Slightly Peckish Tuesday

15 January, 2013

Hello. How are you?

It’s extremely chilly in London although we haven’t seen any more snow since the brief flurry yesterday. But here’s something to cheer you up at Umami Mart: Slightly Peckish where I talk about Shonan Cheese Pie from Japan. So check me out!

In bookish news, I’m currently reading Shusaku Endo’s famous novel about Christian apostasy and martyrdom in 17th century Japan, Silence. It’s a deep and moving portrayal of faith and I love Endo’s writing. I’m keeping to my promise of reading only from my own shelves at the moment, although I have to admit I bought some books while strolling through a couple of charity shops in the weekend. Oops. But I’ll keep them for later in the year, of course.

The British Library is hosting a free exhibition on crime including a series of events on crime writing which I’m really excited about. I’ll have to make my way there for a peek and possibly a coffee. Just sitting in that lovely building is inspiring.

Badaude has a lovely piece in berfrois.

And Bellezza has a wonderful post about Haruki Murakami and translation.

Maintaining the fragile contact between my finger and the wallet, I sandwiched it in the folded newspaper. Then I transferred the paper to my right hand and put it in the inside pocket of my own coat. Little by little I breathed out, conscious of my temperature rising even more. I checked my surroundings, only my eyes moving. My fingers still held the tension of touching a forbidden object, the numbness of entering someone’s personal space. A trickle of sweat ran down my back.

Winner of the Kenzaburo Oe Prize in 2010, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief is a sublime reflection on the nature of crime rather than a thrilling mystery. Nevertheless, it kept me turning the pages as I sought the conclusion to the protagonist’s dilemma.

The Thief (Suri or Pickpocket in Japanese) is the tale of a Nishimura, a loner whose sole purpose of existance is the thrill of stealing from another person without them noticing. Nishimura has perfected pickpocketing to an artform and this talent, together with his friendship with Ishikawa ulitmately leads him into a vortex of crime from which he cannot escape.

Nishimura himself isn’t a violent man. And yet his association with Ishikawa, a genius thief, brings him into contact with a sinister backroom figure who enjoys manipulating events behind the scenes and who orchestrated their last job which resulted in them going on the run. With no family ties or close friendships, Nishimura is able to escape but unable to stay away from Tokyo for long. Upon his return he is sought after by his ex-colleagues and also strikes up a tenuous friendship with a lonely and neglected boy which ultimately leads him to his present dilemma. Do one more job, or else.

There’s a sense of stillness in Nakamura’s novel. Like something happening in slow motion where sound ceases and you can only watch as a collision occurs, slowly, inevitably. The protagonist, Nishimura, is a social outcast. Someone who, from a young age, felt he was outside normal, noisy society. Although he is solitary, he isn’t necessarily lonely. He doesn’t have a grudge against society or want revenge. He’s happy doing what he’s good at doing, stealing. And he could have gone on this way if he hadn’t interacted with anyone else. First, his friend Ishikawa. Then the little boy. In a sense, it’s chilling to see that you can never escape from your interactions with people. As long as someone remembers you, they’ll find you. Nothing too exciting happens in this novel, but you will close the book feeling like you’ve tapped into Nishimura’s existential rabbit hole. It’s as though he is Alice, falling, falling, falling and unable to stop. It’s sparsely written, just like its narrator, and it’s rather beautiful.

One of the things I felt when reading The Thief was a sense of paranoia everytime I stepped outside because you learn a whole lot about pickpocketing. Basically, if you’ve been targeted by a pro, you have NO chance!

I would like to thank Corsair for kindly sending me this book to review.

I read this as part of Japanese Literature Challenge 6 and R.I.P. VII.

rolls by again. However, this week I’m sharing a book review from chasing bawa. Cross-blogging, hurray! So do check me out at Umamimart: Slightly Peckish just in case you missed my review here. It features Japan and food! Win-win, right?

In bookish news, I’ve got some exciting reading coming up this summer. I always get so excited about summer not just because we finally get to enjoy some sunshine but because of the endless possibilities. It must be a remnant of the school holidays, 3-4 months of nothing which I filled with reading, travelling, playing and creating things.

