Reading Journal: February 2020

I am starting a new series on my blog! I will post in the “Reading Journal” category on the 15th of each month.

My reading challenge for 2020 is to read more widely and try several genres and difficulty levels, so I thought it would be a good idea to keep a monthly update of my readings on my blog.

The “Reading Journal” posts will not be about the books themselves (I’ll talk about that in the book reviews) but about my experience of reading theses books in Japanese.

The cover of the four books I am currently reading
Currently reading: 『ノルウェイの森』by Haruki Murakami, 『ボッコちゃん』by Shinichi Hoshi, 『マチネの終わりに』by Keiichiro Hirano and 『帰郷』by Jiro Asada.

I am always reading several books at the same time! These are all the books I am currently reading, from the easiest to the most difficult:

『ノルウェイの森』by Haruki Murakami (村上春樹)

Format: Long novel of around 600 pages
Genre: Bildungsroman
Level: Very easy to read

I don’t know why I waited so long to read Haruki Murakami in Japanese… I thought his books would be very literary and difficult to read, but『ノルウェイの森』 is surprisingly easy to read in Japanese. I rarely stumble across unknown words, and the dialogues are extremely easy to follow.

『ノルウェイの森』 is a book that I can easily use to read aloud. This is something that I like to do, not only for language learning purposes, but simply because I enjoy it. With Japanese, this is a frustrating enterprise because of all the kanji words whose meaning I know or guess but whose reading I am not sure of. Well, 『ノルウェイの森』is the perfect book to read aloud to me because there are so few unknown words.

It is certainly the longest novel I have read in Japanese so far. To be honest, I hadn’t realised how long it was when I bought it because it was printed in two thin separate books. I am nearing the end though, and I will be able to post my review on the 20th.

I know that a lot of Japanese learners are readers of Haruki Murakami and wish to read his books in Japanese too. I encourage you to give it a try, especially if you have already read his books in translation or if you have the translation to read in parallel.

To give you an idea of the Japanese level of the book, this is the opening of the second chapter:

昔々、といってもせいぜい二十年ぐらい前のことなのだけれど、僕はある学生寮に住んでいた。僕は十八で、大学に入ったばかりだった。東京のことなんて何ひとつ知らなかったし、一人暮らしをするのも初めてだったので、親が心配してその寮をみつけてきてくれた。そこなら食事もついているし、いろんな設備も揃っているし、世間知らずの十八の少年でもなんとか生きていけるだろうということだった。

And the opening of the third chapter:

次の土曜日に直子[Naoko]は電話をかけてきて、日曜に我々はデートをした。たぶんデートと呼んでいいのだと思う。それ以外に適当な言葉を思いつけない。
我々は前と同じように街を歩き、どこかの店に入ってコーヒーを飲み、また歩き、夕方に食事をしてさよならと言って別れた。

If you find these extracts easy to read, then I think you won’t have much difficulties reading Norwegian Wood in Japanese. If you can understand these passages but had to look up one or two words or check a grammatical pattern, then I encourage you to give the novel a try. Maybe, get the translation to help you when you come across a difficult passage.

Another thing that you could do to use Norwegian Wood as a reading practice is to read the narrative passages in translation and read the dialogues in Japanese. As I said, I find the dialogues in Norwegian Wood extremely easy to read. The narrative parts are not difficult either, but it can be daunting to tackle long blocks of texts if you are not used to reading in Japanese.

『ボッコちゃん』by Shinichi Hoshi (星新一)

Format: short short stories: the book is less than 350 pages and each story is about 3 to 8 pages long.
Genre: Speculative fiction, science fiction
Level: the Japanese is not difficult per se, but I find speculative fiction to be rather difficult to read for language learners because it is unpredictable.

2020 is the year when I try new genres and broaden the range of books that I read in Japanese. With this in mind, I bought something that I would not have chosen otherwise: science fiction.

When it comes to novels, I prefer realistic settings and characters rather than imaginative ones. I never read fantasy or science fiction, even though I like these genres in other media like films or series. So I was a little afraid to read 『ボッコちゃん』because I have never read short short stories before, and I am not used to reading SF in English, let alone in Japanese.

The short stories are rather easy to read in Japanese, the author never uses specialised or scientific words, and the stories are often based on dialogues rather than descriptions. The short format is also ideal for Japanese learners. You can choose to read just one story per day like I do, or you could try to study or even translate one story as a reading exercise.

On the other hand, I always find that it asks me a lot of effort to get into the story and understand what we are talking about. This is certainly because I am not used to reading speculative fiction. Also, as the author only has a few pages to tell his story, only a couple of sentences will be used to establish the setting, so if you miss a piece of information you will be quickly lost.

For example, in the story ねらわれた星, we learn from the first sentence that aliens are approaching a new planet:「こんどは、あの星の連中をやっつけて楽しもうぜ」金属質のウロコで全身をおおわれた生物は、彼らの宇宙船のなかで、仲間にこういった。

In 親善キッス, on the contrary, humans are travelling in space and reaching their destination:「やれやれ、やっと着いた。まったく長い旅だったな」地球からの親善使節団の一行の乗りくんだ宇宙船は、広大な空間の旅を終えて、銀色にきらめきながら、チル惑星の首都ちかくの空港に降りたった。

I often find that, if my concentration weakens, I have trouble following the stories, even though I do not consider them to be difficult. For now, I read just one story per day but try to be fully focused when reading.

