Now Arriving from: Japan

Hello Challenge Readers!

How was your reading this month? Did you find a great book (or movie) set in Japan that you really enjoyed? It’s such an interesting culture set against a beautiful and dramatic landscape that the possibilities for good reading are boundless.

I read The Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton which I blogged about earlier. I highly recommend this book – it’s not only a great story, it has a lot of information about the Japanese culture, much of which is unfamiliar to those of us raised in a Western European tradition.

I also watched the movie version of Memoirs of a Geisha. I loved the book (written by Arthur Golden) but had never seen the movie. I never expect a movie to be as good as the book (and they almost never are), but I had high hopes for it to be visually stunning (as I had imagined when I read the book) I was pretty disappointed – the movie concentrated on the personal interactions (which were petty and brutal) and very little on the history and background of the geisha which was a vital (and fascinating) part of the book. If you hadn’t read the book, there were large parts of the movie that you would have no idea what was going on, or why. Also, it wasn’t as beautiful as I think it could have been – the kimonos, the tea houses, the gardens – all of those were barely touched on. In addition, many of the scenes were filmed in the dark and/or rain making it very difficult to follow the action. And the ending was changed. So. Read the book (which is excellent) and skip the movie (in my opinion!)

Now it’s your turn – tell us what you read this month! Everyone loves a good recommendation!

Online Reading Challenge – Halfway Home!

Hello Challenge Readers!

How has the month of March been treating you? Have you found a great book or movie set in Japan? For many of us (and this is a massive over-generalization), the Japanese culture can be very foreign in a way that Europe is not. Western European culture permeates our lives here – even if we have no European blood, we easily recognize and mostly understand their literature and customs (this seems especially true of Great Britain whose power and influence at one time stretched across the globe). Japan, on the other hand, was closed to foreigners, with few exceptions, for centuries and sometimes seems to be an enigma even now.

Of course, no matter our differences we are, at heart, much the same – we love our families, we know pain and joy, great tragedy and incredible luck. It’s simply the setting and the way our society teaches us to handle these truths that is different. And isn’t that why we travel and why we read about other lives? To understand our differences and to see our similarities?

I’ve read an incredibly good book for our Japan adventure – The Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton. One day Amaterasu Takahashi opens to the door of her home in the United States to a young man with hideous scars on his face and hands. He claims he is her grandson Hideo Watanabe who she believed had died when the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, forty years ago. She is understandably skeptical and wary and also frightened – his appearance reopens a very painful part of Ama’s life, of family secrets, betrayals, regrets and loss, pain that she has shut away and is now forced to confront.

What follows is a look back at Ama’s life, her poor, desperate youth, the daughter she protected fiercely, the husband who brought her a measure of peace. When the Allies drop the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, both Ama’s daughter and grandson were within the bomb blast and though they search for days, weeks, months, Ama and her husband are unable to find anything of their beloved child and grandchild. Eventually they move to the United States and Ama is able to fairly successfully ignore the pain of the past – at least until the man claiming to be Hideo arrives.

Descriptions of the day of the bomb and its horrible aftermath are vivid but not sensationalized. And while the fact of the bomb is a shadow throughout the book, it is not an the focus of the story. It is simply an unchangeable fact, a division between the past and the future. And while this may sound like a grim, depressing novel, it is actually about finding joy and accepting happiness and learning to not just survive, but to live.

I also liked that at the beginning of each chapter a Japanese word would be defined and explained. These words usually described concepts that are uniquely Japanese values and do not translate easily to English or to Western society. Many of these concepts are rooted in the ancient history of Japan and Buddhist philosophy and are a fascinating clue to what makes Japan distinctive. This added a lot of depth and understanding to the actions of the characters. This is one of those books that you keep thinking about long after you finish. Highly recommended.

What about you? What are you reading this month?

 

 

Now Departing for: Japan

Welcome to the next stop in our read-the-world Online Reading Challenge! This month we’re heading to Japan.

A beautiful land with a diverse culture very different from our own, Japan offers a wide range of possibilities for exploration through reading, from ancient shoguns to modern anime, there is bound to be something for everyone. Here are some suggestions.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. If you haven’t read this gem of a book, now is the perfect time. Memoirs is an inside look at the mysterious, often misunderstood world of the geisha, a uniquely Japanese occupation. Set in the 1930s, the beautiful, serene face of the geisha hides an often harsh and brutal reality. A fascinating read.