I’m currently having a love affair with Russian literature and am reading A Gentle Axe by R.N. Morris, a mystery sequel to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment featuring detective Porfiry Petrovich. I tried this novel several years ago just after I finished Crime and Punishment but didn’t get very far. Probably because I must have been Dostoevskied out even though I loved the original book. But this time round I’m enjoying it. See, it pays to give second chances, right? And it’s in preparation for Tolstoy’s War And Peace which I’m really looking forward to reading especially after finishing Elif Batuman’s brilliant The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

When we were discussing this over brunch on Sunday, especially regarding the complexity and sometimes impossibility of reading Russian literature (the names do me in, especially in The The Brothers Karamazov ), one of my friends asked whether I had read Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov. Apparently after 50 pages, the main character still hasn’t got out of bed.

So, tell me, what is your favourite Russian/Soviet novel? And have you read Oblomov?

One of my favourite reading challenges has commenced again. Although I am drawn to Japanese literature anyway, Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge always makes me focus on why I read Japanese literature and the connections it has with my other choices over the year. I’m also nosy about what others are reading which often leads to some exciting new discoveries.

So, this year, I am planning to read the following:

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami – Er, I’ve had this since it was published and have only dipped into the first chapter. What is wrong with me?

Silence by Shusaku Endo – I’ve read so much about this book and have finally got a copy of my own (well, I got my friend to buy it for me for my birthday last year, heh.) Endo is one of my favourite Japanese writers (both The Samurai and The Volcano are beautifully written) and I can’t wait to read this.

I also have a growing stack of fiction in Japanese. Apparently I have no problems buying and hoarding books in other languages even though I don’t read them. I may want to try one of them although most of them haven’t been translated into English. However, it’s good to know and keep an eye out for interesting authors that may get translated one day, right? I try to keep abreast with the literary world in Japan but like in the UK, there are SO many books being published every year. So what I normally do is look at the prize lists such as the Naoki and Akutagawa Awards and check out recommendations in the Japanese magazines I do read.

And then maybe I might also choose something from my perennial list of Mishima, Kawabata and Banana. What do you think? Should I branch out more? And more importantly, what are YOU going to read?

I’ve been SO curious about this book ever since I first heard about the book in Japanese a while back. And even more so when I learnt it had been turned into a film. Although I was a little disappointed that the title, Shokudo Katatsumuri (食堂かたつむり))wasn’t directly translated as Snail Canteen but was changed to The Restaurant of Love Regained which makes the book seem a little like a romance novel. Even the title of the film, Rinco’s Restaurant is preferable. But I guess it’s a difficult title to translate and make it marketable. Nevertheless I looked forward to reading it.

And it’s NOT a romance novel. It’s a quirky, modern novel, reminiscent of something by Kaori Ekuni or Haruki Murakami. It deals with some deep issues, loneliness, family, death in an unsentimental and yet tangible way. And I liked that.

We are introduced to Rinko just after she has been dumped rather callously by her Indian boyfriend, who has taken everything and left her only with her late grandmother’s precious bowl of sake kasu used to make pickles, and returns home to a mother she despises. A child of an affair with a married man, Rinko grew up with her wild mother who has been running Bar Amour and listening to the woes of men. It’s been 10 years since she left the small town where she grew up to become a chef in Tokyo. The recent stress has made her lose her voice, yet her mother takes her back in and gives her a loan to start a small canteen where she cooks for one set of customers per sitting plus the task of looking after her mother’s pedigree pig, Hermes. Soon rumours begin to float that her dishes miraculously make wishes come true. As her heart slowly heals by making others happy, Rinko begins to rebuild relationships and learns to communicate again. And just as she is beginning to settle down, life throws a curveball.

The translation by David Karashima is pretty much flawless apart from a few hiccups here and there that would probably only be noticed by readers fluent in Japanese. The Restaurant of Love Regained is so easy to fall in to, and yet, I wouldn’t describe it as a simple or easy read. The themes dealt with here go straight to the heart of modern Japanese living. Communication, relationships with people, the search for a happy and fulfilling life are all things which affect everyone. It makes you think about your life and what is important. I really enjoyed this novel, especially the descriptions of food which Rinko makes, although there is a part toward the end of the book which left me feeling rather squeamish. You may want to skim read it if you’re vegetarian, is all I’m saying!

