Author Archives: BookerTalk

World Literary Tour: Visit Japan in 5 Books

5 books of Japanese Literature

Today is National Foundation Day (Kenkokukinen-no-Hi), in Japan, a day which marks the enthronement of the country’s first Emperor.

Although it’s a national holiday, there isn’t the same level of pomp and ceremony you see elsewhere around the world on similar occasions. No grand parades or huge firework displays. In fact apart from some parades and processions to shrines, there are no really big celebration events.

We’re just going to have to make our own fun in that case.

So pour yourself a glass of sake, or, if you prefer a cup of cha, and prepare a little otsumami (a light snack) to get yourself in the mood to celebrate one of the oldest literary traditions in the world. We’re talking seriously old – some of the earliest texts date from the seventh century CE.

Japan’s Literary Heritage

Many scholars consider Japanese literature to be comparable in richness, and volume to English literature. But it’s also rather more diverse; including poetry, novels and drama as well as some genres like diaries and travel accounts that are not as highly esteemed in other countries.

Until 2013 the only Japanese author I’d read was Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains Of The Day). Some purists might question if he even qualifies since he has spent most of his life in England. But in the absence of anyone else, I’m claiming him.

I’ve been trying to make up for lost time since then and my list of Japanese authors to explore, is ever expanding. I still consider myself to be very much a beginner in this world, particularly compared to the ‘experts’ in Japanese literature like Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza and Tony who blogs at Messenger’s Booker .

5 Of My Favourite Works of Japanese Literature

So I’m not qualified to give you a list of recommended book. I’m simply going to talk about 5 novels by Japanese authors that I’ve loved in recent years.

Yukio Mishima, Japanese literature

After the Banquet  by  Yukio Mishima 

This was my first true venture into Japanese literature. Mishima Yukio is considered one of the greats of modern Japanese fiction; a highly creative and versatile novelist and playwright who became the first Japanese writer generally known abroad. 

After The Banquet is not his most famous novel – that accolade goes to his tetralogy The Sea of Fertility – but it is still highly regarded. The New York Times called it “the biggest and most profound thing Mishima has done so far in an already distinguished career” I found it a fascinating portrait of a marriage between two people whose interests and perspectives seem diametrically opposed. It proved to be a good introduction to one of the key features of Japanese literature – it tends to be enigmatic and absent of the beginning/middle/end structure I’ve been used to in Western literature.

Yoko Ogawa, Japanese literature

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa 

Yoko Ogawa is a prolific author, with more than 40 titles to her name. Sadly only a few (nine I think at the last count) are available in English. The Housekeeper and The Professor, which came out in 2008 , is a slim work of a relationship between a maths professor who suffered brain damage in a traffic accident and his housekeeper, a woman who becomes fascinated by numbers and equations. It beautifully captures the subtlety of relationships across generations and between people of different backgrounds and experience.

Banana Yoshmoto, Japanese literature

Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto

Relationships are also at the heart of Goodbye Tsugumi, a wonderfully atmospheric novel about two girls who were once close friends. Their lives took them in different directions but they decide to meet once more at a small seaside inn where they spent many of their summers. I wouldn’t say this contains any really big ideas but it was nevertheless a delight to read.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki, Japanese literature

I bought A Tale for the Time Being  at a library book sale, knowing nothing about the author beyond the fact she’d been listed for the Booker Award. It took me quite a few years to get around to reading it but then it became one of my favourite reads in 2017.

It’s a blend of a multitude of ideas and themes from Zen and the meaning of time to the Japanese tsunami and environmental degradation. It could have been a bewildering mess but instead Ozeki holds it all together with the aid of a phenomenally engaging narrator. Sixteen year old Nao (pronounced as “now”) Yasutani pours out her unhappiness in her diary but also relates the love and strength she finds through her relationship with her elderly grandmother, who lives in a remote Buddhist temple in north-eastern Japan. An absolute delight of a book.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage  by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami, Japanese literature

Which brings me up to my most recent Japanese novel.

I’ll hazard a guess that Haruki Murakami is the most famous living Japanese author. In Japan, his novels can sell 1m copies in the week of publication but he also has a global reputation. His novels have been translated into 50 languages, received numerous awards and been on best seller lists worldwide. His name often comes up as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

I’ve felt for some time that I should give him a go but the sheer size of some of his novels is off putting. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle for example is around 620 pages, a mere infant compared to 1Q84 whose three volumes come in at more than 1200 pages. Added to this is the fact that his books are frequently described as ‘strange’ and bordering on magical realism – a genre I don’t relate to very well.

