The Doctor’s Wife – Sawako Ariyoshi

 

My first book of the year is another book club read with the Japanese Lit GR group. Ariyoshi seems to be one of the favourites among the members and the group has read another of her book – The River Ki, which I missed, so this is my first Ariyoshi.

First published in 1966, The Doctor’s Wife has quite an amazing premise. The story is based on the life of Hanaoka Seishu (1760-1835), a provincial doctor who invented anaesthetic, thus was able to perform major surgery, including, most amazingly, breast cancer. ‘Seishu’s first operation occurred in 1805. Nothing, however, was known of this doctor’s achievement in the West. In England and the US the general anaesthetics were not used until the 1840s’ (the Introduction).

The book however, focused on the two women in Seishu’s life: his mother Otsugi and his wife Kae. ‘Seishu’s dreams, ambitions, experiments, and desire for success are the underlying catalysts that propel the two women in his life into constant conflict’ (the Introduction). The story is mainly told from Kae’s perspective, who came from an old samurai family, and therefore ‘above’ the doctor’s family. Otsugi herself has come from a family that was also above Seishu’s station. But doctors at that time were in an odd ‘category’. They were not peasants nor nobles, and they’re educated, so they seem to get concessions from the strict classed society.

The book is only 174 pages and covered about 70 years, so there are often ‘jumps’ between chapters in which you have to make educated guesses on how old everyone was after every ‘jump’. This seems typical of Ariyoshi, as her other books are about the same length, covering a rather long period of years too. It wasn’t a big problem for me, and in fact I liked how succinct it was.

I really enjoyed this book overall, apart from a couple of quibbles. The ending is amazing (especially the last sentence) and summarises the book and Ariyoshi’s intent on writing this I think. I love how the author picked such an unusual semi-historical figures/story, that I probably wouldn’t have come across otherwise. When I told a friend that I was reading a novel about a village doctor in 18th century Japan, her reply was a frown and “How did you come across that?”, hah.

I intend to read The Twilight Years next, when I get a chance.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

2017 Wrap Up

2017 was not a bad year for reading, but I started my English Lit degree in October, and since then I completely lost control of my reading time, and only caught up in the last 10 days of December, because I stayed home and didn’t go traveling like in the past years.

Apart from my degree, I restarted my Japanese study again. I passed JLPT N4 some years ago, but completely stopped soon after. Only in recent months I had a renewed energy to kickstart the study again and plan to build myself up to my prior level, and beyond. My focus has changed slightly (no writing), and there are new websites popping up that didn’t exist last time, so it’s been a joy. The only thing is that now I have two studies going on, and at times I wonder why I do this to myself..

So saying that, I’m starting 2018 with a very modest goal. I set up my Goodreads challenge to 10 books. No specific goal. Just kind of working in the direction of my perpetual goals (on the top bar).

For a bit of 2017 overview, I read 24 books.

14 authors were new to me, and of those, 9 were male and 5 female. Gender balance for my reading is again not quite there. It’s hard.

15 books are translated, 9 books are originally written in English. And 8 of the translation works are translated from Japanese. I’m hoping to actually read Japanese books in their original language in 2018. Granted they’d be either very simple books or manga, but hopefully substantial enough for me to count them. (I don’t generally count book that I read in less than an hour.)

My reading has been generally leaning heavily towards exploring new authors. But I think I will let myself going to favourite authors in 2018.

So not much fuss from me! How about you? :)

The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki

First published in 1943

My last book of 2017 is The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (if you want to be pedantic, it’s Jun’ichirou – which implies him being the first born son, but I couldn’t find much information on this). At 530 pages it’s no mean feat for me, and actually took me 2 months to finish. But I’m very happy to have finally read it. This is only my second book by Tanizaki. I really liked The Key, which I read aeons ago, and I had been meaning to read more of his books. I still do, after reading The Makioka Sisters.

You can probably guess from the thickness that this is a sweeping, ambitious novel. Not a family saga though! It tells the story of the four sisters of the Makioka family from Osaka, who is a respected, wealthy family, but is in the state of decline since the death of the patriarch – the father of the sisters. After the father’s death, the head of the family role is taken by the husband of the first sister, who took the Makioka name. The husband of the second eldest sister similarly formally joined the Makioka family and took its name. This shows how the two men’s birth family were ‘below’ the Makiokas, and hence they gained status by marrying into the Makioka family.

