TLC Book Tours: Fog Island Mountains

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A man gets the life-changing news of cancer. He is alone. His wife who is meant to meet him at the hospital never arrives. She is unable to confront him and his situation, unable to wrap her head around losing him, about being left behind, and so she runs away. She flees their little town of Komachi, a typhoon approaching, the mist gathering, the cloud sea sweeping in.

Alec Chester is South African, a teacher of English, thus sensei to many of the Komachi residents. His wife, Kanae, is the one who grew up here. He has tried his best to integrate into Komachi, following their customs and rules, all while knowing that he will never truly fit in.

Fog Island Mountains is a carefully crafted book, a delicate, gentle read, which might sound like an odd choice of description for a book that touches on something tragic amidst an incoming storm. But I guess it might have to do with the way the Japanese tend to hold back on showing their emotions and feelings, even about something like cancer. I love that the story runs over just a few days, that so very much can happen in a few days. Bad news, a storm, a missing wife.

Azami, a rather mysterious woman who cares for hurt wild animals and tells stories at the town library, narrates the story. And introduces its influence – the kitsune, or the fox with nine tails, a Japanese folktale in which the fox takes on human form, tricks a lonely young man to fall in love with him. And they have a child together. But one day the fox-woman turns back into a fox and runs away.

The mountains, the town and its residents are weaved into the story so that it feels like one whole, a tale into which the reader is absorbed fully and from which this reader emerged, expecting to find myself in the aftermath of the typhoon in Japan. Fog Island Mountains was unexpectedly absorbing, a short read that takes barely more than one or two readings but leaves the reader with food for thought (what if it were me?) and gorgeous imagery to remember.

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Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer and translator. Her novel Fog Island Mountains won the Christopher Doheny Award from the Center for Fiction in New York City. She translated Charles Ferdinand Ramuz s 1927 Swiss classic Beauty on Earth. She is the reviews editor at the web journal Necessary Fiction, and her fiction, poetry, translations, and criticism have appeared in a number of journals, including the Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Quarterly Conversation, PANK, Spolia Mag, Two Serious Ladies, and the Atticus Review. Michelle lives in Switzerland.

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I received this book for review from its publisher Tantor and TLC Book Tours

Check out the other tour stops:

Tuesday, November 4th: The Discerning Reader

Thursday, November 6th: BookNAround

Tuesday, November 11th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Thursday, November 13th: Bell, Book, & Candle

Monday, November 17th: Book Nerd

Thursday, November 20th: Too Fond

Tuesday, December 2nd: Bibliotica

Wednesday, December 3rd: Regular Rumination

Friday, December 5th: Patricia’s Wisdom

Monday, December 8th: Book Dilettante

Tuesday, December 9th: Olduvai Reads

Wednesday, December 10th: Svetlana’s Reads and Views

TBD: Sara’s Organized Chaos

 

Japanese lit, done three ways

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I first visited Japan (Tokyo and Yokohama) in 2004. A friend was travelling through and invited me along (one major attraction was that we could crash at his cousin’s place – free accommodation in Tokyo, and in a nice central neighbourhood too). Tokyo was at once fascinating and overwhelming! The Asakusa temple and the street food! The craziness of the Shinjuku station. That awe-inspiring sight of Mt Fuji (and the many many elderly people making their ascent). Hitting the Tsukiji fish market for a sushi breakfast.

It was all so amazing that a few days after I returned to Singapore, I was back in Tokyo again, this time for a press junket for the Trocks (Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo). So it was for work, which meant interviews, and watching rehearsals and a performance (and marveling at their many Japanese fans who would hang around outside the theatre and hotel), and erm, staying at a rather nice Hilton.

And I’ve never been back since.

Isn’t that sad? Especially since I owe my Japanese flatmate (when we were in the UK in 2006-7) a visit. She’s become such a dear friend although we’ve only seen each other once since 2007.

I guess this is a long segue into what I’ve been reading recently, because in just a a couple of weeks I read three works of Japanese fiction: Natsuo Kirino’s Real World, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief, and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, thanks to holds (two e-books, one physical book) coming in at pretty much the same time.

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This isn’t my first Natsuo Kirino read.

Out was a fascinating tale of murder in the suburbs, a young woman kills her husband and seeks help from her coworkers.