『マチネの終わりに』by Keiichiro Hirano (平野啓一郎)

Long novel of 464 pages
Genre: contemporary romance (?) The book is classified as a “恋愛小説”, but I’m not sure whether it will fill the requirements to really be a romance.
Level: still okay but with challenging parts

In my challenge to read more genres, I have decided to give this ロングセラー恋愛小説 a try. This book seems to be an absolute best-seller, it has overall good reviews and it has been adapted into film in 2019.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy reading this book because the story did not appeal to me. But, you never know, and my goal was to broaden my reading adventures so… I decided to buy the audiobook to read and listen at the same time. I thought that the audiobook would 1) make a good listening practice, 2) make reading this book easier and encourage me to finish it even if I wasn’t too much into it.

It works. Without the audiobook, I would have given up on the book long ago. There are a lot of things that I don’t like in this novel (more about that in my book review!), but what really puts me off are the characters (especially the female protagonist Yoko) who are so well educated, have such high standards and refined conversations (arthouse cinema, classical music, literature and poetry seem to be the only things they care to talk about). They are sooooo snobbish!

Anyway, about the language level… The story is easy to follow, but the Japanese level can be a little high sometimes. What makes things difficult is that I have to read following the pace of the audiobook. Granted, the pace is very slow, but for difficult passages, I often need to re-read sentences twice or look up words, so I basically have to pause the audiobook.

I have re-read the beginning of the book, in the lookout for such a passage to give you a concrete example. It came very early, at page 13. Satoshi Makino, our male protagonist, is giving a concert of classical guitar:

この日も、楽曲の理解は透徹していて、思いがけない斬新な解釈が聴かれても、一瞬後には、なるほどねェ、と深く納得された。細部が全体を活気づけ、また全体が細部に於いて生き生きと精彩を放っていた。通人ほど退屈するアランフェス協奏曲の第三楽章でさえ、きびきびとした音符の筋肉の陰翳まで見えそうな躍動感で、誰が弾いてもなかなか立派に聞こえないこの難物も、こんなに良い曲だったろうかと、これ見よがしに苦笑し、首を傾げる批評家の姿さえあった。

This is the kind of description that I can understand if I am allowed to read it carefully, to read some sentences twice, and take time to guess the meaning of some words like 楽章 or look up words like 陰翳 (why not write 陰影??). But if I am allowed only one reading at the audiobook pace, I only get the general meaning (Satoshi Makino’s performance is outstanding) and miss the subtleties.

The problem is that I don’t like the book enough to want to spend time understanding every difficult passage. So I have decided to take a different approach. My goal is to use this book to improve my reading speed. The idea is not to understand perfectly what I read, but to understand as much as I can with a single read, at the pace of the audiobook. It is an interesting exercise that forces me to be very concentrated, to grab and process the information quicker than usual, and to learn to let go and move on if I didn’t understand something. To make things more challenging (and to be done with the book sooner) I sometimes use a 1.1 or 1.2 speed.

『帰郷』by Jiro Asada (浅田次郎)

Format: 6 short stories of around 40 pages each
Genre: War stories
Level: very difficult

『帰郷』is clearly above my level! I have read the first short story, which was difficult but still okay for me. But the second one… I have tried to read it without using the dictionary, but this is simply impossible. I have started it twice but had to give up after a few pages.

I could give up on the book altogether and keep it for when my reading has improved. But on the other hand, my reading will not improve much if I don’t study difficult texts from time to time. I keep thinking of how much I would like to be able to read accounts of WWII in Japanese, and that I am not there yet. But I need to stop thinking like that. “Stop wishing and make it happen” will be my motto from now on!

There are several things that are difficult in this second short story 鉄の沈黙.

First of all, we start in mid-action and we are not given any context by the narrator. We have to deduce the context from what the characters say. After a few pages, it is possible to know where the characters are, which year the story takes place and at what stage of the war we are.

The story opens with a 大発 (Daihatsu-class landing craft) arriving at the 瓢箪岬 (a gourd-shaped headland?), from ツルブ (Cape Gloucester) after crossing the ダンピール海峡 (Dampier Straits).

Nothing indicates it, but after some googling, I falsely assumed that the story takes place during the Battle of Cape Gloucester (26 December 1943 – 16 January 1944). As a result, I could not begin to understand why our protagonists would transport ammunitions from Cape Gloucester to this gourd-shaped headland. They also say that they had to deliver them to the front line, so it just did not make sense to me.

It became clear afterwards that the story takes place during the Salamaua–Lae campaign (22 April – 16 September 1943). Salamaua is situated at the base of a headland that does have the shape of a gourd, so I assumed that this is where they landed. Once I understood that, everything became easier, but my initial mistake greatly slowed my reading of the first pages.

And of course, there are a lot of military related vocabulary: 高射砲、弾薬、歩哨、砲兵、師団、魚雷艇、潜水艦、駆逐艦…

I am trying to look up as many words as possible, or check online when I don’t find a word in my dictionary. For example, what they call the 大発 is an abbreviation for 大発動艇, the Daihatsu-class landing craft. Knowing how the Daihatsu looks like made some sentences easier to understand: 「大発は揚陸用の平らな船首を砂浜に向けた。」or 「揚陸をおえた大発は船首の歩板を上げていた。」

Now that I know the context, things are becoming easier and I have now read around 10 pages of the short story. I am looking up words and taking notes, so my progress is very slow.

Conclusion

I will finish 『ノルウェイの森』, if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow and post my review on the 20th. I hope that I can finish 「鉄の沈黙」(and maybe read another one?) in the upcoming month. As I am only reading one short short story per day, 『ボッコちゃん』will certainly accompany me during the rest of February and the first half of March, so I will certainly have just finished it when I write my next reading journal post on March 15th. As for 『マチネの終わりに』… unless something extraordinary happens in the story, I don’t see myself reading more than a few pages of it at a time…

A picture of my cat lying on my notebook with my book, pen and dictionary around him.
勉強中?