Before we turn the page on the year, here’s a selection of our reviewers’ favorite books.
“The Tale of Genji” [fiction]
“The Tale of Genji” is back, but then again it never really went away. Fifteen years in the making, the fourth complete translation into English of this seminal masterpiece joins its place alongside the elite corps of “Genji” translations.
Is it better or worse than those that came before? Dennis Washburn’s great contribution comes not with a self-regarding fanfare and a snide attack on the labors of others, but rather a generous admission that there is indeed no one single “Genji,” but rather repeated reincarnations into English, allowing us to marvel at the novel’s seemingly limitless fecundity and capacity for reinterpretation.
W. W. Norton
Some things always stay the same: the novel traces the ephemerality of Genji’s glory years as lover and intriguer before we are plunged into remorseless decline. In the latter half of the book Genji is replaced by two protagonists, Niou and Kaoru, who are literally half the man he is, lacking his balanced mix of manliness and compassion.
In Washburn’s introduction, however, at no point does he mention the Heian Period (794-1185) obsession with mappō no yo (the latter days of the law), the Buddhist concept that the world would soon be entering its final phase (Though it does merit footnotes on pages 108 and 546). In this “Genji,” it seems the world is not quite as irrecoverably doomed as it was before. (Damian Flanagan)
“Reading the Tale of Genji: Sources from the First Millennium” [nonfiction]
Thomas Harper and Haruo Shirane’s book is a tour through 1,000 years of reader responses to “The Tale of Genji,” from allusions in Heian diaries to essays by 20th-century literary giants such as Virginia Woolf and Junichiro Tanizaki. Over a dozen translators and introduction-writers are credited, and the range of material and approaches taken to it are surprisingly wide.
The “apocrypha” will probably be of most immediate interest to the casual “Genji” enthusiast. “Tamakura” or “Pillowed upon His Arm,” a short chapter written by Edo Period (1603-1868) classicist Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) to fill one of the gaps in the narrative, is translated here by Harper in full; other “lost chapters” are dutifully presented in their fragmentary state.
Columbia University Press
Some of the material in the book is almost experimental, like the attempt at recreating the dense structure of Kitamura Kigin’s “Moonlit Lake Commentary” (1673). Genres seldom seen in English translation are also represented, such as the medieval “Women in Ise and Genji: A Match in Twelve Rounds.” The balance of academic interest to sheer readability feels just about right: it’s a book you can page through for pleasure, but with enough footnotes to serve as a gateway to the wider world of “Genji” studies too. (Matt Treyvaud)
“The Buried Giant” [fiction]
Make it official: let Kazuo Ishiguro be named the caretaker of humanity’s collective memory. Master shaper and genius storyteller, Ishiguro graced us in 2015 with a compulsively readable book that quietly insists on multiple readings. An allegory for all time, “The Buried Giant” spins the delicate tension between remembrance and oblivion, a meditation on mindfulness and intent, a meandering narrative as one simple quest is forgotten for another — and yet another.
Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple whose love has endured in the pitiless world of sixth century Britain. A shadow marks their past, but the “mist of forgetfulness” enveloping the land prevents full remembrance — even to the point of forgetting one’s own children.
The narrative journey to understand their shared past and to find their grown son melds into a crusade mired in politics, intrigue and Arthurian legend as the country struggles to both remember and forget its history.
Ishiguro set his tale as tensions between Saxons and Britons simmer during a truce, but the question he raises is for every generation: How to balance the mindless quest for survival with the need to remember — for love, for country, for eternity? (Kris Kosaka)
Award-winning manga artist Junji Ito has never been shy about drawing inspiration from the masters of horror and suspense: a Lovecraftian atmosphere of foreboding permeated throughout 1998’s “Uzumaki,” while for “Gyo,” originally released in 2001, Ito took the man-eating shark from Steven Spielberg’s infamous “Jaws” and quite literally gave it some legs.
The action starts out in Okinawa, when young couple Tadashi and Kaori encounter a foul-smelling fish equipped with unusual mechanical appendages. Possessing a hypersensitive sense of smell, Kaori is deeply disgusted and panicked by the creature, and her deepest fears are soon realized as it turns out to be just the precursor to a full-fledged invasion of ambulatory marine life.
Often convoluted and even contradictory, the plot situates the creatures’ origins in World War II-era scientific experimentation, but these labored attempts at exposition are thankfully overshadowed by the sheer excess of grotesque body horror that turns the narrative into a gleefully exaggerated mix of gills, guts and scales: picture David Cronenberg directing a David Attenborough documentary.
Publishers Viz have presented the manga in a weighty hardcover edition that contains both volumes of the original two-parter and delivers a certain physicality befitting of all the visceral gore contained within — a coffee table book for only the most strong-stomached fans of the genre. (Mike Sunda)
“The Secret of the Blue Glass” [young fiction]
After the Little People, a thumb-sized family from England, were brought to Japan by a nanny, they were housed in cardboard boxes on the shelves between old volumes of books in the library of the Moriyama residence.
Successive generations of Moriyama children, tasked with the duty of caring for them, now find that the old order, the comfort and predictability of life, is about to change as the lowering clouds of World War II loom over Japan, and milk, served nightly in a blue goblet to the tiny family, is suddenly in short supply.
Pushkin Children’s Books
The English translation of Tomiko Inui’s 1967 classic “The Secret of the Blue Glass” has been a long but worthwhile wait, the author’s tribute to love and courage in the face of a menacing new form of patriotism, reminding us that children’s literature can both address adult concerns and provide alternatives to our failings.
Ginney Tapley, a British translator who lives in rural Ibaraki Prefecture, knows this terrain well. I’m looking forward to reading her rendition of Akiyuki Nosaka’s autobiographical work, “The Whale That Fell in Love With a Submarine,” another work that, while retaining the innocence of childhood in the voice of its narrator, carries a similar antiwar message to Inui’s tale. (Stephen Mansfield)
On Dec. 30, this story’s headline was modified and an introduction was added to clarify the fact that this is a collection of reviewers’ favorite books but not necessarily a ‘best of’ list.