Happy midweek everyone! Wow. We are already halfway through the week. As it is midweek, it is time for a fresh WWW Wednesday update, my first this year. WWW Wednesday is a bookish meme originally hosted by SAM@TAKING ON A WORLD OF WORDS. The mechanics for WWW Wednesday are quite simple, you just have to answer three questions:

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. What have you finished reading?
  3. What will you read next?

What are you currently reading?

My deep dive into the world of Japanese literature continues with Emi Yagi’s Diary of a Void. This will be my seventh read this month and, like all the books I have read so far this month, this will be my first novel by Emi Yagi. It was quite recently when I first came across the book. I didn’t have any iota about what it was about so I didn’t give it much thought. I eventually relented – the curiosity killed the cat after all – and decided to give the book a chance. It didn’t escape my notice how bookstands have proliferated with up-and-coming Japanese writers. It is even more impressive that most of them are female writers. Indeed, what a book reviewer has mentioned is true: current Japanese literature is being dominated by the female voice. I am not complaining though. Anyway, I am just about to start with Diary of a Void for I just finished reading The Strangeness of Beauty over lunch. I will share more of my impressions of the book in this Friday’s First Impression Friday update.

What have you finished reading?

My journey across Japanese literature started off rather slowly but it didn’t take long before I gathered badly needed momentum. This momentum was integral in allowing me to complete three books for the second week running. This can also be attributed to how much I have been enjoying Japanese literature, with its eccentric mix. Speaking of eccentricity, one of the eccentricities I have noted about this part of the literary world is the prevalence of cats. They are ubiquitous in Haruki Murakai’s works and, more recently, several books which involved cats were published such as Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles. Sôsuke Natsukawa lent his voice to this growing collection of cat-related works with his 2017 novel 本を守ろうとする猫の話 (Hon o mamorō to suru neko no hanashi) which was translated into English as The Cat Who Saved Books.

The story itself is heartwarming but it didn’t seem that way at the onset as Rintaro Natsuki’s grandfather who stood as his guardian passed away abruptly. This left the management of Natsuki bookstore in the hands of Rintaro, an unimpressive high school student who distanced himself socially from his peers; he was a hikikomori. While he loved reading – it has become his safe haven – Rintaro had no recourse but to dispose of the remaining inventory because of his age; he was about to move in with an aunt he didn’t know existed. But before that, a talking cat named Tiger the Tabby entered his life. Rintaro was naturally flustered but soon gathered his wits, especially after the feline told him about his mission to save imprisoned books. This seemingly lighthearted story was an indictment of the current state of the publishing industry, academia, and the encroachment of capitalism on the simple pleasures of reading. It was a quick but compelling read that also doubled as a coming-of-age story.

From a coming-of-age story, my foray into Japanese literature next brought me to a work of detective and mystery fiction. Honestly, Japanese literature is one of the last ones I would expect when detective fiction is mentioned but as I soon realized, the diversity that exists under the umbrella of Japanese literature is astounding. It is a vast landscape that covered genres ranging from magical realism to mystery to literary fiction. Seichō Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates, however, is my first work of Japanese mystery fiction in nearly three years; my last was Keigo Higashino’s Journey Under the Midnight Sun which I read during the start of the pandemic.

There was no preamble with Inspector Imanishi Investigates because the story immediately brought the readers to the scene of the crime: Tokyo’s Kamata Railroad Yard where the lifeless body of an unnamed man was discovered. One of the detectives assigned to the case was Inspector Imanishi. At the start, the case barely made any sense. The clues that they were able to gather, starting with an innocuous name “Kameda” overheard by a witness during a conversation between the victim and the suspect, only set Inspector Imanishi and his team into a wild goose chase that brought them as far as the Tohoku region on the northeastern part of Honshu. Despite his diligence, Inspector Imanishi was unable to make any headway into the case. Matsumoto, credited for popularizing detective fiction in Japanese literature, then masterfully builds the suspense. Sure, the ending is predictable – works of detective fiction rarely veer off course – but the journey to get there was skillfully laid out by Matsumoto.

The latest book I was able to finish was Lydia Minatoya’s The Strangeness of Beauty. In a way, this book is a deviation from the first five works of Japanese literature I read this month. First, Minatoya was born in the United States to parents with Japanese heritage. Second, the book was written in English. Nevertheless, I am still intrigued by the approach of a Japanese American writer toward what is palpably a work steeped in Japanese culture and history. I wasn’t planning to read the book this month but I guess my curiosity was burgeoning and I eventually relented.

Minatoya’s debut in fiction writing, the heart of The Strangeness of Beauty was Etsuko. Her story transported readers to 1921 Seattle where Etsuko and her husband settled after moving from Japan. She had a sister, Naomi, who eloped with her husband Akira, moving away from their mother, Chie Fuji who was not in favor of Naomi’s marriage. Naomi, unfortunately, died during childbirth. Her daughter, Hanae survived and to learn about her culture, Hanae was sent by Akira to the domineering Chie. There are several layers to the story. First, it was a work of historical fiction. Second, it grappled with the sense of belongingness and alienation often felt by Japanese (Asian in general) Americans. They don’t belong in the Americas because their physical attributes distinguish them from the crowd. In Japan, they are also treated as strangers. Family dynamics were also extensively explored by Minatoya and details of Japanese culture made this facet of the novel all the more interesting; the samurai culture was a prevalent example. However, one aspect that caught my attention was the novel’s commentary on a famed form of Japanese literature: the I-novel. Because of its several layers, this was a book I thoroughly enjoyed.

I will still pursue my new-to-me Japanese writers in my succeeding reads, starting with more books that involve cats: Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the World and Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat. I wasn’t kidding when cats are ubiquitous in Japanese literature. From the contemporary, I will be immersing myself in the work of one of the most prominent names of 20th-century Japanese literature, Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human.

That’s it for this week’s WWW Wednesday. I hope you are all doing great. Happy reading and always stay safe! Happy Wednesday again!