Monday, 24 December 2012

The Winner Is... & Readalong Details

Hello one and all!  Before the Christmas festivities get under way, I just thought I'd round up a few bits and pieces about January in Japan (which is only a week or so away!).

Firstly, I'd like to give you details of a readalong for anyone who is interested.  Hiromi Kawakami's The Briefcase is the only Japanese title on the longlist of this year's Man Asian Literary Prize, and after consulting the eminent bloggers on the Shadow Panel, I thought it would be nice to use it for a group read :)  There won't be any questions or anything like that - there'll just be a few reviews on the 31st of January to wrap up the month.

If you'd like to join us, it's very simple.  You can leave a comment below, or simply post your review on the day and leave your link on the Book Reviews tab at the top of the screen.  Hope you can join us!

Secondly, I'm still looking for anyone wanting to contribute to my J-Lit Giants series.  If you have a favourite Japanese writer, and you'd like to submit a brief bio and a few recommendations, I'd be happy to add your offering to the list.  Please help: otherwise I'll have to write them all myself :(

Thirdly (and perhaps most importantly), it's time to announce the winner of my giveaway.  Thanks to all who entered, but the winner of The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories is JoV of JoV's Book Pyramid!  Congratulations Jo - the book will be on its way to you very soon :)

Finally, have a great holidays, and remember to check out all the January in Japan action next year.  How?  Well, you can:
  • Follow this blog so you don't miss any news or reviews
  • Post your reviews on the Book Reviews page
  • Use (and follow) the #januaryinjapan hashtag on Twitter
All good?  Let's make the first month of the new year a great one :)

Sunday, 16 December 2012

It's Giveaway Time!

When I announced my intention to host January in Japan, I hinted that there might be some giveaways, and while I haven't been lucky enough to source any publisher freebies, I'm more than happy to provide a prize or two out of my own pocket :)

The question though is what to choose out of all the excellent Japanese books I've read over the past few years.  There are a lot of books I've enjoyed, and would like others to enjoy, but there is one I've recommended several times and will undoubtedly do so again in the future...

...and it is, of course, The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories :)

I reviewed this collection a few years back, and its a book I've dipped into several times since then.  It's probably the best starter anthology for J-Lit around, with a wide variety of classic and modern writers - not too old and not too heavy either ;)

So, on to the giveaway!  I will be giving away a copy of the book shown above - if you want to enter, simply:

  - comment on this post.
  - write the word 'please' somewhere in your comment; manners are important :)
  - a contact e-mail would be nice, but I will endeavour to track down the winner!
  - commenting on my review is welcome but not obligatory ;)

This competition is open to all, but please note that I will be using The Book Depository to send this prize, so it is limited to people living in countries where The Book Depository has free delivery.  Entries will close at midnight (Melbourne time) on Saturday, the 22nd of December, 2012, and I'll be announcing the winner shortly after.

Apologies to those who already have this one - I'll try to fit in another giveaway during the event itself.  To everyone who intends to enter - good luck :)

Sunday, 9 December 2012

J-Lit Giants: 2 - Yukio Mishima

I'm back again with another in my J-Lit Giants series, in which I (and, hopefully, a few guests) introduce a famous Japanese writer and recommend a few books to get you started.  Today, we'll be looking at a writer who made the headlines for more than just his literary legacy...

Yukio Mishima (real name Kimitake Hiraoka) was a prolific writer who came to a rather untimely end.  He began writing during his high-school days (even though his father was against his literary pursuits), and he had one of his stories published in a famous literary magazine.  His career began in earnest after World War Two, and he went on to write a host of famous novels, including the four-part Sea of Fertility quadrilogy.

Mishima was very different to your average writer.  He was an actor and a model, appearing in films and photo campaigns, and he also had a keen interest in weight-training and body-building (something your average writer is not exactly known for!).  He also had a keen sense of tradition and responsibility - something which was to have an impact later on in his life...

In November 1970, Mishima and a group of his followers attempted to start a coup against the Emperor.  After his half-hearted attempt was laughed down, he calmly went inside and committed seppuku - ritual suicide.  One of the most famous writers in the world attempted to disembowel himself with a sword before being beheaded by a helper.  Imagine the headlines today...

One reason for his decision may have been the fact that Yasunari Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, meaning that Mishima was unlikely to ever win the award, despite having been a favourite to win it several times.  Whether this was the reason or not, it was a sad end for a great writer.

