Books read, February 2023

More Japan — but not quiiiite All Japan, All the Time . . .

The Sword Makes the Man: Weapons and the Construction of Social Identity in Viking Age Scandinavia, written by me, age 21. No, really. Traditionally my own work doesn’t count, but I say that in the context of reading through my novels for the purpose of revision and copy-editing and the like. This? This was me re-reading my college thesis. FOR RESEARCH. I was revising The Waking of Angantyr, and I needed to check the average length of a Viking Age sword, and . . . well, the easiest way to do that was roll two feet to my right and pull this off the shelf. And then I wound up reading the whole thing, because I was curious, and because it was sort of usefully feeding my brain even though I’m in the editorial revisions stage on that novel, not drafting. The setting wound up sprouting a small addition as a result. I regret nothing, except maybe a few bits of this thesis that I would write differently now.

The Waking of Angantyr My own work doesn’t count. 😛

Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide, Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, ill. Shinkichi. This is a kind of breezy, pop-culture book, copiously illustrated with both historical paintings/woodblock prints/etc. and modern images. I tend to roll my eyes at the bits about “how to survive if you find yourself dealing with this ghost or haunted situation,” but the information itself is pretty solid, and this contained multiple stories I hadn’t read about before.

Automatic Eve, Rokuro Inui. I almost quit out of this book early on. It starts off with a samurai enamored of a courtesan he knows is in love with another man; his solution, when he comes into a lot of money, is to use some of the money to buy her freedom (good for him) hire a famed maker of automata to craft a perfect replica of her that he can keep for himself (ew). Since this is not a scenario I particularly enjoy reading . . . fortunately, right when I was on the verge of putting it down, the plot turned in an unexpected direction.

And kept turning, too. The early parts of this are almost a mosaic novel, held together only by encounters with the automaton crafter and the titular Eve, herself (of course) a construct. The threads start to pull together more as you go along, though. I mostly liked the result, and the idea (rot-13’d for thematic spoilers) that jung tvirf nhgbzngn fbhyf vf gur rzbgvba naq pner bgure crbcyr srry gbjneq gurz. However, I could have done without the male gaze-y parts, especially when not one but two automata apparently awaken from their inert, lifeless state because n thl fgnegf tebcvat gurve oernfgf. So overall, a mixed bag.

Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo, Miyuki Miyabe, trans. Daniel Huddleston. This was loaned to me by my sister, and turned out to be very apropos for what I’m working on right now. It’s a collection of spooky historical tales, some tilted more in a horror direction, others more toward mystery, many of them ending on a deliberately unresolved note. They’re all set in the Edo period, but apart from a few glancing mentions, they’re not remotely about samurai; instead these are glimpses into the lives of ordinary townsfolk. I think every single story has to do with some kind of business, often wholesale, that’s large enough to hire apprentices, with recurrent attention to questions like how employment agents supply workers to those businesses and what happens when the company is inherited by the next generation. (Often the answer is “nothing good,” but not all of the younger generation in here are dissolute assholes.)

My sister hasn’t actually read this book, but said she bought it because she read and liked something else of Miyabe’s; on the basis of this one, I might well track down other work of hers.

The Tale of Genji: Scenes From the World’s First Novel, Murasaki Shikibu, trans. H. Mack Horton, ill. Miyata Masayuki. I haven’t actually read The Tale of Genji yet, which I should remedy one of these days. But I’ve absorbed some of its key bits by osmosis, and it’s honestly helpful to read something this (which amounts to the Cliff Notes of the story; I don’t know who actually wrote the chapter summaries that are the main text) before diving into the whole thing.

The illustrations are distributed one per chapter, and some of them are extremely striking! Miyata’s work is kiri-e, i.e. layered paper cutouts; it’s hard to find good images from this specific book online, but this is one I quite liked (and this appears to show the actual paper from an image, rather than just a scan of the whole). I only wish that the printing didn’t mean that many of these illustrations cross the gutter of the book — it’s clear there was some effort made to place the gutter in a minimally disruptive place, but still, they lessen the impact of the art.

Winter Counts, David Heska Wanbli Weiden, narr. Darrell Dennis. Non-fantastical mystery set among the Lakota on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Things I really liked here: the multiplicity of attitudes among the characters toward their Native identity and the politics around same (not just externally but internally, as this digs into the “authenticity policing” within the community and other such matters); the fact that this is not actually a murder mystery, being more about an investigation into drug trafficking on the reservation.

Things I did not like so much: the protagonist. The author’s note afterward comments on unofficial “enforcers” who step in on the reservations in situations where the tribal and federal police either cannot or — all too often — will not act, and I get why such a thing exists. But the first thing you see the protagonist do is beat up a fat pedophile until the guy’s teeth are literally scattered across the pavement; later he tortures somebody for information, then kills someone else in a truly gruesome fashion. (The overall context is self-defense, but the killing blow is not.) I liked Virgil best when he was doing things other than his job.

