July wrap up: light novel, literary prize winner, nonfiction, manga…

I have read a lot of different things in July! Before starting this post, let’s see if I have completed my reading challenge for July:

The answer is yes and no. I have read the novella 泥の河, but I found it so depressing that I stopped there and did not read 蛍川.

However, I have more than completed my other goal! 『誰も知らない死刑の舞台裏』 turned out to be much easier than expected and I managed to finish it!

Finished in July

Here are the books I read and finished in July, from the one I found the easiest to read in Japanese to the one I found the most difficult:

『極主夫道』 by Kousuke Oono (おおのこうすけ)

Tatsu is a former yakuza who has retired from the world of crime to take care of the house and support his wife who works as designer.

I have heard so many good things about this manga that I decided to give it a try, even if I am not a big fan of manga overall. I absolutely loved this one though, it is by far the funniest thing I have read this year! 

I read the first three volumes in a row because there is very few dialogues in it. I think that it can be a good resource for beginners. Some dialogues might be difficult to understand, but you never feel overwhelmed with text, and overall you can get a lot of the humour and follow the story by the drawings alone. One downside though, is the lack of furigana.

I don’t think that I will write a book review for the manga, but I heartily recommend it, no matter what your level is!

『白馬山荘殺人事件』 by Keigo Higashino (東野圭吾)

Naoko is not convinced by her brother’s “suicide” in a mountain cottage. Accompanied by her friend Makoto, she decides to go there and investigate by herself.

To me, this book was the easiest novel I have read this month, but as I explain at the end of this post, this might just be me, and other readers might say that the following title was easier than this one.

I was a little worried because part of the mystery involves finding a hidden meaning behind verses, but fortunately these parts were in English (with a Japanese translation for Japanese readers obviously).

I love whodunnits that take place in a remote cottage with a single place throughout the novel and a fixed and limited number of characters that are stuck together there. The structure of this novel had similarities with another one that I enjoyed very much and which is one of the first novels I have read in Japanese: 『回廊亭殺人事件』. I did prefer 『回廊亭殺人事件』 for the overall atmosphere and suspense, but I found the ending of 『白馬山荘殺人事件』 better.

『アンフィニッシュトの書』 by Shinya Asashiro (浅白深也)

Teruma is a high school student who usually goes unnoticed. One day, he answers a strange job offer looking for a “protagonist”…

I don’t often read light novels, but I have been meaning to read some for a long time. The title of this one caught my eye, and I have decided to give it a try.

I enjoyed the story and the characters, and I found the book easy to read. There is a generous amount of furigana above kanji words, I don’t know if it is an usual feature of light novels, but it is very nice. However, I find the font of this book surprisingly small, smaller than the majority of books I have read.

The story was very predictable, which makes it easier to read but also takes away a good part of the suspense. Nonetheless, the book was still very enjoyable and entertaining. Again, I don’t know if all light novels share these characteristics, but there is a very limited number of characters and places, very few descriptions and nothing that is unnecessary to the story, making it easier to read.

While the story has elements of fantasy to it, the setting remains a realistic one, so there is nothing challenging in terms of descriptions or vocabulary.

『誰も知らない死刑の舞台裏』 by Shoji Kondo (近藤昭二)

A nonfiction book on the history of death penalty in the world as well as the present conditions of the capital punishment in Japan, from its evolution over the years and famous trials to the daily life of inmates.

I thought that this book would be the most difficult of my readings for July, but it was surprisingly okay.

I would even say that the first half of the book was quite easy to read in Japanese. There was a lot of specialised vocabulary, but I usually did not need to look them up because the kanji were clear enough.

However, when the book shifted from general history of capital punishment to the situation in Japan, it started having some difficult parts. I particularly found the description of some famous cases and trials that have shaped Japan’s criminal law to be sometimes difficult, but thankfully the book is written in a very didactic way and divided into very small portions that make it easier to read and not that bad if you have missed something.

Overall, this book was both relatively easy and very engrossing, exactly the kind of nonfiction that I wanted to read in Japanese. I read it slowly because I was taking notes while reading (not related to learning Japanese, but related to the book’s content, like I would do if it were in English), but seeing that I can read this kind of books in Japanese encourages me to look for similar ones.

『泥の河』 by Teru Miyamoto (宮本輝)

Osaka, 1955. Through the eyes of six year-old Nobuo, we witness the life and sometimes death of people left to themselves in the desolated area surrounding the Aji river.

The edition I bought contains both novellas 泥の河 and 蛍川 and my intention was to read both in July. However, I found 泥の河 to be so depressing that I wanted to take a break before reading the second one.

I also found it a little challenging in terms of Japanese level, particularly because the dialogues are written in dialect. Dialect is something that I am far from mastering and I am always struggling with books that have dialogues written that way.

I also had difficulties to visualise the setting: the river, Nobuo’s house, the bridge… Fortunately, the novella has been adapted into film in 1981 and some videos are available on YouTube. I haven’t watched the film, but just watching some scenes from it allowed me to have a clear vision of the setting.

These novellas have been translated both into French and into English, and I am tempted to get one of these translations to read the next novella.

