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Japanese Lit Challenge Review #3 J-Boys by Shogo Oketani, translated by Avery Fisher Udagawa

Read all the Japanese Literature Challenge rules and reviews HERE. Thank you to Dolce Bellezza for hosting the Challenge.

My Interest

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Jim Hutton and Cary Grant in Walk, Don’t Run

My knowledge of Tokyo at the time of the 1964 Olympics begins and ends with the wonderful Cary Grant film Walk, Don’t Run. Otherwise, I know almost nothing except that Japan was not the Superpower it is today.

The boys in this fictionalized memoir (written for middle grade students, but enjoyable for any age) are 2-4 years older than my brother, so 6 to 8 years older than me. That would make them around 70 today.

[Apologies–I must have learned of this book through a blog, but I’ve tried to retrace my steps and cannot. If I find where I first read about this book, I will update the post.]

The Story

“[Their family] and many other people living around them, had begun to prefer the new Tokyo over the old. He wondered if this was good or bad.”

Month-by-month, this book tells the story of two brothers and their very ordinary life in a company owned subdivision in Tokyo around the time of the Olympics in ’64. Unlike the mothers in my world in’64, theirs works in an electronics factory and the father works for the company that owns the house. Their home is one typical of the Tokyo of that day–small, a few rooms, not bathing facilitates. They go out to bathe each night at a communal bathhouse which was very normal then. The boys argue and slack-off on studying and prefer TV and playing with their friends to doing chores or homework. Very normal anywhere. But, along the way, they are growing up and seeing their world with greater clarity.

Kazuo, the main character and the older of the two brothers, is growing weary of his mother saying “During the war….” and of his father, when he occasionally drank too much of ranting at him to study and get a good degree and not make the mistakes he had made.  Kazuo dreams of running as fast as the American Sprinter, Bob Hayes. He practices Hayes’ low start over and over hoping to improve. His group of friends include the local butcher’s son and a Korean-Japanese boy whose father is a scrap man. These friends and their stories help Kazuo to see the world around him through more mature eyes as the story progresses. His teacher is a kind man who encourages instead of berating his students. When he shares that he, too, goes out to bathe, Kazuo feels better about himself.

Like all children, Yasuo, the younger brother,  isn’t always as attuned to social cues as his parents might like him to be. Once such scene that broke my heart in more than one way occurred during the family’s dinner out at New Year’s. Next to them, an older couple was eating–the woman holding a doll. Yasuo realized she was holding a doll, but nonetheless asks what his name is. As a parent I winced, but as an older person now, I rejoiced. He noticed the lady and treated her kindly. Her husband also rejoiced. No matter that the curried rice they had ordered was sub-par and overpriced. I loved that scene.

Kazuo is very taken with American culture–he watches Leave it to Beaver and other American TV shows, but he hates the milk they are given to drink at school–a legacy of the occupation and a good-faith effort to improve the nutrition of Japanese children. But how does the American culture of Wally and the Beaver’s nice life square with Agent Orange and the Vietnam war that is all over t.v. and makes his mother complain that she doesn’t want to hear more about war.

My Thoughts

I remember the Vietnam Was vividly on t.v., but the thoughts on the war and the mother’s talk about World War II as she experienced were educational for me even at my age. Woke culture of today is easy to lampoon with it’s language of “lenses” to “view” events though and the exercise of “agency” or the exposure of “privilege.” But it does a good thing too–it makes us stop and look at events through the eyes of others. The mother’s story of the bombings and of Vietnam made me stop and reflect on their side of the story. This even though a cousin resigned his officer’s commission over our decisions in Vietnam and completed his tour of duty as an enlisted man. It takes a well written book to do that.

I loved reading Kazuo’s story. I loved the ordinary everyday aspects of it. I loved hearing about dinner and play and how they bathed. I nearly cried when Minoru’s family voluntarily repatriates to North Korea knowing what their fate would be. I wish Mr. Honda had been my teacher.

This is a wonderful book. An absolute delight. I highly recommend it.

My Verdict

4 stars

J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1964 by Shogo Oketani, translated by Avery Fisher Udagawa

Here’s a fun memory from the book–read the book to understand.

Historical Fiction

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Japanese Lit Challenge Review # 2: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa

Read all the Japanese Literature Challenge rules and reviews HERE.

My Interest

Pretty obvious, right? Cats, books? What’s not to love? Plus, it is Japanese and this is one of the two months of the Japanese Literature Challenge. Super!

“A book that sits on a shelf is nothing but a bundle of paper. Unless it is opened, a book possessing great power an epic story is a mere scrap of paper. but a book that has been cherished and loved , filled with human thoughts has been endowed with a soul.”  (p. )

The Story

“I rarely encounter a book with a soul nowadays.” (p.187)

Rintaro is a teenage boy who has just lost his grandfather. The grandfather that has raised him. Raised him in his quirky, wonderful second-hand bookstore that even stocks things like Proust. As he is preparing to close the bookshop and move in with an aunt he barely knows a talking cat appears to him and leads him on challenges through three labyrinths, each full of books needing to be rescued.

Each rescue mission tackles a different type of book abuse….

POSSIBLE SPOILERS

“Just as a person’s soul can be warped by suffering, so can the soul of a book. A book that has been in the hands of a person with a twisted soul will also acquire a twisted soul).” (p. 171-172)

There are the book hoarders who just want to own, the dumbing-down and shortening of books by publishers who want a quick profit, the ridiculous over-supply of mediocre, mindless diversion books. Then there is the the lack of appreciation for intellectual rigor and mental fitness that “hard” books provide and the effort to bury such books in the mists of history. Books are no longer written to try to stand the test of time. These are among the tragedies Rintaro must fight against.

“I used to talk about all kinds of important things with all sorts of people, but now I’m starting to forget what I used to talk about.” (p. 188)

My Thoughts

This book reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters in terms of its impact on me. (My son and I listened to the book when he was 14). Someone “gets it.” In our world of vapid celebrity culture, over-scheduled-frantically fragmented families, divide/distract lying politicians of every political stripe, this book gets it.

Just think, it was only a century ago that Jane Addams Hull House and other immigrant settlement houses had DEBATE CLUBS and philosophy lectures for immigrants. Can you even imagine that today? Radio, movies, t.v., the 1930s trite movie magazines that morphed into the People, Us, and Hello (or men’s car and cigar and whatnot) magazines of today are the most reading the majority of people do today.

Those of us who love books, fight for free speech (not just free speech for those with whom we agree), real discussion, and real debate are a minority. So many of today’s books are DNFs [did not finish]. Important books do exist, some do read them, but many more are read in “executive summaries” that cover the “talking points.” This is tragic. Celebrities fighting for “safer social media” are really pulling the wool over followers’ eyes–they want it save for “their truth”–their “narrative,” without criticism. This is wrong. Slander and libel laws dictate what can and cannot be said–not celebrities who want an image at odds with their real life.

This book though–this, like Animal Farm, (or The Screwtape Letters) is perfect to read aloud with late elementary or middle school kids (my 6th grade teacher read us Animal Farm and helped us to discover on our own the parallels to real life–it was not a “unit study” with vocabulary words and model farms are trite intellectual garbage like that). This book will open the eyes of anyone who reads it to the further dumbing down of our society. Newt Minnow called TV a “vast wasteland.” He was right. Today, that is what much of publishing is. Adding in self-publishing to anyone who wants to pay, and we have a sea of intellectual pollution on par with the plastic straws in the ocean tragedy.

My Verdict

4.5

Very highly recommended

The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa, translated by Louise Heal Kawai

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Japanese Literature Challenge #15 Review: Tales From the Cafe by Toshikazu Kawaguchi 2022 Audiobook Challenge Reivew

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Read all the Japanese Literature Challenge rules and reviews HERE.

Read the rules for 2022 Audio Book Challenge HERE or HERE

My Interest

You’re right–this isn’t a normal book for someone who doesn’t claim to like time travel, fantasy or sci-fi, but guess what? Last year I took a chance on Before the Coffee Gets Cold and loved it. Since this is the sequel, and it fits both of the challenges, well, no brainer, right?

The Story

In a certain basement cafe in Tokyo, when a certain patron leaves her table to go to the restroom, it is possible to sit in her chair and go back to a specific point in time. But, among the rules for such a trip are: a) you cannot do anything that will alter the future and, b) you must return before the coffee in that other patron’s cup grows cold. In this installment of the Tales we get a little more insight into how it works to go into the future–an option most people do not seek because of the other rule–the person you go to see in the past or future must visit the care.

This is a book that is very hard to review without spoilers. So, if you are sensitive to such things, consider this a SPOILER WARNING.

Whether it is the man who wants to give his wife a gift because she died at the wrong moment, or the man who wants to ease a friend’s mind about his child or ….Not telling all here–read it.

My Thoughts

It is very helpful to have read Before the Coffee Gets Cold, but I’m pretty sure you could manage this as a stand alone, too. I liked that in this installment we learned more about a few of the people in the cafe. I also loved that the tone was exactly the same in the sequel–it is an oddly comforting tone, especially in the audio versio. The story has sad moments, but nothing horrific or trauma-inducing, which is too rare these days. I liked that the believably is on par with a children’s story beginning “Once upon a time….” I often mention Sarah Addison Allen’s novel The Sugar Queen as an example of fantasy or magical realism that I like. These books are on par with that in terms of magic or fantasy or sci fi or time travel. If there is a third book I will happily read it, too.

Tales From the Cafe by  Toshikazu Kawaguchi

And, thank you to Marina Sofia who pointed out the insensitivity of Western readers who continue to put Japanese names backward. Honestly, I had no idea. Even my former Japanese emigre colleague never pointed out that he had switched his names around. I am not sure if this author’s name is correctly ordered or not. Everything I found showed it the way it is on the cover of the book. Maybe he has to accept that in order to be published and have interviewers in the West call him by the right name? Marina is right, it is pretty awful to do that to people.

4174AJ-RtVL._SY346_     My review of Before The Coffee Gets Cold: A Novel by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

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Japanese Literature Challenge 15: What I May Read

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I’m mostly taking the week off from blogging. It’s always dead between Christmas and New Year’s, but I forgot to post this last week!

This event is hosted by Dolce Bellezza and here are a few of the guidelines:

  • Read as many books as you like from January through March. (Even if that is ”only” one.)
  • Make sure the work was originally written in Japanese.
  • Choose from classic to contemporary works, whatever appeals to you.
  • Leave a link here to your review so that we can visit you.
  • There will be prizes!

I was thoroughly enjoying Maikoka Sisters for another year’s Challenge, but somehow got distracted. I hope to finish it–it is very good. The others will just depend on my mood and what is available. I’m happy to say I receive The Cat Who Saved Books for Christmas from my kids (the power of an Amazon wish list for angsty Christmas shoppers!), so that will likely be my first choice.

My Reviews of Past Japanese Literature Challenge books:

Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchim

Strange Weather in Tokyo (aka The Briefcase) by Hiromi Kawakami

Miss Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami. Translated by Louise Heal Kawai. A Favorite

after the quake: stories by Haruki Murakami [The author insists that the title be in lowercase letters]

Sweet Bean Paste  by Durian Sukegawa. A Favorite

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.  A Favorite

Reviews of more Japanese books, read outside the Challenge:

The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa. A Favorite

The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa. Scroll down in the post for the review.