The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society, Pierre François Souyri, trans. Kathe Roth. I was initially a bit apprehensive of this, because the introduction felt like Souyri was trying to push the parallels between medieval Japanese and medieval European society while downplaying Japan’s similarity to other Asian nations. However, that was basically confined to the introduction.

The rest of the book was far more useful! It gives a very brief overview of the events leading into the Kamakura period and through to the end of the Sengoku, but tilted much more heavily toward the earlier parts than that last bit. (Which puts it in sharp contrast to other things I’ve read.) I doubt the overview would be enough for somebody not already somewhat familiar with those eras, but they were enough to blow some of the dust off my memory. Having established the context, he then spends most of his time talking about how society changed — and not just, say, the rise of the warrior class or the decline of the court aristocracy, but what we can piece together about the lives of the peasants in the fields, wandering entertainers, and so forth. This is the first thing I’ve read that makes me feel like I have any real grasp of the political/economic structure out in the countryside, much less a sense of ordinary lower-class society and the ways in which they organized themselves to resist the domination of the elites. Taht latter is kind of fascinating stuff, often religious in foundation and, in its own way, as oppressive as anything that came from above — peasants maintained their solidarity by e.g. burning down houses and murdering whole families, children included, if somebody broke ranks.

Anyway, by the time I put this down, I had a vastly clearer image of Kamakura- and Muromachi-era Japan than I did before, which fills a significant gap in my knowledge.

The Ise Stories: Ise monogatari, trans. Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler. This is more often called The Tales of Ise in English, but Mostow and Tyler argue that unlike other “X monogatari” works, this is more like “that collection of tales that includes a few about the Ise Priestess.” The actual connecting thread is the Heian aristocrat Ariwara no Narihira, assumed to be the man referred to in the anecdotes, though he’s only named explicitly in a few. The anecdotes themselves are very brief, largely consisting of some frame context around one or more poems, often exchanged between Narihira and one of his many, many lovers.

What made this really interesting to me was less the text itself — which is only thinly narrative and hinges primarily upon your ability to appreciate the poetry, a harder task in translation than in the original — and more the extensive notes Mostow and Tyler supply. Heian-era literature like this was pretty impenetrable even to later Japanese readers, so there’s centuries of accreted commentary, with scholars imposing different interpretations on the narrative and the poems; the notes give an overview of that commentary and position Mostow and Tyler’s own translation choices within that context. After a while you start to build up a sense of the different commentators and the strands they represent . . . with occasional drive-by bombings when Mostow and Tyler decide to mention the whack-ass tantric interpretive tradition in which the entire thing is akshually about the secret religious teachings Narihira imparted to Heian Japan via, yes, sex.


Before Heike and After: Hōgen, Heiji, Jōkyūki, trans. Royall Tyler. Speaking of building up a sense of a translator/commentator . . . between the previous book and this one, I’ve decided I like Tyler’s work. He’s not afraid to let a bit of his personality and opinions show through in his commentary, and his translation is much less stiff and mannered than you might expect. In one place here he translates the epithets of some of the warriors in a fashion that wouldn’t have been out of place on the American frontier, but the prize really comes with the bit he footnotes by saying, “The poem relies on word plays impossible to translate and all but hopeless to explain. I have tried to convey their spirit instead.” Said footnote is attached to the following:

     Poor Masakado
got that old noggin of his
     neatly lifted off
by a vorpal snicker-snack
from Tawara Tōda’s sword.

As for the book itself, this is a collation and translation of three different monogatari that come before (the first two) or after (the third) the much more famous Heike monogatari, in much the same way that various other Greek texts supply the lead-in to and fall-out from the Iliad. Have I read the Heike? No, no I have not. But I’ve absorbed the gist of it through sheer osmosis, and look, I’m the woman who watched Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead before she’d ever read or seen Hamlet, so it’s kind of par for the course with me.

All three of these monogatari concern outbreaks of armed violence in and around the capital, though they vary in how much of the text is spent on that part. Without in any way downplaying the cultural specificity . . . man, I’ve read the Mahabharata, and I’ve read the Táin Bó Cúailnge, and I gotta say that there’s a level on which these ancient war stories tend to look a lot alike. So-and-so gathered this many men, and here is how they were armed and armored! This guy was super-amazing and performed the following improbable feats when he was a small child! Behold as they proclaim themselves and/or their lineages and/or their deeds before engaging in what read like one-on-one duels even though this is probably not how actual wars got conducted because what the heck are all the other people on that battlefield doing! Not gonna lie, my eyes glaze over after reading too much of that in one go. I was more engaged by the parts that weren’t the battles, even when those were horrible (e.g. the extended narration of how one guy’s four young sons were taken out into the forest and beheaded for their father’s crimes).

Still and all, I got utility out of this, including some details relevant to a short story draft I’m shopping around, which I should work into the text because they’re just too perfect. And I do like Tyler’s translation, even when what’s being translated makes my eyes glaze over.

White Cranes Castle, Geraldine Harris. I only recently learned that Geraldine Harris had published another novel besides the Seven Citadels series. I didn’t realize, when I ordered it, that it was going to fit into my current theme of reading a bunch about Japan, but I should have; Himeji-jō, a very famous castle I have visited, is often nicknamed “White Egret Castle” or “White Heron Castle” because of its graceful beauty.

