Book Review: The Strange Library by Murakami Haruki

The Strange Library (ふしぎな図書館: fushigi na toshokan) is a short story by Murakami Haruki.

The Japanese version was published  with  illustrations by Maki Sasaki in 2008. The story is based on a former different version (図書館奇談 toshokan kidan) published in the short story collection カンガルー日和 (kangaruu hiyori. Good weather for kangaroos) of 1986.

The Strange Library is told  from the perspective of a shy little boy who loves to read. On his way back from school it pops into his mind to borrow some history books from the local library.  Starting the moment he enters the building everything turns out very strange. First he is directed to room No. 107 in the basement where he never had been before and meets an odd librarian, who seems to inhabit this dusted dark area for ages.

The boy asks him politely for the book titles. The old man mumbles and rumbles on his way to a hidden archive in the back of the library.  When he returns with the books, he tells the boy, that it is forbidden to take them home. He has to stay and read them in a separate study room.  Now the boy is slightly scared by the man, and the thought of staying here any longer makes him feel uncomfortable, but he is also feeling obliged to go to the reading area and make no fuss about it.

Intimidated he follows the old weird man further downstairs through a labyrinth. Finally reaching the room the boy sits down to read. After a short while the sheepman arrives on the scene. He then tells him, that the boy is being held hostage. A wild and spooky story unfolds with an unforeseen twist at the end.

In this early work Murakami  makes use of surreal story telling, for which he is known as a bestseller author. The book is pretty short, but along with many illustrations it is an entertaining read. For students with intermediate language skills the Japanese version is relatively easy to understand.

Translations are available in many languages. I have seen the English and German versions of the book. The illustrations are very different from the Japanese version.

ふしぎな図書館 by 村上春樹. Illustrated by 佐々木木マキ。2008.



Book Review: The Thief

Nakamura Fuminori 中村 文則 born in 1977 in Tôkai is an author of several novels. His book The Thief (掏摸), published in 2009, won the famous Ôe Kenzaburô Prize in 2010 and was highly praised by the International press.

The Thief is a psychological thriller of a pickpocket in modern Tokyo. Nishimura is a loner living  in the big city with no family or social ties whatsoever. On his trips through crowded streets and the underground, he skillfully reaches out into the pockets of his fellow men. He has a strict moral compass: his victims are mainly wealthy gentlemen and using violence is not an option.

One gets to know his tricks in detail and soon learns about his criminal past, which unfolds to the reader in the ongoing story.

Written from the perspective of the thief Nishimura, we learn about his thoughts and actions. As the story evolves he is getting deeper and deeper into trouble. Mainly because of his entanglement with a violent mobster boss. It was taking my breath away, when I read how Nishmura was threatened into his actions by mobsters and it seems there is no exit for him.

But being under pressure from the mob is not his only problem. His life changes in unforeseen ways. One day on his daily pickpocket tours in Tôkyô he watches a poorly performance of a cranky woman and her little son, both shoplifting for groceries. Showing empathy for the boy Nishimura rescues them from being caught by the clerks, which is the beginning of a bittersweet friendship. On a closer look one can consider the boy as a younger version of Nishimura. The book is exciting and philosophical. I enjoyed reading it.

中村 文則: 掏摸, 2009. Nakamura Fuminori: The Thief, 2012.

Book Review: Manazuru by Kawakami Hiromi

manazuruThis morning I just finished reading Manazuru and it has a surprising and beautiful end. Manazuru is a very touching and meaningful novel about love and letting go, about the cycle of live.

Kawakami Hiromi takes you on a journey to Manazuru and the inner life of the writer Kei. She is working through a process of grief and is saying goodbye to her haunting memories of her relationship with her husband Rei.

He has left her ten years ago without saying a word. One day he did not come back and Kei had no clue about his reason and whereabouts.

The present story is told from Kei’s perspective. A woman in her early thirties living with her eight-year old daughter Momo and her mother in Tokyo. Her life went on after the disappearance of Rei. She even found a new lover, but she never could forget her husband — although it has been so many years.  Because he left her without a reason and no trace, it was impossible for Rei to let him go emotionally.

One day she is drawn to Manazuru, a place nearby the sea. A mysterious inner wish has taken her to go there and she hopes to find an answer of the past with Rei. This journey brings her some meaningful answers. Kawakami Hiromi tells the story of Kei  in a vivid, surprising and even sometimes funny way. It is easy to read and if you are grieving or not she brings lightness to you. Her thoughts about love and relationships are very deep and touching.

I liked Manazuru very much. If you have read other novels like The Briefcase or The Nakano Thrift Store with delight, I am sure you will love this one too.

川上 弘美. 真鶴. 2006. Kawakami Hiromi: Manazuru, 2010. Translated by Michael Emmerich.

Book Review: The Ruined Map by Abe Kôbô

ruinedmap“The City — a bounded infinity. A labyrinth where you are never lost. Your private map where every block bears exactly the same number. Even if you lose your way, you cannot go wrong” – Abe Kôbô (1924-1993).

The Ruined Map by Abe Kôbô is a very mysterious detective story. It’s setting is in 1967 in a big Japanese city like Tokyo.

