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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.

Catching up on LGBT+ reviews: Classics

Catching up on LGBT+ reviews: Classics

Catching up on LGBT+ reviews: ClassicsThe Color Purple by Alice Walker
Published by Custom Publishing on December 1st 2010 (first published 1982)
Genres: LGBT+, Classic
Pages: 262
ISBN: 9781407230924
Goodreads
five-stars

Taking place mostly in rural Georgia, the story focuses on the life of women of color in the southern United States in the 1930s, addressing numerous issues including their exceedingly low position in American social culture.

Continuing with short reviews for LGBT+ books I read in 2016 for Pretty Deadly ReviewsLGBTQIA 2016 Reading Challenge, it’s now time for the classics!

I’ve repeated it multiple times now, but this is one of my highlights for 2016. The Color Purple had been on my want-to-read list for a while now, and I finally found the book in London last December. When Our Shared Shelf picked it as the book club read for February it was clearly time to read it!

Heart-breaking, breath-taking, beautiful, sad, funny, perfect. Every aspect of this book was amazing, from the style to the characters to every little detail in the storyline. An absolute must-read for everyone.

After the book I also took time to watch the movie. Mehhh. The first half was alright, and then it just went down the drain. Everything I loved about the book disappeared from the movie. So whatever you do, do not watch the movie instead of reading the book..! (as if you would do that..!)

***

Catching up on LGBT+ reviews: ClassicsOranges are not the only fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Published by Vintage on 1991 (first published 1985)
Genres: LGBT+, Young Adult, Classic
Pages: 171
ISBN: 9780099935704
Goodreads
four-half-stars

Jeanette, the protagonist of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and the author's namesake, has issues--"unnatural" ones: her adopted mam thinks she's the Chosen one from God; she's beginning to fancy girls; and an orange demon keeps popping into her psyche. Already Jeanette Winterson's semi-autobiographical first novel is not your typical coming-of-age tale.

Technically I could’ve reviewed this book as a young adult book, but then the numbers would be too uneven 😉

I love Jeanette Winterson’s style, even though it is not always the easiest to read. I read Oranges after The Passion so I was expecting something very lyrical and quirky. However, Oranges is very accessible while still retaining the quirk. Not everything was easy to follow if you didn’t grow up in the UK though. Still, a very interesting coming-of-age novel not just for young adults. I think this is considered a classic by right!

***

Catching up on LGBT+ reviews: ClassicsMr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood
Published by Arrow on January 8th, 1987 (first published 1935)
Genres: LGBT+, Classic
Pages: 236
ISBN: 9780413422507
Goodreads
five-stars

On a train to Berlin in late 1930, William Bradshaw locks eyes with Arthur Norris, an irresistibly comical fellow Englishman wearing a rather obvious wig and nervous about producing his passport at the frontier. So begins a friendship conducted in the seedier quarters of the city.

I read this book as a culturally appropriate preparation for my trip to Berlin. Isherwood had been on my TBR for such a long time, so why not read him now? I really regret not doing so sooner! I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Mr Norris Changes Trains was wonderful. I read it in as little time as possible.

The characters, based on people Isherwood actually met during his time in Berlin, were fantastic. I had absolutely no problem imagining them, based on the descriptions. They are so vibrant and really make the characters come to life! Definitely one of Isherwood’s strengths. The characters are loveable and awkward, and by the end of the book you don’t really want to leave them.

So it’s no surprise that directly after finishing, I continued with…

***

Catching up on LGBT+ reviews: ClassicsGoodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
Published by Panther on 1977 (first published 1939)
Genres: LGBT+, Classic
Pages: 208
ISBN: 9780586047958
Goodreads
four-half-stars

First published in 1939, Goodbye to Berlin is a brilliant evocation of the decadence and repression, glamour and sleaze of Berlin society in the 1930's - the time when Hitler slowly starts his move to power. It is inhabited by a wealth of characters: the unforgettable and “divinely decadent” Sally Bowles; plump Fräulein Schroeder, Peter and Otto, a gay couple struggling to come to terms with their relationship; and the distinguished and doomed Jewish family, the Landauers.

…more Isherwood! Goodbye to Berlin was more of a memoir (although quite strictly not) than Mr Norris Changes Trains. Isherwood’s style is very straightforward and he’s great at descriptions without it ever getting tiresome. I really felt myself transported to Berlin in the 1930s, eager to learn more about the city at that time. (And so I did – I went on Brendan Nash’s Isherwood tour around Nollendorfplatz!)

Goodbye to Berlin is much more fragmented than Mr Norris, with many characters being introduced, floating in and out of “Issyvoo”‘s life. But that is precisely what makes this novel such a slice-of-life kind of ‘memoir’. I loved it, and will definitely be seeking out more Isherwood (especially his post-WWII work, as I’m now quite curious how he has developed!).

