May 1, 2008

Japan Reading and Listening List

We had a fabulous time in Japan. My experience was significantly deepened by several items I can recommend:

1. Pimsleur CDs. It took me almost a year to get through all 30 lessons on my commute to work. I'd repeat the lessons until I could do the majority of the prompted responses from memory. It helped enourmously. I can't wait to start the Spanish Pimsleur CDs (my next language!) and I swear, I will never use another learn by audio language program. Pimsleur is so superior to any other program I've tried.

2. Of course, Books. My favorite past-time.

  • Lonely Planet Japan -- we referred to this for each city we visited. It had all the important stuff -- history, maps, background. A great reference to be supplemented with the Internet, advice from Friends, and books.

  • Pictures from the Water Trade, by John David Morley -- a coworker gave me this book along with a book on how to read and write kanji. The next day he stopped by to apologize that the book may be, at times, a bit racey, and to ensure me that he did not intend to be inappropriate. It's literature! But how sweet is that? Anyways, this book was probably the most purely educational book of all of the books I read. The author is clearly a language lover after my own heart, and pages upon pages were dedicated to analysis of the sounds of the language, the affectation, it's rhythm and cadence and preparatory wrappings, soft endings, noises, and more. When he tired of language, he wrote of the underground -- the "water trade" or modern day bars where women are often available for entertainment (dancing, talking, and, of course, the oldest profession in the world). The difference in cultural perspective on the water trade in Japan was necessary to my understanding of gender roles in Japan. Similarly, he spends much time analyzing his outsider status vis-a-vis his growing command of the language and cultural norms, which is typically the means that the Japanese use to distinguish insiders from outsiders. While the plot is relatively non-existant, the observations and analysis is fascinating, and I highly recommend this book if you'd like to gain a better understanding of Japanese culture.

  • Dave Barry Does Japan -- okay, I must admit. I made a mistake. I thought this was a Bill Bryson book when I bought it. How? Well, as I've told everyone who will listen, I'm *REALLY* bad with names. I just don't think they are important. I record relevant information to me, like *funny,* *articulate,* *travel writer,* and well...I'm lazy too. Anyways, E laughed his ass off when I admitted my mistake because he was surprised when I bought the book. It struck him as a wee bit too culturally insensitive for my usual tastes. But, I was pleasantly surprised. I thought Mr. Barry did an excellent job of reporting on Japanese culture from the American perspective. It was surprisingly well-researched (although, given that he's won a pulitzer, perhaps it shouldn't have been so surprising). And it was damn funny, too.

  • Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa, by Karin Muller -- I think this book was the most relevant to my experience. It was the story of an American woman in her mid-30's who moved to Japan for a year to try to report on japanese culture, and did so by living with a traditional Japanese family. Much of her story is her strugge against the Mother of the family, which truly, is a wonderful metaphor for her struggle against/within the culture as a whole. I will be recommending this book to all of my Japanese-American friends who struggle against their mothers (that would be all of them, to my knowledge) because I read about so many of the arguments my friends have described, but they were explained through the eyes of a cultural anthropologist. It made so much more sense.

  • The Teahouse Fire: A Novel, by Ellis Avery -- I picked this one up at SFO before we left. Set in Kyoto during the turn of the 19th century, it told the story of a young Franco-American girl from New York whose mother dies immediately after she is brought to Japan by her uncle, a Catholic Missionary. After a fire, she runs away, feigns ignorance of her origins to escape her horrid uncle and ends up working as a servant to one of the great tea-ceremony families. The cultural and historical details were breathtaking and the story was gripping. It's a great book, even if you won't be going to Kyoto while you are reading it. But if you are... you can visit temples, confectionaries where they make tea sweets, and Pontocho and imagine the world she describes so clearly as if it still exists.

  • Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimote -- This book was a best-seller in Japan in the 1980s and the English version was received abroad equally as well after its translation. The lovely A recommended it (I believe), and I loved it. The main characters' voices were all simultaneously distant and honest, gentle, vulnerable, and yet resolute and obviously strong in a way that I have never encountered in fiction before. The stories were poignant, but simply told narratives describing the craziness of the major losses inherent in life, and the messiness of falling in love. Oh, and, of course, given the title, much of the focus was on food, its preparation and role in our lives, and all of that stuff, which we all know I love.

  • Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Marakumi -- I ordered this book because it landed at the top of several searches I did on Amazon. I had already read his unique and fragmented Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and I enjoyed it. It was a bit of work to get through, which I expected for this one as well, but it was worth it. Imagine my surprise to find Norwegian Wood to be quite the opposite of Hard-Boiled, and instead a simple, one-man story of collegiate life in the 60's in Tokyo and the loves of his life, how they conflicted, innevitable loss, and the decisions he must make in the wake of such loss. I was struck by how much the voice of the main character had so many of the same qualities as the main female character in Kitchen. Only, at this point, after reading so much about Japan, that respectful distance I recognized in their voices made sense. It was respectful. I liked it. And, I liked Toru, the speaker, despite the fact that I may not like some of the actions he took, because he was so open and unapologetic. He did things even he deplored and then examined them while being open with his rationale. How could I not like him, even love him, despite (or perhaps because of) his honest flaws?

  • A Year in Japan, by Kate T. Williamson, I opened this book on the Shinkansen from Nagano back to Tokyo to realize it was an art book. And it wasn't painful, stretching, BT-gets-it-and-loves-it-because-the-tormeneted-artist-beats-you-over-the-emotional-chasm-with-their-ability-to-communicate-in-an-invented-but-understood-language-art. No, it was light, and cheerful, and cute, and understandable sketches from an artist's year of living in Kyoto along with hand-written explanations of the pictures, and lots of detailed drawings of plants. I found the pictures and explanations adorable, the plants reminders of my aspirations of a garden at home upon my return, and the majority of the urban scenes to be excellent reminders of the quirks I experienced in Kyoto and occasionally informative about things I had questioned as I quickly read them on our bullet train out of Kyoto to Nagano. At any other time in my life, had I opened this book, I suspect I would not have been in the correct frame of mind to appreciate its value and I would have skimmed and closed it without a second thought. And yet, somehow, I ordered it, transported it across the oceans, and opened it at the correct time such that I sincerely enjoyed it and couldn't believe my luck and timing. Talk about a blessing!

  • Squeamish about Sushi and other food adventures in Japan, by Betty Reynolds -- Unlike a Year in Japan, which I did not know was an arty-book 'til I opened it, this book I purchased with full knowledge. Pictures of food with Japanese words describing it? Sign me up. I made E sit and read it with me a few times before we left. He humored me. I think I will donate it to Miss E's classroom now.

And now, I'm back home. 6 books that I would be proud to include on my booklist as books I read this year in pursuit of my approximately 20 book challenge. 1 travel book as a resource that I can't claim because I didn't read it cover to cover. 2 arty-books I could claim if desperate. I'll wait 'til the end of the year to see if I need to claim the arty-books to hit 20. For now, I'll content myself with the fact that I'm on book 9 without 'em and it's only 4 months in. And, of course, now that I'm back to work, I'll resume my regularly scheduled program of finishing approximately 1 book per month or so.

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