Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I've Started a New(s) Site

Hey everybody.

So don't get me wrong, I love it here at Wednesday Afternoon Picnic. I fully intend to keep posting here. But I got this crazy idea that I would start a site where you could find the latest information about Japanese literary news. And I just couldn't get it out of my head. And I liked what I had going here so I didn't want to change it into something else. So I actually started a new site.


That is going to be the news site. I want to do this seriously. Like I said, this is going to stay my personal blog. I'll still be posting little translations when I feel like it, doing little speculative analysis and reviews of books that I've read, all that sort of stuff. So don't worry. I'm not going anywhere.

Definitely check out the new site. I hope you'll find it super informative and interesting and you will love it and then everyone in the world will love it and I'll be super famous and fly around in jet planes all the time because I can. (Just kidding on that last part. That will never happen.)

Thanks for hanging around here! You'll still be hearing from me. But also, seriously, check out Junbungaku. I think it's going to be something really great.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Japanese FICTION Bestsellers of 2011 (So Far), Part 2

Our coverage of Japan's bestseller list continues in our penultimate post with a look at bunkobon, or mass market paperbacks. And if you haven't, be sure to check out the list of overall bestsellers and bestsellers for tankoubon fiction.

Tohan doesn't divide the bunkobon sales by genre like it does for tankoubon, so it's theoretically possible to see a non-fiction title on this list, but it's all fiction here, baby. Also, because these are mass market paperbacks, these books aren't new in the sense that trade paperbacks in the US don't often come out for a year or more after the hardcover, depending on sales. I don't think there's anything else I need to introduce so let's dive right to it! Tohan says:

1) 八日目の蝉 (The Eighth Day)
by Kakuta Mitsuyo
2) ダイイング・アイ ("Dying Eye")
by Higashino Keigo
3) プリンセス・トヨトミ ("Princess Toyotomi")
by Makime Manabu
4) 流星の絆 ("The Bonds of the Meteor")
by Higashino Keigo
5) ゴールデンスランバー  ("Golden Slumbers," translated into English as Remote Control)
by Isaka Kotaro
6) あの頃の誰か ("Someone From Those Days")
by Higashino Keigo
7) 涼宮ハルヒの驚愕 初回限定版 ("The Astonishment of Haruhi Suzumiya" First Print Limited Edition)
by Tanigawa Nagaru
8) 阪急電車 ("The Hankyuu Train")
Arikawa Hiro
9) 図書館戦争/ 図書館内乱 ("Library Wars"/"Library Revolution")
by Arikawa Hiro
10) いっちばん  ("Numbah One”...?)
畠中恵 by Hatakenaka Megumi

1) The Eighth Day, as you can see if you click on the link above or here, has already been translated into English by Kodansha. It's got an interesting premise too: A woman suddenly kidnaps her married lover's six-month old baby and raises it as her own in an all female-religious commune. The novel is also told from the perspective of the kidnapper and the kidnapped which is an interesting choice. It sounds like this novel might have some interesting things about the nature of motherhood and family. I might check it out sometime.

There is a movie version too.

2) The first of Higashino's THREE works on the bestseller list is about a man who loses a portion of his memory after a traffic accident. BUT IS EVERYTHING AS IT SEEMS???

3) Princess Toyotomi took a lot of research for me to figure out the plot since it was kind of nonsensical (at the very least, I had a hard time understanding what I was reading). Luckily there's a movie version, and trailers on Youtube. As it turns out, it's kind of like a Japanese version of the movie National Treasure . It's about three accountants who discover some sort of hundreds of years old secret that basically amounts to Osaka having the right to declare itself an independent nation. I think. Conspiracies!!

(As a side note, I want to point out the cover of the book clearly depicts one of the main three to be a fatty but he got totally sexified in the movie.)

4) In Higashino's second novel, three siblings seek revenge (they vow it on a meteor flying in the sky) for their murdered parents. BUT IS EVERYTHING AS IT SEEMS? NO! For the biggest miscalculation of their scheme is that the sister falls in love with the murderer's son!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This was turned into a disconcertingly happy looking TV drama.