Goodbye to Berlin was actually the basis for Cabaret (the 1972 movie), which I really should rewatch..!

On another note, if you’re not a fan of these rather uhm ‘classic’ covers, Penguin’s Vintage Classics has released a beautiful set of new covers.

LGBTQIA 2016 Reading Challenge

Two Japanese classics

Two Japanese classics

Two Japanese classicsThe Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi
Published by Kodansha on 1980 (first published 1957)
Genres: Japanese literature, Classic
Pages: 208
ISBN: 9780870114243
Goodreads
four-stars

The beautiful, immature girl whom she took home to her husband was a maid only in name. Tomo's real mission had been to find him a mistress. Nor did her secret humiliation end there. The web that his insatiable lust spun about him soon trapped another young woman, and another ... and the relationships between the women thus caught were to form, over the years, a subtle, shifting pattern in which they all played a part.

So recently I read these two Japanese classics one after another, which frankly was a great decision! Both Fumiko Enchi (1905-1986) and Kanoko Okamoto (1889-1939) – the former more famous than the latter – were feminists and modern women in their time. Reading these two authors back to back was an interesting experience.

First, there was The Waiting Years. Last year I read Masks by Fumiko Enchi and wrote about her for January in Japan. My ultrashort review of Masks can be found here. Unfortunately that didn’t leave a very deep impression on me, so I didn’t expect to read anything else by Enchi. But The Waiting Years was the book club pick for the the Japanese Literature group on Goodreads so I decided to join in, and I’m so glad I did!

The Waiting Years was a very interesting and rather beautiful read. It describes life in the upper-class Shirakawa family in the late Meiji era. More specifically, it describes the lives and feelings of the women in the Shirakawa household. The women are central in this book. And while the Shirakawa household and everything about it is very traditional, and the women are forced into a position of submission, I think the way Enchi writes about them is surprisingly refreshing. The women have to endure a lot but the tone is never overly negative. The women are well rounded characters, developing throughout the novel, and they all deal with their situation in their own way.

Every aspect of this book focuses on the traditional, but Enchi gives it a (in my opinion) modern and feminist twist by not being afraid to point out unfairness through the voice of the characters. On the whole, the book was very nuanced. I don’t think it could have been written by anyone but a woman (at least, at the time it was written).

I also recommend checking out our book club discussion about the book here!

* * *

Two Japanese classicsA Riot of Goldfish by Kanoko Okamoto
Published by Hesperus Press on 2010
Genres: Japanese literature, Classic
Pages: 113
ISBN: 9781843918523
Goodreads
three-half-stars

In early 20th-century Japan, the son of lower-class goldfish sellers falls in love with the beautiful daughter of his rich patron. After he is sent away to study the science of goldfish breeding, with strict orders to return and make his patron's fortune, he vows to devote his life to producing one ideal, perfect goldfish specimen to reflect his loved-one's beauty. This poignant and deft tale is presented along with the story of a pauper from Kyoto who teaches himself to be an accomplished chef.


Okamoto’s work is entirely different from Enchi’s. A Riot of Goldfish contains two novella’s where men are the main characters. Both A Riot of Goldfish and it’s companion The Food Demon are ‘small’ stories, they don’t have a real plot and they focus on just one specific theme.

In the first story, the adopted son of a goldfish breeder is completely enamoured by his classmate, the daughter of his rich patron. But she is out of his league, so instead he aims to create the perfect new breed of goldfish. And that despite the fact that he is really not all that interested in goldfish breeding.

In the second story we learn about Besshiro, his relationship with cooking food, and how he got to this point in his life.

Personally, I am a huge fan of these types of stories (is there a name for them?), that I only ever seem to encounter in Japanese literature. In this case, the first story was a bit too feverish for me, but I really enjoyed the second one. All in all, this thin book is a quick read and there’s no reason not to give it a try 😉

Women's Classic Literature Event

[Review] The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

[Review] The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

[Review] The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe HallThe Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
Published by Wordsworth Editions on January 7th 2014 (first published January 1928)
Genres: Classic, LGBT+
Pages: 414
ISBN: 9781840224559
Goodreads
five-stars

‘As a man loved a woman, that was how I loved…It was good, good, good…’
Stephen is an ideal child of aristocratic parents – a fencer, a horse rider and a keen scholar. Stephen grows to be a war hero, a bestselling writer and a loyal, protective lover. But Stephen is a woman, and her lovers are women. As her ambitions drive her, and society confines her, Stephen is forced into desperate actions.

