Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes

“The dreamer in her
Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her and I knew it.”

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 198 pages.
Read from August 31, 2021 to September 12, 2021.

If you’re not aware of the Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath saga please read a quick rundown before embarking on this book as it’s extremely important in understanding this selection of poetry.

Birthday Letters was published 35 years after Plath’s suicide and was written over a 25 year period. It was published in March 1998 which was only a few months before Hughes would pass away. Hughes had previously published nothing about their relationship. Hughes and Plath’s marriage was a difficult one with Hughes being unfaithful and eventually moving in with his mistress. While Plath’s works were hailed as masterpieces of modern feminism, Hughes was vilified for his part in Plath’s suicide as she spiralled further into a depression after he left. Hughes also destroyed some of Plath’s works after she died, presumably because it cast him in a bad light since Plath’s poetry often referred to her relationships, including Hughes and her father. This furthered public resentment from Plath fans. This collection was Hughes’ response to Plath’s poetry and possible redemption from her untimely death. Ted Hughes was the United Kingdom’s Poet Laureate from December 1984 until his death.

The world is still very much fascinated with these two poetic geniuses and their lives. It’s part of the reason why they’re still read today. Birthday Letters is Hughes intimate and autobiographical account of his relationship with Plath, his side of their story and his reaction to her passing. Almost every poem in this collection references one of Plath’s poems, like a direct reply to her work, with his own words, impressions and feelings. Birthday Letters is one of the most intimate collections of poetry I’ve ever read as it reveals a haunted and hurt man, a side not seen by Hughes previously. While the poems in this collection are phenomenally written if you’re not familiar with Plath’s poetry it can make them hard to decipher. I think my biggest regret with this book is that I should have read it slower and taken the time to read Plath in tandem with it. The prose in this book is not meant to be taken in too quickly as the words themselves took Hughes many years to write. While I didn’t always connect with the poems in this collection its prose is very clearly one of the best pieces of poetry to come out of the 20th century.

If you have read this book, please read the previously unpublished poem “Last Letter“. This poem is Hughes most vulnerable poem on Plath’s death but why it wasn’t included in this collection is a mystery. Last Letters provides a sense of closure on Hughes feelings on their relationship and tragic outcome that clearly haunted him his whole life.

This books is a must-read for any poetry lover or if you’re at all interested in the dynamic and tragic relationship of Hughes and Plath.

Longing and Other Stories by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

“When I go out into the world, will I have to endure the same suffering and distress as my parents?”

3/5 stars.
ebook, ARC.
Read from November 29, 2021 to December 6, 2021.

A big thanks to Netgalley for the ARC copy of this book and for continuing to expand my reading repertoire. Considering my love for Japanese writing, it’s weird that this was my first time reading something by this author. I intend to add a few more of his works to my TBR pile.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki was one of Japan’s most prominent modern writers in the early 20th century. He passed away in 1965 and was known for writing honest accounts of family life that was not often depicted out in the open within Japanese society. This collection of short stories was written early in his career between 1916-1921.

This collection contains three short stories, ‘Longing‘, ‘Sorrows of a Heretic‘, and ‘The Story of an Unhappy Mother‘. Longing details the dreamlike sequence of a boy trying to find his way back home to his mother. What he encounters is eerie and complete with a sad revelation at the end. Sorrows of a Heretic is about a despicable young university student and his relations with his family and friends. He is a liar, a cheat, and relentlessly selfish, even in the face of the death of people he deems close to him. His narcissism is hard to stomach throughout this story. The Story of an Unhappy Mother is another one that will make you feel uncomfortable. By all appearances, the mother in this story seems to have the perfect family with her doting sons. However, she has expectations of them that they can’t seem to be able to meet. After her one son gets married she crashes their honeymoon of which an accident occurs that no one wants to speak of. The mother falls into a deep depression and is never the same afterwards. This results in tragedy in which the real outcome of the accident is finally revealed to the reader and remaining family members.

