I had planned to read both of these during spring break, one on my way to Arizona and the other on my way back. But I only got through the first one. Since they're both short story collections by Asian writers, I wanted to write about them together, so I waited until I finished the other one. Today I finally did that! Took me long enough.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Murakami Haruki*
*Murakami is Japanese, in case you didn't know
Murakami can write pretty mind-bending stuff, dealing with common themes like loneliness while weaving in some fantasy and the surreal. I usually appreciate that, but I don't need a brain teaser when I'm only reading short stories. I love his full-length novels, but the short stories in this book were hit or miss for me. Most of them I liked and finished them thinking, I LOVE this story! So good! But some of them I finished and thought Huh? What did I just read?? What was I supposed to get out of that??
My favorite story was "A Shinagawa Monkey". Mysteriously, a woman struggles to remember her name and then she forgets it completely. Turns out a talking monkey stole it! He steals names that he likes, and takes both good and bad memories attached to that name with it.
I thought this story was really clever. As the last story in the book I read it just before I flew back to Michigan, and what a coincidence that I read such a striking story about names just after listening to a sermon about the importance of names (Proverbs 22:1) a few days before!
"Once you make up your mind to get rid of something, there's very little you can't discard. No─not very little. Once you put your mind to it, there's nothing you can't get rid of. And once you start tossing things out, you find yourself wanting to get rid of everything. It's as if you'd gambled away almost all your money and decided, What the hell, I'll bet what's left. Too much trouble to cling to the rest" (from "Man-Eating Cats", p. 121)
The Bridegroom by Ha Jin*
*Jin is Chinese, in case you didn't know
Jin's stories were much easier to read, which made this book easier to get through. Plus, there are only 12 stories (the other book has 24).When reading Murakami's book I always felt like he was testing me, as if each story was a riddle whose real meaning I had to either decipher or let go over my head. Granted, both men are completely different writers, so it isn't fair to compare them based on just one of their works or because they're both Asian. But this book is definitely more what I'd call easy reading. Funny and interesting stories that each have a particular critique of social and political problems in China.
My favorite was "Broken". Apparently in China being "broken" is a euphemism for losing your virginity, similar to how we Americans refer to someone getting their cherry "popped". I had always figured since China's government seems to be very conservative and takes a rigid attitude toward sex and public discussions of it, Chinese people must be the same way. So it was really shocking to read about this story's characters talking about sex bluntly and engaging in sexual activities in a secret yet bold manner. I learned so much through this story. Like did you know having an affair is illegal in China? And did you know that if a man seduces a woman and they both get in trouble for the act, she's the slut and not him? Well maybe you did know that. It seems to be the rule everywhere. Anyway Ha Jin is aware of this hypocrisy and the lack of support women have for embracing their sexuality, and he addresses this issue in a blunt, amusing, yet saddening way.
"You let a devil into your house, he'll get into your bed" (from "After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town", p. 185)
I love a good story, and I would recommend both these collections of short ones to anybody!