Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Introduction to Modern Japanese Literature Part IV: Short Stories

This is the ­­­fourth and last in a series of blog posts introducing Japanese fiction to English speaking readers in the hopes that we become more aware of Japan's place on the international literature stage. Previous posts here: 1, 2, 3.

If you're thinking of trying out foreign literature but aren't sure whether you'll like it or not, I suggest trying a few short stories by foreign authors. In modern Japanese fiction, many authors tackle both the novel and short story formats of writing and have wonderful pieces in both.

In fact, the most successful authors in the Japanese literature scene tend to vary the lengths and genres of their works. They write novels, but depending on the author, some also write short stories, novellas, nonfiction, and essays. To put this idea into an American context, one may consider Ernest Hemmingway, who wrote both fiction and nonfiction, and long and short stories very successfully.

From a reader's point of view, the charm of short stories is that they take less time to read than novels, so they're a good way to read casually and start reading an author you're unfamiliar with. Readers who are already fans of an author's novels can enjoy the same author's short stories too; reading short stories can be an entirely different experience for both readers and authors. Haruki Murakami, in his preface to Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, wrote about what he experiences when writing different types of stories:
"To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden."
Thus, the way he goes about writing short stories is different than his approach and attitude towards his novels, which creates a different atmosphere and experience for his readers as well. Personally, I find reading his novels akin to eating a full-course dinner, and his short stories like drinking a relaxing afternoon tea. They're both satisfying in their own way. The following are a few of my personal recommendations for Japanese short stories:

After the Quake, by Haruki Murakami (compilation)

The six stories in this collection are set at the time of the catastrophic 1995 Kobe earthquake. An electronics salesman who has been abruptly deserted by his wife agrees to deliver an enigmatic package—and is rewarded with a glimpse of his true nature. A man who has been raised to view himself as the son of God pursues a stranger who may or may not be his human father. A mild-mannered collection agent receives a visit from a giant talking frog who enlists his help in saving Tokyo from destruction.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, by Haruki Murakami (compilation)

Here are animated crows, a criminal monkey, and an iceman, as well as the dreams that shape us and the things we might wish for. Whether during a chance reunion in Italy, a romantic exile in Greece, a holiday in Hawaii, or in the grip of everyday life, Murakami’s characters confront grievous loss, sexuality, the glow of a firefly, and the impossible distances between those who ought to be closest of all.

Lizard, by Banana Yoshimoto (compilation)

This book is the first collection of short stories written by popular Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto on the topics of love and family. Easily read, but producing deep themes and concepts, Yoshimoto's stories are realistically surreal and darkly hopeful.

Rashomon and Other Stories, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (compilation)

This collection of short stories by Nobel Literature prize winning writer Akutagawa includes "In a Grove", a psychologically sophisticated tale about murder, rape, and suicide; "Rashomon", the story of a thief scared into honesty by an encounter with a ghoul; and "Kesa and Morito", the story of man driven to kill someone he doesn't hate by a lover whom he doesn't love.


This concludes my introduction to modern Japanese literature blog post series. If you're still interested in foreign literature, I suggest checking out the website Words Without Borders. They review and promote literature from all around the world.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Gary Vaynerchuk - The Thank You Economy Event

Hey, Tweets DO Matter!

Ever been so exasperated at a company's service that you wrote a scathing facebook status about it right after you left? Ever tweeted your friends to get their input on what to buy? Yes, voicing your opinion on social media websites does make a difference, and a huge one at that, according to Gary Vaynerchuk.

Gary Vaynerchuk is a New York Times bestselling author and his new book, The Thank You Economy, talks about how critical social media is in today's cutthroat business world, how it is slowly reverting our economy to one that resembles the 'old days,' when local stores knew most of their customers on a personal basis.

He discusses how social media has brought a significant amount of power back to consumers via virtual word-of-mouth communication, and how businesses can use this to leave their competitors in the dust. He also talks about how social media can affect a company's efforts in branding itself and its products, for better or for worse.

An excerpt from chapter one of The Thank You Economy can be downloaded and read here, and you can also visit his website here. You can also see his video posts and blog there.

