September readings

Summer is over, finally!! (Or at least, the Summer heat is gone!)

Mystery Writers of Japan Award – Project

Read all the available winners of the MWJ award for fiction (in chronological order).

I resumed reading the Mystery Writers of Japan Award winners, and the first one I read this month, 『風塵地帯』(winner of 1967) by Toru Miyoshi (三好徹) was very good. It was an engaging thriller/crime mystery set in Jakarta just before the abortive coup of 1965. Our protagonist is a journalist (like the author) who finds himself investigating the death of a colleague while being taken in the turmoil of the political tensions between the military and the PKI (the communist party) which led to the coup.

The novel gives a fictional version of general Suharto, but the events described in the book are very close to what really happened, included the beginning of what will become the Indonesian Communist Purge.

The historical setting and the interpretation that the story gives of what really happened made what was already an engrossing book into something even more compelling.

Next I read 『孔雀の道』(winner of 1970) by Shunshin Chin (陳舜臣), and even though the story seemed promising, I ended up caring less and less for the characters and the mystery. Rose is a young woman, half Japanese, half English who returns to Japan to understand the circumstances of her mother’s death and the involvement of her father in an espionage case during the war. I think that solving mysteries that happened in the past is always less thrilling than real time mysteries, and you have to care for the characters to feel involved in their quest. The protagonists slowly discover the truth by talking to people who each hold a piece of the puzzle, but the whole process felt a bit unexciting to me, especially because we arrive very close to the truth at some point and later accounts only confirm what we already know.

I don’t think that the book is bad at all, it just did not really work with me. I also disliked the main character, Rose, and some reflections she makes about how her Japanese and English blood affect her experience in Japan:

(お寺で安らぎをおぼえる。……これはきっと、あたしのなかにある日本人の血がそうさせるのだわ) ローズはそう思った。

その夜、ローズは机のうえに日本探究のノートをひろげた。 さすがに正坐には疲れて、両脚を畳のうえに投げ出した。(この行儀のわるさは、イギリス人の血のせいにちがいない)

Finally, I am reading 『妄想銀行』(winner of 1968) by Shinichi Hoshi (星新一). I am surprised that Shinichi Hoshi won the Mystery Writers of Japan award. Sure, you can say that his short-short stories are mysteries in some way as they present you with a strange situation and you want to know what will happen, but I still find it a bit strange.

This is the second book I read by this author, and even though SF is not my favourite genre, nor the short-short stories my favourite format, I always enjoy reading them.

Strangely, while I can see that these stories are quite easy to read in terms of Japanese level, I always have a hard time reading them. I need to be extra focused and concentrated. I often end up just going through the lines without really understanding them, with the result that I constantly have to go back and re-read the paragraph I just read. I already had this experience when I read 『ボッコちゃん』and it is happening again now. It is strange because this book is clearly easier to read than the two other winners mentioned above, yet this phenomenon never happens with the other books.

I am halfway through it.


Read one book per month in your target language (I chose Korean). Check out the prompts here.

The prompt for September was “fantasy” and I chose to read the Korean translation of The Deer King by Nahoko Uehashi (鹿の王 by 上橋 菜穂子, in Korean: 사슴의 왕, translated by 김선영)… and this is clearly what has consumed all my energy of September.

My reading level in Korean is not high, this is why I am taking this challenge in Korean. But this book is extremely difficult to read for me.

First of all, it is fantasy and it describes a lot of historical events and particularities about the fictional world. This means that I cannot rely on the usual guesses and deductions to fill the blanks. I more or less have to look up everything in some passages, otherwise I simply cannot follow. As the whole series is very long, I want to make sure that I understand everything so that nothing comes back to haunt me later.

There are also a lot of words that I would have known if I had read the book in Japanese, but I either did not know or did not recognise in hangeul. This is very frustrating, because almost every time I look up an unknown word, I immediately understand it by looking at the hanja. For example, there was a sentence that said that the king sent 사자 to the clans. The first thing that comes to mind is that 사자 means lion, but it was obviously not that. So I tried to guess what were the kanji behind the hangeul. I immediately knew that 자 must be 者, but the only thing I could think of for 사 was 死 and I became very confused. Why would the king send dead people to those clans? If the book had been written with hanja, I would have read 使者 (emissary) and moved on.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that some names are difficult to identify as names in Korean. Best example is 반 or 사에 that kind of blend with grammatical patterns, similarly to names that end with 한 or 가. It is okay once you know them but can be confusing when you encounter them for the first time (or maybe my Korean is really just too bad!) I guess it would be okay if the rest was easy, but given that the book is full of unknown words, it just adds to the difficulty.

Finally, I find that the sentences tend to be long and difficult, to the point where I sometimes do not understand a sentence even though I know all the words. Sometimes it also takes me two or three times re-reading a sentence or paragraph to understand it.

I remember this sentence that I read and immediately felt discouraged because I didn’t understand it at first and didn’t have the courage to study it:

홋사르는 오우한 제후의 차남 요타르를 태우고 앞으로 걸어가는 검은 갈기의 갈색 말이 발을 헛딛는 것을 보자 혼잣말처럼 중얼거렸다.

This is an example of sentences whose structure is a bit complex and where the introduction of new names makes things more difficult.

I am halfway through the first book, which means that I have read 1/4 of the whole story. I was not expecting to finish the first book this month, and I am very proud to have read half of it. Even though I did not finish my book, I consider it a success. I will move on to another book for the prompt of October, but I will continue to read the Deer King in parallel.

20th Century reading challenge

Read a book set in each decade of the 20th Century in chronological order (publication date does not matter).

I have reached the 1970s and decided to read about the Vietnam War. A quick research told me that Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes was one of the best books I could read on this topic. As it is quite long, I decided to read it over September and October. I will still have November to cover the 1980s and December for the 1990s, so it’s perfect. (I think that the story of Matterhorn takes place in 1969, but let’s say that it counts.)

This book is incredible, and it will be one of my favourite reads of the year for sure. I have read several novels and non fiction books on war before, and there are always things that are difficult to understand for someone not familiar with all the jargon and for which English is a foreign language, which makes it difficult to understand slang for example. Matterhorn is certainly one of the easiest book on war that I have read. Tactical manoeuvres, description of terrain and positions, weapons, etc. Everything that could be hard, is made very easy to follow even for someone with zero knowledge about military things. There is a solid glossary at the end of the book that helps a lot.

Another thing that I find impressive is how much each character feels real. The story cannot spend too much time with each character, and yet, it manages, sometimes with only a few pages, to give you a good idea of each soldier’s personality, problems and likely response to certain events.

I am at 40%, and even though I want to finish it in October, I am also taking my time because I don’t want to reach the end too quickly.

That’s it for my reading challenges of September. I also read one Agatha Christie and I I started the Hawthorne and Horowitz series by Anthony Horowitz, a detective series where the author himself is helping an ex-police detective to solve a case while writing a book about it.