Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best of 2011

Well, there's no particular reason for me to write a Best of 2011 list, except for the fact that it's the end of the year and EVERYONE is doing it. Then again, there's no reason NOT for me to do it either.

Though honestly, I read a lot of great books this year. Actually, in general, I just read a lot. I have no records before this year, but I started using Goodreads in January of this year, and I love using it, so I've been very diligent about adding everything I read (to an embarrassing degree, too, since everyone can tell when I totally give up on a book too). As of writing this post, I read 43 books this year, and it'll probably be an even 45 by January 1st—though I know that those two won't end up on this list in the end so I don't mind waiting to write about my Best Of now.

So yes. I've narrowed it down to a top 5, but I also will highlight some honorable mentions as well after. I'll even do a little countdown, because I am a dork. The top 5 all actually came out in 2011, and the honorable mentions will primarily be other great books I read this year but didn't actually come out in 2011. And without further ado:

Will's Best Literature of 2011:

5. Funeral For a Dog
by Thomas Pletzinger
Translated by Ross Benjamin

I read this for a class in Literary Translation right before I graduated, but it's stuck with me for the rest of the year. It's a debut novel, and I think you can tell when you read it. It has a messy, shaggy dog type quality to the prose as well as the construction of the work itself, but it is such a strong voice, and it is amazingly effective.

Basically, it's about a journalist who's sent by his editor/girlfriend to interview a reclusive children's book author. There's a story in a story here too—the journalist discovers a manuscript while staying at the author's lakeside home that tells the story of a love triangle that spans across the globe, and the way these two plot elements dovetail is nothing short of beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. There's even a little real-life Easter Egg that you can discover, but I'll let you find it for yourself. So yes, three words to describe this book: messy, heartbreaking, beautiful. Just like life, you say? Just like love, you say?

It also reads beautiful (i.e. the translation is amazing) possibly due in part the level of collaboration between the author (who does speak English) and the translator (they're like best friends now).  Insider knowledge!

4. Stone Upon Stone

If anyone from the aforementioned translation class reads this blog (I'm pretty sure they don't), they are sure to yell at me, because I was the only person in class who had anything slightly negative to say about this book when we were reading it.

But let the record show that I declare that I was slightly too hard on it, though I still believe some of my minor criticisms are valid. I was on hard on this book because I had to read this 500+ page monstrosity in about four days, which might have made me a little extra sensitive or cranky.

Though truly, it was not the worst four days I've ever spent (though very tiring). Stone Upon Stone follows a man, building his grave, as he reflects upon his life in rural Poland. But this dude was a boisterous Zorba type fellow—a heavy drinker, a fighter, a lover, a coward, a soldier, a pesky brat. It chronicles both his entire life—elliptically, and in pieces—but it also shows the way Poland modernized starting from around World War II until almost the present day (present when it was written, I believe, which was the mid-1980s).

Look, invisible classmates who aren't here, the main character is awesome. He is hilarious, and his life was very entertaining. However, sometimes I don't appreciate ten pages of solid text when some minor character who won't appear again talks in one large existential monologue about life or farming or whatever, when I still have three hundred pages to read in 48 hours on top of everything else I have to do.

But seriously, this is the kind of ambitious, all-encompassing, total novel that only comes like once a decade, if that. I know absolutely nothing of Polish or Eastern European literature, but I know that this is an "important" novel. It's the kind of greatness that every writer aspires to. And it is like 85% entertaining, which for it's page length is an impressive feat. Stone Upon Stone absolutely needs to be read by anyone who loves serious fiction.

3. There But For The
by Ali Smith

Thinking about this novel right novel, I'm still amazed by the linguistic acrobatics and witticisms. And how moved I was when I reached the end.

The basic plot (there's no such thing, and I keep saying this, and I know in the end I'm going to talk about how much more to it there is than that summary but I can't help myself) is that a quiet man Miles is invited to a dinner party, then locks himself in the guest room and doesn't come out. However, the novel is never told from Miles' POV, but from four other characters that barely know the man in question, like someone who went on a high school trip with him, or the precocious daughter of the family who invited Miles to the dinner. They all only know a little bit about him, and yet Miles becomes this strange but powerful symbol to them all, and they all rally behind him to make sure that he doesn't starve in the room, for instance.

But Ali Smith brings such life to her words, and each of the four characters is so different from each other and linguistically different. And on top of that, each chapter uses a word in the title as it's theme. You'd think it would be hard to write a story using the word "the" as the theme that ties it all together, but Ali Smith not only accomplishes this feat, she freaking excels at it. Mind = still blown.