I picked up this book nearly a year ago for the first time, but never read beyond the first few chapters (although I liked it back then). I picked it up again because it’s a perfect read for both the LGBTQIA 2016 Reading Challenge and the Women’s Classic Literature Event.

This is not a classic that is universally loved. Scanning through some of the reviews before I started reading, I was fully prepared to not like it much either. Hall was apparently not such a nice person, and this book is a ‘thinly disguised story of her own life’. But much to my surprise, I loved it.

The Well of Loneliness tells the life story of Stephen, an ‘invert’ (the word used for ‘lesbian’ – although we could argue about Stephen’s sexuality and gender identity). The book is really just that, a life story. Considering the time period, I was expecting a really dramatic and sad story. Instead, it was often full of hope. Stephen has to endure hardship and social stigma, but also has good people in her life who support her, and Stephen herself is not afraid to fight for her existence. It’s a realistic life story, not exclusively happy but not so sad either. Although I have to confess, the ending… 🙁

What surprised me furthermore was how completely unapologetic this book is. It’s absolutely no surprise that it was banned upon publication in 1928 (considering the time period). There is no explicit sex, but the book is also not hiding anything, everything is said outright and there is very little subtlety. And although Stephen occasionally struggles with her place in society, she is never sorry for what she is. Even in the final chapter, which was heart-wrenching, I believe she made the decision for a reason other than her being ashamed of herself. It was refreshing to say the least – I’ve read modern LGBT+ books that weren’t this unapologetic.

Finally, I have to mention Hall’s writing. It’s absolutely gorgeous, just the right level of lyrical without getting tiresome. The book on the whole was a relatively easy read. The end of my edition (a Wordsworth classic) had endnotes which were helpful, although many of them weren’t necessary.

Women's Classic Literature Event LGBTQIA 2016 Reading Challenge

TBR Pile Challenge 2015 – two down…

TBR Pile Challenge 2015 – two down…

TBR Pile Challenge 2015 – two down…Masks by Fumiko Enchi
Published by Vintage on September 12th 1983 (first published 1958)
Genres: Japanese literature, Classic
Pages: 141
ISBN: 9780394722184
Goodreads
three-stars

A curiously elegant and scandalous tale of sexual deception and revenge. Ibuki loves widow Yasuko who is young, charming and sparkling with intelligence as well as beauty. His friend, Mikame, desires her too but that is not the difficulty. What troubles Ibuki is the curious bond that has grown between Yasuko and her mother-in-law, Mieko, a handsome, cultivated yet jealous woman in her fifties, who is manipulating the relationship between Yasuko and the two men who love her.

I did not forget about this challenge this year! The previous years were a bit of a disaster, but this time I am determined to make it. Looking at my list I get a bit nervous though.

Anyway, I can happily announce I am two books down (and have ten more to go)! I don’t think I can bring myself to write full reviews, but here are mini reviews for the two books I finished.

Masks was the first book off my TBR pile challenge that I finished. It was actually one of the alternates, and I ended up reading it for January in Japan. I was looking forward to reading something by Enchi, she was one of the classic authors I hadn’t read anything by yet.

Frankly… I read Masks back in January, and to my shame I don’t even remember how it ended. I can’t say it left a very deep impression on me. The characters didn’t do much for me, as did the storyline. What I did enjoy a lot were the nôh aspects, although I know close to nothing about nôh. And even better, the references to The Tale of Genji – that I thankfully do know a bit more about (although those who have been with me longer know I errr strongly dislike that story haha).

So while this book may not have ended up among my favourites, I am glad to have had the experience of reading it.

* * *

TBR Pile Challenge 2015 – two down…The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Published by Faber & Faber on 2005 (first published 1963)
Genres: Classic
Pages: 234
ISBN: 9780571226160
Goodreads
four-stars

Esther Greenwood is at college and is fighting two battles, one against her own desire for perfection in all things - grades, boyfriend, looks, career - and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens she finds herself encased in it, bell-jarred away from the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality.

While reading this I went through a few stages. The first few pages, I couldn’t help but feel it was one of “those books”. I am sure you know what kind of books I am talking about – the youngster growing up, stepping out into the world, a few doubts here and there, with a touch of misplaced glamour. Except this time not with a young man but a young woman as a main character, so that was refreshing at least.

I completely changed my opinion a little bit onwards, as we got to know more about Esther and her life in New York. I was really beginning to enjoy the book. And then – although I saw it coming it still felt quite sudden – mental illness prevailed. It was almost shocking how relevant the book is even in this day and age (minus certain old-fashioned treatments).

I am glad I read this book. It really impressed me. Of course it is (sadly) no surprise Plath was able to write about it so well…

2015 TBR Pile Challenge