But I took the plunge in 2016 because I was assured Norwegian Wood was not magical realism. I loved it. This year I took advantage of Japanese Literature Challenge 2020 to make a return visit to Murakami with Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage .

Yes it’s ambiguous , particularly because some of the mysteries are unresolved, but not so much that it can’t be understood. It’s also full of atmosphere, sometimes darkly so, as the young central character experiences nightmares and dreams as he tries to revisit the past and discover why he was ostracised by his former school friends.

I know I didn’t understood the whole of the novel but I’m beginning to accept that this is par for the course with much of Japanese fiction. So now the big question is whether I can tackle one of his ‘meatier’ novels.

I’ve barely skimmed the surface with this literary tour of Japan. There are scores of Japanese authors and books that deserve a place on this list. What would you put on your list? Which of Murakami’s novels would you recommend I try next?

Exquisite. The Haunting Beauty of Shell by Kristina Olsson

Shell by Kristina Olsson

Whoever selected the title for Kristina Olsson’s superb third novel ,Shell, made an inspired choice.  

The title perfectly captures the fragility of her two protagonists, a Swedish glassmaker and the fiercely independent Australian journalist. Pearl Keogh. But it also has an affinity with the principal design feature of the iconic Sydney Opera House whose construction forms a background to the novel. 

The year is 1965. Construction of the opera house is mired in controversy amid complaints of spiralling costs and aversion to its unusual design. A newly-elected government begins to put pressure on the Danish-born architect Jørn Utzon to cut costs and speed up completion. I had no idea until I read Shell that there was so much controversy surrounding the construction or criticism directed at the architect.

Anti War Feelings

The Opera House project is not the only contentious issue occupying the attention of the media. The country has entered the war in Vietnam and young Australian men are being conscripted to alongside American allies.

Pearl Keogh is ideologically opposed to the war, taking to the streets to voice her opinion in anti-war demonstrations. Though she has a social conscience she also has a more personal reason for her opposition. She has two young brothers who are the right age to be called up. She lost them when they disappeared into the welfare system after their mother died. Her nights are filled with nightmares that she may never find them again.

Her path converges with Axel Lundquist, a young Swedish glassmaker brought to Sydney to create a glass sculpture for the opera house.

A Life Of Gaps

Like Pearl, Lundquist has a gap, an absence, in his life.  He views Utzon as an inspiration and is desperate to meet the man in the flesh. He wants to understand his vision and his inspiration. His desire borders on obsession, taking him on solitary walks around the harbour and to a remote coastal settlement as he follows up on reports of possible sitings. In the absence of a physical meeting with his guru, Lundquist must turn to the building itself for answers.

… what had begun as a mundane assembly of materials – sand, and lime and pebble – was now a thing of beauty, a ceiling of ships. Sitting here was like being underwater, looking up at the hulls of twenty boats floating side by side. Or the corrugations in mudflats left by a departing tide.

Until then he had thought concrete brutal. Used internally it was a material of expedience, easy and cheap. But here it was as tactile as fabric, evocative as wood.

As construction progresses, his appreciation deepens further that this is far more than just a building.

… he closed his eyes. And opened them to a vision: the new building lifting its wings above the land, the water, above all those heads that didn’t know. not yet, what it might say about them. How free they were to become who they were, or could be.

Shell Will Grow On You

This is a novel that takes a little time to fully appreciate. The storyline is discontinuous and I was confused at times by some of the episodes involving Pear. But gradually it hooked me in.

The book really comes alive when we get access to Lundquist’s thought process as he imagines a sculpture matching the beauty and extraordinary characteristics of Utzon’s design creation.

There were some particularly interesting insights on Australian attitudes to its cultural heritage. Lundquist grows to like Sydney, a city whose sandstone buildings look to him ” like a painted set, a picture from a child’s schoolbook”. But he’s disappointed that for all the bright veneer, parks and neat streets, the city has lost its connection to the past, the feeling that:

Beneath this layer of living, this past two hundred years, were the traces of that older civilisation, a thick network of paths and habitation, the tracks of people and animals.

