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[Review] Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami

[Review] Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami

[Review] Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Mannen Zonder Vrouw (Men Without Women) by Haruki Murakami
Published by Atlas Contact on March 1st 2016 (first published 2014)
Genres: Japanese literature
Pages: 288
ISBN: 9789025446604
Goodreads
four-stars

Like everyone else I was extremely curious about Murakami’s new short story collection, Men Without Women. I prefer my Murakami in English, although the Dutch translations are in a way superior because they are more true to the original, but as of yet there is no news on the publication date for the English edition of this book.

So when I got the chance to receive the Dutch one from the publisher back in January, I grabbed the chance. The following review is a translation of my Dutch review of the book, but I hope it’ll be interesting for those who are looking forward to the new book. No spoilers!

The new Murakami is a collection of short stories and quite thematic this time: like the title suggests, all stories are about men without a woman. The first story, Drive My Car, made me doubt if I was going to like these stories though. Because to be quite honest, I was never a big fan of The Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage. Give me the unexplainable, the fantastic, the talking cats, any day.

Thankfully, Yesterday gave this book a typical Murakami-twist. For the enthusiastic Murakami reader it is quite clear that the men – and the woman too, for that matter – are clearly Murakami’s creations. Their characters vary from vaguely normal to completely eccentric. Throw in some jazz music, cats and cafés, passive men with vague life stories and unreachable girls, open endings, and you’ve got another steady Murakami. But then shorter.

The men are the main characters in these stories, but the (often absent) women are just as important. Although of course we always get to see them through a filter, whether the point of view of the men in these stories, or Murakami’s filter.

My favourite story in this collection is without a doubt Kino, purely because I am fascinated (or rather, obsessed) with the way Murakami manages to put the same character in so many different books and short stories, settings, situations, but then each time in a slightly different way. A déjà vu without it feeling like a déjà vu. Another fresh new interpretation.

Then there is Sheherazade, perhaps the only story where the woman is the active factor. Samsa in Love jumps out as well, but for a different reason. Funnily enough that’s the least Murakami-ish story in the collection.

Quite a few of these short stories have already appeared in the New Yorker. If you have already read these, and you are planning to read the book in English, I must be fair and say I am not sure if it will be worth it to buy this short story collection (if it is ever published).
If you are planning to read this in Dutch, then yes, it’s definitely worth buying the book. The translations by Jacques Westerhoven are impeccable as usual, and his translations seem to fit short stories even better.

[Review] Twinkle Twinkle, by Kaori Ekuni

[Review] Twinkle Twinkle, by Kaori Ekuni

[Review] Twinkle Twinkle, by Kaori EkuniTwinkle Twinkle by Kaori Ekuni
Published by Vertical on May 2003 (first published January 1991)
Genres: Contemporary, Japanese literature, LGBT+
Pages: 170
ISBN: 9781932234015
Goodreads
four-half-stars

They got married ten days ago. They haven't had sex yet and they don't intend to.

I discovered this book through my quest to find as many LGBT+ themed Japanese literature books as possible (hint: there are very few in translation). If you’re interested in finding out more titles, I created a Listopia list on Goodreads that others have contributed to as well: here

This book is one of those typical titles in Japanese literature that don’t seem to get much love on Goodreads, with an average of only 3.62 stars. And I genuinely think it deserves better. The book portrays the marriage between Shoko, who suffers from emotional instability, and Mutsuki, who is gay. The marriage is a sham to keep both sets of parents happy – and as the parents only know about the ‘undesirability’ of their own child, and not that of the partner, they are happy with the match.

Sounds like a plot that could turn ugly quite easily, and I was a bit worried before I started reading. But Ekuni has created two absolutely lovable and loving characters, and shows great respect to them. I fell in love with both Shoko and Mutsuki from the start. Their relationship is not portrayed as something negative (although, as you can imagine, the odds of it lasting are slim).

I must admit that the plot isn’t very elaborate, and the ending of the book felt a little hurried. However, Ekuni managed to end the book in more or less the way I was hoping, and I felt so warm and fuzzy that I still gave it 5 stars on Goodreads. I loved it!

Sadly sham marriages where one or both of the partners are LGBT+ aren’t that unusual in Japan. I highly recommend Ellen Page’s and Ian’s Gaycation episode about Japan for more on the topic. It can be watched for free here, it’s an excellent episode!

On another note: the dustcover on this book is HIDEOUS but look at the much cuter cover that’s hiding underneath!

Twinkle Twinkle

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] 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.