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[Review] Breaking Into Japanese Literature

[Review] Breaking Into Japanese Literature

[Review] Breaking Into Japanese LiteratureBreaking Into Japanese Literature: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text by Giles Murray, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Natsume Sōseki
Published by Kodansha on June 1st 2012
Genres: Japanese literature, Horror, Classic
Pages: 239
ISBN: 9781568364155
Goodreads
three-stars

Reading great books in the original should be the culmination of language study, but reading Japanese literature unassisted is a daunting task that can defeat even the most able of students. Breaking into Japanese Literature is designed to help you bypass all the frustration and actually enjoy classics of Japanese literature.
Breaking into Japanese Literature features seven graded stories by Natsume Soseki and Akutagawa Ryunosuke, covering a variety of genres.

This book was… not that great. But let me start off on a positive note: I enjoyed the stories. The book contains seven short stories in total, by Natsume Sōseki and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. The selection of stories, content wise, is good. The stories are quite dark, which I love, and I especially like Akutagawa, so reading these stories wasn’t boring.

Now for the negative…

The aim of this book is to read Japanese literature in the original language. The book is set up to accommodate this: each page contains the original Japanese story on the left page, an English translation on the right page, and vocabulary on the bottom half of both pages. Sounds convenient, but it doesn’t quite get it right. There are no grammar explanations, and the English translations are not 100% literal translations either. The same vocab is repeated every page when necessary, which is convenient but also makes you lazy. On the plus side, there are free audio downloads available for each of the stories, if you like to listen to them while reading (I haven’t downloaded them, so I don’t know if the quality is any good).

The stories themselves are, honestly, too difficult for a book like this. They are separated into three different levels: the first stories are the easiest (and of a pretty good level), and then they gradually become more difficult. They are classic stories, and many use words and kanji that are no longer in use. The same goes for some of the grammar. And the grammar and vocabulary was simply too difficult on the whole. It doesn’t help that there are no grammar explanations in sight and the translations don’t always help with that either (you will get the meaning of the sentence, but you still won’t understand the actual grammar). For me the stories were readable, but I’d judge them as high N2 going up to N1 level.

This book simply doesn’t help anyone ‘break into’ Japanese literature. If you don’t have any prior experience reading Japanese literature in Japanese, this is way too hard. And if you are advanced enough to read stories of this level, there are better choices out there. All of the stories in this book have already been published in English (parts of Soseki’s Ten Nights Dreaming, Akutagawa’s Rashomon, In the Grove, The Nose..), so if you want to read something new and previously untranslated, this is not a great selection of stories.

All in all, a nice book for reading practice at N2+ level. But before buying this book I’d recommend Read Real Japanese Fiction, which is set up better, more accessible level-wise, and has a wider selection of stories (and all of them previously untranslated). If you are looking for more difficult reading material, you might want to check Aozora Bunko instead.

[Review] きまぐれロボット by Shin’ichi Hoshi

[Review] きまぐれロボット by Shin’ichi Hoshi

[Review] きまぐれロボット by Shin’ichi Hoshiきまぐれロボット (The Whimsical Robot) by Shin'ichi Hoshi
Published by Kadokawa on 2006 (first published 1972)
Genres: Science fiction
Pages: 215
Goodreads
three-half-stars

Shin’ichi Hoshi (1926-1997) is considered to be one of Japan’s most influential science fiction writers of all time… but he’s not very well known among western readers, I think. A few of his works have been translated and are available as e-book, including this little book. You can find out more about Hoshi here.

Kimagure Robotto, or, The Whimsical Robot, is a fun little book containing ‘short shorts’: short stories of no more than 5 pages each. Each of the stories is about an invention, whether it’s a device to tame wild animals, a potion that enables you to distinguish good from bad people, or a robot that has everyone wondering about its use. There are some characters that appear in many of the stories, like professor R who makes medicine, the rich Mr. N., and professor K who specialises in animals. Then there are a few stories about interaction with aliens. The stories are aimed at children but are quite enjoyable for adults too. Some of the stories are really funny, some leave you wondering, some leave you shaking your head, and some are (I have to admit) a bit boring.