2. How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
by Charles Yu

Ok, so I'm cheating a little bit. TECHNICALLY the hardcover of this book came out last year, but the paperback DID come out this year, and that's what I actually read (though I've been wanting to read it since before the paperback came out. I just got lucky I waited long enough that it did). But frankly, this book was so amazing I couldn't not let it on this list.

I'm not sure this book is as technically or stylistically as brilliant as some of the other books on this list, but this one was by far the most entertaining, in a page-turner kind of way. I think it's literary merits are still very high though. It just happens to weave themes like "fiction" vs "reality," the complicated relationships between family, determinism and fate, and the nature of love, with a gripping science-fictional hook.

Again, another novel that has a shaggy dog appeal. The beginning, in particular, has a slightly patchwork quality of little vignettes of what it's like to be a "time travel machine repair man," but when the ball gets rolling it really gets rolling. In that way it reminds me of early Murakami, particularly A Wild Sheep Chase and Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. A Wild Sheep Chase evokes a mood before the plot gets started almost a hundred pages in, a quality this book definitely shares, and it also has HWatEotW's science-fictional/meta-physical plot bent. I fell for this book so hard, like I haven't in a long time. It's messiness keeps it from being a truly great novel, but it's entertainment and thought value brings it way up my list, and I cannot wait to read everything by Charles Yu I can get my hands on.

1. The Private Lives of Trees
by Alejandro Zambra
Translated by Megan McDowell

I had to justify choosing this as my best book of the year for a while.

Not because I don't believe it is truly, truly great. But it is a novella. It's only 90-ish pages. How can I compare this slight little thing with the ambition and scope of Stone Upon Stone or the linguistic games of There But For The or the philosophical/entertainment value of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe?

Well, I will admit that I love short novels and novellas. I love tight writing. I want every word to be important and perfectly used. And I think this is the closest thing I've ever read to that ideal. Not a single goddamn word is wasted in this thing. And it is so freaking beautiful and moving and resonant. I have never been so affected by the words on a page.

The Private Lives of Trees is about a guy who's telling a bedtime story to his daughter as they wait for her mother to come home. The question is, the guy realizes, is whether the mother ever will come home. And so he thinks. And writes. And tells a story.

In 90 odd pages, we see an entire relationship grow. In 90 pages we get a fully realized father-daughter relationship. We see an entire life in less pages than that. And Zambra has so much style. Brimming with language that just is so evocative. I've never read a writer quite like him.

You can read this in an afternoon. In one sitting. And if you're like me, you'll want to. You'll need to. This novella is amazing. I think everyone should read this.

I'm sure this novella has its critics. In fact, after reading Bonsai, I can see how similar the two works are. So who knows if Zambra has another story in him. But at least we have this one.

Phew. Just thinking about that book makes me want to read it right this second.

Anyway: some honorable mentions, in no particular order:

From 2011:
An Empty Room, by Mu Xin
The Illumination, by Kevin Brockmeier

Not from 2011:
Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace
Bonsai, by Alejandro Zambra
The Literary Conference, by Cesar Aira
Where Europe Ends, by Yoko Tawada

What great books did you all read?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Recently Read Round-up, October 2011

Hello again. Sorry it's been quiet around here. You do know about my new website right? It's pretty cool, if I do say so myself. I know I've learned an insane amount of authors and cool books in Japan right now. So check it out.

Pretty soon I'm going to have a Review section on the new site, but I'm only going to do Japanese fiction there. But what about other books I'm reading? I have to express myself somehow! So Recently Read Round-Up isn't going anywhere. And luckily, I read some awesome books in October. 

I Am a Japanese Writer
by Dany Laferriere
Translated by David Homel

4 out of 5 stars

Metafiction + Noir + Race/Identity = I am a Japanese Writer. A very gripping yet thought-provoking novel that's part inquiry on the construction of race and part almost noir mystery. In it, the narrator, a black writer living in Montreal (I should note that Dany Laferriere is in fact a black writer who lives in Montreal) needs the next book for his publisher and sells it to them on the title alone: I am a Japanese Writer. He never actually writes it, but word gets out and soon it becomes an international sensation. At the same time, the narrator befriends a Japanese pop star and her entourage, one of whom, when visiting his apartment, decides to commit suicide. The cops think he's the culprit, and try to intimidate him. While all this is happening, members of the Japanese embassy are trying to get the narrator to learn about Japan so he writes an appropriately Japanese book. 