There is an earthiness to Rinko which makes you feel connected to the world. It makes you realise that people aren’t living in a materialistic bubble, that real life is all about getting back to your roots and to reach out to the people who love you. Saying that, this novel is hardly your standard saccharine fare but it does have a slight fairytale quality to it. Rinko doesn’t dwell on her heartbreak but puts everything into physically doing something. It’s refreshing to see and makes you want to go out and change things for yourself too.

Check out the trailer here – Rinco’s Restaurant.

And there’s even a recipe book in Japanese. Cool or what!?

A big thank you to Alma Books for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review.

Winner of the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Julie Otsuka’s second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, is a deceptively simple tale. Tale is probably the wrong word to use to describe this kaleidoscope of memories and experiences that make up this story of the Japanese everywoman who crosses the ocean, leaving behind her family and life in Japan, to an unknown fate tied by marriage to a man she has yet to meet. Many are virgins, some are not. Otsuka’s voice is rocking and gentle and yet what it says is harsh and blunt and doesn’t shy away from the trauma and tribulations faced by these women, all in search of better and happier lives.

The collective voice, the collective experience all serve to draw a complex, harsh picture of life as an immigrant in a land where they are viewed with suspicion. They work hard, they have children, they learn to put up with their husbands who may not have been wholly truthful to them about their prospects. But within their difficult lives are little nuggets of happiness and contentment, a picture of lives lived to the full, whether in happiness or pain.

I wasn’t sure whether I liked Otsuka’s style and stopped reading the book after the first chapter. It was too much; the voices, the endless yearning and hopes, the dissappointments. And yet, when I took up the book again, I found I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to know that they would be alright. There was something inherently familiar about the women Otsuka describes.

And it’s not just the inner lives of these women that Otsuka is so good at exposing. The Buddha in the Attic is also a portrait of small town America, the immigrant experience, segregation and ultimately the suspicion and internment of the Japanese immigrants as enemy aliens after Pearl Harbour. There’s so much life in this slender volume. It was as though I was watching reel after reel of film where you get glimpses of early 20th century Japan and the US.

As in most immigrant experiences, the trials of the parents are different to those of the second generation. And as the children shed their Japanese names with their language, the parents can only look on with sadness and bewilderment, uncomprehending and yet wanting them to integrate.

Otsuka has done in a slim volume what many have tried in big, chunky sagas. It’s beautifully written and one that will echo within me for a long time.

So have you read this? I’ve a mind to go and get hold of her first novel, When the Emperor was Divine.

A big thank you to Penguin for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review.

Tan Twan Eng has been on my radar for quite a while now every since I first heard about The Gift of Rain a few years ago. And then I was lucky enough to attend a talk he gave at the Galle Literary Festival in 2011 and found him to be both eloquent and thoughtful. So naturally I was interested in his latest offering, The Garden of the Evening Mists, and was pleased to be invited to participate in the blog tour.

And what a book. As soon as I started reading, I felt that little pressure in my head that told me that this was a book I was going to love. The style of writing, the content, the balance was just right. And so it proved until the very last page.

The Garden of the Evening Mists
centres around Yugiri, a garden in the highlands of Malaya created by Emperor Hirohito’s last gardener, Nakamura Aritomo. Several years after WWII, a young Straits Chinese woman arrives at Yugiri (which means evening mist in Japanese), intent on persuading Aritomo to create a Japanese garden in memory of her sister who had died in a Japanese slave camp during the war. Yun Ling, scarred, angry, traumatised and the sole survivor of her Japanese prison camp, soon becomes Aritomo’s apprentice and, through her stay with him, learns to overcome some of her trauma through the discipline of learning how to create a Japanese garden. Malaya is undergoing an upheaval as Chinese communists fight against their British colonial rulers and as the violence encroaches upon Yugiri and the neighbouring Majuba Tea Estate, Yun Ling must once again face her fear and guilt. Amidst the violence, Yugiri is a tranquil place of calm and as the garden is reborn, Yun Ling is awakened to the mystery of why Aritomo, exiled from his homeland, remains here.