Real World has similar undertones, a murder in the suburbs, this time by a teenaged boy, and how it affects those around him. But perhaps because the cast of Real World is young, teenaged, and angst-y, there was this sense of irritation as I read this book. Erm yeah, I was a teenager myself, half a lifetime ago, and I was angst-y and moody and all that, but to empathise with a killer? Really?

Perhaps that might have been the point, that these teenagers were behaving like teens, self-absorbed, and Kirino offers no other viewpoint than theirs (from the perspective of four girls and the one boy). The boy, Worm, is probably the perspective I didn’t like the most. I appreciated that the girls were all so different, one is intellectual, another is the flirty girl obsessed with boys, another coming to terms with her homosexuality and her mother’s death, and Worm’s next-door neighbour Toshi who is just trying to fit in.

Like Out, Real World is less about the murder than the insight into the life of Japanese teenagers, trying to make their own path in this loud, brash, uncertain world. I was just a little ambivalent about it. But I’m still looking forward to reading more of Kirino’s books.

thiefNakamura’s Thief has one character at its core but he too is troubled one. He is, as the title suggests, a thief. We meet him as he deftly picks pockets, making sure to carefully choose only rich marks. He has become so adept at his job that he finds himself having picked pockets he doesn’t even remember.

Our thief finds himself being roped in for a big job, a robbery at a mansion that he later learns is just a cover-up for a bigger crime.

The Thief is not your typical crime novel. It is instead more of a kind of, well, a reflection on crime. There is some talk of a tower, a symbol for something I didn’t quite get and made me a little confused. And a bit of an philosophical meandering about how life is already laid out before us.

But it was still a relatively enjoyable read. The intricacies of his pickpocketing ways, his ‘mentorship’ of a young boy whom he catches shoplifting in a supermarket (at his mother’s request). This is the first of Nakamura’s works translated into English, it won the Oe prize and I’m curious about his others.

housekeeperprofessordivingpoolI’ve saved my favourite for last. Ogawa’s Revenge is a true treat (I’ve previously enjoyed her The Diving Pool and The Housekeeper and the Professor). The stories are written simply, but there is a constant element of creepiness, in a subtle way. They are separate yet linked somehow, faintly, obscurely, like a little secret between the reader and Ogawa.

“But the heart itself still appeared to be cowering in fear, the blood vessels trembling with each contraction. From close up, the sinews and folds of muscle seemed to conceal a mysterious code.”

Some of the stories that really stuck with me are Sewing for the Heart, where a bag maker has an unusual request; Tomatoes and the Full Moon, where a writer, on assignment in a seaside resort meets a strange woman and her dog; Afternoon at the Bakery, the opening story about a woman trying to buy strawberry shortcakes.

But you know what, writing a description about these stories seems to render them very trivial. I can’t tell you anymore about the stories because that really would be too revealing. And as I thought of the stories that stuck with me, I realized that each of them, in their own way, kind of did. Whether it be the way they are tied together or just the little details Ogawa slips in gently (but disturbingly), this collection of stories prods at you, like that dream that isn’t quite a nightmare yet you can’t shake it in the morning when you wake up.

It was simply quite brilliant.
Global Women of Color

These are my tenth and eleventh reads for the  the Global Women of Colour Challenge (challenge page).

 

natsuoNatsuo Kirino (桐野 夏生) quickly established a reputation in her country as one of a rare breed of mystery writers whose work goes well beyond the conventional crime novel. This fact has been demonstrated by her winning not only the Grand Prix for Crime Fiction in Japan for Out in 1998, but one of its major literary awards–the Naoki Prize–for Soft Cheeks (which has not yet been published in English), in 1999. Several of her books have also been turned into feature movies. Out was the first of her novels to appear in English and was nominated for an Edgar Award.