In fact class and good name are the main themes running throughout the entire book. The two eldest sisters have married well, but the third and the forth sisters are yet to marry. They have to marry in order, so the last sister cannot marry before the third one does. This causes an amazing amount of troubles and may sound ridiculous. But coming from an Asian family myself, this concept of marrying in order is actually quite familiar and not uncommon. Sure in my generation, people are not strict anymore, but the preference is still to have siblings marry in order. There’s a kind of bad luck attached to ‘skipping’ an older sibling, and a lot of the times the ‘skipped’ sibling stays unmarried.

Tanizaki weaved some historical events into the story: natural disasters like a big flood and typhoon, and the foreboding war. It’s also a period when everything western starts to seep into Japan, fashion being one of the most defining interestingly. I read Mishima’s The Sound of Waves in between this book, and I could tell the setting is after the Makioka Sisters, from the clothes the characters wear! The Makiokas also befriend a few foreigners from Russia and Europe, which was slightly jarring somehow, but further emphasised that ‘Westernisation’ period.

I haven’t read enough of Tanizaki to comment for certain, but I picked up many of East meets West elements, old Japan vs. new Japan (and the author’s seeming preference of old Japan). The decline of the Makioka family seems to reflect the decaying of old Japan.

I reckon less people finish this book than the ones starting it because of the thickness, which is a shame because I think the whole book is a beauty. It takes some time and patience (don’t read it when you’re in a rush) but it’s constructed very finely, building and building up to a poignant ending. I enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone with keen interest in Japanese culture.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

 

The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree – Tove Jansson

Stories first published in 1962

I first discovered Moomin when I moved to the UK. For some reason Moomin never made its way to South East Asia, or even Australia, though it seems to be big in Japan. I immediately found the hipo-like creatures to be adorable, and went to buy some merchandise – mug, soft toy, postcards, shirt, notebook, even when I hadn’t known the stories of Moomin at all. My other encounter was when I went to Helsinki and didn’t know that Finland was where Moomin was from. I brought and wore my Moomin shirt, in Moomin land, by coincidence! It was an odd feeling looking at all the shops with Moomin stuffs, while wearing the Moomin shirt. People must’ve thought it was on purpose. Well the surprise was on me!

I read Tove Jansson’s non-Moomin book The Summer Book last year and absolutely loved it, so I know I like her writing. Moomin however has many books in the series, so as always the case with me, when that happens, I don’t know where to start. I’d be too anxious to even start, or to start with any book that is not the first in the series. (The big reason I have not read Émile Zola…)

This book came at a fortunate time. It’s published by Sort of Books in support Oxfam. Costs £4.99 and ‘at least £4 from each book bought goes to Oxfam projects supporting women and girls worldwide’. It’s a beautiful hardback copy too. I buy a lot of books and at times don’t feel very good about it, but this kind of purchase surely makes all you warm and fuzzy inside, hah.

The book contains two stories, which became my first introduction to Moomin stories. They’re taken from Tales from Moominvalley collection (which is #7 in the series according to Goodreads), first published in 1962. The Invisible Child is a story about a child that literally became invisible out of sadness by her own mother, and she is dropped to join the Moomin family. The Moomin family of course tries their best to bring the child back to being visible again. As this is originally a latter tale, you are assumed to know the characters, which I didn’t, and I had to look up. But it’s not a big deal.

The second story is surprisingly Christmasy. I bought the book a couple of months before, and didn’t know there’s a Christmas story inside. To read it around Christmas time was perfect. In The Fir Tree the Moomin family was waken up in Christmas time, which doesn’t seem to be a regular occurrence. Seems they usually sleep through Christmas and winter, because they have no idea what Christmas is, and that’s where all the comedy spins of.

The last part of the book is a gallery of all the Moomin characters, with illustrations. I love them all already with this thin book, and really hope to read more Moomin books soon. Also the Dulwich Picture Gallery is having a Tove Jansson exhibition which I plan to visit before it ends on 28 January 2018. Consider me a fan of Jansson! :)

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

 

The Sound of Waves – Yukio Mishima

First published in 1954, translated from Japanese

The Sound of Waves is the first of Yukio Mishima’s book to be translated into English, and I can see why. For the fans expecting the darker, more brooding version of latter Mishima might be disappointed. This is Mishima when he was not yet cynical, the world was still a nice and simple place, and love triumphed. For Western audience, this seems a perfect entry into his works too. It’s short with just 183 pages, the story is simple, the plot is safe, the setting is an exotic remote island of Japan. What’s not to like?

