanted him to be hated, and yet I didn't even hate him, because hating requires energy, and this novel was too bland for that. Kensaku is the filter through which we see the world in this novel, and yet that just seemed to make every character nicer and more compassionate than him. The one thing I liked about the book, was the descriptions of Taishou era society, those parts were full of life, and provided interesting insights into how Japan was like back then, but trudging through the rest of the novel wasn't worth it. I will note one thing though, this book makes a great sleep aid.

Prose: The prose was clear and tight, which initially drew me to the novel, it's just that it seems to lose all sense of pacing as it goes on, or maybe it didn't have much to begin with.

Who I recommend it to: Those who like to read about historical Japanese society, those who don't mind rambling novels.

天国の本屋 Tengoku no Honya by  松久淳 Atsushi Matsuhisa

Title: 天国の本屋
Author: Atsushi Matsuhisa
Illustrator: Wataru Tanaka
Publication Year: 2001
Publisher: 新潮社
Pages: 169

Why I chose this book: I read reviews about it in which people said they cried, and they wrote about how deep it was.

Summary: In Heaven, everyone's true lifespan is 100 years, and they spend the remainder of those years in Heaven before going to their next life. If they live past 100, they go to their next life without ever visiting Heaven. Did I mention Heaven also looks exactly like Earth, with parks, streets, and everything else normally found there.  Satoshi is a slacker who drops by a convenience store looking for erotic magazines, when he suddenly finds himself in Heaven, having to manage a bookstore while the regular manager runs off on vacation leaving him in charge, where he meets the green-eyed Yui. He's not dead, like most people there, he's just needs to mind the bookstore, but he grows as a person while there and learns to appreciate those around him.

Plot & Characters: The plot was somewhat predictable but surprisingly heartwarming. The book was filled with watercolor illustrations, which, while beautiful, seemed like padding to make the book larger. Without the illustrations I can't help but think the book would be the size of a large pamphlet. This book does have an element of romance to it, but what I enjoyed about it was all the literary references to children's books! There are parts when passages from "Curious George" and the Narnia series' "The Last Battle", along with references to Japanese children's stories I hadn't heard of. The romance was a typical tsundere romance, which I know is cliche, but I can't help rooting for anyway. I kept thinking that this would make a great slice-of-life anime.

Prose & Readability: The dialogue was well done, but the author needs an editor badly. The descriptive parts were pretty scarce, and most seemed to consist of "And so Satoshi thought" or "And Satoshi said", but the good part about this is that this book is the easiest Japanese book meant for adults I have even seen.
It would definitely made for a good first book, as after the opening scene it's mostly dialogue, and the descriptive words get used over and over again. The main character uses some "tough guy" speech contractions, but if you've read a few shounen manga volumes or glanced through the "Scrapper" expressions here it shouldn't be too hard.

Who I would recommend this to: Those looking for a first book, those looking for a light read that has got  heart.

First Paragraph:

深夜のコンビにでさとしは二十二年の人生の中で確実に第一位にランクインであろう大きな溜息(ためいき)をついてみた。「はー」 レジの裏にしゃがんで伝票の整理をしていた茶紙の店員が、驚いてカウンター越しに頭をだしてさとしを見つめたが、さとしは気にすることなく雑誌棚の前でもう一度「はー」と第二位ランクイン間違いなしの溜息をついた。

The first paragraph provided for readers to help judge for themselves whether a book is a good fit for their current level, and is presented with all furigana shown in the actual book.

きみにしか聞こえない(Kimi ni shika Kikoenai) CALLING YOU by 乙一 Otsuichi 

Title: 君にしか聞こえない CALLING YOU
Author: Otsuichi
Illustrator: Miyako Hasumi
Publication Year: 2001
Publisher: 角川書店
Pages: 201

I loved this book! I think Otsuichi has become one of my favorite authors after reading this, despite the fact that most of his works are horror, his short stories for young adults are well written. There's something almost magical about the way his clear prose flows.

This book is a collection of short stories by Otsuichi which were originally published in The Sneaker light novel magazine. It contains three stories:

Calling You:
The titular story is about a girl who really wants a cell phone, but has no friends to call. One day she finds she suddenly has a cell phone that only she can see, and it starts ringing...

This story is about an 11-year old boy who is places in a special class for misbehaving children.
Once there, he befriends a shy child who has an interesting ability to heal others' wounds, but does it come at a price?

A patient finds himself in a hospital after a train accident, comes upon a flower with the face of a girl, whose singing brightens the lives of his and the other hospital patients.


Plot & Characters: All the stories are told in first person, which makes it easy to "get inside a character's head", and fairly easy to read. I didn't think I would get into this book, but by the end of the first and second stories I was in tears, and I don't cry easily. The third story, particularly the ending, seemed a bit rushed, and I ultimately didn't enjoy it as much as the others. It was still good, but not great like the others. Still, the first two stories were such page-turners near the end it more than made up for the third story.

Prose & Readability: The prose flowed well and was easy to read. The author has a way of really making one connect with the characters. All the stories were in first person, which any person who has read a few manga volumes should be able to follow without much trouble. I wouldn't recommend this as a first book, but maybe a second or third.

Who would I recommend this to: People starting out reading Japanese books, people who want an easy read that leaves a lasting effect.

First Paragraph:

The first paragraph provided for readers to help judge for themselves whether a book is a good fit for their current level, and is presented with all furigana shown in the actual book.