A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place
Seicho Matsumoto

Cover of A Quiet PlaceTsuneo Asai is on a business trip in Kobe when he recieves the news that his wife had died. Eiko had had a weak heart, so, while her death was sudden, the heartattack causing it was not exactly a surprise. The circumstances of her death, however, are puzzling: What did she do in that neighborhood in a part of Tokyo they had never visited before?

When Tsuneo visits that neighborhood to apologize for the trouble caused by his wife’s death, he notices a number of love hotels on top of the hill. Immediately, the idea that his wife must have had an affair takes hold, and Tsuneo is determined to find out the truth.

This is not your typical “whodunit” crime novel, since the death of Eiko was from natural causes. Still, Tsuneo acts like a sleuth on his quest to unravel his wife’s apparent double life, which makes this a compelling read. Once the truth is found, Tsuneo must make a decision, which turns the story into a direction of obsession and what can happen when you don’t let sleeping dogs lie…

Seicho Matsumoto was born as Kiyoharu Matsumoto, an only child, in Kyushu in 1909. He never finished secondary school or university, and worked as an adult making layouts for Asahi Shimbun. His first short story was entered in a 1950 competition and won him third prize. Six years later, he had quit the newspaper and worked full-time as a writer and until his death in 1992, he wrote more than 450 works, only a handful of which were translated into English. His detective and crime fiction, where he not only depicts the crime but also Japanese society and its ills, was very popular in Japan. He won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1952, the Kikuchi Kan Prize in 1970, and the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1957. He chaired the president of Mystery Writers of Japan from 1963 to 1971.

Recently, I discovered Seicho Matsumoto, and his crime novels are well crafted and fun to read. Try for yourself and get the novel from amazon.

The Goddess Chronicle

The Goddess Chronicle
Natsuo Kirino

Cover for The Goddess Chronicle16-year-old Namima has just – against her will – been ordained to become the priestess of darkness on a tiny island called Umihebi. Obviously not content with her lot of living on the cemetary and watching the dead for the rest of her life, she flees with Mahito, her secret lover, who is just as outcast from the island’s society as she is. But when Namima gives birth to their child, she is killed by Mahito, who returns to Umihebi with their daughter. Meanwhile, Namima descends to the netherworld, where, grief-stricken, she becomes a priestess of Isanami, the powerful goddess of Death. Will the goddess allow Namima to return to the world of the living to seek closure – or maybe even revenge?

This is a beautifully tragic story about what women are often expected to bear under the name of tradition, or religion, or simply because they are considered “the weaker sex”. And even so, the women are the important and strong characters here, both in life and in death.

I love this book, I keep coming back to it ever so often. The story of Namima – the parts about the priestess of darkness on Umihebi – is based on ancient Okinawan traditions; whereas Izanami and Izanaki are the two gods who – according to the Kojiki – once created Japan. The stories are masterfully interwoven although totally different – and still they have something in common: the female Namima/Izanami has to suffer death, while the male Mahito/Izanagi lives happily ever after – until something unexpected happens…

Natsuo Kirino is the pen name of Mariko Hashioka, a female Japanese novelist born in 1951. She earned a law degree in 1974 and dabbled in different kinds of jobs before starting to write about 10 years later. At first, she wrote romances for women, but as this genre is not very popular in Japan, she turned to mysteries. Although she is very successful as a mystery writer, and even received the renowned Naoki Prize for fiction, she says that she does not like to read mysteries herself. For The Goddess Chronicle, she received the 2009 Murasaki Shikibu Prize for Literature.

Find out for yourself what happens to Namima and Mahito and if there is a happy ending after all: get the book from amazon.

The Pillow Book

The Pillow Book
Sei Shonagon

Cover of "The Pillow Book"The Pillow Book is hard to describe. It is an ancient diary, not a novel, so there is not much plot. The entries are undated and although there are references to this or the other festival in this or the other season, it is hard to get a feeling of the flow of time. On the other hand, the little entries tell of a time and place so strange, that whatever moved the writer at her time seems to come from an entirely different universe and sounds like fiction after all. The individual entries talk about the routines of daily court life, interesting outings to festivals, and there is gossip of course, about friends, foes, and lovers alike.