Nemuro Hiroshi, age 34, is missing for half a year. His wife has hired a detective after the police could not find him. There are no hints of her husband’s whereabouts, only a matchbox of the Camilla coffeehouse.
The husband had left no notice, but disappeared in the landscape of the big city. He should have been on a business meeting, but his wife does not know any specifics about it.

The detective has no clue whatsoever. His investigation gets stuck and wherever he is turning to, there is no answer. Even the wife is no help, but has obviously a drinking problem. So there are many scenes, when the detective is sitting with her in her dining room looking at a blinding yellow curtain, watching her drinking one beer after another. The case becomes so annoying to the detective after a while: He then himself mistrusts his client, doubting if there even is a real case. But then, there is also her mysterious brother or is he her lover? He is the only person, who seems to have some kind of information about Nemuro Hiroshi.

On the other hand investigations at the company are fruitful: a co-worker of the husband hands over a hand-drawn map, which the missing man could have used for his last appointment in duty of the company. After that encounter the detective meets also the brother of the missing person’s wife. From now on the story gets into a wild ride, where the brother ends up dead, but Nemuro Hiroshi is still missing without a trace.

The atmosphere of the story is Kafkaesque and during reading I somehow lost the track. I could not lay the book down, because I wanted to know the end. I realized in the latter half of the story, that  everything dissolves  in the end without a logical solution.  I cannot say, that I enjoyed the reading fully through the book, but Abe Kôbô kept me interested finishing my reading.

Abe Kôbô is a well-known author in Japan. He was a main representative of the literary avant-garde in the 60’s of the 20th century. He wrote many books using surreal content structure and elements on the basis of his philosophical thoughts. Often it is not easy to read. One of his most famous works is Woman in the Dunes, but The Box Man and The Face of Another is also noteworthy.

安部 公房. 燃えつきた地図. 1967. Abe Kôbô: The Ruined Map. 1967. Translated by E. Dale Saunders.

Readings in 2015

Many visitors come to Japan Kaleidoskop reading the book reviews. I am always excited about seeing my statistics, which show the book titles people choose the most. Above all the most read article in 2015 is A Short History of Japanese Literature Part 5. And these are the most read book reviews on Japan Kaleidoskop of the whole year.

Top Ten of Readings of 2015:

1. Men without Women by Murakami Haruki

2. Thousand Cranes by Kawabata Yasunari

3. The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki Jun’ichirô

4. Seven Japanese Tales by Tanizaki Jun’ichirô

5. Naomi by Tanizaki Jun’ichirô

6. Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari

7. Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto

8. The Nakano Thrift Store by Kawakami Hiromi

9. Diary of a Mad Old Man by Tanizaki Jun’ichirô

10. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishigurô

Book Review: Thirst for Love

6725882“To ask for nothing means that one has lost one’s freedom to choose or reject. Once having decided that, one has no choice but to drink anything — even sea water…”

Thirst for Love is a novel written by Mishima Yukio 三島 由紀夫 (1925-1970) in 1950. A story about a young emotionally disturbed  Japanese woman.

One year after the death of her husband Etsuko moves into the house of her father-in-law and lives with him as a couple. No one of her relatives understands her motifs being the wife of the old patriarch, who is also playing around with her. Yet on the outside she seems happy, but inside she has blocked all feelings and has become a shallow being.

At home the strange couple is accompanied by a maid and a servant, who are responsible for the housework and gardening. Living by her daily routine Etsuko gets to know the servant better. After a while she is finding herself addicted to his attention. In order to manipulate him to like her, Etsuko buys him two pairs of socks in blue and brown color. The whole situation of choosing, buying the present and  giving it to the young man, is very painful for Etsuko and in the end leaves her behind feeling ashamed. But this is not stopping her from seeking after his love. Suddenly she has to realize, that the servant and the maid are having an affair and the maid is pregnant. Etsuko’s jealousy is now driving her crazy and she is seeking for revenge.

Mishima is a literary genius. He describes Etsuko as a suffering woman cut from her feelings. The reader knows her inner reflections, because the story is told from her perspective. Yet I do not think that Mishima has empathy for her. He is knowing the dynamic of the relationships and his narration is lively and beautiful. He is a good observer. Sure Etsuko has a pre-history and roots for her tragic fate, but that is not in the focus of this novel. Mishima portrays a woman with no love in her life and that is a very sad story. He draws a picture of an emotional disturbing fate.

It took me some time to finish the book. I somehow find it hard to read, but I wanted to know, if the main character could change or if there would be something in Etsuko’s life, that brings joy to her. The end is surprising, but comprehensible and therefore follows the logic of the story.

三島 由紀夫. 愛の渇き (ai no kawaki), 1950. Mishima Yukio. Thirst for Love. Translated by Alfred H. Marks, 1969.

Reading in October

In October people visiting Japan Kaleidoskop were mostly interested in Japanese Literature. As in the month before the two mostly read book reviews were the same as in the month before.

Men without women by Murakami Haruki  and Thousand Cranes by Kawabata Yasunari.