One of the reasons why I was intrigued by this book was the subject matter. The tipping point before the birth of Malaysia, the atrocities commited by the Japanese and the brutal indifference of the British. And amidst that, a lone Japanese gardener with a suspicious past, an interest in ukiyoe and tattoos and a sudden wish to help a broken soul. The mixture of cultures and histories is one that I find very difficult to resist. Often if it touches upons cultures you are familiar with, you wait for a slip, a misunderstood explanation, but here, Tan’s research is spotless, his understanding of the Japanese and their culture beyond reproach (apart from the misspelling of the Japanese word for tattoo artist which should be horishi instead of horoshi). And he is able to shine a light onto their assault on Malaya with clarity and sympathy. It’s not an easy subject. And neither is the conflict between the Chinese and Malays during the years before Malaysian independence.

What Tan is so good at showing is that there is no country where there is only one perspective. Countries are a mixture of ideologies, cultures and languages. I love books that show this side of life and people and The Garden of the Evening Mists is just that. I was continuously impressed by the spare, beautiful writing. The characters retained enough mystery to keep you wanting to know more. And the story, well, it is heartbreakingly beautiful.

So now, I’ve picked up his first book, The Gift of Rain, just because I want to read more about this mixing of cultures which Tan is so adept in portraying.

I would like to thank the lovely people at Myrmidon Books who kindly sent me a copy of the book to review.

I have heard so much about this book ever since I started blogging and was eager to get my hands on it as it had my favourite combination of fiction with science, in this case mathematics. But as usual, I’m always about a year behind everyone else but someone has to keep the fire burning, right? I haven’t read anything else by Yoko Ogawa and wanted to start with this title because the subject matter seemed a little less extreme.

The Housekeeper and The Professor is a tale of two strangers who form a tenuous bond of friendship and love in what can only be described as difficult circumstances. The Professor who had trained at Cambridge and was once the shining beacon of the mathematical world now lives in a memory loop that lasts only 80 minutes after a devastating car crash. His glittering career in ruin, he is looked after by his sister-in-law who hires a housekeeper for his daily needs. And so the Housekeeper arrives. But something changes when the Professor meets her son, whom he names Root, and soon a bond forms between the three of them cemented by their love of baseball and numbers.

I know there’s a film adaptation in Japanese which I haven’t seen yet, but the book was just how I imagined it to be. Soft, gentle and poignant. It is reminiscent of a slower era, the frantic pace of life slowed right down so that you can focus on the minutiae of daily life. And these particular details themselves are like little droplets of life condensed. The food we eat, the daily rituals, the small celebrations. When it comes down to it, it is these things and the people we do them with that are important.

Although I was looking forward to the scientific bits in the novel, I surprisingly found it to be a little superfluous. I guess for a novel to work, the story needs to move forward without it being too bogged down by theory. Somehow I found myself skipping the mathematical bits to continue with the story. Ogawa is good at showing the importance of mathematics to the Professor who lives solely in his head until he meets the Housekeeper and her son, but the beauty of mathematics somehow surpassed me.

The Housekeeper and The Professor is a short, sweet snapshot of friendship and family that can be found in unexpected places and I enjoyed reading this tale.

I read this as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 5.

Manga: Thermae Romae I-III

21 November, 2011

My lovely friend Y in Japan sent me the first three volumes of the Japanese manga Thermae Romae by Mari Yamazaki which has been making a huge splash in Japan and is currently being filmed. Knowing I’m partial to anything Roman, she thought it would be a good addition to my library. I was watching the HBO series Rome at the time and pining for Lyndsey Davis’ Falco mysteries which has sadly finished after 20 brilliant adventures so it was a timely savior.

As I’ve come to expect with manga, things are never what they initally appear to be. I was expecting a solid story about a Roman bath architect/engineer, but what’s this? Lucius Modestus falls into a bath, hits his head and when he emerges, finds himself in a modern Japanese sento. Yamazaki’s about-turn completely caught me unawares and I couldn’t stop laughing at the incredibly bonkers yet utterly brilliant twist in her story. Like with many manga which is published serially in weekly or monthly installments, Thermae Romae follows a loose story arc and is a succession of short episodes.