The book runs on the main plot of two teenagers getting in love with each other, but lo and behold, social class barrier! Unsupportive parents! Tale as old as time you might say. But the real appeal I think is in the description of the island and the life of its inhabitants. Set somewhere in the 50s, or late 40s at the earliest, the island is late compared to the mainland of Japan in terms of trend and technology, and pretty much everything else. Life is much simpler and bare on the island. I loved it.

I may sound slightly cynical about the love story, but I actually loved it too. I found the depiction of the teenagers love believable and quite accurate – the awkwardness, the drama, the vague respect of existing beliefs and societal systems, the lack of control. This book is published in 1954 when Mishima was 29. I’m curious about when he wrote this, because it seems written by someone who had not left teenage-hood for very long. Someone in my Japanese Lit reading group mentioned that Mishima had a sickly and controlled childhood, so it’s possible he was still quite young, even at the age of 29.

I’d highly recommend this especially for someone looking for an entry into Japanese literature, though there’s lots to like for veterans too. My third entry for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 11.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

I’ve only read The Sea of Fertility tetralogy (the first three), and now this. I haven’t read Mishima’s earlier works, so I’d be interested to see how they compare. Taking his most famous books (translated to English), the list by the order of publication is:
Confessions of a Mask
Forbidden Colors
The Sound of Waves *
The Temple of Golden Pavillion
After the Banquet
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
The Sea of Fertility tetralogy *

(I’ve only read those marked with stars)

Bearing in mind the order of publication may not reflect the time of writing, especially at the beginning of an author’s career, I do wonder if you’re to read them in order, whether you’d recognise an obvious “flip” when he goes darker and more cynical. With this in mind I’d be interested to read Confessions of a Mask or The Temple of Golden Pavillion for my next Mishima (when I get to them, and after finishing the tetralogy).

Miss Julie – August Strindberg

 

I read Miss Julie (written in 1888) before the London performance at the lovely Jermyn Street Theatre in Piccadilly. This is my second time going to this tiny theatre, first being the The Dover Road, and it remained as charming as ever.

Miss Julie is the first play I read by the Swedish playwright August Strindberg. It’s regarded as his masterpiece. I like to start an author with what is considered to be his masterpiece, really. Why start with anything less? I felt like I heard his name often, so I just checked whether he’s a Nobel prize winner and if I could tick off another from my Nobel project, but alas, he’s not. Wiki says that in 1909, Strindberg “lost” to Selma Lagerlöf – the first woman and the first Swede to win Nobel prize in Literature. That reminds me that I’ve been meaning to read Gösta Berlings saga by Lagerlöf for a while. (As an aside, are you all just ecstatic as me for Kazuo Ishiguro?)

I read Miss Julie before seeing the performance, and I actually wasn’t sure about quite a few things on the play by just reading the script. And only after watching the stage play, my uncertainties were confirmed one way or another. For example, the script starts with a short description of the three characters: Miss Julia, age 25; ‘Jean’, the footman, age 30; Kristin, a cook. So it mentions the age of the first two characters, but not the third. Why? Is Kristin an old woman, as in too old to be paired with Jean? It took me a while to get that Kristin and Jean are together, while Miss Julie/Julia comes in between them.

This is really a perfect play for a small theatre like Jermyn Street. Thinking about it, they need to be very selective about the plays to run, and setting is probably the biggest factor, as they can’t afford to change setting mid play. Both Miss Julie and The Dover Road only uses a single setting. Miss Julie is set entirely in the kitchen (of an estate). The number of characters are crucial too I’m sure. Miss Julie has three characters, and The Dover Street four characters.

The story is so simple that it’s hard not to give anything away by summarising the plot. But like all good plays, the goodies are in the dialogue. There’s plenty of tension between classes (the old upstairs vs. downstairs). Miss Julie is in a way almost a caricature of an upper class. She’s  brash and feels entirely entitled. Jean is more interesting, seemingly firm in rejecting Miss Julie’s advances at first, but at the end turned into… a monster of such, with no regard for her whatsoever. But what could he do, being merely a footman, with life and livelihood depending entirely on the owner of the estate (Miss Julie’s father)? He is a really torn character, and seems to reflect Strindberg in some ways, as his first wife, Siri von Essen was a noblewoman and socially above his standing.

I found some elements to be shocking. And if it’s shocking to me in 2017, I wonder how shocking it was back in 1889! Apparently it was produced abroad, attacked by the critics, and 25 years passed before it was seen on stage on his native land.

