One of my goals this year is to actually discuss all the books I read on Lipstick & Libraries! Doing books one-by-one was not working for me in 2014, so this year I’ll be doing posts 1) when I finish a series 2) for the books I have individually named on the reading list, and 3) bigger overviews for chunks of books I’ve read. Well, we’ll see: who knows how I might break it up. BUT for this first book roundup, it’s the books I’ve read that don’t fall into categories 1 or 2! Plus we’ve got a thematic link–I’m on another Japan kick, which happens at least once a year.
An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro (Book 4)
Shockingly, this is the only Kazuo Ishiguro book I haven’t read. I know! I’ll be honest, I was saving it so I’d still have something of his to read… but he has a book coming out this year (!!!), so I decided to dive into this one. I feel like you can group Ishiguro’s books into staunchly British (Remains of the Day, Nocturnes, Never Let Me Go) and staunchly Japanese (A Pale View of the Hills, An Artist of the Floating World) with my favorite (The Unconsoled) very much in between (not location-wise, but thematically).
While reading this book, I was enchanted by the fact that it’s essentially a companion novel to The Remains of the Day. Both are set in post-WWII, both feature an older male protagonist whose time has past, the main narrative is structured out of memories, and both tie into the darker sides of the war. They feature regret and introspection: neither is very plot-based, but rather paced slowly and featuring a highly conversational tone. Many people seem annoyed that these books are so similar–like it’s somehow less valid to write two books that have mirrored plots. But I feel like these two are Ishiguro’s way of reflecting on both sides of his history: British and Japanese. They are certainly companion books, but I don’t think that devalues either one of them.
South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami (Book 5)
I love Murakami. Like, top 5 favorite authors love him. This year I want to read the handful of his works that I haven’t touched before (all the short story collections, After Dark, the first two in the Rat series, IQ84). It may not seem like a small amount, but I’ve adored everything else of his that I’ve read… except for Sputnik Sweetheart. And sadly, this was kind of like SS for me. I wasn’t as absorbed in the story as I usually am.
It’s a simple plot: a married man meets a girl from his childhood and ends up torn between two women. I think this is the first Murakami protagonist I’ve come across who is decidedly bad—he’s not morally grey, he’s a bad person, and admits this several times. And I don’t need to feel sympathy for a character to like them, so I was intrigued by this. But something… is missing. It’s got all the Murakami ingredients: middle-age male protagonist drifting through life, cats, jazz, a girl with a strange past or feature, that odd focus on earlobes, that perfectly melancholy portrait of Japan he paints. And the language is, as always, stunning. It’s even got the classic “not all the strings are tied up” open ending! But somehow… I wasn’t as enchanted as I usually am.
I can’t even name what it is that I didn’t love. I mean, I enjoyed it, and it certainly left me thinking. But like Sputnik, I found it not very memorable. I know a few months from now I’ll be struggling to remember certain details. It’s an ephemeral book, without the emotional weight of his others. But the writing is so gorgeous I can’t dislike it.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami (Book 6)
While I have read many of his novels, I’ve never touched Murakami’s short fiction. Probably because people usually say that you like one or the other, so I went in assuming it wouldn’t be as good as his other works. I was, however, pleasantly surprised! It did take me a few stories to get the hang of this abbreviated writing style, but there are 24 in total and I enjoyed the vast majority of them.
One of Murakami’s most distinctive writing quirks is how he nests stories in stories like Russian dolls. Almost all of his novels have stories in them: some work with the plot, others are injected solely for mood or thematic purposes. But many of his notable “scenes” are merely one character telling another a particularly bizarre tale (the Ferris Wheel scene from Sputnik Sweetheart comes to mind).
His short stories are really more of the same: quick, brief, utterly odd, without meaning until you really think about them. And some even evolved into books–”Man-Eating Cats” has a nearly word-for-word story from Sputnik, and a character and scene identical to parts of South of the Border. It’s hard to choose one favorite, but I adored the irreverent humor in “Dabchick” and the almost hallucinatory feel of “Hanalei Bay.”
Quicksand, by Junichiro Tanizaki (Book 7)
Can you believe this is my first Tanizaki book? Shameful, I know, given my love of Japanese literature. But I’ve finally picked up a few of his works and am (surprise!) in love. Quicksand is the story of an unhappy marriage: Sonoko does not love her husband, and ends up falling in love with another woman in her art class named Mitsuko. Sounds like a tragic love story, right? Wrong. Very wrong.
The genre of this is hard to pin down, but I’d go with psychological thriller. There are twists upon twists and the characters at the heart of the game are completely insane. The plot eventually becomes absurd, but this is clearly not meant to be a story of reality. Like quicksand, it pulls you in slowly and then all of a sudden there’s sand up your nose and you have no idea what is going on.
There is one quibble I have with both the book description and the reviews: this is not a lesbian love story. Both female characters appear to be bisexual: Mitsuko definitely is.
Some Prefer Nettles, Junichiro Tanizaki (Book 8)
After Quicksand I was dying to read another of his works. Some Prefer Nettles is in many ways a similar book: the themes of marriage, infidelity, and the modernization of Japan are all there. But while Quicksand is a tense thriller, Some Prefer Nettles is more traditionally literary. Kaname and Misako are in an unhappy marriage, but in 1920′s Japan divorce is not a simple option.
Though this is a slim novel, there are two overlapping stories: the first is the marriage of Kaname and Misako, disintegrating to the point of no return. The second involves Kaname’s relationship with his father-in-law, who is staunchly traditional. Kaname is a modern man, but Misako’s father slowly sucks him into an increasingly traditional world that focuses on amazingly descriptive Bunrako puppet plays.
It is a hard book to describe. It’s slowly paced, and honestly not much happens in the way of plot. But it’s an engaging and striking glimpse at Japan’s struggle to combine modern and traditional influences without losing its soul and heart.