I also like that Higashino points out that "It was not me who wrote this novel. It is a work of the characters." YAWN. Isn't that, like, every novel ever? Mind NOT blown, sir.

5) "Golden Slumbers" was also translated into English as Remote Control. In fact, I reviewed it for Three Percent! It's another thriller (though I will admit I enjoyed it). This one was also turned into a movie.

6) In Higashino's final work in the bestseller list, main character's boyfriend dies in his home. He spells out the letter A...in BLOOD. IS EVERYTHING AS IT SEEMS? (OK I'm all done I swear. No more.)

Almost unbelievably there's no film or TV version...yet.

7) is the latest in the Haruhi Suzumiya light novel series. If you're into anime even a little you've probably heard of it. If not, the series, the parts that I've read and seen in anime form, is a lot of fun, and is self-aware enough to poke fun at the conventions and cliches of anime culture. The novels have slowly been coming out in English translations too, if you want to check it out yourself, though the translations of course are not nearly as far as the series proper.

8 and 9) We talked a bit about Arikawa Hiro yesterday. In fact, we talked about how she's famous in anime circles as the creator of the Library Wars series.  "The Hankyuu Train" however sounds very generic. A collection of love stories that sort of uses a train line as a nexus point. Of course, there is a movie version.

10) And bringing up the rear is the latest in the Shabake series, a historical fantasy and mystery series that follows a boy who is protected by some sort of spirit or ghost pal. It has a TV version, but I can't find a particularly useful clip for it.

And there you have it. I think the lesson to be learned is that if you are a novel that is popular for long enough, you will someday get a movie/TV show/anime adaptation. There is literally one thing on this list that hasn't been adapted yet, and I almost guarantee you that it will get one in the next year or so.

My apologies for the extreme levels of snark in this blog post. I don't know what happened.

In our final look at bestsellers, we're going to look at what is selling like hotcakes now. Yes! Right now! See you soon!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Recently Read Round-Up, August & September 2011

We're going to take a quick break from our bestsellers coverage and look at what I've been reading. I was going to do this every month, but as it turns out, I only read one book in August. Oops. But I bounced back in September, and here we are now. And I read some great books, you guys. (There is a Japanese book in this selection too, for what it's worth.)

The Illumination
by Kevin Brockmeier
4 out of 5 stars

I'm a big Kevin Brockmeier fan. I started off reading his short stories for my creative writing class (which he visited; he was a very nice, very thoughtful, very fun to talk to guy), then read The Brief History of the Dead, then read more of his short stories, and then I got here, to his newest, which was just published in February.

I like Brockmeier's work because of the way it just straddles the line between literary fiction and genre or speculative fiction. Like Murakami, he introduces fantastic or un-realistic elements to otherwise straightforward stories, and part of the fun of exploring their narrative worlds is how these little "weird" elements affect an otherwise realistic world. The difference between Brockmeier and Murakami is their sense of "touch." If Murakami's writing style is "cool" like jazz, then Brockmeier's is delicate, like a whisper (or if we have to stick to musical metaphors, an artist like Eliot Smith or Sufjan Stevens).

The premise of The Illumination is that one day, bodily pain is manifested as light. But the focus of the story isn't really that fact. It's more of a catalyst to how their characters start to perceive themselves and those around them (and each others' physical and emotional pain). It's quite beautiful, even though it might sound a little twee or, to dust off an old slangy chestnut, "emo." It's also less of a novel than a collage of character studies, but definitely worth a read, I think.

by George Saunders
4 out of 5 stars

I read the title novella for a class, and had been meaning to going back and reading the rest of the short stories in this collection. Totally worth it. If you have any passing interest in contemporary American writers, you have to be reading Saunders. Just a hilarious, heart-wrenching, brilliant satirist and yarn-spinner. "Pastoralia," "Winky," "Sea Oak," "The Barber's Unhappiness" are the highlights that come to mind.

Where Europe Begins
by Yoko Tawada
4 out of 5 stars

This is the second collection of Tawada's that I've read. I read The Bridegroom was a Dog a while back, liked the second story a lot, the title story some, and I honestly can't remember the third story now. I've had this on my shelf for a long time but it hasn't been a priority to read. Then one day, when I didn't have any books on hand that I wanted to read, I saw it and pulled it out.