My copy is the Penguin edition with three Strindberg plays: Father, Miss Julia, and Easter. I’ve decided to just read the one I was going to see, as it is a completely different experience between just reading the script and watching the play. And after doing this pairing a few times, it feels incomplete to do just the former (though I guess watching the play without reading the script is completely fine).

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Miss Julie – Jermyn Street Theatre

English Literature Degree and Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

I finally made a jump and started an English Literature degree with The Open University! It’s long distance learning, so I don’t have to quit my job. Their program is designed for people with life commitments like job or family. It takes 3 years full time to complete this degree, but I’m doing part time – one module per year, so it will take me 6 years.

I’m a few months in, and I’m really impressed with everything so far. I got a box of books and DVDs for my first module (AA100 The Arts Past and Present) and they’re so lovely (pictured below). I’m impressed with their study website and the amount of materials and design they put into it, and I’m impressed with their tutorial organisation. We have 8-9 face to face tutorials (about one each month), and these are offered based on your location. As I reside in London, my tutorials are at Westminster University – the central London campuses. One of the campuses was so close from my office, it took me 10 minutes to walk to my after-work tutorial. It can’t be more convenient!

Each student get assigned to one tutor and one tutorial group (headed by said tutor), which is basically a small group of people of about 15 or so with our own forum. My tutor is fantastic! She called me to say hi at the beginning of the module, before I even got a chance to reply to her email, and she’s just nice and attentive throughout (Granted, I’m one of the lucky ones, as this doesn’t seem to be the case for every single tutor. Mine has gone above and beyond it seems.)

I’m so happy with the OU so far, and hope it goes well all the way through. And I can’t be more excited to finally be able to do an English degree. It’s been my dream all along, but I always thought it as some distant “someday” thing, or a lottery winning scenario. Well, no more! I’ve decided to go for it.

The OU – AA100 text books, DVDs, and assigned books

That’s my short intro to why I’ll probably be reading and posting a lot less from now on, and by reading I mean free reading, as obviously I’ll spend a lot of time reading the assigned text books. The first year or first two modules are actually inter-disciplinary, so I’m studying history, art history, philosophy, religious study, music history, apart from literature. But again I can’t be happier, because I’m absolutely loving everything that’s been handed to me and I’m gleefully absorbing everything like a big sponge. In the past I’ve done plenty of free courses on the internet with various websites like coursera, edx, futurelearn, the great courses, and others, but at the end of the day nothing is on par with degree level learning. They served me in the past but I’ve outgrown them and needed deeper, more structured learning. So though it costs quite a bit, I think this is the best decision I’ve made in years.

Doctor Faustus – Christopher Marlowe (1604)

So Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe came up in the second week of my first module, and I was really happy it did, as I never managed to read a play from the era by myself. As most of you probably know, Christopher Marlowe was Shakespeare’s contemporary. He died young, and that’s probably a big reason why he isn’t as popular today, but Shakespeare is known to respect Marlowe’s works and give nods to them in his own plays.

I’ve tried reading Shakespeare a couple of times and stopped after a page or two. Just couldn’t cope with the language. The edition of Doctor Faustus prescribed by the OU (picture below) is designed for students, so there are plenty of explanation for words, phrases, and context, which were super helpful. My module material also provided a performance recording that we could listen to while reading – highly recommended if you can get it.

Though I have nothing to compare this to, being my first Elizabethan play to read, in my opinion it is a good introduction, as the story is quite simple. Doctor Faustus was tempted by the devil (and he succumbed) to gain ‘unnatural’ powers on earth by promising to give his soul at the end of 24 years. I was almost surprised by how the good and evil concepts were so in your face, which surely is less relatable to modern audience of today. But this play is clearly a product of its time, when morality plays were popular. These days we like characters and stories that are much less black and white, with a lot of greys in between, don’t we?

Reading this, I felt like I got a glimpse too of why Marlowe wasn’t as mainstream as Shakespeare. I mean, the devil? Lucifer? Damning people to hell? He also poked fun at the Pope and Roman Catholic in this play. Then there’s the personal story about him being a spy, and the gruesome death (stabbed in the eye) and the unclear facts of why he was murdered. Compare that with the love stories and comedy of Shakespeare. In any way, I will have to read more plays from this era to form a better opinion, so am hoping to do so, albeit slowly.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

Christopher Marlowe
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