Novels:
Kao ni furikakeru ame 
Tenshi ni misuterareta yoru 
Auto (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1997); English translation by Stephen Snyder as Out 
Mizu no nemuri hai no yume
Faiaboro burusu [Fireball Blues] 
Yawarakana hoho; French translation by Silvain Chupain as Disparitions
Gyokuran 
Dâku [Dark]
Gurotesuku; English translation by Rebecca L. Copeland as Grotesque
Kogen 
Riaru warudo; English translation by J. Philip Gabriel as Real World 
Zangyakuki; English translation as What Remains 
Tamamoe! 
Boken no kuni
Metabora 
Tokyo-jima 
Yasashii Otona 

Short fiction:
Sabiru kokoro
Jiorama [Diorama]
Rozu gâden [Rose Garden] fuminori
Ambosu mundosu [Ambos Mundos] 

Fuminori Nakamura was born in 1977 and graduated from Fukushima University in 2000. In 2002, he won the prestigious Noma Literary Prize for New Writers for his first novel, A Gun, and in 2005 he won the Akutagawa prize for The Boy in the Earth. The Thief, winner of the 2010 Oe Prize, Japan’s most important literary award, is his first novel to be published in English.

yokoYoko Ogawa was born in Okayama, Okayama Prefecture, graduated from Waseda University, and lives in Ashiya, Hyōgo, with her husband and son. Since 1988, Ogawa has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction. In 2006 she co-authored “An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics” with Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematician, as a dialogue on the extraordinary beauty of numbers.

Bibliography (translated works)
The Man Who Sold Braces (Gibusu o uru hito, ギブスを売る人, 1998); translated by Shibata Motoyuki
Transit (Toranjitto, トランジット, 1996); translated by Alisa Freedman, Japanese Art: The Scholarship and Legacy of Chino Kaori, special issue of Review of Japanese Culture and Society, vol. XV (Center for Inter-Cultural Studies and Education, Josai University, December 2003): 114-125. 
The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain (Yūgure no kyūshoku shitsu to ame no pūru, 夕暮れの給食室と雨のプール, 1991); translated by Stephen Snyder, The New Yorker, 9/2004.
Pregnancy Diary (Ninshin karendā, 妊娠カレンダー, 1991); translated by Stephen Snyder, The New Yorker, 12/2005.
The Diving Pool: Three Novellas (Daibingu puru, ダイヴィング・プール, 1990; Ninshin karendā, 妊娠カレンダー, 1991; Dormitory, ドミトリイ, 1991); translated by Stephen Snyder
The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase no ai shita sūshiki, 博士の愛した数式, 2003); translated by Stephen Snyder
Hotel Iris (Hoteru Airisu, ホテル・アイリス, 1996)
Revenge, Translated by Stephen Snyder

Villain

So the first couple of pages of Villain don’t exactly make you want to jump into the fray. Because it reads like a rather boring travel guide, written by somebody who is rather into transportation and roads. You can know all you need to know about the tolls for vehicles between Nagasaki and Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Hakata.

I went along with it, and then comes the trigger. The last paragraph (of the first section) tells the reader of an arrest, of a crime, essentially spelling it out for you.


And that’s the thing I realise about Japanese crime fiction, at least the three that I have read so far (Out, The Devotion of Suspect X). That it is not about the mystery, it’s not technically a whodunnit, because you already know whodidit. Because it’s right there in your face, in the first few sections, the first few pages even. These books are more about the ‘why’, and the effect the murders have – on the murderers themselves, the victim’s family and friends, the other suspects.

Villain, by Shuichi Yoshida, brings out a different part of Japan, one of love hotels and online dating, and ageing seaside villages full of elderly residents. It is a quite ugly, rather lonely view of Japan.

“The scenery flowing past changed, but they never seemed to get anywhere. When the interstate ended, it connected up with the prefectural highway, and past that were city and local roads. Mitsuyo had a road atlas spread out on the dashboard. She flipped through the maps and saw that the highways and roads were all color-coded. Interstates were orange, prefectural highways were green, local roads were blue, and smaller roads were white. The countless roads were a net, a web that had caught them and the car they were in.”

Told from multiple viewpoints especially towards the end of the book, Villain shines when the focus is on the victim’s father, who struggles to come to terms with his daughter’s death, and his painful realisation that he didn’t really know his child at all.

Villain was an engrossing, thought provoking read, and leaves you wondering, who – or perhaps what – is the real ‘villain’ here.

Tokyo Fiancee (Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam)

“It went without saying that a foreigner could enjoy such Japanese refinement, whereas he had already had his fill of all things Japanese.”