In case you were wondering, here's a video of him defining what a "thank you economy" is:

True to what he writes, Mr. Vaynerchuk uses twitter regularly, and encourages his followers to voice their opinions on his page.

Vaynerchuk, who started off his successful career selling wine, also wrote Crush It!: Why NOW Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion, has been featured on FOX and CNN business programs as a business expert and social media consultant, co-founded an agency that deals with branding and startups, and has spoken at conferences around the world about his business strategies.

Boulder Book Store is excited to have Gary Vaynerchuk speak about and sign The Thank You Economy at our ballroom on Thursday, April 21, at 7:30 pm. We hope to see you there!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Japanese Fiction Series:Great Untranslated Books

This is the ­­­third in a series of blog posts introducing Japanese fiction to English speaking readers in the hopes that we become more aware of Japan's place on the international literature stage.

For this blog post, I will be introducing a few Japanese novels that haven't been translated into English yet. These novels have found success in Japan but have not expanded to the foreign market yet. This list is by no means comprehensive, as it is limited to those that I have already read, but I do think that some of these novels would catch the interest of at least a few foreign readers if only they were translated into English.

Kokuhaku (Confessions), by Kanae Minato

If I could choose any one book that I'd like to see translated into English, it would be this one. It's a powerful psychological thriller about a single mother and middle-school teacher whose daughter has been killed by two students from her homeroom class. Confessions was turned into a movie in 2010, and was selected as Japan's entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar for that year.

It starts with a very long monologue from a teacher to her class on the last day of school, where she announces both her retirement and that she knows who murdered her daughter. Upon revealing the murderers' identities, and how she came to this conclusion, she leaves, but not before mentioning that the milk they were drinking before her speech was tainted with the blood of her HIV-positive former fiancée. This is the shocking first chapter of this novel, which unfolds from six different perspectives of people involved with the killers, from mothers to classmates, showing the events prior to, during, and after the murder itself. Minato touches upon the themes of justice, revenge, family, juvenile law, and bullying throughout her storytelling, which creates a story that paints a picture of the dark side of modern Japan.

I would like to add here that even if you watch the movie, it has been tweaked just a bit so that it fits the director's personal interpretation of the novel. The novel itself actually brings into play many more questions about the reliability of each narrator and what has really happened when all is said and done.

Ahiru to Kamo no Coin Locker (The Foreign Duck and Native Duck's Coin Locker) by Kotaro Isaka

It's a shame that the translated title of this novel doesn't do it justice in showing just how strangely simple it sounds in Japanese, as it sets the tone for this novel, and draws in readers with its absurdity. The story itself is of a college student starting to live by himself away from home who meets his neighbor, a strange boy who, like himself, has a fondness for Bob Dylan. Spending time with this man, whose strange ideas include robbing a bookstore to acquire a dictionary for their Bhutanese neighbor, he learns about his girlfriend and a case that ended with her death. As the novel progresses, and huge twists and revelations occur, one becomes confused as to who is who, and it becomes difficult to figure out the truth, and whose story is the truth and whose is a lie.

Sabaku (Desert), by Kotaro Isaka

Kotaro Isaka is good at writing his novels to fit songs. If the novel above was set to Bob Dylan's Blowing in the Wind, Sabaku is set to the songs of the punk rock Ramones. It's the story of five university students who meet freshman year; about the relationships they build with each other, playing mahjong and getting involved in shenanigans throughout their four years in college. From metaphors comparing society to a desert and college students being on the cusp of entering this desert, to referencing current oil wars and American politics, Isaka also brings his own brand of casual social commentary into this work through his diverse set of characters, whether they be the overly idealistic and annoying Nishijima, or the calm narrator Kitamura, who observes everything around him objectively with a "bird's eye view."

The format of the novel is also unique, depicting snippets from sequential seasons of four years of college (freshman year spring, sophomore year summer, fall of junior year, and winter of senior year, then back to spring for a last chapter on graduation). This is an unconventional and enjoyable novel about growing up that also depicts the current everyday life and mindset of the Japanese college student.