In each chapter, Lucius Modestus manages to take a fall in a public bath and emerges in different wet locations (such as public baths, hot springs, outdoor wooden baths, private baths, theme parks, etc.) in Japan. And with each journey across time and space, he comes upon an invention that astounds him and pulls him deeper into the study and aesthetic of the bath, comparing both the Roman and Japanese traditions. And he tries to implement these very Japanese features, such as the idea of an onsen town, illustrating bath etiquette, refreshments, etc. into the Roman bath culture with great success.

What I really enjoyed about this series is that not only do you learn about Roman culture during the reign of Hadrian, especially their bath culture, but you also learn about the Japanese bath, it’s social and cultural importance, and how it is the centre of the Japanese community. In modern Japan where community life has changed dramatically, the public baths are becoming scarce even as onsen towns are flourishing. Much like the local pub, the public bath or sento was often a place where people of all generations in the community got together to gossip and share information. To put the two cultures that have most elevated the art of bathing together is really a stroke of genius.

Vol. IV of Thermae Romae is coming out at the end of the year and hopefully I’ll get my mitts on it in the not too distant future. There are scanslations available online and hopefully printed translations would become available soon.

For people who are interested in the aesthetic of the Japanese bath, I’ve found the following titles which look very interesting: How to Take a Japanese Bath by Loenard Koren, The Way of the Japanese Bath by Mark Edward Harris, Sento: The Japanese Public Bath by Elizabeth Ishiyama.

I read this as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 5!

So I really enjoyed reading Hear the Wind Sing, Haruki Murakami’s debut novel, and went on to read its sequel, Pinball, 1973 straight away. It’s set three years on from the events in the first book and our narrator, still nameless, has set up a successful translation business with a friend, translating everything from manuals to adverts. The work isn’t too hard and there’s plenty of time to chill after he’s done his day’s worth. Still in his twenties, he hasn’t quite found his niche in life. One day he wakes up in bed with two girls, twins, and so starts their strange life together. And out of the blue comes a chance to reconnect with his favourite pinball machine, a legendary make that seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. Back in his home town, his friend Rat is still going to J’s Bar and is still unhappy with his life, dropping out of university and several relationships until he too must make a decision about the direction of his life.

I have to confess I didn’t enjoy Pinball, 1973 as much as Hear the Wind Sing even though it has more of a cult following (probably because it’s much harder to get hold of outside Japan) mainly because the minutiae regarding the workings and the narrator’s obession with pinball machines somehow went straight over my head. Never played pinball and am not going to start now. And I wasn’t too tickled by the notion of the narrator, again nameless here, having a threesome with twins. There’s nothing really salacious in Murakami’s novel. It’s just….what is it with men and twins? I mean, would twin girls really want to share a boyfriend? Wouldn’t they want one just for themself? It’s just a bit icky. I’m not a twin so I can’t really understand how true fictional portrayals are although I suspect they tend to be rather extreme and fantastical.

Saying that, I did enjoy reading Pinball, 1973 just because of Murakami’s laconic style which always reminds me of a late summer’s afternoon, full of promise and languour. In some way’s, it’s a very geeky book and I suspect Murakami is a geek. The detail he goes into about translation work and pinball machines, the names of English songs and books. I read somewhere that Japanese critics have accused his novels of smelling like butter, meaning they’re too Westernised, but what’s wrong with writing about what you are into? And you can tell Murakami is totally in love with American culture because it shows in his writing. And I say, bully for him. I see echoes of the American style and vision that was prevalent in Japan when I was growing up there just as it is in his books. Japanese people may be falling out of love with America and its culture, but in the 70s and 80s, it was all the rage.

Murakami captures life in your twenties perfectly. It’s nostalgic and slightly romantic, something I yearned for in my twenties when I was busy studying and getting way too drunk. But looking back, it was a magical time.

Like with Hear the Wind Sing, I had no issues with Alfred Birnbaum’s translation of Pinball, 1973 and found it very easy to immerse myself into the book, although I know there have been many criticisms.

And do check out Stu and Tony’s posts on Pinball, 1973 too.

I read this as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 5 and the Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge 2011.