book review: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

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THE PENGUIN BOOK OF JAPANESE SHORT STORIES edited by Jay Rubin and introduced by Haruki Murakami
★★★☆
Penguin Classics, 2018

 

I spent a while with this collection and I think on the whole it’s stronger than the sum of its parts. Apparently my average rating for these 34 stories was 3.35 stars, but it still feels like a 4-star collection to me, because it absolutely got its job done: introducing me to a number of authors whose work I’m interested in exploring further.

Curated by Jay Rubin and introduced by Murakami, this collection is arranged thematically rather than chronologically: there’s a section on natural and man-made disasters, a section whose stories are unified by the theme of dread, and a section on the values of Japanese soldiers, among others. Jay Rubin writes in his forward that he wanted this collection to reflect his personal taste rather than serving as a more generic primer to Japanese lit, and for better or worse I think that shows: I didn’t understand why every single one of these stories was chosen, but I did feel like I got a clear sense of Rubin as a reader, and why shouldn’t an anthology say something about its editor?

There were three main standouts for me:

(1) Dreams of Love, Etc by Kawakami Mieko: A woman is invited into her neighbor’s house, and her neighbor confesses that although she loves playing the piano, she’s unable to play a certain piece straight through when someone is watching, and she entreats the protagonist to sit with her until she’s able to play the piece perfectly. Compelling, sensual, and subtle, but still rewarding.

(2) Hell Screen by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: The talented but contemptible painter Yoshihide is commissioned to create a folding screen that depicts Buddhist hell. As he’s unable to paint an image that he hasn’t seen firsthand, he inflicts torture on his apprentices. The climax, though it’s easy to see it coming from a mile away, still somehow manages to shock, with horrifying imagery that isn’t easily forgotten.

(3) Insects by Seirai Yuichi: Set against the backdrop of the bombing of Nagasaki, Insects follows an elderly woman whose lifelong love had died fifteen years ago, after having been married to another woman. Brutal and tender all at once.

There are a handful of other noteworthy stories worth mentioning. The story that opens the collection, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga reads like a film noir mystery but ultimately takes a philosophical turn, ruminating on the conflicting values of the East and the West. Factory Town by Betsayaku Minoru is wry and clever and achieves a lot with its brevity. American Hijiki by Nasaka Akiyuki provides a frighteningly honest look at Japanese post-war psychology. And of course, Mishima Yukio’s Patriotism and its graphic, visceral depiction of seppuku will probably haunt me to my dying day.

But I have two main criticisms of this collection: one about its composition and one about its selection. While I enjoyed the thematic arrangement, why oh why weren’t the stories’ publication dates readily accessible?! All the dates were listed somewhere in Murakami’s introduction, but it took a lot of flipping back and forth and I would have liked the date listed alongside the title, author, and translator. The second and larger criticism is that only 9 of these 34 stories are by women, so needless to say we can do better than a mere 26%.

Still, I found this to be a really solid introductory collection for anyone looking to expand their horizons and discover some new favorite Japanese writers, some seminal and some more obscure.

Thanks so much to Penguin for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

top 5 wednesday: Books that Aren’t Set in the Western World

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

July 19th: Books That Aren’t Set In/Inspired By The Western World

I love this topic.  For whatever reason I’ve had a really strong interest in books set in East Asia for as long as I can remember.  I didn’t have to look further than my ‘east asia’ shelf on Goodreads for this topic, so my list isn’t going to be very broad geographically (I realize ‘non-Western’ encompasses a much wider area), but I’ve selected a couple of my favorites set in Korea, Japan, and China.  Here they are:

29983711Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: I haven’t stopped talking about this book since I read it in February, and with good reason.  This is an outstanding family saga set against the backdrop of Japan’s annexation of Korea in the early 20th century.  It features a handful of Korean characters who face an onslaught of discrimination when forced to relocate to Japan.  This is not only an incredibly moving story, but a really educational read.  Min Jin Lee integrates historical detail into her narrative with masterful precision – it never overwhelms, but still constantly edifies the reader.  I highly recommend this to anyone interested in the complicated history of Japanese-Korean relations, the history of either of those countries, or just anyone looking for an entertaining family saga.

41nsvhy8t2bl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Vegetarian by Han Kang: Korean writer Han Kang made waves when her first novel to be translated into English, The Vegetarian, won the Man Booker International award last year.  This novel is outstanding and thought-provoking.  It raises questions about gender and sexuality, a woman’s role in society, social norms, violence – in a lot of ways this novel offers generalized insights into the human experience, but in other ways, context is key.  You can’t remove this novel from its contemporary South Korean setting, especially as Han Kang’s own experience growing up in Gwangju was such a heavy influence on the content of this novel.  She goes onto explore the 1980 Gwangju uprising in a much more tangible way in her novel Human Acts, but The Vegetarian offers a much more abstract meditation on similar themes.  I highly recommend both novels.

18169712Three Souls by Janie Chang: Admittedly, I didn’t like this book as much as I liked the rest on this list.  I had a lot of nitpicky problems with it, but I still found it entertaining and incredibly informative.  Set in 1935 China, this provocative novel follows the journey of a young woman called Leiyin – except, the twist is that the novel begins moments after Leiyin’s death.  We follow Leiyin in the afterlife and get flashbacks to her childhood, and eventually adulthood – and we find out how she died.  The reason I’m including this novel on my list even though I didn’t love it was that I think it’s a really phenomenal look at the sociopolitical climate of mid 20th century China, and I recommend it more from a historical rather than a literary perspective.

1103Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See: Lisa See is one of my favorite historical fiction writers, and I think Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is one of her strongest novels. Set in nineteenth century China, Snow Flower is a devastating story about a friendship between two young women.  It features the writing system nu shu, which was developed by Chinese women in the Hunan province to communicate with one another, as they were often denied a formal education.  In typical Lisa See fashion, she both educates and entertains with this novel, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Chinese history.  (Beware of very graphic descriptions of foot binding, though.)  My favorite Lisa See novel (though it’s a toss up with Snow Flower) may have to be Shanghai Girls, but as it’s partially set in California, it doesn’t fit the category.

13640447After Dark by Haruki Murakami: And finally, it seemed requisite to include a Murakami on this list.  After Dark is actually my favorite of his novels that I’ve read, though it’s a lot shorter than the novels which are often associated with him.  So if you haven’t read Murakami but are curious about his writing style without wanting to commit to a 500 page book, After Dark is a great place to start.  After Dark takes place in the span of one night, between the hours of midnight and dawn in Tokyo and follows an eclectic group of characters.  It’s a very mesmerizing and atmospheric novel which draws the reader into Tokyo nightlife in an almost voyeuristic way.

What are some of your favorite non-Western novels?  And have you read any of these?  Comment and let me know!