Mishima is probably not the most accessible of Japanese writers.  Some of his best works are dense and can be hard going for newcomers to his work.  However, they're not all quite so difficult to get into.  My three to try would be:

1) Spring Snow - This is a late-career novel, the first in his famous Sea of Fertility series, but it's a wonderful love story and a novel which is easy to get lost in.

2) After the Banquet - The story of a high-class restaurant owner's marriage to a dour politician is a novel about opposites attracting, but failing to go the distance.  Again, it displays a much lighter touch than some of Mishima's works.

3) The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea - This is a short work, more of a novella than a novel, but it is a powerful one.  A sailor's relationship with a single mother is threatened by the woman's son - a boy with some very disturbing tendencies.  This may not be one for those with faint hearts and weak stomachs...

So there you have it - another great writer with lots of books to explore :)  As always, let us know about your experiences with today's giant, be they happy or depressing ones.  Our comments box is always open ;)

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

J-Lit Giants: 1 - Natsume Soseki

Welcome to the first in what may become a short series of posts, introducing readers to some of Japan's most famous writers - or, as I like to call them, J-Lit Giants :)  Over the next couple of months, I hope to have other bloggers talk about their favourite writers, but today I'll be starting off with a short post on one of the most famous of them all...

Natsume Soseki (the pen-name of Natsume Kinnosuke) is the father of modern J-Lit and arguably Japan's most famous writer.  Certainly, when I asked Japanese students to name a famous writer (back in the days when I taught English in Japan), his was inevitably the first name uttered.

After studying English literature in Tokyo, Natsume worked in the provinces as a high school teacher, gathering experiences which would help him write several of his later works.  Then, in 1900, he was chosen to travel to England, the first Japanese scholar to study in this country.  Sadly, this wasn't the experience it might have been - lack of money and strong feelings of homesickness meant that his time in England, while useful for his career, was a depressing one.

On his return to Japan, a few years later, he became a lecturer in Literary Theory and Criticism at a famous Tokyo university.  However, once he began to produce fiction, he gave up the job, preferring to work for a newspaper instead.  Indeed, like many Victorian English novellists, his work often appeared first in newspaper serialisations.

Natsume's works are very different, depending on when he wrote them.  His early works, such as I am a Cat and Botchan are light, amusing stories, not characteristics we associate with J-Lit today!  Soon, his style developed into a more aesthetically-concerned, drifting style (e.g. Kusamakura and Sanshiro).  Eventually though, his work became more serious, novels such as Kokoro and Grass on the Wayside concerned with the dilemma of integrating western ideas into Japanese society without sacrificing native traditions.

For those wanting to try Natsume Soseki's work, I'd definitely recommend starting at (or near) the beginning, as his early fiction is much more accessible than some of his more famous later books.  My three to try would be:
1) Botchan - This is a comical (semi-fictional) look at the writer's time as a high school teacher in the provinces.  Caught between jaded, unfriendly teachers and rural students who could beat him to a pulp if they wanted to, the hero of the story discovers that he's not in Tokyo any more...

2) Kusamakura (also known as The Three-Cornered World) - A laconic look at an artist's stay in a rural village and his encounters there with a beautiful woman.  Nothing happens, and the book is all the better for it :)

3) Sanshiro - The first in a (very) loosely-linked trilogy, this book marks the start of a shift to more serious writing, but the youthfulness is still there.  A young student moves to Tokyo from the provinces, ostensibly to become a university student, in reality to learn more about life.  A Japanese Bildungsroman, this is an excellent, moving story.

That's all from me - over to you :)  Have you read any of these books?  Have you tried any of Natsume's other works?  Leave a comment, and let us all know about your experiences with the father of modern J-Lit!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Lost in Translation

This post was originally written as a guest post for Tanabata while she was gallivanting around in New York a while back, and I then used it on my own blog... which makes this the third time it has been published!  Hopefully, it is still a very relevant post, and one which will make people reflect a little more on their reading choices for 'January in Japan'.

Michael Emmerich, Stephen Snyder, Ivan Morris, E. Dale Saunders: these are not names which most people would recognise. However, you, dear reader, an avid follower as you are of Japanese literature, should be praising these literary marvels to the skies, for without them your lives would be bereft of joy and laughter. Well, slightly bereft, anyway. You see, the above-mentioned writers are among that legion of unsung heroes who bring the wonders of Japanese literature to the unfortunates among us who have trouble distinguishing kanji from hieroglyphs. They are, of course, translators.