There is some arguably autobiographical content in this book as it relates to the stories. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s mother passed away of a heart attack in 1917 and he was not able to make it to her death bed.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki has a great way of setting a distinct tone for his stories that create the unnerving atmosphere he is trying to instil in his readers. These stories are meant to make you uncomfortable and the fact, that 100 years on, these stories can still evoke these feelings showcases the author’s talent. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki had a way of merging ideas and shifting perspectives that made his writing approachable while also making readers uncomfortable as he showed them stories and ideas that may have been taboo or in bad form to discuss. With this collection, he specifically discusses family and how society perceives what makes a good family and asks the question about how far our duties extend to our family and what exactly do we owe them? This also shows the clash of Confucian ideals with that of the West in early 20th Japan.

Overall an engaging read that made me want to explore what else this author has to offer.

Underground by Haruki Murakami

“I have no physical symptoms, but psychologically there’s this burden. I’ve got to get rid of it somehow. Of course, when I first went back to work I was scared the same thing might happen again. It takes positive thinking to overcome fear, otherwise you’ll carry around this victim mentality forever.”

3/5 stars
Paperback, 309 pages.
Read from June 23, 2021 to July 7, 2021.

Ah yes, back to my favourite author though not in the way I expected. I’m nearing the end of my Murakami journey as I close in on reading everything this Japanese author currently has to offer.

Underground is a piece of non-fiction which Murakami isn’t generally known for, however, he felt compelled to write this book after Toyko was the centre of a terrorist attack in March 1995.

During the morning rush hour on March 20, 1995, the Tokyo subway was subject to a sarin gas attack. Sarin is a clear lethal chemical weapon gas that was invented by the Nazis. The attack killed 13 people and injured over 5000 people. An attack of this kind had never happened in Japan during peacetime and it shook the nation with the maliciousness of its attack. The government quickly went to work to determine the perpetrators of this terrible attack. The culprits were a cult by the name of Aum Shinrikyo, which means ‘supreme truth’. The cult itself started as a mere yoga and meditation course that wasn’t even a blip on anyone’s radar, however, it had amassed thousands of followers who believed in the doomsday prophecies of the group’s leader Shoko Asahara. Ashara was a blind man with long hair and beard who sat on the personal assets of his followers, raking in millions. He claimed that he was the second coming of Christ and that he could travel through time.

Shoko Asahara, Japan Times, 2018

Aum believed that Armaggedon would come as a result of a war between the United States and Japan and that only members of Aum would survive. Non-members were doomed to eternal hell unless they were killed by members. In five coordinated attacks, members of Aum released the sarin gas on three different subway lines the morning of March 20, 1995. This was not the first time Aum had done gas attacks but it wasn’t until after this attack that Aum was associated with the other incidences.

Murakami, like many Japanese, was struck and affected by the enormity and tragedy of the incident and felt inclined to write about the matter. However, he knew it wasn’t his story to tell so he decided to interview the survivors of the attack. He initially did not want to include any details on the Aum cult or anyone that was involved with them due to the massive amount of media attention that they received, instead of wanting to focus solely on the survivors, however, Murakami felt the scope of the story was incomplete and eventually interviewed a few former Aum members in an updated version of his book.

Murakami gracefully puts together the events of the day with the survivor’s stories. From train station workers to commuters, and medical staff, you piece the horrors of this event together. What is prevalent in the interviews themselves is the long-lasting damage that occurred. Some survivors are left with debilitating physical grievances while others have deep emotional scars and for some a lifetime of disability, suffering, and loss. Murakami also shows the unique mannerisms and behaviours exhibited by Japanese people and how they cope with emotions and turmoils as a society. The addition of the Aum member interviews completed this book as it was provided with a much-needed perspective about the turn of events and the reasons behind why everyday, smart, and seemingly normal people turned to this cult, as well as additional insights into Japanese mentality and society.

If you are new to Murakami, I would not recommend this book to start with just because it is such a stark contrast to the fiction that he normally writes. While this book is excellent and definitely contains Murakami’s tone and style, it would not be the most appropriate introduction to Murakami’s work. It is, however, an important piece of literature to read if you’re interested in learning about Aum and the events of that day.

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