From the world of words and two from Japan

Published May 28, 2021, 10:03 AM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND: Today, we have books that “play” in the world of words, dictionaries, and libraries. And there are two novels from Japanese authors, from opposite ends of the writing spectrum.

‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ by Pip Williams

I’ve always been partial to fiction titles that have lexicography or etymology as one of the recurring themes of the narrative, so this novel that has the creating of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in the backdrop, seemed meant for me. The central character is Esme, daughter of one of the lexicographers working under Dr. Murray on the OED. We first meet Esme and her widower father when she’s just a toddler in the mid-1880’s and he’s already working at the Scriptorium in Oxford, a barn situated beside the Murray residence that was converted as the workplace of the OED, where little strips of paper of words with their definition and application were how the Dictionary was being formed.

Chapters that follow are set against the progression of time, and as Esme grows up, we’re treated to a story that has as much to do with the role of women when they didn’t even have the right to vote, as it does with historical events of the early 20th century as they impacted on the work being done on the OED. The suffragette movement, World War I—we anticipate these, while entranced by the personal story of Esme, and the people that surrounded her. Her innocence, her naïveté, her determination that not let gender get in the way of accomplishment, and the manner in which the word “bond maid” ghosts her life, all make for an elucidating read about her notion that the OED, as created solely by men, defines words with a gender bias.

‘First Person Singular’ by Haruki Murakami

It is a foregone conclusion that this slim volume of eight short stories will not make a dent in the enthusiasm with which the global-wide fans of Haruki Murakami, now in hi 70’s, will greet this book. It won’t even matter that a string sense of deja vu may be experienced by long time readers of his novels. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed his early novels, with their sly, subversive sense of humor, and a playful use of his own Japanese form of magical realism. There was something genuinely original and whimsical about his stories, their plots, and what I would presume was the excellent translating done to preserve the DNA of his books as originally written in Japanese.

“Charlie Parker Plays the Bossa Nova” and “With The Beatles” are the two stories that had me believing he still had the stuff. But writing about a talking monkey from Northern Japan, who the narrator encounters in a semi-deserted sulfur hot springs resort just seemed too calculated. And when you added the element of questioning whether the monkey was even real, that seemed too much like him coasting on what his readers’ expectations are like. I’m not going to use the word formulaic as I do give credit to how unique the Murakami-verse has been. But I will say that I miss the from left field-humor, as this collection just seems to staid when stacked up beside the wonderful stories he’s weaved in the course of his storied career.

‘Bullet Train’ by Kotaro Isaka

Kotaro Isaka is a name to be on the lookout for, as 12 of his books have been adapted for film or TV in Japan, and “Bullet Train” has been optioned in the US to be distributed by Sony—with David Leitch (“Deadpool 2,” “Atomic Blonde”) directing and no less than Brad Pitt taking on a starring role. While this novel was first published in Japan in 2010, its only been translated into English now and, trust me, this is one of better crime fiction novels I’ve read this year. It’s fast-paced, almost all the action takes place on a Tokyo-Morioka Shinkansen journey, and the characters are all memorable and fully conceived. Its suspense, action, and dashes of humor are imaginatively executed.

The premise starts off with Kimura on the train, in the hopes of avenging his son who’s in a coma, thanks to the manipulative evil found in a baby-faced 14-year old named Satoshi, who is young evil personified, and a passenger on the train. Things get complicated as two hired goons, Tangerine and Lemon, are aboard the same train, having retrieved the kidnapped son of a mob boss and carrying a suitcase of money that at one point, was supposed to be the ransom money. When a fifth character named Nanao, who considers himself the unluckiest assassin, is introduced, and proceeds to steal the suitcase, all sort of possibilities are put in motion. It’s a brilliant set-up and the amazing thing is how Isaka juggles all these balls without dropping a single one.

‘The Absolute Book’ by Elizabeth Knox

Here’s an epic fantasy written by celebrated Kiwi author Elizabeth Knox. It’s doubly interesting because it starts off as a crime story set in today’s world then evolves into world-building and fantasy that rivals that of Tolkien and the best of them. It’s how the author intertwines these alternative universes that brings about the special magic that novel carries within its voluminous pages. The length of the book may stand as an obstacle for some readers. But I am reminded about such epics as “Lord of the Rings” or even “Game of Thrones” and can say that it can be a matter of not having to finish the novel as a continuous piece, but returning to this Knox universe at your own pace, even reading other material in between these “returns.”

We meet Taryn Conklin, whose elder sister Beatrice was killed in a hit and run accident that saw the perpetrator jailed for five years. Upon his release, the man convicted dies under suspicious circumstances and we know that Taryn is indirectly responsible. Years later, she’s a celebrated author herself, with books that talk of special books and libraries, and the strange things that happened to them. Without much fanfare, we read of Taryn thrust into a labyrinth of worlds, where Norse lore, Arthurian legends, and even pop culture play major roles. There’s a sly, unobtrusive introduction to these layers of worlds, and that’s part of the sleight of hand that Knox creates to make this story a unique proposition. There’s texture and depth here, so don’t be put off by the heft of the book.

 
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