And I forgot who freakin' weird Tawada is.

In a good way, mind you. These are some great surrealist tales. As I wrote in my Goodreads review, "A collection of awesomely fucked up fever dreams and fairy tales". The best part of Tawada's surrealism is that it really can be either a nightmare of something extremely beautiful, and she often can switch between the two in the blink of an eye. And what's even more amazing is that this collection is made up of stories that were originally written in Japanese and German. She has mastery of two languages y'all! If I were to be a little nitpicky I thought the translations from German were slightly better than the ones from Japanese, but maybe her style is just slightly different when she writes in the different languages (though it's tricky to say since we're dealing with two different translators as well). Still, definitely a big recommendation if you're looking for something strange. 

by Alejandro Zambra
5 out of 5 stars

You guys, I've fallen hard for this Zambra fellow. Of course, now I've read the only two things he's published so far since he's so young, and now I have to wait for more. Very saddening.

I can't emphasize how much I've loved reading this and The Private Lives of Trees. My one caveat I guess is that Zambra is more of a stylist than a plot-ist. This novella especially has the barest of bare plots (and one of the most cliched, the break-up story) but it was just so good to read. The translation is gorgeous (I'm sure the original Spanish is too). Zambra is just a great writer, in that he knows how to select, arrange, use words. Beautiful, beautiful. There's not much else I can add. This was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award, and I'm surprised it didn't win. Give it a shot. It might not be your thing, but if it is, I think you're not just going to enjoy it—you're going to love it. If you need a more in-depth review, I would check out this one at the Quarterly Conversation.

The Sleepwalker
by Margarita Karapanou

2.5 out of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this book. I remember reading about it before actually reading it, and thought it sounded great. The first chapter is great. The ending approaches great. But the middle is just...ugh. I hate to be so harsh on it, because I feel like my problem was a matter of unmatched expectations, not the book itself.

The book starts by talking about God and how frustrated he is with the world he created as a young Creator. So to fix the world, he vomits up a new messiah.

What a great premise! Too bad it's largely forgotten after that for most of the novel. Instead, the book becomes sexually ambiguous hipster murder mystery time, and that may sound kind of awesome, but it is most assuredly not. One chapter about the character Alfredo is a bright spot, and then nothing interesting happens until a trash plague cum heat wave threatens the island the novel it takes place on to extinction. 

The problem, I found, is that the novel is so heavy with symbolism (all the characters are different nationalities, making the whole island a kind of Babel, for instance) that it forgets about having interesting, three-dimensional characters. Basically, they're all artists, but they all can't or won't make art, so instead they all get drunk, have sex with each other, occasionally rape children and get murdered. I could only distinguish three characters to you right now if you asked, and that's because one of them is the murderer, one of them rapes a child, and one of them has writer's block. Those are literally the only distinguishing characteristics about them. If you could somehow read only the 20% of the novel that is good, I would recommend it, but there's so much I didn't enjoy that I can't really recommend this book.

And that's what I've read in the last two months. Look forward to part three of the bestseller analysis soon.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Japanese FICTION Bestsellers of 2011 (So Far), Part 1

Our coverage of Japan's bestseller lists continues with a look at the fiction bestsellers of the first half of 2011.

I'm almost tempted to go full car-salesman and just start saying "October is Bestseller Month at Wednesday Afternoon Picnic!!!" but I don't think coverage will quite last that long. Anyway, today we'll be looking at just fiction bestsellers.

Japanese vocabulary time!

Tohan divides up the sales numbers between tankoubon and bunkobon. Now, these do not stand for hardcover and paperback, the way we list our bestsellers (although they are, weirdly, similar, but we'll get to that in a second). They don't even describe the same qualities or standards of comparison.  

Tankoubon (単行本)just means a collected or independent volume; it is a complete work. Of course, this word is also illogically used to refer to a single volume in a manga series, believe it or not, to make it extra confusing.

The word bunkobon(文庫本) refers to the size of the book itself, which is similar to our mass-market pocket-sized paperbacks. They are designed, like our mass-market paperbacks, to be super cheap and portable, though they are generally nicer—they get their own dust jackets and everything.