I do have a few favourite stories. Coincidentally the stories I most enjoyed were near the back of the book: ネコ(The cat), 花とひみつ(Flowers and secrets), and とりひき(The deal). It’s hard to say something about stories that are this short, so I won’t say anything to avoid spoiling.

As for its readability, this book was a really easy read. This is the first Japanese book I’ve ever read that felt like I was reading English or Dutch, which essentially means that the level of Japanese was probably too low for me. I finished most of the stories in 5-10 minutes (during commercial breaks when I was watching television haha) and I only had a to look up a few recurring words such as ‘telescope’. I think this book is very suitable as practice material for those at JLPT N3 level.

Would I recommend this book? If you want to gain some confidence in your Japanese skills: hell yes. But if you’re looking for a captivating read, probably not. I personally really enjoy short stories in Japanese, mostly because I tend to find full books a bit hard to swallow, but the stories in this collection got a bit repetitive. There simply wasn’t much incentive to keep reading, which is the main reason this book took me such a long time. On the other hand, if you decide to read one or two stories now and then (with decent breaks in between), it’s certainly a fun read.

[Review] Read Real Japanese Fiction

[Review] Read Real Japanese Fiction

[Review] Read Real Japanese FictionRead Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers by Michael Emmerich, Hiromi Kawakami, Otsuichi, Shinji Ishii, Banana Yoshimoto, Kaoru Kitamura, Yoko Tawada
Published by Kodansha on July 15th 2013 (first published 2008)
Genres: Horror, Japanese literature, Magical realism
Pages: 256
ISBN: 9781568365299
Goodreads
four-half-stars

Read Real Japanese Fiction presents short works by six of todays most daring and provocative Japanese writers. The spellbinding world of Hiromi Kawakami; the hair-raising horror of Otsuichi; the haunting, poignant prose of Banana Yoshimoto; even the poetic word-play of Yoko Tawada.

Earlier this year I already reviewed Read Real Japanese Essays. The Fiction version has the same set-up as that book, so I won’t get into that again (check the Essays review for that). The structure of the book just works, and it’s awesome for students of Japanese, the end.

Anyway! Let’s get into content. While I enjoyed Essays, Fiction was infinitely more interesting to me. It’s so enjoyable reading Japanese literature in Japanese (makes you feel like you actually accomplished something in your studies, haha), and Michael Emmerich’s (the editor) selection of short stories is spot on.

I am sure many J-lit enthusiasts are familiar with Banana Yoshimoto and Hiromi Kawakami, and possibly Otsuichi and Yoko Tawada. If you aren’t, check them out! And then this collection also has Shinji Ishii and Kaoru Kitamura, who are a great addition and authors I definitely want to check out in the future.

As for the level of Japanese, the stories in Fiction were more readable than the essays, in my honest opinion. I (N2) breezed through most of them without any problem.

Hiromi Kawakami – God
Typical Kawakami. After my disappointment with Manazuru, this was nice. Not my favourite, but I enjoyed it all right. It’s not the easiest story in the book, but Kawakami’s style is quite straightforward and if you feel you’re ready to read real literature, this shouldn’t be a big challenge.

Otsuichi – Long Ago, in the Park at Twilight
This story was a bit of a disappointment. I like Otsuichi, his style is properly creepy, but I do not think this was a masterpiece. Short and easy to read though.

Shinji Ishii – The Parrot Meat Market
Ohhh this one was weird. I have no idea what to think about it, but I think I enjoyed it?? I guess? It’s interesting enough. This was one of the more difficult stories in the book.

Banana Yoshimoto – Mummy
This story was really weird. Well done, Yoshimoto, well done. I can’t quite pinpoint if it’s what I expect of Yoshimoto or not. Anyway, I enjoyed it (more than most of Yoshimoto’s things I’ve read lately).

Kaoru Kitamura – One Hundred Stories
I realllly liked this story. The language is simply and straightforward, and a very easy read. The plot was fun! A better horror story than Otsuichi’s, tbh (sorry, Otsuichi). This story definitely made me want to check out more by Kitamura.

