1960s Classics

The Woman in the Dunes – Kobo Abe

 Translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders

The Woman in the Dunes is a classic of Japanese literature. It was first published in 1962 and immediately received critical acclaim. It is said to have influenced Murakami and the new Penguin classics version has an introduction written by David Mitchell, so perhaps you can see why I had to read a copy!

The book focuses on Niki Jumpei, an insect enthusiast, who heads to the sand dunes in the hope of finding a new species of beetle. At the end of a long, fruitless search he looks for somewhere to shelter for the night. He finds a strange village on the dunes and agrees to spend the night in the home of a young widow. In the morning he wakes to find that the rope ladder he climbed down has been removed and he is trapped in the steep-sided sandpit. The villagers force him to shovel the ever-encroaching sand that threatens to bury the village and he wonders if there is any possibility of escape from this nightmare.

This house was already half dead. Its insides were half eaten away by tentacles of ceaselessly flowing sand.

The Woman in the Dunes is a very accessible novel, making it the perfect introduction to Japanese literature. I loved the simple, yet powerful themes present in this book, as we witness one man’s struggle for survival against man and nature. The tone of the book is quite bleak and the scenes are described so vividly that you can almost feel the sand getting into every crevice and crease of your body.

There are many elements of Japanese mythology in this book, but unlike some Murakami it stays grounded in reality (if you consider it realistic to trap people in giant sandpits!). The book is quite short and the suspenseful nature of the plot means that it is a quick read. The simplicity of the story line is the only reason I haven’t rated this book higher. It should become a classic every language, but its fleeting time in my life means that I probably won’t give it much thought in the coming months.

Recommended – especially to those who want to try Japanese literature for the first time.


…a very powerful and intriguing book  Tony’s reading List

Extremely provocative, mind-bending, but most of all the uncomfortable. Paper Foxes Run Run

….a bleakly beautiful rendering of nature’s ultimate authority. Incurable Logophilia

Kobe Abe has written several books and I am keen to read more of his work.

Have you read any of Kobo Abe’s books?

Books in Translation Chunkster Classics Historical Fiction Really Old Classics

The Tale of Genji: Chapters 18 – 20

It has been a long time since I last picked up The Tale of Genji, but I am not going to let it defeat me! Six months may have passed since I last made the effort to read it, but I have promised myself that I will finish it and so although my progress may be slow, I will get there in the end!

Chapter 18: Wind in the Pines

Genji has just finished building the east pavilion of his Nijo mansion and brought the lady Falling Flowers to live there. He has reserved the east wing for Lady Akashi, but she is reluctant to move in as she is worried about her low position within the aristocracy. Lady Akashi has decided to live in an old property in Oi, owned by her father. Eager to visit her, Genji decides to build a retreat on a plot of land that happens to be nearby.

There he sees his three-year-old daughter for the first time:

The girl was a little shy with him at first, being so small, but she soon came round, and the more she snuggled up to him, chattering and laughing, the more exquisitely lovely she became.

Genji is keen to bring his daughter back to Nijo and discusses the possibility with Murasaki. She is reluctant at first, but she loves children and agrees to look after her.

Chapter 19: Wisps of Cloud

Genji tells Lady Akashi of his plans to bring their daughter back to Nijo. Lady Akashi is distraught, but agrees that it is the best thing for their child.

Genji returns one snowy day and takes his daughter back to Nijo where she is well looked after, but homesick.

In the New Year His Excellency the Chancellor dies, as does the Imperial Lady Fujitsubo. Genji is stricken with grief and withdraws to the chapel in tears.

Chapter 20: The Bluebell

The Asagao princess resigns as Kamo priestess after the death of her father. Genji has been interested in her for a long time, so goes to pay a visit.

Murasaki hears of Genji’s interest in Princess Asagao and is worried about losing her position.

One snowy day Genji talks to Murasaki about the princess, but that night the Lady Fujitsubo appears to him in a dream, cross at him for his discussion.