We owe literary translators an awful lot, and yet we treat them so badly. Often their names are hidden away in font size 3 on the page with all the boring information we can't bring ourselves to glance at - if they're lucky. Occasionally, their names are simply not there at all, as if the translator is of no more importance than the proofreader or the boy who brings the editor his tea in the morning. What kind of way is this to treat artists who, in reality, are creating unique, original pieces of art from a foreign source? Unfortunately, as long as many people still see translating as a mechanical process involving a computer, a dictionary and a bucketful of coffee, Snyder and co. will fail to get the recognition they deserve.

The importance of translators is especially important when it comes to languages such as Japanese. As most of you will no doubt know, the Japanese use three different types of symbols to record ideas (in addition to the romaji, or roman script, which occasionally creeps in): katakana (a syllabary for expressing foreign words); hiragana (a syllabary for expressing Japanese words, usually prepositions and verb endings); and kanji (a collection of pictograms adapted from Chinese specifically to torture unsuspecting Westerners who want to learn the language). When I left Japan eight years ago, I had just about become an intermediate-level speaker (on a good day) of Japanese. If I were to work with non-native speakers of English at the same level, I would be using carefully selected newspaper articles with helpful vocabulary hints. By the end of my Japanese studies, I was able to struggle through a Japanese translation of The Ugly Duckling. You can infer from this that my chances of reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in the original are fairly slim.

Assuming then that your kanji skills are not up to scratch, you're going to have to trust to a translation to enjoy the delights of J-Lit. However, if you don't actually read the original text, then how do you know that you are reading what the writer wanted you to read? Are you reading the same book? The best translators are able to transfer the ideas across into idiomatic English while preserving the unique flavour that sets the author apart. Even in English, Mishima and Murakami have a distinct, consistent style which attracts the reader (in fact, some of Murakami's detractors, the cynics that they are, say that his translators - Jay Rubin, Phillip Gabriel and Alfred Birnbaum - make him look better than he actually is!). On the whole, translators of Japanese works seem to do a pretty good job of capturing those quintessentially Japanese elements and making them comprehensible to an English-speaking audience.

However, there are some occasions where I have my doubts. One Japanese writer whose translations I'm a little suspicious of is Banana Yoshimoto. I love her prose and stretches of descriptive writing, but I really, really get annoyed by the trite, stilted, perhaps over-Americanised dialogue. Michael Emmerich's translation of Goodbye Tsugumi and Russel F. Wasden's translation of Amrita are the two books I'm thinking of when I write this, and being unable to check with the original, it's difficult to know the reason for my unease. As both translators are American (and probably writing for an American audience), it's probably understandable that Yoshimoto's characters come across as classic US-TV teens. Still, that doesn't explain the abundance of cliches and set phrases, which sound suspiciously like literal translations of formulaic Japanese conversational turns. Another explanation is that Yoshimoto is just really bad at dialogue. Or I may just be completely wrong - the point is that we'll never know.

Some translations can also seem a little dated, and the language chosen to convey the Japanese meaning now appears bizarre and distracting. Edward Seidensticker's translation of Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters (which has a footnote explaining what sushi means!) is one example which comes to mind. Another is provided by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson's translation of Soseki Natsume's I am a Cat, where they decided to translate the names of the major characters into English to bring across the puns in their names - which, in my opinion, has the unintended effect of making the protagonists slightly less Japanese than desired. Still, this is not an uncommon issue with translating: even the legendary Constance Garnett, the woman who brought the great Russian classics to life for Anglophone readers, was criticised for making Russian serfs talk with a Cockney accent...

While I am an avid reader, I do not have the time (or energy) to undertake extensive research into the differences between translations of the same work (although I have heard of some stylistic differences between different versions of one of Murakami's novels), and I definitely have no chance of becoming fluent in written Japanese any time soon, so I suppose I will just have to continue to rely on other people to do the work for me. Therefore, I would like to finish this post by paraphrasing ABBA (who needed no translators; they changed the words to Waterloo from Swedish to English all by themselves):

I say thank you for the translations - and giving them to me :)

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Announcing January in Japan

Welcome one and all to an exciting announcement - January will see me host my first ever event, January in Japan :)

Regular followers of my blog (Tony's Reading List) will know that I'm a huge fan of J-Lit, and I thought it would be a nice idea to have a month devoted to Japanese literature to kick off the new year.  It also coincides with the final month of Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 6, giving you all an extra incentive to dust off those Japanese classics and crime novels!

