Three novellas by Yoko Ogawa, originally published in 1990-91 and translated by Stephen Snyder in 2008. I read a Picador paperback from my great, wonderful library.
3 out of 5 stars (averaged).
Times Read: 1
My second Ogawa outing (after Revenge). I’m getting a handle on her style and liking it quite a lot. These stories, like all in Revenge, are told in first person. The language is straightforward and full of somewhat universal elements (food, weather, animals) while giving very few cultural-specific references (I think the only city mentioned by name is Tokyo). I can’t remember the last author I had to look up so few references for. It makes Ogawa’s work extremely accessible.
Ogawa’s translator, Stephen Snyder, is also very good. The stories don’t feel translated. The sentences are smooth and clear, the images (even surreal ones) conveyed well.
 “The Diving Pool”
3 out of 5 stars.
Aya, whose religious parents run an orphanage, is attracted to an athletic boy in the house and finds pleasure inflicting cruelty on a trusting baby.
“I envy you,” I said, leaning against the telephone stand. “You work up an appetite. But I do almost nothing and still eat three meals a day. There’s something pointless about that sort of hunger.”
“The hooks have come undone,” she said at last as if talking to herself.
“That’s right. The ones that kept my mother and father and me together. They’ve come undone and there’s no way to get them fastened again.”
It was a Bizen pot, nearly as tall as a man’s chest.
Bizen ware is a type of Japanese pottery traditionally from Bizen province, presently a part of Okayama prefecture. Bizen is characterized by significant hardness due to high temperature firing, its earthern-like, reddish-brown color, absence of glaze.
It was sad that someone could be so kind.
My desires seemed simple and terribly complicated at the same time: to gaze at Jun’s wet body and to make Rie cry. These were the only things that gave me comfort.
 “Pregnancy Diary”
2.5 out of 5 stars.
A woman documents her sister’s unsettling pregnancy.
The description of this story from the book flap reads: “A young woman (…) [takes] meticulous note of a pregnancy that may or may not be a hallucination – but whose hallucination is it, hers or her sisters?”
There is no suggestion in the story that this pregnancy is not real. It’s a weird tale of a weird pregnancy but, without the plot description, I’d have no reason to question the pregnancy’s validity. The conflict, as written, seems to be that the sister writing the diary may be trying to sabotage the health of the fetus.
I wish I hadn’t read the blurb because I spent the whole story looking at it from the wrong angle. I would probably give “Pregnancy Diary” a higher rating if I read it again in a couple of years without that expectation. Something else was going on here that I missed.
The story can be read in full on the New Yorker’s website.
Her basal temperature stayed low this month.
Basal body temperature (BBT or BTP) is the lowest body temperature attained during rest (usually during sleep). It is usually estimated by a temperature measurement immediately after awakening and before any physical activity has been undertaken.
Half-cooked egg dropped from the end of her fork like yellow blood.
None of us seems to have realized that the year is almost over. There are no pine branches decorating the door, no black beans or mochi in the house.
A kadomatsu (“gate pine”) is a traditional Japanese decoration as yorishiro (an object capable of attracting spirits) of the New Year placed in pairs in front of homes to welcome ancestral spirits or kami of the harvest. They are placed after Christmas until January 7 (or January 15 during the Edo period). Designs are typically made of pine, bamboo, and sometimes ume tree sprigs. After January 15 (or 19th) the kadomatsu is burned to appease the kami or toshigami.
Mochi is Japanese rice cake made of mochigome, a short-grain japonica glutinous rice. In Japan it is traditionally made in a ceremony called mochitsuki. While also eaten year-round, mochi is a traditional food for the Japanese New Year.
I knew immediately that it was different from other photographs.
The night sky in the background was pure and black, so dark it made you dizzy if you stared at it too long. The rain drifted through the frame like a gentle mist, but right in the middle was a hollow area in the shape of a lima bean.
“This is my baby,” my sister said.
“Sole meuniere or spareribs or broccoli salad.”
Sole meuniere is a classic French fish dish consisting of sole, or fillet, that is dredged in flour, pan fried and butter and served with the resulting brown butter sauce, parsley and lemon.
Meuniere refers to both a sauce and a method of preparation. The word itself means “miller’s wife.”
It occurred to me that almost everything in the store was edible and this seemed a bit sinister. There was something disturbing about so many people conversing on this one spot in search of food.
“Beware of imported fruit! Antifungal PWH is highly carcinogenic and has been shown to destroy human chromosomes!”
Looking up antifungal PWH only links back to “Pregnancy Diary.”
4 out of 5 stars.
A woman returns to her college dormitory and reconnects with the ailing manager of the building.
So much mood in this one, so much implied, and so intensely unsettling. “Dormitory” is easily the best in the collection.
Ogawa doesn’t name the characters in this story, adding to the surreal, dreamlike quality. Just “I”, “the Manager,” “my cousin,” “my husband,” and “the boy.”
It materialized out of nowhere like the speckled pattern of microbes on the agar in a petri dish.
A gelatinous substance obtained from various kinds of red seaweed and used in biological culture media and as a thickener in foods.
Spring was cloudy that year, as if the sky were covered with a sheet of cold, frosted glass.
The storm went on and on. The shadows around my bed were so dark and deep that they might have come from the bottom of the ocean. When I held my breath, I could see them trembling slightly, as if the darkness itself were quaking with fear.
It occurred to me that he was young to have lost so many important things: his chicken, his girl, his father.
I pictured the body on the tracks, crushed like an overripe tomato, the hair tangled in the gravel, bits of bone scattered over the railroad ties.
“There was nothing about him that suggested he would disappear.”
 Echo of “Afternoon at the Bakery” (from Revenge). This is an image that, for whatever reason, resonates with Ogawa:
An elementary school student had been found trapped inside a refrigerator that had been left at a garbage dump.
I sat watching him until my eyes began to ache from staring at nothing.
“You’re all right, then?” I said, pressing the point. “You’ll get over this soon?”
“I’ll never get over it.” His tone was so matter-of-fact that I didn’t understand at first.
The moist petals glistened like mouths smeared with lipstick.
I’m not sure what genre to file The Diving Pool in. It’s not horror, it’s not totally surrealistic, but the mood is dreamlike – a dream always threatening to tip into a nightmare. Ogawa isn’t big on giving answers; she explores a vibe and lets imagination do the rest. The reader is a participant in the ultimate meaning and re-readings of her work are probably very satisfying. This works well in short fiction but I’m curious to read a novel by her to see if she changes her approach or carries this mood through all her work.
Next week, starting a lengthy review of a lengthy novel: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.