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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] 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.

[Review] Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa

[Review] Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa

[Review] Revenge, by Yoko OgawaRevenge by Yōko Ogawa
Published by Vintage on January 2nd, 2014 (first published 1998)
Genres: Horror, Japanese literature
Pages: 168
Goodreads
five-stars

A woman goes into a bakery to buy a strawberry cream tart. The place is immaculate but there is no one serving so she waits. Another customer comes in. The woman tells the new arrival that she is buying her son a treat for his birthday. Every year she buys him his favourite cake; even though he died in an accident when he was six years old.

Let me begin by saying that I absolutely love it when books do ‘the Thing’.

“The Thing”, you ask? Yes, the Thing. That Thing where authors skilfully weave together different narratives.

Revenge is one such book. Also subtitled Eleven Dark Tales, this book consists of eleven different stories with a seemingly different cast. The way Ogawa has linked these stories, however, is subtle, small and often barely noticeable. But by the time you get to the end of the book, to the very last page, you wonder what the hell you’ve been reading and how it all fits together.

The book is usually categorised as horror, however if you expect blatant horror you might be disappointed. Also, the title Revenge has very little to do with the actual stories, so don’t let that mislead you either.

Those who are familiar with Ogawa’s work know that her stories are subtle but dark and often twisted. I don’t think these eleven tales will keep you awake at night, but they might make you… suspicious. I felt the same when reading Ogawa’s The Diving Pool and I think, after reading Revenge, I would now probably appreciate The Diving Pool more for its creepiness. So yes, in Revenge the creepiness is definitely there, and mix that with these interwoven tales and you get an absolutely genius book.

I loved Revenge and once I started – especially after the third story – I just couldn’t put it down. It’s my fourth book by Yōko Ogawa and by far my favourite. Sadly, that also means I have now worked my way through all English translations. Thankfully her work seems alive and recent. Revenge was the last title to be translated to English in January 2013, and Ogawa seems to fare well outside Japan (translations to English, German, French, Polish, Greek and Italian, among others), so I hope we can expect more translations in the near future!