books: 19 posts

Japanese Ghost Stories : 5 Books

Frightening oneself with ghost stories or haunted houses is a summer activity in Japan for the chilling frisson it’s believed to provide. Yet the Japanese literary tradition filled with spirits, ghouls, specters and other supernatural phenomena is so rich that a full year wouldn’t be enough to even scrape the surface. Since dark fall evenings are a good time to delve into it, I decided to share five of my favorite Japanese books over whose pages hover ghosts.

The Japanese concept of a ghost, yūrei, is quite complex, but in its essence, it’s a soul of someone who died in a violent manner and may not have had proper funeral rites. The soul then returns to the living world to seek vengeance and to torment those who were responsible for the crime. The purpose of Japanese ghost stories, however, is not only to paint the frightful deeds of the unpacified souls, but also to examine the complexity of love, betrayal, loyalty, faith, and other human emotions and dilemmas.

Japanese Gothic Tales by Izumi Kyoka, translated by Charles Shiro Inouye

“She seemed too delicate for someone living in the mountains. Even in the capital you don’t see many women as beautiful. As she rubbed my back. I could hear her trying to stifle the sounds of her breathing. I knew I should ask her to stop, but I became lost in the bliss of the moment. Was it the spirit of the deep mountains that made me allow her to continue? Or was it her fragrance? I smelled something wonderful. Perhaps it was the woman’s breath coming from behind me.”

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5 Ways to Transition Into Fall

In Europe the transition from summer to fall feels more acute, because people still take their August holidays and many stores are shuttered with the forlorn “Nous Sommes en Vacances” placards in their windows. I love having the city to myself, serene, calm, dusty. But little by little, it comes to life, as people return to resume their businesses, to start school or work. Now that half of September has passed I still can’t come to terms with the end of summer. So, I have my small solutions to make la rentrée, the official start of the school year in Belgium–and the official end of my vacation–more bearable.

Autumnal Resolutions

Some people make New Year resolutions, while I keep mine for fall. Instead of the end of vacation, let this period feel like a start of something positive. None of my resolutions are of a punishing nature; rather, they’re about things I keep meaning to do but keep putting off. For instance, this fall I decided to test my great-grandmother’s cake recipes that she wrote down during the wartime food shortages in order not to forget them. My second resolution is to finish the full cycle of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. My final resolution is to explore more of Brussels. During my first years here, I used to set aside time each weekend to discover something new about the city, and as a result, it quickly became my own. But as travel and work obligations piled up, I haven’t been venturing out as much. This fall I will go back to my wandering ways.

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Top 15 Cookbooks for Fall : From Venice to Sri Lanka

If like me, you haven’t accepted the end of summer and would like to carry a sunny note through fall, there are several means to achieve it. For instance, scents can help but so can flavors. One of the reasons I love cooking is that it allows me to blend two of my passions–and savor the results. This fall, cooking is even more exciting because 2017 has been a year with many excellent cookbook releases. I had difficulty picking just a couple, so I decided to show you my favorite 15 books, from which I’ve cooked already and which I recommend wholeheartedly. They will satisfy your hunger as well as your wanderlust.

Europe

Veneto: Recipes from an Italian Country Kitchen by Valeria Necchio

Venice is on the well-trodden tourist trail, but its food and that of its region isn’t. This is a shame, because Venetian dishes blend a full spectrum of flavors and ingredients like polenta, pine nuts, rosemary, raisins, shellfish, white wine, and saffron. Veneto is Valeria Necchio’s debut cookbook, and it’s exquisite. I don’t mean the photographs and styling, beautiful though they are. The recipes are the only thing I’m interested in. For a taste of real Venetian cooking, I suggest trying fried marinated pumpkin with onion, pine nuts and raisins, prawn and Prosecco risotto, stir-fried beans with basil and garlic, and ricotta pudding cake.

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Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow : Love and Essence

When I sat down to write about Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow, I struggled to find the best way to describe it. A love story seemed too banal. An exploration of the fathers and sons dilemma too simple. An answer came to me as I was reading another book, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Spring Snow is an attempt to recapture a memory, a moment long gone, set into the frame of a tragic love story. And just as in Proust’s masterpiece, fragrance is a leitmotif for Mishima’s story.

Kiyoaki is the son of a nouveau riche family who has been raised in the aristocratic Ayakura household. His father, Marquise Matsugae, conscious of their provincial origins, desired for Kiyoaki to imbibe the manners and elegance of the nobility. But by the time Kiyoaki turns eighteen, he feels confused and torn between the two worlds, the old and the new. He has all of the hallmarks of an aristocrat with his refined aesthetic sensibilities and sophisticated manners, but he feels no respect for the emperor or the tradition. He is floating, unable to understand others and unable to make himself understood.

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Roses, Tobacco and Places in Between : Kapka Kassabova’s Border

“Today, the Valley of Roses near the main rose-producing [Bulgarian] town of Kazanlak (from the Turkish kazan, cauldron) still produces fifty per cent of the world’s rose attar… The other fifty per cent is produced by Turkey. Like Oriental tobacco, the rose is a bitter love story between Bulgaria and Turkey. When Bulgaria broke away from the Ottomans in the 1870s, workers from the rose industry travelled south across the border with cuttings from the Valley of Roses and planted them in the soil of Anatolia. They must have really loved their roses.”

The story of rose damascena is one of many shared by Kapka Kassabova in her odyssey across the borders on Europe’s southern edge, between Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece. In the times of ever hardening borders reinforced by barbwire and prejudice, reading Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (public library) is an unsettling experience. How can mere lines on the map have the capacity to cut into people’s lives and haunt their thoughts?

That borders haunt is something I’ve experienced myself. I’ve been fascinated with maps ever since I was a child, sleeping under a large map of the world. A large part on it, colored dark pink, was the Soviet Union, with Ukraine, a jagged diamond sitting on its western border.  “Ukraine” meant “the borderland.” I was born in Kyiv, and finding the city in the middle of the diamond, my finger traced a journey west–Lviv, Krakow, Prague, Vienna. But past Lviv, near the village of Shehyni, a thicker line started, and the dark pink space yielded to a mosaic of colors. I may not have understood the post-WWII arrangement, spheres of influence and the Iron Walls, but I knew one thing with certainty–I couldn’t cross the line at Shehyni. The border was there to keep me in. The more I became aware of it, the more I wanted to see what was happening za kordonom, behind the border. The more I was deterred, the more it entranced me.

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