Rather than host the month from the comfort of my own blog, I have decided to create a separate one, just for this event, so please follow it - it'll be worth it :)  I'm planning to publish regular posts (starting next week!), with features on selected Japanese writers, summaries of reviews submitted by participants and (if I get lucky) perhaps even a giveaway or two.  It's still in the planning stage, but I'm hopeful that I can get it all up and running in time ;)

What do you have to do to take part?  As much (or as little) as you like!
  • Leave a comment below, and I'll add you to the list of participants (on the right)
  • Starting in January, add your reviews to the Mister Linky page (tab at the top)
  • If anyone would be interested in doing a guest author review (500-600 words including a short bio, why you like the writer's work and three books to try), either let me know in the comments, or send me an e-mail (tonysreadinglist at y7mail dot com).  I have already written one on Natsume Soseki, but there are a lot of other writers out there to talk about.
  • If you want to, you can also let other people know about the event :)
That's all for now; hopefully, I've whetted your appetite, and you'll be coming back for more.  Remember - whether you think Murakami is a marvel, adore Akutagawa or go bananas for Yoshimoto, January in Japan is for everyone who loves J-Lit.  See you then :)

Monday, 22 October 2012

Coming Soon...

This is the home of my forthcoming blogging event, January in Japan, where we'll be enjoying all things J-Lit to kick off 2013.  More details will be revealed soon, both here and at Tony's Reading List.

*** Anyone interested in joining in can leave a comment here, or e-mail me at tonysreadinglist at y7mail dot com :) ***

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Book Reviews (2015)

Welcome to the January in Japan review page for 2015!  If you have a review of a J-Lit book, and you want the world to know about it, please leave a link, also giving the name of the book, the author and your blog, as demonstrated in the example below:

e.g. 'Botchan' by Natsume Soseki (Tony's Reading List)

Thanks for your contribution :)

N.B. No posting before January 2015, please...

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Book Reviews (2014)

Welcome to the January in Japan review page for 2014!  If you have a review of a J-Lit book, and you want the world to know about it, please leave a link, also giving the name of the book, the author and your blog, as demonstrated in the example below:

e.g. 'Botchan' by Natsume Soseki (Tony's Reading List)

Thanks for your contribution :)

Monday, 1 October 2012

J-Lit Resources

This is a work-in-progress list of interesting links - please feel free to comment and suggest other useful sites :)

Japanese Literature (Wikipedia Page)
Bibliographical Resources for Japanese Literature (Japan Society)
Best Japanese Books (Goodreads List)
Japanese Literature - Quick Overview (Go Japan
Junbungaku (J-Lit Blog with latest literary news)
J-Lit.Net (Japanese Literature) 

J-Lit Giants

This is a series of brief biographies of famous Japanese writers, telling you who's who in J-Lit and what you should be reading!  Feel free to leave a comment if you would like to add a J-Lit Giant of your own :)

Click on the link below to go to the bio - unless stated, all posts are by Tony of Tony's Reading List.

1) Natsume Soseki
2) Yukio Mishima
3) Ryuichi Tamura (by Gary of The Parrish Lantern)
4) Jun'ichiro Tanizaki
5) Osamu Dazai (by Patrick of my so-called research)
6) Kobo Abe (by Gary of The Parrish Lantern)
7) Haruki Murakami
8) Yoko Ogawa
9) Shūsaku Endō (by Matt of A Novel Approach)
10) Yasunari Kawabata
11) Kenzaburo Oe
12) Banana Yoshimoto
13) Ryū Murakami
14) Yoriko Shōno  (by Morgan Giles)
15) Fumiko Enchi (by Carola of brilliant years)
16) Mori Ogai (by Louis Bravos)
17) Keigo Higashino (by Kim of Reading Matters)

Book Reviews (2013)

Welcome to the January in Japan review page!  If you have a review of a J-Lit book, and you want the world to know about it, please leave a link, also giving the name of the book, the author and your blog, as demonstrated in the example below:

e.g. 'Botchan' by Natsume Soseki (Tony's Reading List)

Thanks for your contribution :)