As mentioned above, tankoubon does not refer to the quality of the book itself; however, if you look at the size of any novel on Amazon that's listed as tankoubon, you'll notice the size is usually somewhere around 19cm by 14cm. Which is in fact, just about the size of all the Japanese novels that I own that are indeed, hardcover books. So while it's not necessarily true, today, for all intents and purposes, we can think of tankoubon as the hardcovers and bunkobon as the paperbacks.

Today we look at the tankoubon bestsellers for fiction, according to Tohan:

1) 謎解きはディナーのあとで ("The Riddle Will Be Solved After Dinner")
by Higashigawa Tokuya
by Satohiro Saito
3) くじけないで ("Don't Be Discouraged")
by Shibata Toyo
4) 麒麟の翼 ("Wings of the Qilin")
by Higashino Keigo
5) 放課後はミステリーとともに ("After School Will Be With Mysteries")
by Higashigawa Tokuya
6) 傾物語 ("Twisted Tales")
by Nishio Isin
7) 花物語 ("Flower Tales")
by Nishio Isin
8)  江 姫たちの戦国 ("The Bay: The Princess' Warring States")
by Tabuchi Kumiko
 9) 苦役列車 ("Train of Suffering")
by Nishimura Kenta
10) 県庁おもてなし課 ("The Prefectural Hospitality Division")
by Arikawa Hiro

The first three on the list should be familiar from last time, so I won't go into any more detail about them. Some comments about the rest of the list:

4) Higashino Keigo is way more popular than he has any right to be. He's like the James Patterson of Japan—anything he writes seems to turn to gold (though thankfully he is not so prolific). I read MOST of Naoko which was put out by Vertical because I thought it had a great sounding premise, but couldn't finish it because it was such garbage...at least in my opinion. Your mileage may vary. You can also try reading The Devotion of Suspect X which was put out by Minotaur. "Wings of the Qilin" (qilin is the Chinese unicorn, way more bad-ass than the Western unicorn) is another murder mystery. Amazon's description is very generic. That's all I have to say.

5) Another mystery story by the author of the number one bestseller "The Riddle Will Be Solved After Dinner." There's a school, and they have a detective club, and for some reason there are a lot of crimes for them to solve. This has also been turned into a movie (although it looks like it was a web series that then had a special in-movie-theaters showing). 

6 and 7) Nisio Isin (not spelled the standard Ishin because his name is a palindrome) is a very popular light novel (basically young adult fiction with some illustrations, kind of a compromise between manga and literature) author. These two books are the latest installments of his "Monogatari" series. The series, under the name Bakemonogatari,  has recently become a fairly popular anime series. 

8) Again, it's because of a TV adaptation that this series (it's actually in three parts) seems to be on the list. It's the latest Taiga drama to be broadcasted on NHK. It's historical fiction. If you're interested in a summary, you can check out the big long Wikipedia article about it. (Sidenote: it stars Nodame Cantabile's live-action Nodame, Ueno Juri, so I imagine as an actress this is a pretty big deal for her and her fans).

9) I recognized this title as a book recommended in the last issue of Japan Book News. Unfortunately, I did not mention it in my write-up of said issue because I thought it looked mega-boring. It might be on the bestseller list because it did win the last Akutagawa Prize, which is a pretty big deal...though the description on Japan Book News can't help but be surprised that this work is a bestseller either. But plotwise...

Written in the form of an I-novel (basically a confessional, thinly-veiled autobiographical work written in the first person), it's about a guy who drops out of school, has some shitty backbreaking jobs, the money of which he squanders on booze and prostitutes... I don't know why I'm so cynical about this work (or rather, the idea of it, I guess). I'm deeply suspicious of any work that uses such bleakness as shock value in lieu of deeper thematic content. And that might not be the case for this novel. But guilty until proven innocent, for me.

10) Arikawa Hiro is another wildly successful light novelist. If you're an anime fan, you might be familiar with her work through the anime adaptation of Toshokan Sensou ("Library Wars"). It's supposedly about a young government worker struggling between bureaucratic red tape and the will of the private citizen as they start their new job assisting a popular local writer...but it's also a story that simultaneously is, you know, interesting to teenagers.