Yoko Tawada – To Pun
This story is literally everything that is wrong with the Japanese language (so I say, with love). It’s really short, not even two full pages, and it’s surprising. I really enjoyed it and it made for a perfect final story to end the book with. I’m also quite curious about Tawada’s other works now. I had only vaguely heard of her and had no idea she writes in both Japanese and German, which is just all the more reason for me to check her out.

Japanese Resources: Aozora Bunko

Japanese Resources: Aozora Bunko

If you’re going to read books in Japanese, a pretty awesome place to start is Aozora Bunko. Aozora Bunko is basically like Project Gutenberg, but for Japanese literature. All books on Aozora Bunko are free and their copyright has expired. There are many big names available, such as Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki.

Now, if you’re interested in reading Japanese literature, I am sure you’re already familiar with Aozora Bunko. Or have heard of it at least. While searching for books on Aozora may seem straightforward, with the large choice of books it can be a bit intimidating. Not to mention reading classics in their original language.

In my honest opinion, what’s far more interesting than Aozora Bunko on its own are the apps that make Aozora Bunko useful for learners of Japanese.

Read More Read More

[Review] Making Sense of Japanese, by Jay Rubin

[Review] Making Sense of Japanese, by Jay Rubin

[Review] Making Sense of Japanese, by Jay RubinMaking Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don't Tell You by Jay Rubin
Published by Kodansha on 2013 (first published 1992)
Genres: Non-fiction
Pages: 136
Goodreads
four-half-stars

Making Sense of Japanese is the fruit of one foolhardy American's thirty-year struggle to learn and teach the Language of the Infinite. Previously known as Gone Fishin', this book has brought Jay Rubin more feedback than any of his literary translations or scholarly tomes, "even if," he says, "you discount the hate mail from spin-casters and the stray gill-netter."
To convey his conviction that "the Japanese language is not vague," Rubin has dared to explain how some of the most challenging Japanese grammatical forms work in terms of everyday English. Reached recently at a recuperative center in the hills north of Kyoto, Rubin declared, "I'm still pretty sure that Japanese is not vague. Or at least, it's not as vague as it used to be. Probably."

Oh, this book. OH, THIS BOOK.

You see, when I read the reviews where everyone was praising this book, saying how useful and funny it was, I was slightly sceptical. Sure, I like Rubin’s translations. Sure, he knows his Japanese. But I don’t trust non-fiction/selfhelp/reference works to keep me interested. I always get bored reading them, I just don’t have the patience. And this book is funny? Yeah, right.

Good job, Rubin, proving me wrong. I really enjoyed this book for so many reasons. For one, it really is quite funny. I couldn’t help smirk at some of his comments and comparisons, thinking “Yes, yes, that’s exactly what it’s like“. Fair enough, not having grown up in the US, I didn’t get all the references (who’s Johnny Carson?) but I wasn’t bothered by it.

Anyway. ‘Funny’ is all well and good, but the most important thing about this book is: damn, it’s useful. If you study Japanese, and especially if you’re at the point where you are starting to become confident and as Rubin himself says “progress from cognitive absorption to intuitive mastery”, you have to read this book. I’d personally recommend this book for anyone level N3 and up. I think that’s when you will benefit the most from it.

Rubin covers all kinds of topics related to the Japanese language, in small and slightly larger chapters. For me, they can be divided in three: 1) topics that I had no problem with, 2) topics that I never quite got but that are now clear, and 3) topics that I thought I understood but apparently got all wrong (ouch).

Rubin not only explains how certain aspects of Japanese grammar work, but also how to practically deal with them. And that precisely is what makes this book so useful.

The only complaint I have about this book (which is why it’s a 4.5 instead of 5 star book for me) is that I would have liked all Japanese examples to have kanji&kana next to the romaji.

And that’s it. That’s my only issue. Besides that, this book was perfect. I hope Rubin will continue to work on it (it has been revised once already) and will add new topics.