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

Black Rain – Masuji Ibuse

First published in 1965, Japan. Original title: 黒い雨 [Kuroi Ame]
Black Rain tells the aftermath of the infamous atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Personally I never read book that describes what happens to the people on ground zero – not to this extend anyway. For some reason in my mind it was total annihilation, but of course it wasn’t as clean as that. People in the vicinity were affected in thousands different ways – and to my mind they suffered the most (compared to instant death). The many ways the atomic bomb affected people are so varied, that when I thought the worst has passed, worse scenes came around the corner, again and again.

To think that humankind has done this to each other in the past, and knowing what happened, keeps the possibility for the future. It’s hard to comprehend. This should be a required reading, especially for anyone having any access to or any influence over the nuclear button. Why Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What would happen if it were Tokyo? It’s equally unthinkable for other major cities with the highest density and the most important infrastructure. At this point, a few countries in the world have the weapon almost just to keep each other in check. But it’s not hard to imagine that at the end, it could be triggered by a human mistake. Then we are truly doomed. Humanity as we know it may perish. Apocalypse in the truest sense.

Ibuse based his tales on real life diaries and interviews of the victims so it’s free of sentimentality, it’s fact after fact. You’d think it’d be permeated with rage, but it’s not. The overwhelming reaction is that of bewilderment. The nuclear bomb at the time was an unknown entity, a completely new weapon. The people of Hiroshima have been the guinea pig of the world.

Structure wise it could use some improvement. The book laid out diaries of a few people with not very strong connections, which shouldn’t work as narrative fiction. However you can’t read it as fiction, you read it as non-fiction, no matter how Ibuse labeled it. I suspect it gave him more freedom to do it as a work of fiction. I like the framing of the story in particular. It starts with a young woman called Yasuko, who has trouble finding a suitor because of the circulating rumors that she was affected by the bombing radiation. Such a ‘small’, domestic beginning, starting a year after the actual bombing. Bigger things are revealed gradually to readers, each thing more devastating than the next. For me the end is hopelessness. Truly nothing good comes out of war.

“I hated war. Who cared, after all, which side won? The only important thing was to end it all soon as possible: rather an unjust peace, than a “just” war!” – p161

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

Masuji Ibuse 1898-1993

My second book for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge – now in its 11th year!

The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

First published in 1907

I received another invitation for the Happy Reader (real life) book club, and after a short consideration, decided to join again as I really enjoyed the last time with Treasure Island. They again sent me a copy of the book – which I really appreciated, but wish they had organised everything a bit earlier. The reading period was two weeks, and I didn’t quite finish it in time (probably about two third). Luckily I got to the point that mattered.

I never read Joseph Conrad’s, so this is my first. I knew he was the author of Heard of Darkness, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The Secret Agent just came to my attention with this event. A quick read of the summary showed that it’s a London book, Soho specifically, with Greenwich as an important setting. I’m a big fan of Greenwich area so it was almost enough as a hook in itself, and I work in Soho! From Penguin introduction:

“The Secret Agent is as much a Soho novel as a London one. Loosely bordered to the south by Leicester Square’s theatres to the east by Covent Garden’s fruit and vegetable markets, to the north by Oxford Street’s busy shops and to the west by Regent Street’s wanky stores, Soho, home to the Verlocs, was the apotheosis of Bohemian London, a bolthole for refugees, prostitutes and Anarchists. In Charles Booth’s analysis of the district in 1898, what most characterized it was the starkly heterogenous mix of its denizens, from the well-to-do to the nearly destitute. While the East End housed the recent influx of Eastern European immigrants, Soho was home to an established immigrant population, though it was no more reputable. Adolphe Smith writing of the district in 1909 states: ‘For centuries England, but more specifically London, has been the asylum of the defeated.’ … Soho was thus a natural home for Conrad’s Anarchist misfits. … To Conrad and his readership, therefore, the district represented the alien in the home, at home even; … Soho, in reality and in Conrad’s imagination, was terra incognita, a locale of political conspiracy and sexual deviance, a zone where ‘foreigners’ circulated.”