Colorful, by Eto Mori This novel puts an unidentified sinner's soul into the body of a 14-year old boy who tried to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. The twist is that in order to get the chance to be reincarnated in his next life, the sinner must find out and realize what sin he committed during his own life, which apparently has something to do with the young boy whose body he inhabits. As he lives the pitiful life of a miserable teenager who was good at art but was going through the "worst day of his life," the sinner struggles to find the connections between him and this boy while living the boy's life, all the while trying to make the best of this life he's been given. This is a light, uplifting novel about second chances and how looking at things from a different point of view can drastically change perspectives.

Switch wo Osu Toki (When You Push the Switch), by Yusuke Yamada

Yusuke Yamada is popular with young audiences in Japan and is known for his gory teen thrillers and mysteries. This novel stands out to me as one of his best works, as it seems to be more toned down than most of his other works, and is thus targeting a larger target age group.

Many people know about Japan's high suicide rate. In this novel, the Japanese government, in an attempt to study the psychological causes of suicide, has built facilities nationwide where 10-year old children are taken away from their parents, given a switch to stop their hearts, and monitored in facilities until they push the switch themselves. The novel takes place at one of these centers seven years after the start of this program. There are only five children left who haven't pushed their switches, and the man in charge of them is tired of his job, so he begins provoking them. Enter a new character, a young man who comes to visit the center. Whether he is trying to help the children or the manager of the facility, though, remains ambiguous, leading to an epic and thrilling wild goose chase that shows why people choose to live…or push their switches.

So, what do you all think? Were there any books from this post that caught your eye? If there was, please leave us a comment!


In light of the continuing difficulties lasting in Japan, I encourage people who wish to lend a hand but don't know what to do to visit the following websites, all of which are contributing to help those suffering from the earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear breakdown here and here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Classic Literature vs. Modern Japanese Literature

The interns, Jill and Chelsea here! We thought we would do a collaboration to bring together two factions of literature that come from opposite sides of the globe, classic Western novels and modern Japanese fiction.

Here are the 6 novels we found similarities between:

1984 is a classic dystopian novel by George Orwell, depicting the futuristic 1984’s collectivist society. This novel inspired Haruki Murakami, whose latest novel, 1Q84, is a play on words that makes its title equivalent to 1984. Murakami references Orwell’s work while telling his own story of the years leading up to 1984, introducing the strange yet normal characters that he is famous for using in his signature style. Fans of literature and modern fiction alike should enjoy this literary re-working.

Lord of the Flies is a classic English novel about a group of young boys who are stranded on an island, and through a series of events show the deterioration of the human condition into barbarian acts. Battle Royale is quite similar. The plotline is basically the same, but the children are chosen and put on the island so that they can kill each other on TV as a scare tactic for futuristic fascist Japan. Both novels show how children put in dire circumstances resort to cruelty in unspeakable acts.

The parallels between The Secret Garden and Goodbye Tsugumi lie in the characterizations and overall themes of these novels. Tsugumi and Mary are both introduced to the reader very early in their respective stories as unpleasant young women. Both novels build on the themes of family and growing up while exploring the strength of relationships between cousins.

If you are a classics lover, don’t forget to attend our “Revival of the Classics” night on April 15th at 7:00 pm!

Jill's Favorite Forgotten Classics

Though the Time's 100 Greatest Novels List has some of the classics we know and love, it also contains a few drawbacks. Firstly, it only includes novels from 1923 to the present, leaving out a large chunk of great classics that are "too old," and I believe we need to remember some of the great novels that came before 1923! Secondly, great authors usually are not solo acts; they usually have written other works that might be less read, but have astounding merit nonetheless. And lastly, sometimes there are some classics that I feel were completely and unfairly forgotten.

As for novels that were "too old" to make the list, there are two I am particularly fond of, Anna Karenina and Les Miserables. Both written in the late 1800's, these two gems serve as examples of great prose. Anna Karenina, a novel composed of 8-part installments by Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, portrays the high-class society of Russian society with timeless romance and themes of jealousy, family, society and faith. Though it may be one of the longest novels you will ever read, Anna Karenina is worth it. The timeless characters and story still have a lot to offer in today's society, where many of the issues run rampant. We will shift our attention now to one of Victor Hugo's most important novels, Les Miserables. It is the story of strife and heartbreak of the poor in France experienced during the French Revolution. Following characters that experience love, death, prostitution, war and revolution, Les Miserables still stands today as a hallmark for human emotion. Les Miserables and Anna Karenina are similar in that they both examine the human condition, though in different extremes. The themes remain the same though one is in high society and the other in the gutters of the streets. Timeless works like these are proof that we are all essentially the same, and that feeling emotions of doubt, love, jealousy are all part of this world we all inhabit.

