Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I had my suspicions that it wasn’t a good idea to leave my 2013 reading so open—no defined projects, nothing to focus on—and I was right, because I have spent the month of January jumping somewhat aimlessly between books that weren’t speaking to each other. Luckily most of what I read was quite good: one exceptional novel-manuscript by the talented Steve Himmer and several books I would still like to write about, namely Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka and Steve Edward’s memoir Breaking Into the Backcountry about living alone in a cabin in eastern Oregon for ten months. Still, I like a little more continuity in my reading and so I put an end to my random reading last evening and made a proper plan with matching spreadsheet (oh yes, big nerd).

Before I tell you about the new project, I should give a quick re-cap of a current one. Last year I began reading Virginia Woolf start to finish and I am not curtailing that project, but I am reading her diaries at the same time as her fiction, and trying to keep pace—which means that I am somewhere in 1923 (17 July 1923, to be exact), quite a few months after she published Jacob’s Room (1922) and she’s now begun working on Mrs. Dalloway. I’m really looking forward to rereading Mrs. Dalloway but I have a few diary years to catch up before that. And I find that the diaries are best read slowly, a few pages every evening.

There is a lovely passage I underlined recently, one of the few passages in which Woolf writes about children:

We came back from Rodmell yesterday, & I am in one of my moods, as the nurses used to call it, today. And what is it & why? A desire for children, I suppose; for Nessa’s life; for the sense of flowers breaking all round me involuntarily. Here’s Angelica—here’s Quentin & Julian. Now children don’t make yourself ill on plum pudding tonight. We have people dining. There’s no hot water. The gas is escaping in Quentin’s bedroom—I pluck what I call flowers at random. They make my life seem a little bare sometimes; & then my inveterate romanticism suggests an image of forging ahead, alone, through the night: of suffering inwardly, stoically; of blazing my way through to the end—& so forth. […] Let me have one confessional where I need not boast. Years & years ago, after the Lytton affair, I said to myself, walking up the hill at Beireuth, never pretend that the things you haven’t got are not worth having; good advice I think.

And she goes on at quite some length on the subject – it’s a very interesting moment in her journal, one of her most introspective.

In any case, while I do my catching up with Woolf, I need a new project, something to give some meaning to my reading, and as I’m elbow-deep in revisions of one of my novel manuscripts, and as this book is set in southern Japan, I thought to do some concentrated immersion. It is the perfect excuse to broaden and deepen my experience with modern and contemporary Japanese literature. I’ve put together a very preliminary list – works by well-known authors whom I’ve already read one or two novels, works by some lesser known writers, books by as many women as I can find in translation (and one Yoko Ogawa short story collection in Japanese – as slowly and painfully as I can) and many of the men as well.

This is an aside but I took many of these names from the Akutagawa Prize winners – and while there are actually a lovely number of women on the list, most of them have not been translated. More of the men on the list have been translated into English. So it goes.

Here is the early list – and I welcome any additional suggestions:

  • Yoko Ogawa – Hotel Iris
  • Yoko Ogawa – Amours en Marge (quite a bit of Ogawa is available in French)
  • Yoko Ogawa – Mabuta (in Japanese – wish me luck)
  • Yasunari Kawabata – Thousand Cranes
  • Yasunari Kawabata – The Dancing Girl of Izu (we spent time on the Izu peninsula last year and I’d wished I’d read this before going)
  • Fumiko Enchi – Tale of False Fortunes (I am a big fan of Enchi’s Masks and The Waiting Years)
  • Shusaku Endo – Silence
  • Shusaku Endo – Volcano
  • Shusaku Endo – The Sea and Poison (if it’s been translated)
  • Kobo Abe – The Ark Sakura (Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is one of my all-time favorite novels, it’s about time I read more from him)
  • Kobo Abe – The Ruined Map
  • Junichiro Tanizaki – The Makioka Sisters
  • Kenji Nakagami – The Cape and Other Stories
  • Kenzaburo Oe – Silent Cry
  • Kenzaburo Oe – Rouse up O Young Men of the New Age
  • Japanese Women Writers: Twentieth Century Short Fiction
  • Taeko Kono – Toddler Hunting
  • Minako Oba – Of Birds Crying
  • Risa Wataya – Isn’t it a pity? (which is supposed to be translated soon)
  • Yu Nagashima – Yuko’s Shortcut
  • Yoko Tawada – The Bridegroom was a Dog
  • Hiromi Kawakami – The Briefcase

That’s what I’ve got so far – what am I missing?

9 Responses to “a disorganized post about organizing my reading”

  1. smithereens

    I would add to your Ogawa list her great Cristallisation Secrete (in French, reviewed in my blog last year). What about some Banana Yoshimoto? And Akiko Itoyama? (if you want to stick with women). I look forward to your posts about them all!

    • Michelle

      Oh thank you – I’m going to try to get my hands on all the Ogawa I can find, and I’m so happy that more of her work has made its way into French. I’ve read some Banana Yoshimoto, and will probably try her latest with this project. And I don’t know Akiko Itoyama, so am going to look her up now!

  2. Stefanie

    Lovely passage from Woolf’s diary. I have nothing to add to your Japanese list but I look forward to hearing about your reading of them 🙂

    • Michelle

      Thanks, Stefanie – reading Woolf is such fun, isn’t it? There is always something new to find.

  3. MarinaSofia

    Woolf’s diary always nourishes and inspires me. I love your project – let me have a think and get back to you about some other Japanese writers – does it have to be short stories?

    • Michelle

      Oh no, I’m not limiting myself to short stories at all – so please send any suggestions you may have!

  4. Biblibio

    I can’t offer any good recommendations for your list, but I do find it rather interesting that you feel that specific reading goals and projects organize and help your reading. I’ve found that if I try to read according to a certain plan, I get distracted or feel as though the reading is somehow forced. Yours isn’t even a generalized reading plan – you’ve got a real, detailed list going here! I’m quite impressed.

    • Michelle

      I am usually better with lists – it must be some strange personality trait. But I do know what you mean – usually I just follow a particular author. I’m not really good with “themed” reading unless it’s by country or author, if that makes sense.

  5. helen

    Hello Michelle, how are you?

    It’s really late to be commenting on this post, but I haven’t been keeping up with anyone over the last two months. I think your reading list looks exciting, and I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts about the books. I recently read ‘Snow Country’ by Yasunari Kawabata (which I highly recommend, although I haven’t written about it and had some difficulty with it, due to my utter ignorance of Japanese life in the middle of the twentieth century) and I’d like to read more Japanese literature in the future. I’m sure I’ll be inspired by you!

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