The postmodern aspects of the novel make it engaging on a visceral level, not just a mental one. It's got a very dark tone at times, but it also has a great sense of humor. A lot to chew on (in the best way possible). I'd like to try reading more Laferriere in the future. Be sure to look out for a full review of the title on Three Percent. Should be online pretty soon. 

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day
by Ben Loory.

4 out of 5 stars

I had been meaning to read this since basically the day it came out. I remember very clearly seeing it on display under the new releases at my local bookstore. I read a couple of the stories and knew it was something I had to read. Unfortunately, I had no money, and I put it off until just a few weeks ago, when I got lucky and found a used copy in the same bookstore. It was a very happy day.

Anyway, I thought this was just great. Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day sounds exactly like what it is: a very enjoyable collection of adult slash slightly post-modern "fables" and "fairy tales." What I liked about it was that it could be delightfully weird, then touching, and then nightmarish, depending on the story. My only complaint was that too many of the stories fell back on to a generic "Character X had a weird dream" or "Character X couldn't sleep because of Event Y" moment for my taste. Still, as a whole, I enjoyed this immensely.

The Perpetual Motion Machine
by Paul Scheerbart
Translated by Andrew Joron
3.5 out of 5 stars

An interesting cross between novella, essay, memoir, and how-to manual, The Perpetual Motion Machine is ostensibly Scheerbart's attempts to create, against all scientific reasoning and evidence, a perpetual motion machine.

What's the most interesting is when he goes into speculative fiction mode, wondering about the implications of his great, "sure to be made" invention. Those moments are definitely the highlight of the book, as he imagines both the good and the bad, about how his "perpet" will change society. The parts where he describes the various changes to his invention (which inevitably fail)? Not so interesting. Still, overall it's a fascinating book about a relatively unknown, but pretty cool sounding dude. This is another book that I'm reviewing for Three Percent, so hopefully that one will also be online soon. I'll let you know of course when it does. 

There But For The
by Ali Smith

 4.5 out of 5 stars

I really loved Stories For Nighttime and Some for the Day, but I really really loved There But For The. But I do think There But For The wins out because it is one total story, and a really well constructed one at that (no offense to short stories, but there were enough of them that I weren't impressed with to take my enthusiasm to the next level). 

Told from four different perspectives, There But For The is about a dinner party, and how one person decides to lock himself in the hosts' spare bedroom. The problem is, nobody really knows this guy that well, so they don't know what's going on. 

I wasn't sure how much I'd like it at first and then as it went on I fell harder and harder for it. I can see some thinking the style is too "clever" (one of the themes in the novel) but I found it very witty, and thought-provoking, and also extremely moving. My sole complaint is the way the narratives are divided up. I'd get really attached to one narrator only to be suddenly jerked to another. Small complaint in the end though really. Quite excellent. I definitely plan on reading more Ali Smith. 


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 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 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.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Interesting Author Spotlight: 円城塔 (Enjoe Toh)

I came across this author by chance. I was looking through the Shinchou literary magazine's Twitter feed and noticed it mentioning a book that I thought had a very interesting title:

"This is a Pen"

I'm not going to lie—I'm a sucker for titles. The description on Amazon is interesting though:

"Uncle is a letter. Literally. A man who invented an automatic sentence generator and his brother who has vivid memories of a town that doesn't exist. A tale of twins that illuminates the origins of reading and writing."

Definitely sounds like something I would want to read. I did a little more research, and found out that "This is a Pen" was a finalist in the Akutagawa Prize earlier this year.

Then shit got real! In a strange instance of serendipity/coincidence/it's-a-small-world-after-all-ism, I actually own two pieces by Enjoe Toh. In the January 2011 issue of Bungakukai, he has a short story called "Magnitude," and he has a story (novella, perhaps, it's very long) in the Best Sci-Fi of 2007 collection "Imaginary Engines," the same collection that contained the 2010 Kurodahan Translation Prize piece "忠告."

Anyway, he sounds like an interesting author. He graduated from Tohoku University studying physics, and then went to Tokyo University for graduate school. Wikipedia doesn't specify him as anything besides a novelist, but he definitely seems to have a sci-fi bent. For instance, another short story title: "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire."

He's had other pieces nominated for the Akutagawa, but he has yet to win it. However he has won the Noma Literary Prize and the Bungakukai New Writer's Prize, and has been nominated for the Gunzo New Writer's Prize and the Yukio Mishima Prize. 