The book is very strange, and every time I read it, I feel differently about it. Her stories, although they seem trivial at times – as diary entries are bound to be – still have an eerie way of drawing you in. I don’t know much about the customs of that time, but I wonder what people with a better understanding of them think about The Pillow Book.

Sei Shonagon (c. 966–1017/1025) was a court lady of the Heian court in Japan at about 970 – 1020. She began writing The Pillow Book when she received a book of fine writing paper as a gift, and her diary ends when the paper was used up. Her little vignettes tell of a time long gone and of strange customs that even at her time only a few people were privy to.

Go find out for yourself and get your copy from amazon!

Beauty and Sadness

Beauty and Sadness
Yasunari Kawabata

Cover of Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari KawabataIt is New Year’s Eve and Toshio Oki is on his way to Kyoto to hear the temple bells ring in the New Year. He is also about to meet his mistress of 24 years ago, Otoko Ueno, whom he hadn’t seen since he left her. Otoko, now a famous painter, unsure about his intentions, comes to the meeting with her young protegé Keiko.

While Otoko has forgiven Toshio all the pain he caused so long ago, Keiko, knowing the story behind the old lovers, is furious about it and is ready to take revenge on him and his family in Otoko’s name. So, Keiko sets out, using her beauty and cunning to ensnare both Toshio and his son Taichiro in her dangerous web. In the end, her plans prove to be deadly effective…

In this novel four completely different characters meet and eventually clash: Oki, whose affair with the only 15-year-old Otoko was the basis of his literary career, and who wants to reminiscence on the past without giving up his present. Otoko, however, who had to start over in Kyoto after he had left her, is content where she is now and prefers to look forward. Keiko, in love with Otoko, is ready to do anything to get the revenge she thinks Otoko wants and deserves. And Taichiro is fascinated by Keiko, but is unsure how to proceed. In the end, only Keiko’s determination is strong enough to get her what she wants – and the others can only stand in awe at the distruction her strong will causes.

Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was a Japanese writer, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. This is his last published novel.

This is the perfect book to read over New Year, with Kyoto’s temple bells ringing in the background! Even if you’re not in Kyoto, you can still get in the mood by getting this book from amazon.

The Key

The Key
Junichiro Tanizaki

Cover of "The Key" by Junichiro TanizakiIn our diaries, we may write our most intimate thoughts and desires, safe in the knowledge that no eyes other than ours will ever read them.

This is not the case for an elderly professor and his attractive young wife. Their married life has become dull and although they would never openly admit this to each other, they cannot suppress their desires for ever. So, each of them starts a diary to write about the things they cannot say openly. Although they carefully hide the books, they do expect the other to find and read it. The diaries, mutually read, soon provide the key to spice up their marriage, but things become rather complicated when Kimura, a young colleague of the professor’s arrives on the scene and arouses not only the daughter of the house but also the wife.

We read the entries of both diaries and follow the story of love and jealousy, sexual desires and their fulfillment. Both partners play their respective games, innocent in their talking, but highly dangerous in their writings. In the end the fire of their lust is all-consuming – was this what they wanted all along?

An interesting book, almost a psychological study. If you know something about your partner you shouldn’t know – how do you deal with it? Confront him openly? Get what you want – or what he wants – by sly manipulations? The end of the book comes with a shocking confession and nothing is what it seems…

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965), born in Tokyo, was one of the most popular modern writers of Japan. He began his literary career in 1909, and only a year later, he was well-known in literary circles. Many of his writings have sexuality and desire as their focus. In 1923, when he moved to Kyoto after the great Kanto Earthquake that destroyed great parts of Tokyo and Yokohama, his career was boosted to new heights, and after WWII, he was regarded as Japan’s greatest contemporary author. In 1949, he won the Asahi Prize and was awarded the Japanese Order of Culture, and in 1964, he was elected as honorary member in the merican Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, as the first Japanese writer. He died of a heart attack shortly before his 79th birthday.

Interested in spicing up your own marriage? Well, have a look what Tanizaki is doing here and get the book from amazon!