This is set in an expy of Japan, and given what I read right afterward, I think I can straight-up see how Harris probably read Morris’ work (which would have been pretty new when this was published) and was immediately inspired by the chewy little details of a different culture. The ending, however, is very Harris, if I’m allowed to make a comparison on the basis of her only other novel-length work: it very much eschews the conventional sense of resolution, this time with a side order of a really elliptical battle of wits between the protagonist and a dragon. I almost think it could have been a short story; the book is very brief, and it hops, skips, and jumps through the protagonist’s childhood rapidly enough that I felt I was told about more than sold on his relationship with his lord’s son and heir. So if that had all just been taken as a given and the whole story had been the confrontation with the dragon, it’s entirely possible that would have worked.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, Sei Shōnagon, trans. Ivan Morris, ill. Jasper Deane. Holy shit, y’all, I do not think I have ever in my life read something that leaked classism out its pores quite as rampantly as this text does.

Mostly the things I’ve read that wholeheartedly buy into the class division simply ignore the lower ranks, but not Sei Shōnagon; no, she’s here to tell you that one of the unsuitable things in the world is snow on the houses of the common folk, especially when moonlight shines upon it. (Morris helpfully clarifies that this is because “such beauty is wasted on hoi polloi and inappropriate to their gross nature.”) I actively wanted to slap her when she and the other ladies laugh merrily at and play a nasty trick on a peasant who comes to beg for help after his house burned down. And yet, at the same time, there are places where a sense of recognition and empathy comes through, when Shōnagon delights in or complains about something that is still so very true today, a thousand years later. I can see how this continues to resonate, despite the gap in both time and (one hopes) sense of social division.

(The edition I read was the one put out by the Folio Society, and the binding is GORGEOUS. I was less enamored of Dean’s illustrations, though, which are trying to be Ink Paintings But Modern in a way that didn’t do much for me.)

Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost, Zack Davisson. This touches on a number of the same ghost stories as the Yoda and Alt book from earlier this month, but rather than simply being a catalogue of interesting tales, this book attempts to dig deeper into the role ghosts play in Japanese culture, from ancient times (insofar as we can reconstruct what Japanese beliefs looked like before Buddhism reached the country) up to modern cinematic adaptations. I think my favorite aspect was the glimpse into the world of kabuki theatre and the ways in which the stage pushed the boundaries on special effects and gore. One of these days I should find a good book on the history of Japanese theatre, instead of just picking up shreds and bits on the fringes of other things I read — though the performing arts being what they are, I really need to see some actual stage productions, too, not just read about them.

Ninja Attack!: True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws, Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, ill. Yutaka Kondo. The authors referenced this book in the one on yūrei, specifically in the context of the “walking maidens” corps of female spies Takeda Shingen maintained, which convinced me to pick it up. Although the title is obviously going for recognition factor and pithy phrasing, this is more broadly a book about espionage, assassination, unconventional warfare, and even sleight-of-hand techniques, plus how those things have lived on in modern media. Like the other two books by Yoda and Alt, this has a generally pop-culture tone, sprinkled with nuggets of really solid and useful information . . . at least if you’re me and find it really useful to know e.g. how high-calorie travel rations were made.

. . . and here ends my binge of Reading About Japan, which was like 25% research for the current book and 75% “I’ve built up such a backlog, I should use this as an excuse to chisel that down.” There’s one more book I wanted to read and didn’t get to; while there was time for me to pick it up and maybe even finish it before the end of February, my brain said NO I DON’T WANT TO and that’s how I know I’m done reading about Japan for the moment. (I also finally acquired a translation of Heiki monogatari, but wow, no, that is way more pages than I want to tackle at the moment.)

The Watcher by the Threshold, John Buchan. A very slim short fiction collection from a late nineteenth/early twentieth-century Scottish author better known for his WWI adventure novels. I saw someone mention this in the context of British folklore, which of course piqued my interest, so I picked up a modern reprint (the stories being now in the public domain).

The first story in here, “No-Man’s-Land,” and to a lesser extent the titular story and “The Outgoing of the Tide,” reminded me a bit of Lovecraft, especially with the found documents/frame story approach to the narratives. Here, though, the source of horror is not the scary dark-skinned Other, but rather the past. The things our ancient forebears used to know and do, and the possibility of those hideous rites surviving or resurfacing into the present day. Other stories — specifically “The Far Islands” and “The Rime of True Thomas” (which was not, as I expected, a retelling of “Thomas the Rhymer”) — had more an echo of Dunsany about them. Nearly all of them are slow to start, spending a lot of time on establishing the central character and the landscape before getting into the plot proper, but as long as you’re willing to tolerate that, they’re often very good at building atmosphere. I don’t know that I’m compelling to seek out more of Buchan’s fiction, especially because he’s unfortunately fond of “phonetically” spelling out Scottish dialect, but I don’t regret reading this.

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