I started reading "Magnitude," but it's...confusing. I'm not even sure I can explain it. It starts by explaining some sort of weird number theory. Here's a very short, probably poor translation of the very beginning:


In twenty years, we learn the world approaches ten.

Now is still nine. They say a hundred years ago was eight. China and India, nine. The entire planet, nine. Only Japan is eight. Next, they say, decline will begin, and in time, it might be seven. It was seven a hundred years ago.

I am 0..."

It goes on to explain a very strange theory about zero and it's relationship to other numbers, and how zero is also known as, you guessed it, "magnitude."

I...don't even know. I plan on spending some more time fighting my way through this story, but I'm not sure what I'm going to get out of it. "Palimpsest" is quite long, but since I have it, I might as well take a look.

If you want to try reading some Enjoe Toh for yourself, he has a serialized Twitter novel at the username @EnJoe140, separate from his own Twitter account @EnJoeToh. I think it's all done; it hasn't been updated since September 17th.

You can also pick up Kurodahan Press's Speculative Japan 2, which has a translation of Enjoe's story "Freud" (haven't read it, but of course, now I want to).  

Enjoe Toh might be a name to look out for in the future.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

September 2011 Japan Book News

Fall has (basically) arrived and with the changing of the seasons comes a new issue of Japan Book News.

If you don't know, Japan Book News is published quarterly by the Japan Foundation. It's full of articles and news about the current Japanese literary culture, as well as a list of notable new releases. It's a great resource for finding out what books are making a stir in the Japanese literary community.

Volume 69 is now up, but unfortunately, the link to downloading the full PDF of the issue is broken, so you can't read the news and articles just now. They do have links to the summaries of the new releases though, and they've highlighted a couple very interesting seeming books. Here's a look at what I'd be interested in getting my hands on:

(Unfortunately, they use Javascript to link to all their internal pages, so as much as I'd like to, I can't give you a direct link to everything they're talking about. You'll have to go the main page, and click your way through to the index for Volume 69 to see more information about these titles. All links are to Amazon Japan product listings.)

1)雪の練習生 ("The Apprentices of Snow," their translation not mine)
by Yoko Tawada

Yoko Tawada has a number of works out in English. I read The Bridegroom was a Dog a while back, but I just read the short story collection Where Europe Begins put out by New Directions, and now I've become a huge fan. Tawada is so surreal and inventive, and she can manipulate these qualities into something either extremely beautiful or extremely disturbing, sometimes practically instantaneously. She writes in both German and Japanese (Where Europe Begins was mostly her German work), but I'm assuming that she wrote this one in Japanese.

Anyway, it's about polar bears. Not just about polar bears, narrated by polar bears. And not just any polar bears. A polar bear trained for the circus who writes a memoir and becomes a famous writer, for one.

Writing from the point of view of a personified animal seems to be in vogue right now in Japan. Belka, Why Don't You Bark? by Hideo Furukawa follows dogs (I think it's narrated by the dogs but I'm not sure), and Kenshin by Rieko Kawakami is about a woman who is turned into a dog. Either way, interesting premise, great writer—I'd love to see this come out by New Directions, who has published a lot of Tawada in the past.

2) 生首 ("Severed Heads")
by Henmi Yo

There's a pretty robust poetry scene in Japan, some of which gets across the Pacific Ocean. The Best Translated Book Award has always had at least one Japanese poet on their shortlist save their inaugural year. I'm not familiar with Henmi Yo really, but I don't think Japan Book News highlights a lot of poetry, and I do like the little excerpt they put in their description:

One evening in early autumn
Across the darkening blue of the western skies
I watched a severed head fly across the heavens.

Not a lot to go on, but worth checking out I think. 

3) 日本語ほど面白いものはない (Nothing is as Fun as Japanese)
by Naoki Yanase

I can't imagine anything like this would EVER get published in English, but it sounds interesting to me all the same. It's based on a series of lectures given by Yanase to a sixth grade class on why Japanese is a cool language. The reason why it's interesting to me is Yanase himself, who did Japanese translations of Roald Dahl and Lewis Carrol, as well as James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Finnegans fucking Wake! I would LOVE to learn more about this guy.

Hey, and maybe since it's written for sixth graders, it would be pretty easy to read, and it might make a good supplementary textbook for American high school or college students learning Japanese. Maybe there's a market for this book after all.

4) 日本の刺青と英国王室 ("Japanese Tattoos and the British Royal Family")
by Noboru Koyama

Title sort of explains it all. About British Princes in the late 19th century that did some tourism and got some badass tattoos, and then more about the history of Japanese tattooing. I don't read a lot of history books, but this sounds pretty fascinating.

