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Author:
• Sunday, May 27th, 2012

Kanegae Hideyoshi was born in Harbin, China in 1926 and his pen-name was Mitsugu Saotome. He studied at Keio University’s Literature Department but left before obtaining a degree.

In 1954, Yamamoto Shugoro, the popular Japanese novelist and short-story writer, accepted to be Saotome’s mentor.

Before writing novels about the Japanese Warring States period from the pre-modern to modern times (1868 to 1912), he was publishing period fiction and historical stories in journals.

In 1968 Mitsugu Saotome was awarded the prestigious Naoki Prize for his novel Kyojin No Ori (The Cage Of The Traveller) and in 2006 he was elected chairman of the Japanese P.E.N..

Saotome is well known as a writer of Japanese historical fiction. He claimed that this interest derived from the fact that he was descended from a Samurai of the Aizu-Wakamatsu domain and therefore he had a special affection for Aizu-Wakamatsu, the land of his ancestors.

He was a prolific writer, his novels are very popular in Japan and several of them have been adapted into feature films and television series. Okei was first published in Japan in 1974 and was translated into English in 2008. Unfortunately, Okei seems to be the only novel of all his work which has been translated into English.

Mitsugu Saotome died in 2008 of stomach cancer in the city of Kamakura in Kanagawa prefecture, Japan.

The epic story of Okei is set in the second half of the nineteenth century, in the mountainous town of Aizu-Wakamatsu, during a turbulent internal bloody period of Japanese history. It’s the transitional period between the end of the feudal shogunate, from 1853 to 1867, and the restoration of the Meiji era which lasted from 1868 to 1912.

The shogun had a very strong military power in Japan which relegated the power of the emperor to solely being a religious and political leader. The word Meiji means enlightened rule, which had as its target the combination of Western progress with Eastern established values. The Meiji era saw the disappearance of the Keio period and with it the city of Edo which became the “Eastern Capital” Tokyo and replaced the ancient capital, Kyoto, located in the western part of the country.

Okei, the main character of the novel and the one that stands out against all the others, is a teenage-peasant cooper’s daughter, who despite very strict rules, with class distinctions rigorously enforced, plus the Samurai complex code of honour, falls passionately in love with the young Samurai, Sasanuma Kingo. Her ardent flame isn’t shared by Kingo, being himself in love with Yukiko, the widow of the senior councillor, Jinbo Shuri, who had taken his own life by committing Seppuku (Harakiri) in order to wash his shame, as was the tradition among Samurai when they displeased their master.

The author describes how throughout centuries people had established connections and loyalties to the local feudal lord because his defeat meant the defeat of his clan and how the long established code of manners, loyalties and obedience started to fade from Japanese society and was replaced by new values. Aizu has lived three hundred years of peace before the Westerners violated the eastern land and were hated for it.

Okei, whose character is well developed in the novel, lived a short but intense life. In fact, her forlorn life and death are tragic. She matures too soon due to circumstances which she can’t fathom most of the time. The innocent, hard working, romantic girl becomes more reasonable and acquiescent to harsh reality. She is nearly raped by Edward Schnell when she is asleep in his warehouse loft. Luckily, Henry Schnell, Edward’s elder and wiser brother, who is nearby, comes to the rescue. The two Dutch brothers, Henry and Edward are suppliers of up-to-date arms and canons to the western Japanese. They have dissimilar characters, Edward is frivolous, liking to use Japanese women for his pleasure only and thinks little of them, while Henry is more level-headed, respects them and marries one of them, the widow, Matsuno.

Throughout her life, Okei has to re-adapt. Whether it is due to the war and the starting of a new era in Japan and with it the change of mentalities and new codes, or the emigration to the new world for survival. She has to learn to readjust, like her compatriots, to the American culture in Coloma, California, the El Dorado country, where the big Gold Rush took place from 1848 to 1855, fourteen years before Okei and her rural community arrived in the area.

Until her last breath, Okei was longing to go back to her home in Aizu but realised that her feet took her where she had to be buried, at the site of the old settlement, on top of Gold Hill colony in California.

If only she hadn’t murdered an imperial army officer, in panic, fear and in self defence and especially after the Crane Castle had fallen. She was certain that her deed would be considered a crime rather than an act of war and that is why she could never go back to her beloved Aizu. She realised and accepted that she had to submit to her fate and to the fact that the so far trustworthy, Henry and his wife, who was her mistress and friend, left California for Japan without ever keeping contact with her which is a big disappointment for Okei and a betrayal of the trust she had for them.

Touching in parts, violent and bloody in others, it’s a well documented novel with abundant action. A very colourful epic with vividly intense historical details. A good insight into Japanese and American history of the time.

 

 


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Author:
• Saturday, October 30th, 2010

Diana Evans was born in London but lived part of her childhood in Lagos, Nigeria. She studied Media at the University of Sussex and obtained a Masters degree in creative writing from the University of East Anglia.

She was a dancer before turning to journalism as a feature writer and critic for Marie Claire, The Independent, The Observer, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph.

Diana Evans’ first novel 26 a, published in 2005, won the Orange Award for New Writers in the same year and received a nomination for the Guardian First Book Award. She was also short listed for the Whitbread First Novel and Commonwealth Best First Book Awards.

26 a has been translated into several languages. The Wonder, published in 2009, is Diana Evans second novel. Diana Evans lives in London, England.

26 a, Diana Evan’s first novel dedicated to her twin sister, Paula, is semi autobiographical, having lived the loss of Paula, who committed suicide in 1998 while a young adult. The story takes place mainly in Neasden, London and partly in Nigeria.

26 Waifer Avenue, Neasden, in North West London is the home of the Hunter family. 26 a is the loft where the identical twin-children and soul mate, Georgia and Bessi Hunter live and chose to barricade themselves from the outside world. They created their own haven where nobody was allowed in without knocking and where they could discuss important matters without interference.

They managed to secure their den from the oppressive atmosphere down below, in the house, with their homesick, melancholic, Nigerian mother, Ida, who discourses with “spirits” and their depressed, English, alcoholic father, Aubrey, who hasn’t learned “how to master his demons” and who turns from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde, when he is drunk. Their elder sister Bel nurtured them and their younger sister, Kemy, was eager to become part of their secluded world as their third twin.

They built a childhood universe of make believe, where they felt they could fulfil their innocent dreams. Unfortunately, reality caught up with them as they became adults. They had to learn to break the unbreakable bond, their dependent magical relationship and grow apart by accepting that the “twoness” becomes a “oneness”.

A nostalgic, moving, bittersweet tale about searching for personal as well as cultural identity, skillfully written with a great deal of feeling and sensitivity. The poignantly dark, supernatural ending to the story creates a link to the emotionally two petrified furies of the beginning of the novel and contrast with the humoristic narration in between.

In the Observer issue of 6th February 2005, Diana Evans wrote under “My other half”, “A personal essay on twinness”, how after the suicide of her twin sister Paula, Diana felt her sister’s presence haunting her everywhere she went, even in her dreams. She was even speaking at times like her sister with the same voice, finding herself laughing the same way, which made her feel spooky.

Diana Evans felt that she was now living her life for two persons, her twin sister has always been part of her and remains very much so, even after her death. She went on to say that being a twin does not end when one of you disappears, “because there is never really only one of you. Once a twin, always a twin”.

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