Amazing to think how Soho was a century ago, now that it is one of the most expensive place on earth, the rent per square foot is astronomical. (So much that visual effects studios are being pushed out of Soho. But that’s story for another day.)

Conrad got his ideas from a real event. In 1894, a 26-year-old Frenchman named Martial Bourdin accidentally got himself blown up near Greenwich Observatory. His purpose and plans were not clear. That and a bunch of other incidents terrorised Britain and Europe in that period, known as the Anarchist movement. Anarchism was not simple or monolithic. They’re “unified only by their impassioned rejection of government and authority” (Penguin Introduction, an excellent read.)

In a way the book felt timely, what with the terror attacks that have been happening in recent years. It reminded us that there have always been attempts to disrupt society and break peace, by different group of people, under different movement names, throughout different times. Sadly nothing is new nor unique, and history probably repeats itself again in the future, even after we’ve passed through this particular period.

People mentioned the book as dense, which I agree with. I went through it with audio book to keep my reading pace constant and ensure my reading to move forward, as I’m the type of reader that often gets stuck on a paragraph that I can’t get into for a while, just repeatedly reading without getting anything into my head. Audio book forces me to keep going. The Secret Agent does need a bit of dedication to read, but I think it pays off at the end.

Conrad himself had a very interesting life. Born in (what is now) Ukraine, he moved around Europe with his family before moving to England. English is his third language. (Reminded me of Nabokov.) He’d also been a sailor traveling to Australia, south east Asia (now Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand), and Africa (Congo). What a life! The feeling of ‘foreign-ness’ I can relate with, and it comes up in The Secret Agent with almost all the characters being from ‘somewhere else’, half-descents, live outside of ‘place of origin’, and identify as one thing or the other. I’m interested to read more of his works to see how the themes play out.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). Born: Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski

Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

First published in 1882

I have never watched an adaptation of Treasure Island – except for Disney’s Treasure Planet if that counts, though I don’t remember much about it – so the book was new to me. In many ways, it was exactly what I expected it to be: an adventure story for boys. Unlike J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, I couldn’t find appreciation on a different level, though I liked this a bit more than Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars.

The book went up my reading queue when The Happy Reader x Joseph book club sent me an invitation and mailed the Penguin Classics book. It arrived a couple of weeks before the book club night – there was a real-life meet up in Kensington at one of Joseph’s store – and I reckoned I could finish 190 pages in 2 weeks, even as a slow reader that I am (I didn’t, but 30 pages away to finishing on the night). Not sure if I mentioned The Happy Reader here before, but I absolutely love the “magazine”. The Treasure Island issue will be for June, so they are still working on it. The Editor in Chief Seb Emina attended the book club in person and led the discussions. It was a great night. Hope to go to more of them in the future.

But going back to the story of Treasure Island, the main character is a teenager named Jim Hawkins, who meets a series of characters – most of them are pirates – and gets tangled in a series of adventures. He starts off living with mum at a family pub, but the discovery of a treasure map leads him to going on a journey to this treasure island.

I’m very wary of books about boats, because there seems to be a million boat related terms – all of which I never heard of in my life and have no real usage for in the future. This book was not an exception unfortunately, there are boat terms. Some of them I googled, some I let go. Luckily the narrative is straightforward and it doesn’t delve too much into boat technicalities. This is why I may never read Moby Dick.

For a book meant for boys, it felt quite grown-up. There are plenty of deaths and murders. And there is one character in particular that is a bit “grey”, and I was never convinced whether he was good or bad throughout the book. For a children (young adult?) book, it felt that Stevenson had gone a bit further to show that life is not as simple as black and white.

I have not read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I’m sure I’ll get to it one of these days.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

ps: I now really look forward to watching Muppet Treasure Island!

Robert Louis Stevenson – born in Edinburgh, died in Samoa (!)
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