He expands on this later on in the novel:

‘Australians appeared to have no myths of their own, no stories to pass down. He’d read about the myths of indigenous people, the notion of a Dreaming and the intricate stories it comprised. He wondered if Utzon knew these legends, their history in this place. Had he known anything of Aboriginal people when he designed his building? As he sat down and drew shapes that could turn a place sacred? Turn its people poetic: their eyes to a harbour newly revealed by the building, its depths and colours new to them, and surprising. Perhaps that was what the architect was doing here: creating a kind of Dreaming, a shape and structure that would explain these people to themselves. Perhaps the building was just that: a secular bible, a Rosetta stone, a treaty. A story to be handed down. If people would bother to look. If they’d bother to see.’

Kristina Olsson has some exquisite turns of phrase; the Opera House for example is variously described as “a bowl, newly shattered”, “bleached bones against the paling sky” and “as if the architect had once held a shell to his ear, and heard as well as seen the design”. I’ve never visited Sydney myself but Olsson’s precise descriptions of the magnificence of this structure had me desperately hoping I can get there soon.

Though I enjoyed the themes and warmed to the characters, there’s no getting away from the fact that the knock out element of this novel really is the portrayal of that building. It towers over everything: an emerging beauty capable of producing a deep emotional reaction but also suggesting possibilities and potential.

As Lindquist describes it:

Everywhere he looked he saw what Utzon saw. The drama of harbour and horizon, and at night, the star-clotted sky. It held the shape of the possible, of a promise made and waiting to be kept.

I hadn’t heard of Kristina Olsson until I saw Lisa’s blog post on ANZLitLovers’ blog I’ve learned that if Lisa describes a book as ‘sensational’ and her book of the year, then it’s one I definitely should read. Thanks Lisa for giving me such a hauntingly beautiful reading experience.

Shell by Kristina Olsson: Endnotes

Kristina Olsson is an Australian journalist and teacher. Her first novel In One Skin was published  in 2001. She followed this with the biography Kilroy Was Here, which told the story of Debbie Kilroy. In 2010 her novel The China Garden won the Barbara Jefferis Award, which is offered annually for Australian novels which depict women and girls positively, or empower the position of women in society.

6 Degrees From Fleishman to Women's Rights

It’s time for #6degrees once more. Let’s hope I’m more successful this month than I was in January when I couldn’t get beyond book number 3 in the chain.

Guess what – yet again I’ve not read, nor even heard of the book with which we’re meant to be starting this month’s chain.

It’s  Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.

When I saw the title initially my brain scrambled it with the Flashman series from the 1960s. So I started thinking of books featuring other rakes and rogues. I got halfway through the chain before I realised the mistake…..

Let’s start again shall we.

Taffy Brodesser-Ankner’s name happens to connect nicely to my home country. “Taffy’ is a ‘friendly’ generic description of a person from Wales (a bit like calling New Zealanders “kiwis”.) No-one really knows how the term Taffy came about – it might have been a mangling of the common Welsh name Dafydd but it could equally have originated with people who lived near the river Taff.

Whatever the origin it means I get the chance to promote an author from Wales.

I can’t do better than choose The Cove by Cynan Jones, not only because this is a superb novella but Cynan is a very Welsh first name (it’s the Welsh word for chief in case you’re interested). The Cove features a kayaker badly injured by lightening, clinging to the hope he can get back to safety and the woman he loves.

The watery setting links me very nicely to Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It’s a strange tale about a young boy called Pi who is adrift in a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean. Though he’s the sole human survivor of a shipwreck, he is sharing the lifeboat with a hyena and a male Bengal tiger.

The novel ends on a note of mystery because Pi gives two versions of how he managed to survive. It’s up the reader to decide which to believe.

As an arch deceiver, Pi could go head to head with the protagonist in my next linked book: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle . Mary Katherine Blackwood (known as Merricat) is rather a minx, leading us a merry dance with her clues about how the members of her family ended up poisoned by arsenic. In true Gothic tradition this is a novel that takes place in a rambling ruin of a house.

Bly Manor, the setting  for Henry James’ The Turn of The Screw isn’t a ruin but just like the Castle, it’s a place of mystery. Shortly after a young governess arrives at the isolated country manor house, she begins to suspect that the two children in her care are tormented by ghosts. Or are they? We have only her word for it since no-one else in the house sees these figures and the one person to whom she confides her suspicions is highly sceptical.

The first readers of this short story viewed it purely as a spooky story but new interpretations began emerging in the 1930s. The question now is whether James wrote not a simple, but effective ghost story, but a far more complex and disturbing psychological tale of delusion and insanity.

Let’s stick with governesses who are misunderstood.