Thoughts on reading Genji

It took me a long time to get used to reading Genji again. My progress was painfully slow at first, as I had forgotten much of what I’d already read. I had to spend a long time reacquainting myself with the plot, the characters and the writing style. Now that I’ve made the effort to read and understand these three chapters I am going to try to ensure that I keep on reading Genji. Hopefully I’ll make it to the end sometime soon!

I know that several of you were also reading The Tale of Genji. Have you given up?

Are you planning to read The Tale of Genji?

1990s Books in Translation Chunkster

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin

I have enjoyed many Murakami books in the past, but for some reason I’d avoiding reading this, often described as his most famous book. I felt as though I was saving it as a special treat and built up my expectations accordingly. Unfortunately it was nothing like I expected it to be, and in the end I was quite disappointed by it.

The first half of the book was fantastic. I think the word ‘mesmorised’ is the only way I can describe it. I was glued to every word, unable to read quickly, savouring the simple story of a man struggling to find satisfaction in his life. The central character, Toru, has quit his job and so is spending much of his time alone. He starts to receive strange phone calls, his cat disappears and he is then visited by a series of fabulous characters. The stories told by each of these visitors were fantastic. I was particularly gripped by the story of the soldier and his journey into enemy territory. The story of his capture and torture was a bit gruesome in places, but it was so powerful that I think I’ll always remember it.

In the second half of the book it started to go weird, but (and this might sound strange) it wasn’t weird enough for me. It was teetering on the fine line between reality and the bizarre, but didn’t cross it. I felt that the surreal twist in the story was unnecessary and that the book would have benefited from being grounded in reality. The perfectly constructed stories of the first half were ruined by the ambiguous and unrealistic occurrences at the end. The characters introduced later in the book (Cinnamon, Nutmeg etc) failed to engage me and I don’t think I really understood their presence in the novel.

The ending was even more disappointing. The book just seemed to peter out, leaving almost all the ends untied. I was left feeling frustrated and confused, with more questions than answers. The last third of the book really dragged as there was no forward momentum and I felt as though I was wading through random, meaningless paragraphs.

Overall I’m afraid that there were too many negatives for me to be able to recommend this book. If you’re after a fantastic Murakami then I suggest you try Kafka on the Shore.


Did you enjoy The Wind-up Bird Chronicle?

What did you think of the ending?

Have you thought about sitting in the bottom of a well?!

Why did Murakami write this book? Can you see a point to it?

2000 - 2007 Books in Translation Chunkster Crime

Grotesque – Natsuo Kirino

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Translated from the Japanese by Rebecca Copeland

Out is one of my favourite books and so I was very excited about reading Kirino’s second novel, < ?php echo amazon('0099488930','Grotesque’); ?>. Unfortunately, it failed to live up to my expectations.

Grotesque is very different in style to Out. It is slower, less gritty and without the moral dilemmas that made Out so special.

Grotesque centres around the murder of two prostitutes in Tokyo. The unnamed narrator was the sister of one of the victims and the best friend of the other. Her life becomes dominated by their deaths, as it is all anyone wants to talk about with her. We find out who the killer was very early on, so this book isn’t really a thriller, it is more like a character study. It deals with the motivations for prostitution and the process of grief following the murders of people who are close to you.

It sounds like a fascinating book, but unfortunately I found it quite boring. Some people think it is clever that the narrator was unreliable and meandered from one reflection to the next, but I found it very frustrating. There was no plot thread to drive the story forward and the ending was disappointing.  I think this quote gives you a good sense of the apathetic attitude present in this book:

You imagine Yuriko’s death shocked me, but it didn’t. Did I hate her murderer? No. Like my father, I didn’t really care about learning the truth.

I felt as though I was wading through depressive thoughts and didn’t see the point of the seemingly random snippets of their childhood lives.

There were several theoretically shocking scenes in this book, but they had no effect on me as I hadn’t bonded with any of the characters.