The Briefcase

The Briefcase
Hiromi Kawakami

cover of "The Briefcase"Tsukiko is a 38-year old office lady in an undistinguished Japanese company, leading an average life. One evening, as Tsukiko orders her dinner at a small bar, she is addressed by the old man next to her. Surprised at the approach, she finally recognizes him as her teacher of Japanese literature from high school. From that evening on, they keep meeting each other – always unplanned – and marvel about how similar they are. Sensei and Tsukiko like the same food and drinks and eat the same snacks to their sake. After a while, they begin to meet on purpose, for short little trips to the local market or to the high school reunion. Their feelings for each other and the perceived unlawfulness of them leads to internal struggles for both. Will they overcome their fears and stop hiding their feelings?

This is a wonderful love story between two soul mates who struggle not only to overcome an age difference of 30 years, but also their own perceptions of what an “appropriate” relationship should look like.

Hiromi Kawakami, born 1958 in Tokyo, studied science, taught biology, and wrote short sci-fi stories before her first book was published in 1994. She counts among the most popular authors of Japan. This book received the Tanizaki Prize in 2001, and has been made into a movie.

If you want to find out whether Tsukiko and her sensei get together at the end, get the book from amazon!

The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan

The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan
Yasushi Inoue

cover for The Samurai Banner of Furin KazanTakeda Shingen is the daimyo of Kai province in central Japan and one of the greatest warriors of the Sengoku period. This book tells his story as seen through the eyes of Kansuke Yamamoto, one of Shingen’s 24 generals. The crippled, disfigured Kansuke is an excellent swordsman and a brilliant strategist, and his shrewd ideas win many a battle for his master.

Not only the men are scheming in this period though, the women are their equals, and sometimes even their betters. Princess Yuu, who wanted to kill herself upon her father’s defeat, becomes Shingen’s concubine, and, through a number of open and hidden plots, she secures the succession of her son as Shingen’s heir.

In the end, Kansuke dies in the battle of Kawanajima in what would turn out to be his greatest victory. Shingen himself however, is ultimately killed by the armies supporting Oda Nobunaga, one of the major players of unification of Japan.

Takeda Harunobu, 1521 – 1573, later named Shingen, was one of the strongest warriors in the Sengoku period, a time of uproar and fighting throughout Japan. The shogunate was very weak at that time, and the hierarchical order broke down, so that anyone who had the power and ability could aspire to lead and rise through the ranks. The banner Shingen carried in his campaigns bore the four characters fu-rin-ka-zan from Sun Tsu’s “The Art of War”, which can be translated as: Be as swift as the wind, as silent as the wood, attack as fiercely as fire, be as composed as the mountain.

The book starts shortly before Yamamoto Kansuke entered Shingen’s services and ends with his death on the battlefield. The main focus lies on the battles that Shingen fought with Kansuke’s help, but we also get some insight into the daily lives of the people of this period. Interesting to see is how Shingen keeps acquiring women as concubines for his pleasure – very much to the dismay of Kansuke, who is very devoted to Princess Yuu, maybe even more so than to Shingen.

Yasushi Inoue (1907 – 1991) was known as the master of historical fiction in Japan. Before becoming an author, he worked as a journalist, and already his first novel Togyu (A Bullfight) received the renowned Akutagawa prize.

If you’re interested in historical fiction, this book is for you – of course available on amazon.

Japan Sinks

Japan Sinks
Sakyo Komatsu

Cover to Japan SinksIn a single night, a tiny, unnamed island of Japan sinks into the ocean and disappears forever. Nearby, long dormant volcanoes erupt again, one by one, And an inspection of the ocean’s floor at a depth of some 10.000 metres discovers signs of strange, almost inexplicable phenomena. Only Prof. Tadokoro has an idea of what’s going on: Japan – every last one of its islands – will sink into the ocean, destroyed by the same force that once has created it by splitting it off Asia. When evidence mounts that Day X is not more than two years away, there begins a frantic struggle of scientists and the government to make sure the nation of Japan and its people have some way of surviving.

This book does not dwell on the disastrous effects of almost constant earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on the Japanese citizens, but a sense of terror and urgency is conveyed throughout. We follow a few scientists and politicians in producing evacuation plans, fully understanding that the death toll will rise to the hundreds of thousands, regardless. Another touching scene is a secret meeting with the Australian prime minister, who is presented with a priceless, 800 year old artifact while being asked to consider accepting one million Japanese refugees. “Our shrines and temples are full of such statues”, says the negotiator.

