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Japanese Literature

Note: This is a pre-programmed post. I’m in Hong Kong for a wedding until Monday, October 6. I will attend to all your comments when I return. Don’t forget to stop by on Monday as I’ll be hosting a stop in the TLC Book Tour for Capote in Kansas by Kim Powers.

I’m aware of the Japanese Reading Challenge, which requires three books in any genres: novel, poetry, graphical novel, and children’s books. The two I’ll share with you might not qualify because the authors aren’t Japanese, but they have been well-received by readers in local bookstores. I picked up these books (both published this year) a while ago waiting to snap into the mood for them.

The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery is set in late nineteenth century Japan. It’s the story of Aurelia, a young French-American girl who, after the death of her mother and her missionary uncle, finds herself lost and alone and in need of a new family. Knowing only a few words of Japanese she hides in a Japanese tea house and is adopted by the family who own it: gradually falling in love with both the Japanese tea ceremony and with her young mistress, Yukako.

The novel is drawn from a history shrouded in secrets about two women, it also portrays resplendent tea parties that women, other than those who are entertaining, are not welcome. Japan’s warriors and well-off men would gather in tatami-floored structures—teahouses—to participate in an event that was equal parts ritual dance and sacramental meal.

The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz is a fictionalized reconstruction of the private history of Haruko, a young woman of good family, who marries the Crown Prince of Japan, the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, in 1959. She is the first non-aristocratic woman to enter the longest-running, almost hermetically sealed, and mysterious monarchy in the world. Met with cruelty and suspicion by the Empress and her minions, Haruko is controlled at every turn. The only interest the court has in her is her ability to produce an heir. After finally giving birth to a son, Haruko suffers a nervous breakdown and loses her voice. However, determined not to be crushed by the imperial bureaucrats, she perseveres.

Break A Spell, Three Novels

I decide that I need a break from the turmoil of In the Land of Green Ghosts, story of the escape of a Burmese tribal lad, before plunging into The Rape of Nanking. Should I read:

1. The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz. In 1959, then-Crown Prince Akihito of Japan, Naruhito’s (the Crown Prince) father, electrified the nation by marrying Michiko Shoda, a university-educated beauty with refined manners and a stinging forehand. Daughter of a wealthy businessman, she was the first commoner to marry into a family that traces its noble ancestry back to the sun goddess Amaterasu, and within a couple of years she suffered a nervous collapse that rendered her mute for several months.

2. The Painter of Shanghai by Jennifer Epstein. The novel is based on a true story. It traces the life of a young orphan girl in pre-revolution China from small town brothel to Bohemian Paris to the studios of 1930’s Shanghai. Born in 1895 and orphaned as a child, Yuliang was sold into sexual slavery at 14 by her opium-addicted uncle. After seven years in the brothel, she was bought out by Pan Zanhua, a progressive official who made her his concubine, then his second wife, and encouraged her painting. One of a handful of women accepted into the Shanghai Art School, she went on to win fellowships for study in Paris and Rome.

3. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. The title’s “uncommon reader” is Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, who becomes obsessed with books after a chance encounter with a mobile library. The story follows the consequences of this obsession for the Queen, her household and advisers, and her constitutional position.

What do you think?