The writing was of a high quality and I didn’t find any of the jarring Japanese translation problems that I encountered with Out. I also loved the first chapter and her imaginative predictions of what her children would look like if she decided to sleep with various men. There were many other good paragraphs, but I’m afraid that overall the book was disappointing.

If you are interested in reading an investigation into the thoughts of a disturbed young woman then you might enjoy this book, but if you are looking for the best thriller on the planet I suggest you try Out.



Have you read any of Natsuo Kirino’s books?

What do you think of them?

2000 - 2007 Books in Translation

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

I love Murakami so much that Kafka on the Shore is in my all time top ten. Norwegian Wood seems to be one of his lesser known books. I had heard very little about it before I started to read, but had been warned that it would be depressing.

Norwegian Wood is primarily set in a Japanese University during the 1960s. It is a coming of age novel that has a strong resemblance to The Bell Jar. In both novels the issue of suicide is prominent, but Norwegian Wood is slightly darker. 

The story focuses on Toru, who has a complex, but touching relationship with Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend, Kizuki, who tragically committed suicide.

People looking for Murakami’s amazing imaginative narrative may be disappointed by this book, as it is a straight, simple story, that many people speculate as being largly autobiographical. As with The Bell Jar, I didn’t find it as depressing as I expected – I was never moved to tears, and I felt that the novel focused on hope, rather than tragedy.

Murakami’s skill for character development is evident, and I found it very easy to empathise with Toru’s difficult situation. I loved the complexity of the emotion present in this book – it more than made up for the simplicity of the story.

Murakami’s wisdom is scattered throughout the book. One quote that particularly stood out for me was:

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.

Overall, I felt that this was a well written book, but I prefer the uniqueness of Murakamis’s more imaginative books.



What did you think of Norwegian Wood?

Which is your favourite Murakami book?

2000 - 2007 Books in Translation Recommended books Thriller

Out – Natsuo Kirino

 Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

A few weeks ago I raved about how Sophie Hannah’s Little Face was the best thriller I have ever read – not any more – Out has leapfrogged way past her, straight into my all time top ten books.

As with Little Face, Out isn’t the normal whodunit mystery. We witness the murder very early on, and so the main question for the rest of the book is: Will they get caught?

Yoyoi is a young mother struggling to raise her two young children, and is suffering at the hands of her abusive husband. One night it all becomes too much for her to deal with, and so she murders her husband. She confides in her colleague, Masako, who agrees to help her dispose of the body. With the help of her co-workers Masako dismembers the body and hides the gruesome bits around the city. Unfortunately, some body parts are discovered and the police start asking questions. The plot becomes more complex, as loan sharks become involved, and the prime police suspect tries to find out the truth behind the crime he is innocent of committing

It is really hard to convey just how good this book is. It isn’t just that it is a cleverly plotted, perfectly paced book which is packed with complex characters and boasts a perfect ending. This book really makes you think. What would you do to protect a friend? If you were struggling financially – would you do anything to help your family? This book was so thought provoking that it became the focus of the majority of conversations I had with family and friends this week.

Out isn’t for the squeamish, as there are graphic descriptions of dismemberment and violent rape, but these images were important for conveying the situations that these Japanese women had to deal with. The vivid images I have of this book will stay with me for a very long time.

The only complaint I have is that there were a few minor translation problems. There was the odd sentance that didn’t flow properly, and a few uniquely Japanese things, which were translated in such a way that it lost some of the atmosphere for me. The recurring one being the boxed lunch, which doesn’t exist in the western world. I would much preferred it to be called by it’s Japanese name: the bento box,  as ‘boxed lunch’ doesn’t really bring across the same distinctly Japanese images it should do.

These are very minor issues though, and overall I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Cancel your order for Wilderness, and buy this instead!


Thank you so much to Melody for recommending this to me. I will be paying much more interest to her recommendations in the future.

What is the best thriller you have ever read?
Have you read any books by Natsuo Kirino?
Are any of the others as good as this one?

but most importantly….would you help your best friend hide her dead husband?!!