I was in two minds about picking this book up. Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling was a rather weird read for me. An interesting look into the life of an employee in an international company in Tokyo, sure, but not exactly something that would pull me towards her other books.

But with Tokyo Fiancee, I was taken, I was swept up in this little book about a Belgian woman in Japan, rather autobiographical, as was Fear and Trembling. She meets Rinri when she advertises her French lessons. Rinri is a university student, son of a wealthy businessman. She converses in Japanese, he in French, although his French is so atrocious that “If I had not known that Rinri was speaking to me in French, I would have thought I was dealing with a very weak beginning student in Japanese”.

So here we have a Belgian speaking Japanese and a Japanese speaking French. This is the first translated book that I’ve read – this month? ever? – in which language has come into play. For instance, as they discuss Mishima’s popularity among Europeans, Rinri askes: “His sentences are music. How can you translate that?”

And indeed, there are so many times when I wish that I could read these works in their original language. However, while I may have taken French classes in university, I probably wouldn’t be able to get through the first paragraph – nay, the first sentence – of this book in French. I might fare slightly better in Chinese, but really, the only language I feel comfortable in is English. Sad but true.

Nothomb, who was born in Japan to her Belgian diplomat parents and left at the age of five, has such a love for Japan. Yet it is an observant, honest view of this rather unique country.

When they travel to Hiroshima (largely to buy more plum sauce for okonomiyaki), she remarks that “it was as if people were living more intensely here than anywhere else. Living in a city whose very name symbolised death to the entire planet had exalted their living fibre; this in turn led to an expression of optimism, which recreated the atmosphere of an era where people still believed in the future.”

Or when she and Rinri scale Mt Fuji, along with children, the elderly and pregnant women (I too visited Mt Fuji. It wasn’t to climb, as we were not equipped for that, and neither did we know what we were doing, we just hopped onto the bus and when everyone got out, so did we. I just remember a group of weathered old women who got off the bus at its first stop, backpacks, walking sticks at the ready for the long climb to the top. And it is no easy feat, for a lot of it is volcanic soil),

“I joined the group. We stood watching for the star in the deepest of silences. My heart began to pound. Not a cloud in the summer sky. Behind us, the abyss of the dead volcano.

Suddenly, a red fragment appeared on the horizon. A shiver ran through the silent assembly. And then, with a speed that did not preclude the majesty, the entire disc rose from nothingness and overlooked the plain.”

This reminded me of the sunrises I have seen. From a mountain top in Hawaii where my mum and I shivered in the cold as we waited and waited for what seemed like ages. From a hot air balloon somewhere above Melbourne, the fire above melting our heads, the promise of a champagne breakfast coaxing our appetites, another hot air balloon in the distance. And the early early mornings when I used to work the morning shift as an online content producer and work started at 530am – the hush of the lamp-lit streets and the darkened office – and the very welcome breakfast break a couple of hours later.

Unfortunately the breakfast was not as amazing as these persimmons on Sado Island:

“The pulp of the fruit, exalted by frost, had the flavour of a sorbet of precious gems. Snow possesses extraordinary gastronomic powers: it concentrates sapid juices and sharpens taste. It acts like a miraculously delicate form of cooking.”

Now one of the problems I have with this book is its title – well and its cover too, both of them (I believe that is Nothomb up there, but really? Couldn’t something more interesting be on the cover instead?). Tokyo Fiancee doesn’t quite work as well as its French title Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam, or ‘not of Eve or of Adam’, which according to this review by the Quarterly Conversation is a shortened version of the French proverb “Ne connaitre ni d’Adam, ni d’Eve” which means, “didn’t know him from Adam (or Eve)”. And I have to agree, this title is so much better. Because theirs is a strange relationship. Odd, awkward at times, but also kind of cute. However, and this is a big However, the narrator is not all that easy to like. She’s rather self-centred and the ending won’t please everyone.

After Fear and Trembling I wasn’t sure if I would read more of Nothomb’s books, but after Tokyo Fiancee, I’m going to have to see what else she’s done – and she’s written a lot although not all of them have been translated.

Title: Tokyo Fiancee
By: Amelie Nothomb
Translated by Alison Anderson
First published in 2007
Published in English in 2008