『JR上の駅公園口』 by Miri Yu (柳美里)

Born in 1933, Kazu was spared the experience of the war, but his life has been a continuous struggle. Alongside glimpses of passerby’s conversations and historical facts, we get to know some episodes of Kazu’s past, as his spirit wanders in Ueno Park.

I heard so many good things about this book that I really wanted to love it, but no matter how hard I tried, 『JR上の駅公園口』 was not a book for me.

I will talk about why I didn’t like Miri Yu’s novel when I write my book review. For now, I will talk about reading this book in Japanese.

『JR上の駅公園口』 is certainly the most challenging book I have read this year. The Japanese level is not particularly high for the most parts, but the book constantly jumps from one topic to the other without warning. Once you get used to the author’s style, this is okay, but I found that it adds a lot of difficulty when reading in Japanese.

I consider the first pages to be the most difficult part of any novel. I always have to make some effort to understand where we are and what we are talking about, but once the story begins, I feel like I just board the narrative train and do not need to make that much effort anymore. In 『JR上の駅公園口』, I could not rely on the narration taking me on its tracks, I constantly needed to make this initial effort to understand what we are talking about now, because the narration constantly jumps from one thing to the other. As a result, I found this novel extremely tiring to read in Japanese.

Moreover, some passages are challenging in themselves. These are what I would call the explanatory passages, the ones where you are told at length about a certain topic like the history of Kaju’s family’s ancestors or explanations about the Shogitai and the Battle of Ueno. I also found difficult to jump in the middle of passersby’s conversations like the novel often does.

This is why I decided, after some time in the novel, to buy the translation by Morgan Giles (Tokyo Ueno Station) and read in parallel. This was an excellent decision.

I think that this is the first time that I systematically read a book in parallel, and it was an interesting experience. I am very impressed by the translation, seeing both how difficult the Japanese is and how well written the English version is.

As it was my first time reading in parallel, it took me some time to find a good way of using the translation. First I tried to read a paragraph in English followed by its counterpart in Japanese. The problem is that I was tempted to just keep on reading in English. So I switched things and read first a paragraph (or several paragraphs when they were short) in Japanese and its counterpart in English. That way, I could also appreciate more the subtleties of the translation, the choices made to render nuances in English and so on.

After some time though, it became clear to me that I wanted to skip entire passages in Japanese. They are those dry and didactic passages that I find difficult to read in Japanese and not super interesting to be honest (like the descriptive panels of an exhibition of paintings…). In these cases, I would just read the translation and skip reading the Japanese. I also found that I preferred to read the bits of conversation between passersby first in English and then in Japanese. Overall, episodes of the protagonist’s past are what I enjoy reading the most so I read them first in Japanese then in English.

In the end, I didn’t have any good method to read the Japanese and English translation at the same time, it depended a lot on my mood of the moment and what passage I was reading.

Even though I missed the reasons why so many people enjoyed Miri Yu’s novel, I found the translation pleasant to read. If I had read the Japanese alone, I would have given up halfway through the book, partly because I didn’t like the novel and partly because, at my level, reading the Japanese was very tiring.

I recommend the translation if you are interested in reading this book, but depending on your level, the Japanese book can be quite a challenge…

Note on the level difficulty of the books

Note that this is a personal order, I am sure that your perception of a book (and its difficulty) depends a lot on what you are used to reading and what you like and makes you feel excited. For example, I found Keigo Higashino easy to read because I have read a lot of his novels, but if you haven’t, you might say that 『アンフィニッシュトの書』 is much easier than 『白馬山荘殺人事件』. Similarly, 『泥の河』 would not be difficult to read if you don’t mind reading dialogues in dialect. And part of the reason I found 『誰も知らない死刑の舞台裏』 easy to read was because I had already learned a good amount of the specialised vocabulary found in the book by reading legal thrillers.

I also think that your interest for the story can greatly influence how you perceive the difficulty of a book. I love whodunnits and crime fiction so much that I am bound to find any book of this genre easier to read. This might be because I am more focused on the story than the Japanese, and I want to know what will happen next, so it encourages me to continue even if I am tired of reading in Japanese. On the opposite, 『JR上の駅公園口』 was not that difficult as such, but my lack of interest for some parts of the novel did not encourage me to make the effort to read them in Japanese, and it made the whole reading experience quite unpleasant.

Conclusion

I am very happy with my readings of July: finishing a nonfiction book on a specialised topic, reading my first novel in parallel and getting into light novels… I will try to do as well in August, though the Korean Summer heat usually beats me down at this time of the year. Nonetheless, here are my reading goals for August:

My plan is to read two novelisations (『君の名は』 and 『そして父になる』) while watching the film to see if and how novelisations can be used by beginners and intermediate learners to start reading books in Japanese. I haven’t watched 『そして父になる』 yet, so I am looking forward to reading the book and watching the film. I also want to continue diving into light novels, and I chose 『いたいのいたいのとんでゆけ』because I saw the words 殺人 in the back cover summary, so I thought I might enjoy the story. Finally, 『11文字の殺人』 is one of Keigo Higashino’s earlier writings that the publisher is re-printing this year.

I suspect that all these books will be fast reads, so there might be room for another book in August…