Is Jane Eyre a heart-warming novel of a poor governess who overcomes challenges and obstacles but finally finds happiness in the arms of Mr Rochester? Or is she the alter ego of mad Bertha, his first wife whom he locks up in the attic? Is Jane Eyre a sorry figure upon whom other people like to trample? Or is she, as feminist critics maintain, a champion for the rights of women to have a life of their own choosing?

Now I could take the easy path here and link to the author of a twentieth century landmark work of literary criticism. But as much as I appreciate Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she was standing on the shoulders of another giant.

So let’s make the final link in my chain a much older yet still ground- breaking work of feminist literature.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in part as a reaction to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, published in late 1790 which argued that religious and civil liberties were part of a man’s birth right.

Wollstonecraft went one step further, and, argued for women’s rights to be on the same footing as men’s.  Her work was discredited when, after her death, details emerged of her unorthodox lifestyle.

And so we’ve come to the end of the chain. I didn’t realise when I chose Wollstonecraft that there was any connection to Fleishman Is In Trouble. But now I see that it’s been called “a powerful feminist book”. The circle is complete…..

The Cove: A Lyrical Haunting Narrative of Man Against the Elements

The Cove by Cynan Jones

Cynan Jones’ The Cove is less than 100 pages long but it’s packed with intensely atmospheric prose that sucks you in from the first paragraph and doesn’t let you go.

It begins with a short prologue in which a woman stands on a shore waiting for the result of a rescue mission out in the bay. The focus then shifts to a man adrift in a kayak, having been caught in a sudden storm and struck by lightening

When he regains consciousness, he has no knowledge of how much time has elapsed or how far he is from the cove. He’s disorientated, badly injured, has no food and a minimum of water. The only equipment at his disposal is his fishing line and a frying pan.

The odds are against him but his instinct for survival is strengthened by his overwhelming love for the woman and unborn child waiting for him back on land.

The idea of her, whoever she might be, seemed to grow into a point on the horizon he could aim for. He believed he would know more as he neared her.

Getting in Close

This is prose that is slowly, almost microscopically rendered. Cynan Jones makes us feel as if we’re in the kayak with this man, shadowing every small action that he hopes will help him to survive.

He clipped the line that was attached to the hook to the feather trace and moved the weight so it was linked from the baited hook. Then he threw out the rig and let out the line.

His disorientation renders him unable to focus on practicalities for any length of time. Without a clock or a watch, time has in fact ceased to have any meaning: “he thinks of whiles, moments – things less measurable.”

As he drifts in and out of consciousness, he contemplates the way the life beneath the waves comes “alive like a living skin“; with the fin of a sunfish “folding, flopping” and a flock of jellyfish floating “like negligees.” And he reflects on his life; the father whose ashes he had taken with him in the kayak to scatter upon the water; the woman waiting for him on the shore.

Memories are triggered by small discoveries. At one point he finds a wren’s feather inside his dead mobile phone, an object that reminds him of his partner who has a similar feather. The glimpses of the past and of a new future give him the strength to try and survive.

Economical But Lyrical Prose

Every word in The Cove has been carefully selected. It’s a terse economical style yet still rich in imagery, metaphors and similies. He has for example a a sense of himself as “a fly trapped the wrong side of glass” with a  “memory like a dropped pack of cards.”  He can recall the beginning of the journey and drifting out to sea but “the time in between was gone. Like a cigarette burn in a map.”

This is a haunting novel. Though it’s more than a year since I read The Cove I still remember the atmosphere and the imagery so clearly. It’s now joined a very elite group of contemporary novels that I am certain to re-read.

Coming To Your Shelves This Spring: New Books From Welsh Publishers

The output of the Welsh publishing sector may not be as prolific as their counterparts elsewhere in the UK, but what it lacks in numbers, it more than delivers on quality and variety.

The small community of independent and specialist publishers champion the cause of writers born in Wales and those who have chosen to make the country their home.

Here are a few titles coming out this Spring that have caught my interest.

Honno Press

Published this month is Wild Spinning Girls by Carol Lovekin an author I’ve enjoyed in the past (see my reviews of Ghostbird and Snow Sisters). Just like those novels, Wild Spinning Girls, features an old house that has secrets and a protagonist who has to learn to let go of the past.

The Memory by Judith Barrow also takes secrets and memories as its theme. I’ve not read any of Judith’s work yet but this one sounds interesting. It’ features the difficult relationship between a mother and her daughter. Over the course of 24 hours their moving and tragic story is revealed – a story of love and duty betrayal and loss – as Irene rediscovers the past about the sister who died 30 years earlier. The Memory is due out on 19 March.