Some parallels are starting to emerge regarding Japanese and American reading habits. I think what we can all take home is that both cultures love:

1) Mysteries and thrillers (and a general darkness in content and tone).

2) Books that are "inspiring" and more about the person behind the book than the book itself (in the case of 100-year old Toyo Shibata and her poetry), see books like this or this.

3) Serialized young adult fiction that easily adapts to non-book entertainment.

Next time, mass-market paperback fiction (bunkobun)!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Japanese Bestsellers of 2011 (So Far)

Besides being a depository for my various attempts at translation, one of the aims of this blog has  been to report the going-ons of contemporary Japanese literary culture. I get to do this occasionally by reporting on Japanese literature from the perspective of what is happening, or might be happening, here in the United States—potential releases, book reviews, American publishing companies and their translations, etc.  But I fear I don't do it that often with what's going on directly in Japan. Every now and then I do, but I realized I've been missing (perhaps ignoring) the most obvious indicator of literary trends: the bestseller lists.

The reason I parenthetically say ignoring is because when I do think to check the bestseller lists, I find it kind of boring—or worse, depressing. Bestselling does not always indicate quality. This week's New York Times Bestseller list, for example, includes eight interchangeable thrillers in the top ten. And The Help. Not to be snooty about my reading habits, but no thank you.

But, I am genuinely curious to see what the Japanese are reading, even if it won't be my literary cup of tea, and luckily, Tohan has data for the top selling books of the first half of 2011.

Let us take a look-see:

In the everything-list, which has both fiction and non-fiction titles put together, there are only three novels in the top ten books, however, they are at least, the very top three.

In first place is 謎解きはディナーのあとで, "The Riddle Will Be Solved After Dinner," by Higashigawa Tokuya. It won the Bookseller's Prize (chosen by people who work at bookstores, but it's basically a popularity prize), and it's described as a collection of six mysteries solved by a lady detective and her "sharp-tongued butler." Ooooh.

If you check out the novel's Amazon listing, it, amazingly, awesomely, has a 2 out of 5 star rating, with a sizable majority of 156 people giving it only one star. Choice review quotes: "A disappointment," and "It's a mystery why this garbage sells so well."

But of course, it's still so popular it's going to become a TV show.

In second place is the non-stop stales behemoth もし高校野球の女子マネージャーがドラッカーの『マネジメント』を読んだら, "What if a High School Baseball Club's Girl Manager Read 'Management' by Drucker?" by Iwasaki Natsumi. (Yes, this is a novel.) This was already a bestseller when I was in Japan a year and a half ago. For more information about this one, check out my friend hopeful in nagoya's write up about the book, and the anime and movie it spawned, as the most strangely-titled yet wildly successful pop culture juggernaut in recent memory.

In third place is KAGEROU, which means both "may-fly" and "ephemera," by Satohiro Saito, also known as Hiro Mizushima, a relatively famous TV actor. This is another one that somehow has both an award, this time the Poplar Fiction Prize, and a terrible Amazon ranking, this time a 2.5 out of 5. It's about a deeply in debt dude who gets downsized and tries to kill himself, only to be stopped by a man in a black suit, who offers him an escape from his money troubles by working for his underground organ donation "company." BUT IS EVERYTHING AS GOOD AS IT SEEMS?

Finally, in bonus fifth place, is granny Toyo Shibata's collection of poetry くじけないで, which we've totally talked about you guys!

Just so you know, three of the remaining five spots are occupied by various Monster Hunter guides (positions 6, 7, and 10). 4th place is 老いの才覚, "A Plan for the Elderly," about what to do with the huge elderly population of Japan,  8th place is a self-help book (do you really care about the title? Fine, it's 心を整える。勝利をたぐり寄せるための56の習慣, "Re-Arrange Your Heart: 56 Habits to Reel In Success") and 9th place is 救世の法: 信仰と未来社会, "The Law of Salvation: Faith and Our Future Society." I imagine the content is self-explanatory.

Next time, I'll take a look at the actual fiction hardcover and paperback bestseller lists for the first half of this year. Then, in the next week or so, I'll take a look at that current week's bestsellers.