Two titles of Tanizaki Jun’ichirô  are on the third  and fourth place. Books I personally adore: The Makikoka Sisters followed by Naomi.

And  surprisingly for the first time people were much interested in reading the book review of Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Store  which is a fun book to read.

I am currently reading Murakami’s 1Q84 and Yukio Mishima’s  Thirst for Love, probably I will finish the last soon and will write a review here.

My readers came mostly from this countries, in this order:

  1. The United States
  2. Phillipines
  3. Japan
  4. Germany
  5. Netherlands
  6. Canada

There were many searches on Japan Kaleidoskop and I am very happy, that you enjoy my blog and that it is useful for many readers.

Surprisingly ‘Dreaming of Kimchee‘ was searched for several times. And first I did not know, what is was. But then I remembered: It is a short story of Banana Yoshimoto in her book Lizard.

My favorite search term of October is ‘Japanese woman holding a lantern‘, which probably was not found, because there is no tag like this. But there is a very lovely picture of Suzuki Harunobu (c. 1725-1770) on this blog. It was on Art on Tuesday on January 7th, 2014.

Thank you for visiting and reading Japan Kaleidoskop. I wish you a happy autumn!


Book Review: Geisha in Rivalry

nagai_kafu Geisha in Rivalry was  published in 1918. The Japanese title is Udekurabe 腕くらべ, which literally means competition. 

Nagai Kafû 永井 荷風 (1879-1959)  is a very famous author in Japan of the first half of the 20th century. He spent many years in the United States and Europe. He studied French and was influenced by especially Émile Zola (1840-1902) in his early works. Later on Nagai turned more to Japanese themes and is known for his romantic inspired novels focusing on traditional Japanese settings in Late Edo and Meiji Japan.

Geisha in Rivalry is a book in which Nagai brings back the nostalgic atmosphere of the late Meiji Era. He seeks for the reminiscences of the old tradition with a melancholic undertone but is even critical in some ways. His narration is very lively and colorful.

Being a geisha is giving Komayo a hard time. After her husband had died she moves from the countryside back to Tokyo and takes up again her former profession as a geisha. She now lives in the Shimbashi quarter, the heart of the demimonde. She had been away for six years — Can she survive?

Back on the scene of the amusement quarter, nothing has changed, but she is older now, and although she knows the business well the competition is very tough. Most of the other geishas are not friends but mean rivals. They are described as mean, shallow and money driven women.

Komayo falls in love with a famous actor. The romance seems perfect for her and she dreams of marriage. Suddenly she aknowledges, that her handsome lover is playing around with her. And she is a victim of a terrible intrigue initiated by a jealous geisha.

This sounds like a romance novel, but it is worth reading because of the detailed and skilled narration. It is giving you insights into the sociocultural background of the amusement quarters of that time. Interestingly also because Nagai himself lived in a geisha house himself. He gives a lively description of manners, fashion design, dress code and pictures multiple people of the floating world.

The Japanese text of Udekurabe is available on

永井 荷風. 腕くらべ, 1918. Nagai Kafû: Geisha in Rivalry, translated by Kurt Meissner, 1963.

Readings in August

I am surprised, that the visitors of Japan Kaleidoskop preferred reading exactly the same posts about Japanese books as in June and in July 2015. I skipped writing about it in July for this reason, because I thought, it was a little redundant.

I guess it has something to do with algorithm and how often something is mentioned on the blog and not really only about taste in Japanese Literature. Maybe it has also something to do with fewer postings on my blog about Japanese books in the summer. Never the less I am currently reading ‘Geisha in Rivalry’ by Nagai Kafû. And the next post will be about this exciting book.

In August people also liked to read posts about Naomi and the Makioka Sisters of Tanizaki Jun’ichirô and of course Yukiguni by Kawabata Yasunari. And least about  All she was worth by Miyabe Miyuki,  who is a well-known contemporary author and I think quite interesting.

What did I learn from the statistics then? Most of my visitors came from the United States, the Philippines and from Japan. Thank you very much!

Most often visited was the lovely picture of  Katsushika Oi.



Readings in June

In June readers of Japan Kaleidoskop were mostly interested in Japanese Literature and again the book reviews:

1. Most of my visitors read the book review of Men Without Women by Murakami Haruki as in May 2015. So this title is on the first place again due to the popularity of the author’s latest book.

2. On the second place there is a surprise: It is Thousand Cranes by Kawabata Yasunari. The title has been searched for several times in this month, but never before June. In the past many visitors were looking for Yukiguni by Kawabata instead. But it is still the same author on the second place. Kawabata Yasunari was born in June 11, 1899 in Ôsaka.

3. The third most read book review on this blog was Seven Japanese Tales by Tanizaki Jun’ichirô. One of my personal favorite Japanese author.

Although most of the search terms are not visible anymore, there were some, which gave me a hint, of what my visitors were looking for.

I liked the search term: “courtesan reading poet ono no komachi biography” very much. It is an ukiyo e by Kikugawa Eizan 菊川 英山 (1787 – 1867) chosen for this blog’s Art on Tuesday series on November 14, 2014.