Seren Books

Seren has always enjoyed a strong reputation for the spotlight it provides Welsh poets. They’re continuing to do that this year with two new collections due out in February. The first of these caught my eye simply because of the very strange cover art….

The Machineries of Joy is Peter Finch’s 26th poetry collection. Seren says it’s “chock-full of acute observation, pointed asides, startled reactions, formal dislocations and structural invention.”

Also coming out with a new collection is Andre Mangeot with Blood Rain. Many of the featured poems are inspired by the his love of the landscape of Wales and in particular the dramatic vistas of the mountains of Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons.

Parthian Books

One of the things I’ve long admired about Parthian is the way they bring an element of diversity to their output. That’s very much in evidence again this year with books from a Sommalian refugee, a Latvian author from the Cold War era and one of the most respected voices in contemporary Welsh literature.

They have some really exciting sounding books coming out in April and again in the summer but you’ll have to wait for news of those later on in the year.

For now, I’ll just mention one that was launched just a few weeks ago.

I, Eric Ngalle is a remarkable true life account of a young man who left Sommalia believing he would soon be in Belgium, studying for an economics degree. But the travel plans went wrong and instead he ended up in Russia. After his passport was stolen, he spent two years as an illegal immigrant. Somehow (and I’m very curious how this happened) he ended up in Wales where he studied history and is now doing an MA in creative writing.

That’s all for now but I’ll be back with some more titles in a few months. If you’ve never read anything by a Welsh publisher I hope I’ve done enough to persuade you to lend them your support!

Unmissable. Unforgettable. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air is an unflinching account of what happens when a man with expertise that can save lives, is powerless to save his own life.

At the age of 36, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Overnight he underwent a transformation in his identity. One day he was a doctor in control of his patients’ destinies. The next he became the patient, forced to relinquish control over his treatment and to put his future into the hands of fellow professionals. Having aspired to be “the pastoral figure … I found myself the sheep, lost and confused”.

When Breath Becomes Air traces his life and the path he took to become a neurosurgeon fascinated by the most complex organ in the human body. The organ that not only controls all other organs it operates in the very core of human identity.

From Literature to Neurosurgery

He never set out to become a doctor. At university he studied English literature, gaining a postgraduate degree with a thesis on Walt Whitman. But he became increasingly interested in the metaphysical questions raised in literature but found books couldn’t provide him with answers. So he enrolled at medical school.

He chose to specialise in neurosurgery because of its “unforgiving call to perfection”. A two millimetre variation in the size of an incision would mark the difference between life for his patient or a living hell of “locked in syndrome.” His quest for excellence combined with the pressure of his job (100 hour weeks were not uncommon) almost cost him his marriage. He even persevered with his punishing surgical duties (including 36 hour stints in theatre) through excruciating back pain and severe fatigue.

What kind of surgeon would he have become if those pains and rapid weight loss hadn’t turned out to be a sign of lung cancer so rampant it had deformed his spine and obliterated one lobe of his liver? When Breath Becomes Air gives us a strong feeling that he would have become one of the foremost specialists in his field, an expert much sought after by university medical departments across the United States.

Questions of Mortality

But it was not to be.

Instead of contemplating that glittering career Paul Kalanithi instead turned to contemplating questions of life and death. They are questions his medical training has not equipped him to answer. The statistics of survival rates and probability of treatment effectiveness that are part and parcel of a medical practitioner’s world are meaningless to a patient he discovers. He comes to the conclusion that the question is not “how long will I live, but how well will I live”?

Not an easy question to answer when his sense of himself has been turned upside down. Robbed of his role as a surgeon he no longer knows who he is or what he wants. How important is it that his treatment plan preserves his manual dexterity, so leaving the door open for him to return to work? Should he and his wife have a child as they had always planned? Should he stay in Stanford and take up a much coveted post or go for a different job that would require a move to Wisconsin?

When Breath Becomes Air was written in the 22 months that elapsed between his diagnosis and his death. But though he wrote at every opportunity and with great determination, he died before he could finish the book. It lends the text added poignancy particularly since the last words he wrote were in the form of a direct address to his baby daughter, the child whose first birthday he would never see. I confess that listening to this passage in my car I was so overcome with emotion I had to pull over and stop.

There is of course a huge amount of emotion invested in this narrative. How could it not be, given the topic. But it’s never sentimentalised or gratuitous. Paul Kalanithi tells his story with delicacy and beauty. It makes the result a book that is inspiring and unforgettable.

%d bloggers like this: