Tag Archives: Japanese Literature

Hotel Iris, by Yoko Ogawa

3 stars3/5

Hotel Iris both fascinated me, and made me feel a little bit sick. I am not usually put off by books with disturbing themes, rather the opposite in fact – I’m a fan of authors with a dark edge – Natsuo Kirino, Brett Easton Ellis, Daphne DuMaurier to name a few. But something about Hotel Iris really unsettled me and after mulling it over for some time I think I’ve put my finger on it. Let me elaborate…

Hotel Iris Yoko Ogawa

Vintage, 2011 edition, 176 pages - personal library

Yoko Ogawa introduces us to a young girl named Mari. She is seventeen, but her distant feelings towards her mother feel almost as if she is a much younger teenager – somewhat sullen. Her mother’s whole life is bound up in a rather depressing seaside hotel, which is set off too far from the beach to really qualify for the title and attracts an unusual mixture of customers. One night a commotion is made and a prostitute hurtles out of one of the bedrooms, with her underwear flying into the hallway after her. For some reason, Mari has an intense feeling about the voice of the man within the room. When she spots him out shopping and decides to follow him, Mari finds herself drawn into an intense relationship with the mysterious man, who turns out to be a translator and she becomes a submissive sexual partner and he something of a monster albeit with a refined veneer.

Despite Mari being the narrator I felt that I never really got under her skin. There is pain and sexual violence in Hotel Iris and Mari’s descriptions of sensation are vivid – textures, sounds, visual images of beauty – but she never seems to voice an opinion. But she can’t be described as passive because she actively goes looking for the translator. There is frequent reference to how her mother does her hair up in a painfully tight ponytail, meticulously combed and oiled smooth, but instead of looking for gentleness she seeks further constriction.

Even as I write my review, I keep on thinking that Hotel Iris is a very clever book. It doesn’t try to explain motives in an obvious way; the characters’ actions reveal them. The writing style is quite beautiful – Ogawa uses words sparingly managing to create a feeling of intensity and distance at the same time. However, I found Hotel Iris somehow unsatisfying. It was a bit like an S&M Lolita, but with the Humbert personality replaced with a man who had even fewer redeeming features (I found the translator completely repellent) and the girl, I just couldn’t connect with. And maybe (probably) that was intentional, but the end result was that while on an intellectual level I could appreciate Ogawa’s skill, on an emotional level it left me cold – so this is reflected in my star rating for this book. That said, I think Hotel Iris is a book that will stay with me and I wonder if I would find other books by this author interesting.

Sadly I missed the boat for Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 5 (how have I not managed to read any Japanese literature this year?!) but scanned through the site to see others thoughts and found this excellent review by Tony’s Reading List. I’m a little bit scared now that I’m an archetypal Anglophone now! Kim of Reading Matters also enjoyed Hotel Iris (her review is here). Claire of Paperback Reader also posted her thoughts.

Have you read anything by Yoko Ogawa and if so would you recommend I read another by her?

My TBR & Japanese Literature Challenge 4!

Thank you to everyone who helped me choose books lately as I had a rather large influx of books (here, and here)!

I’ve now added My Book Lists page which has my TBR (short) and, when I type it up, will also have my TBR (long) as well the wonderful recommendations from other bloggers for Forgotten Books by Well-Loved Children’s Authors.

The Japanese Literature Challenge 4

If you take a look at the TBR (short) you’ll also see it has one of the books that I plan to read for Dolce Belezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 4. If you want to join and are short of suggestions then Belezza has put up a brilliant post with a nice long list to choose from. To take part you should read at least one item of Japanese Literature between now and January 2011. I’m being conservative this year to begin with and starting with the following two books. I do love Japanese Literature so it might end up being more!

The first book is Goodbye Madame Butterfly, by Sumie Kawakami which Bellezza kindly sent me after I won it in a competition for JLC3. It’s a collection of essays about “Sex, Marriage and the Modern Japanese Woman” It’s a bit of a different choice for me, I tend to be drawn towards fiction but a quick skim suggests that it will be interesting reading.

I also plan to read Soseki Natsume’s I am a Cat which Claire of Paperback Reader recommended. A cat-lover myself, this chronical of wayward kitten who spends his time observing human behaviour sounds quirky, funny and right up my street.

So now that I’m all sorted with my lists and choices, I’m off to actually go and do some reading. Happy Sunday everyone.

Are you planning to join The Japanese Literature Challenge? What’s next on your TBR?

Japanese Literature Challenge #3 Round-up

Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge 3 finished as of the end of January and what a wonderful challenge it was. I didn’t really need any convincing to join the challenge as my past experiences of reading Murakami and Natsuo Kirino made me really interested in reading more, however it was a great excuse to read more!

I read two books for the challenge both of which I loved. You can read my thoughts by clicking on the titles.

Looking back I suppose I missed out on trying new authors that I hadn’t read before so that will be my next goal for the Japanese Literature 4. It starts in July so that gives me plenty of time to plan my selection.

Because I like pictures in my posts, here are a couple of pictures from my trip to Japan last February:

The Golden Temple near Kyoto, Japan

Having photo taken with mud on my face after a Shinto festival - a blessing!

What (if any) Japanese authors have you read and who would you recommend?

Out – Natsuo Kirino

Out, by Japanese author Natsuo Kirino is a difficult novel to categorise. If I had to put it into a category I would say it was a sort of psychological thriller, but it is not your average page-turner.

Having read Grotesque by the same author a few years ago and after hearing that Out was supposed to be one of Kirino’s best novels I had it in the back of my mind to pick up a copy and although having kept an eye out for some while for one in a charity shop, I finally gave in and bought it new on sale from Amazon. I thought it was about time to get into a good thriller, but I didn’t realise quite how gritty Out would be.

The story revolves around four women who work the gruelling night-shift at a boxed-lunch factory. All of them live dysfunctional lives. One night, one of the women, a young and beautiful mother is finally at the end of her tether. She murders her husband after he comes back from a night of gambling and chasing women. She confesses her crime to one of the friends Masako, who decides to help her get rid of the body by enlisting the help of her other co-workers. When parts of the body are discovered, the police get involved however the women face far more dangerous enemies in the form of a ruthless nightclub owner and a loan shark.

Having read Grotesque, I had an idea of what I was in for with Out. Kirino’s writing is stark. She takes no prisoners in describing the motives of each of the characters and highlighting their flaws. The relationships in the group of women are intriguing. Are they drawn together because of circumstance or something darker? 

“She wondered a bit uneasily whether she’d be convincing in the role of the worried wife. After all, she still felt a tingle of excitement when she recalled the sight of his lifeless body slumped in the doorway. Serves the bastard right.”

On the bare facts alone it’s easy to understand why Yayoi, in the role of the wronged wife would murder her husband in the heat of the moment, but Kirino doesn’t depict her as a victim. Somehow I didn’t feel sorry for her, or for any of her friends.

Masako, the woman who orchestrates the body’s disposal is a brilliant creation. She is businesslike and complex – in fact just plain scary. Kuniko is depicted as pig of a woman, intent on acquiring possessions out of her reach and ready to do whatever it takes to get the money. Yoshi or ‘Skipper’ as she is nick named is the only character I warmed to at all, somehow preserving a sort of innocence despite her frank approach to the situation in hand.

As Satake (the nightclub owner) gets involved, events turn very ugly and I read on with a mixture of fascination and horror.  Kirino gives the reader a glimpse into the harsh thoughts of every character in the book and detailing the intricacies of every situation as the book progresses, making it a pretty hard read at times.

I wouldn’t say that this novel is for everyone because the content is pretty sick at times, but if that doesn’t bother you then Out is a fascinating and gripping read as well as being skilfully written. I honestly think that the most disturbing thing about Out is not the actual violence in it, but the brutal way that she lays out the nastiest thoughts and exposes the worst of human nature.  Some of the comments on the book jacket suggest that Kirino is hinting at a kind of twisted feminist motive behind the women’s actions, but I feel that’s simply a simplistic and misplaced category for what is really a unique exploration of the dark complexity of women’s relationships.

A shocking, compelling and extraordinary piece of writing.

Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart – Sweet Contemplation

Sputnik SweetheartI remember wanting to read Sputnik Sweetheart when it first came out and I spotted it on the tables in the bookshops. I’ve read a few Murakami novels starting with when I was a young teenager and picked Dance, Dance, Dance off my Dad’s shelf – and while I wasn’t expecting such a dreamlike plot-line, I found it absorbing, curious and strangely addictive which lead me to read A Wild Sheep Chase, Kafka on the Shore, The The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. I inherited my copy of Sputnik Sweetheart after an old flatmate left it behind so I’ve kept it safe and found a good excuse to read it for Dolce Belezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge.

The narrator, a teacher, is in love with the beguiling, odd Sumire. As his best friend, she is not averse to phoning at three or four in the morning to ask a pointless question or share a strange thought. Sumire, though, is in love with a beautiful, older woman, Miu, who does not, can not, return her affections. Longing for Sumire, K (that is all we are told by way of a name) finds some comfort in a purely sexual relationship with the mother of one of his pupils. But the consolation is slight. K is unhappy. Miu and Sumire, now working together, take a business trip to a Greek Island. Something happens, he is not told what, and so K travels to Greece to see what help he can offer.

The main themes of the book centre around loneliness and alienation. All the characters are lonely in their own way and are joined together (or separated – however you want to see it) by unrequited love. They have loving friendships but there are insurmountable barriers between them. Sumire has lesbian feelings for Miu, which she finds confusing and seems to spark a sort of untapped desire in her. This unusual love triangle creates a beautiful but melancholic feel to the novel similar to that which I found in On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan.

Communication is very important in the novel, whether it be through writing (Sumire is an aspiring author) or by telephone (Sumire often calls K from a telephone booth at random times in the morning). It links the characters together but it also emphasises their separation as if they in two different worlds. Sounds odd? It is a little and the book gets quite dreamlike and obscure towards the end.

I found this to be a very sweet novel in the sense that I really felt the strength of the characters emotions for each other and it left me in a contemplative mood. As I mentioned, it does get a little abstract towards the end, but that is typical of Murakami’s writing! That did leave me feeling a little unsatisfied, but then that I suppose reflects the mood of the novel.

Reading it a few months after visiting Japan it was a joy to be able to imagine some of the places that are referred to in the novel .This was definitely a book I looked forward to picking up and ‘exploring’ and very much enjoyed the beautiful writing. I am quite in awe of how Murakami manages to evoke such beautiful images and metaphors with relatively sparse content (it’s a quick read) and at the same time creating a story that is a pleasure to read. His writing makes me think without making my head hurt, or feeling that it is a chore to read.

Recommended for when you fancy reading something a bit different. A taste of Murakami in it’s shortest form.

Have you read any Murakami or other Japanese authors that you enjoyed?

Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 3

Belatedly I’ve decided to join Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge as I have read quite a few Japanese novels and enjoyed them. The ones that I have read have been a bit off-beat, or even downright strange. This is something I understand a little more in the context of Japanese culture having visited the country on my travels a few months ago. Of course I mean strange in a good way – unique, stretching, often a little surreal and fascinating!

The novel that springs to mind that I’d like to read is Out by Natsuo Kirino as i found Grotesque, by the same author really interesting. However I thought I’d put it out there to see if other people have any different suggestions. I’ve read quite a bit of Haruki Murakami (A Wild Sheep Chase, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore) and Natsuo Kirino’s Out as mentioned.

Has anyone read any novels by Japanese writers lately that they might recommend?