Many famous authors usually have one book that makes their fame worldwide. But what about the other works they wrote? For two of my favorite authors, J.D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald, I actually love the books that aren't their most famous. J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey is a favorite of mine, and one I think goes underrated most of the time. A compilation of two stories both published in the New Yorker, it centers on the youngest two children of the Glass family, the main subject for the majority of Salinger's work. The precocious Glass children who were once famous for their stint on It's a Wise Child (a radio show where children answered difficult questions) work through issues of society, religion and dealing with their eldest brother's suicide. For F. Scott Fitzgerald, everyone knows him for The Great Gatsby. However, I thoroughly enjoyed his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, which launched him into fame in the 1920's. This Side of Paradise focuses on Amory Blaine, a pretentious young man looking to climb the ranks of society. An interesting look at society's flaws, This Side of Paradise is definitely worth a read, as Fitzgerald's first novel is just as profound as his last.

There were also some books that I felt were unfairly left off Time's list, as they are classics in their own right. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Bell Jar are both widely read classics that I felt deserved to make the cut. Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a wonderful coming-of-age novel featuring the timeless heroine Francie Nolan and her dysfunctional, if loving, family. Almost a century old, Francie's tale still rings true with women and girls everywhere. And then there is Sylvia Plath, a figurehead for feminists everywhere who was also lobbed off the list with her first (and last) novel The Bell Jar. The story follows Esther Greenwood, a successful young woman completing an internship at a fancy magazine in New York City. The Bell Jar follows Esther's spiral into madness as she falls out of touch with society and the people who surround her. Profound and illuminating, it leaves readers questioning. Both of these novels prominently feature strong heroines and beautiful writing. Though written decades apart, they both still explore the human experience and open doors into different realms of possibility.

Don't forget to stop by on April 15th at 7:00pm for our "Revival of the Classics" event, featuring author Erin Blakemore!

Recommendations made by Jill, the Spring Intern at the Boulder Book Store. Need more recommendations? Find me on Twitter at @JillLovesCoffee!

Monday, April 4, 2011

John Robison - Be Different Talk and Signing Event:

Don't Worry, be different

Augusten Burroughs, bestselling author of Running With Scissors, wrote in his memoir about his older brother "Troy" in the chapter "He Was Raised Without a Proper Diagnosis." When the memoir Look Me in The Eye hit the New York Times bestsellers list a few years later, it became apparent that "Troy" was actually an alias for "John Robison."

Look Me in the Eye is Robison's personal memoir in which he tells his story of living with Asperger's Syndrome, a disease that is similar to autism, but does not hamper linguistic and cognitive development. Because Asperger's is identified by abnormal social interactions and communication, Robison lived undiagnosed until he was forty years old. Until then, he was hampered by his inability to 'fit in' in social settings, despite his intellectual brilliance and work competence. His books explain how he copes with his condition and how he became successful despite it.

Be Different continues his efforts to help his fellow Aspergians, those around them, and also other misfits by incorporating his personal anecdotes and observations with practical advice on topics related to self-identity and social ineptitude. Among the most helpful topics he covers are when to make an effort to fit in versus when to embrace eccentricity, and how to identify special gifts and use them to your advantage.

John once worked as a guitar special effects specialist for Kiss, as an engineer for a company manufacturing toys, and then set up a successful independent car repair business, but now works as a writer and speaker, and also works with Elms College and their autism and Asperger's graduate program.

For more information, you can visit his website here, which has a blog, information updates, links to his facebook and twitter pages, and resources for educators, too.

Come to Boulder Book Store on April 13, at 7:30 pm to hear John Robison talk about his new book and get your copy of Be Different signed, as well!