Even though the book was written back in 1973, it does not show its age. Written in a realistic manner without sensationalist effects, it brings up a number of timeless, interesting questions: What is a “nation” and how important is the actual land on which it was founded? What are the indispensable parts of a culture and how many – and which – artifacts should you try to save facing certain destruction? And how many people are required in one spot to make sure said culture is not doomed altogether?

Sakyo Komatsu (1931 – 2011) was a Japanese screenwriter and considered one of the Japanese masters of science fiction. Born in Osaka, he studied Italian literature at Kyoto University and worked at a number of different jobs afterwards. His career as fiction writer started in 1960, and he published Japan Sinks in 1973 after nine years of writing. The book received the Mystery Writers of Japan Award and the Seiun Award, and was subsequently turned into a movie and a television series.

A wonderful and timeless book, available on amazon.

Death by Water

Death by Water
Kenzaburo Oe

cover of death by waterKogito Choko, renowned Japanese writer with dozens of literary awards to his name (including the Nobel Prize) is suffering from writer’s block. Suddenly his sister calls, offering him access to an old red trunk that is known to hold documents and letters of their father, who drowned when Kogito was a small boy. Excited to finally be able to finish the “Drowning Novel” about his father that he had begun decades earlier (to the dismay of his mother), Kogito decides to visit their old family home in Shikoku and to write what he believes will be his final novel – and his masterpiece.

This is only the second book I read by Oe, famed Japanese Nobel prize winner, and I am not sure what to make of it. The disappointment starts when the red trunk turns out to be devoid of anything useful – his mother had destroyed every important letter before her own death. Then, there are seemingly endless stretches of conversations with or about the members of a theatre group that was planning to stage all of Choko’s novels, culminating in the last one, an endeavour which, obviously, isn’t going anywhere either. Only at the end, with the reappearance of an old family friend, does the novel gain some traction, but there was a lot of paper until then…

There is an interesting line in the book where the author’s mother accuses him of not having any fantasy, only imagination, which is supposedly always based in reality. And the book does feel very autobiographical, but many other things are unrealistic: Would you leave your house to a woman whom you barely know, instead of to any of your own children? Anyway, while I didn’t particularly like this book, I am still curious about the author, and I will see if I can read more of his novels.

Kenzaburo Oe was born in 1935 in Shikoku, and started to study French literature when he was 19. His first stories were published in 1957, heavily influenced by contemporary French and American literature. Oe has been political from his early beginnings as a writer, for example, he has written about Hiroshima’s a-bomb victims, the atrocities of the Japanese military on Okinawa; currently he is very active in the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. His first literary prize was the Akutagawa prize in 1958, and in 1994 he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

South of the Border, West of the Sun

South of the Border, West of the Sun
Haruki Murakami

Cover South of the Border, West of the Sun12-year-old Hajime lives in the typical middle class suburbs of a typical post-war Japanese town, in a typical family among other, typical Japanese families. However, in a world where everybody seems to have brothers and sisters, he is an only child. In elementary school, the only friend he has is Shimamoto, new in town, whose father’s job requires her family to move frequently. Soon, the two develop a special bond, based on the fact that both are only children; but despite their attachment they lose touch when Hajime’s family moves.

25 years later, Hajime is a successful businessman in Tokyo, who loves his wife and adores his two daughters. But then, on a rainy night, Shimamoto appears in his Jazz bar, strikingly beautiful, rich, and surrounded by a mysterious air. The two rekindle their friendship, almost as had there been no interruption, and finally, Shimamoto tells him “You take either all of me or nothing”, and Hajime has to choose between his soul mate and the life he got so used to.

The story follows Hajime – whose name means “beginning” – through many of the beginnings in his life, but his love for Shimamoto is ever-present. In the preface of the book, it was mentioned that Haruki Murakami owned a Jazz bar in Tokyo at some time before he became a famous writer, and I cannot help wondering how much of his own life we can read in this book.

Haruki Murakami is probably the best known contemporary Japanese author. His first novel appeared in 1979, and “Norwegian Wood”, published in 1987, lead to international recognition and fame. He has also written several non-fiction books, for example “Underground” on the Tokyo gas attacks or “What I talk about when I talk about running” about his experiences as a marathon runner.

A book about love and middle age, and the choices we need to make. Available from amazon.