5) 文豪の食卓 (Great Writers at the Dinner Table)
by Tokuzo Miyamoto

OK, this one might appeal to me only. I love food, and I love to read about famous people talking about food. So from what I understand of the description of this book, it's part profiles of famous writers through their documented experiences with food and part exposé about regional Japanese food. It seems like it profiles a lot of French and American writers (though there must be something about Japanese writers). I love this kind of stuff, though I can't imagine it ever being published in translation.

6)近代日本奇想小説史:明治編 (A History of the Japanese Imaginative Novel: Meiji Era)
by Jun'ya Yokota

Another history book, but this one about science fiction, speculative fiction, and other genre fare of the Meiji Era. It's 1200 pages though—I'd never get through it. I'd rather read about the neat stuff No-sword digs up.

There's also a new book by Yuko Tsushima, who I was never a fan of, and a history of Japanese mystery novels, which they hilariously call "much-neglected," cause seriously, what is being translated in America besides mystery/crime/thrillers and Murakami?

Anyway, good selection of cool stuff. Check it out, especially you publishing types if you're out there—let's get some cool stuff translated into English!

Friday, September 9, 2011

1Q84, Murakami, and His English Translations

Greetings again. I've come back from the void that was the summer with some (hopefully) more regular posting.

So the big news in the Japanese literature world, of course, is Haruki Murakami's forthcoming English translation of 1Q84, coming out October 25th. And if you're impatient, there's all sorts of stuff out there to get a little amuse bouche before the 900-page smorgasbord arrives.

A few months ago The Millions had the first paragraph, but that was usurped just a few days ago by Murakami's Facebook page, which now has the entire first chapter for you to read (the only caveat being you have to first "Like" Haruki Murakami's page to gain access). There's also a nice standalone excerpt in the latest New Yorker called "Town of Cats."

If you're interested in reviews, you can see The Literary Saloon's extremely favorable review of the first two books (scroll down), Publisher's Weekly's starred review, The Japan Time's reviews for parts 1 and 2 and then 3, and even fellow bloggers How to Japonese's less than favorable reaction and subsequent review at Neojaponisme and Nihon Distraction's (the lucky sun of a gun who got an advanced review copy) take on book 1.

I haven't actually read any of these, because for some reason I've started feeling very spoiler-averse to the point where I don't really want to know any more about the plot than the little I already do. The only thing I know is pretty much everyone (with the lone, possibly lonely, exception of Daniel from How To Japonese) loves it.

There's also a book trailer, but it's pretty lame.

The English translation has been long-coming. The Germans for example have had a translation out for like a year now, and the French are beating us by a month or so. If you didn't know, the English translation is being done by two people: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. Jay Rubin started on books 1 and 2 before it was clear that there was going to be a book 3 coming out, where they hired Gabriel to speed up the process and to facilitate a one gigantic volume release. (I speculated about the implications about this a long time ago at Three Percent. Almost two years ago actually: notice how they initially planned on publishing the translations in two separate volumes).

This is all a relatively long and pointless segue leading to something I found regarding Murakami and his thoughts on his English translations. In「そうだ、村上さんに聞いてみよう」("Hey Yeah, Let's Ask Murakami!"), the collection of Q&As Murakami hosted on his website where you could ask such pressing questions as "Do you like Nicolas Cage?", one reader asks about Murakami's feelings towards his English translations. Keep in mind that this is from 1997. Translation follows:

Pressing Question #46
Thoughts on Your English Translated Works?
At 12:46 AM 1997.08.09

I live in New York. Since I've been in Japan I've read almost all of your works. After I came here I tried reading them in English. Have you ever read your novels in English translation and thought anything like, "Hmm, that's not quite right"? There's a lot of problems with my English comprehension skills, so I feel pretty lucky I can read your novels in Japanese. (TV Director, 33 years old).

Hello. For me, translation is all-around approximation. And filling that ditch of approximation is a matter of love of devotion. If you have love and devotion, you can overcome just about everything. What I mean by this is that I trust my translators, and I think that's the most important thing. At least to a certain degree, of course.

As a rule, I don't reread what I've written, so even when I flip through the pages of the English translation, I completely forget what even the original was, so I skim through it going, "Hahaha, isn't that interesting?" I think that's better for my health. 

From そうだ、村上さんに聞いてみよう」と世間の人々が村上春樹にとりあえずぶっつける282の大疑問に果たして村上さんはちゃんと答えられるのか?, Asahi, 2000, p. 43.