Shogun by James Clavell. This is the best kind of historical fiction, completely immersive and impossible to put down. We are introduced to late 16th century Japan through the eyes of a shipwrecked Englishman named Blackthorn. This is a Japan that is still ruled by military shoguns and has  been long isolated from the Western world. The massive culture shock, the beauty and brutality of this foreign land and the lives of the people in this drama are unforgettable. Read it. (There’s also an epic movie, staring Richard Chamberlain)

Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. A blend of surreal and fantasy, Murakami’s novels have been popular in the US for years. Imaginative, philosophical, experimental, intense are all words that describe this novel about a man searching for his wife’s lost cat. Of course, there is much more going on than that simple story line would indicate.

The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz. As the first commoner to marry into the royal family, Haruko, worldly and well-educated, faces cruelty and suspicion in the Imperial court, suffers a nervous breakdown and becomes mute after the birth of her son. Years later, now Empress herself, she must persuade another worldly and well-educated young woman to marry her son. This book draws heavily from real stories of the Japanese Imperial family and royal court.

Shall We Dance (DVD) Please, please I beg you – do not watch the version of this movie that stars Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez. It might be a fine movie, but it entirely misses the point of the original Japanese version. In Japanese culture, men and women do not touch in public, even if they’re married. A businessman taking up ballroom dancing is shocking; this is the story of one man who, dulled by routine and boredom, falls in love with the beauty of the dance he glimpses every day on his train ride home and takes the leap to learn. Yes, it’s in Japanese and you’ll have to read the subtitles – buck up! It’s so completely worth the effort (and it’s funny too!)

I am planning on reading A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton which explores the long term consequences of Nagasaki and long-held family secrets. I also plan to watch the movie of Memoirs of a Geisha; I’m not sure how well it will follow the book, but it should be beautiful to watch.

What about you – what are you going to read/watch/listen to this month?

 

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

housekeeper-and-the-professorThis lovely jewel of a novel, set in Japan, explores the power of memory and how it shapes our lives, and how love and friendship can transcend hardship and loss.

The Professor is a brilliant mathematician, able to describe and demonstrate the most complex formulas into something simple and poetic and beautiful, but due to a traumatic head injury his short-term memory lasts only 80 minutes. The Professor spends his days in his study, working on difficult mathematics problems; everything before that fateful night in 1975 still clear and real to him, everything else more than 80 minutes old, new and confusing.

The Housekeeper, a struggling single mother, is assigned to care for him. Gradually they make a connection – the Professor pins multiple notes to his coat to help him cope with his handicap – and the Housekeeper’s young son often joins them. The Professor shares his love of numbers with them and joins the boy in his love of baseball.  Together the three form an unconventional family.

Thoughtful, poignant and bittersweet, this spare, elegant novel will stay with you long after you’ve finished.

It’s what’s for dinner….during Lent

To be filed under the category of “where does it come from” is Richard Ellis’s Tuna: A Love Story. There are all kinds of fish facts to amuse your dinner company, including:

* What you’re eating out of the can scientifically isn’t tune per se, but a member of the family called skipjack.

* The largest fish market in the world is in Tsukiji, Japan. Every day, this icebox is loaded with catch from around the world and millions of dollars are exchanged. One fish brought $173,600 US in 2001.

* The purse seining method of tuna fishing leads to the deaths of thousands of dolphins per year. If a can is labeled “tuna safe”, it merely means a good faith effort is made to rescue as many as possible, and these regulations are far from a global standard.

* A highly-prized bluefin tuna (a rich dark red meat unlike our Starkist, Bumblebee, and Chicken of the Sea) can fetch upwards of $400 a pound. The sushi restauranteur marks up from there.

* Around one in 40 million tuna eggs will make it to adulthood. Once they do, however, few species can compete physically with a quarter-ton fish that can swim in excess of 50 mph.

* The insatiable appetite and unlimited finances of the Japanese for this delicacy may very likely result in the species’ extinction in the future.

Sorry Charlie!

The Commoner by John Schwartz

The Commoner by John SchwartzOffering a peek into the largely closed and secret world of the Japanese royal family, The Commoner by John Schwartz is the story of Haruko, the first commoner to marry into the oldest monarchy in the world. Set in the years immediately after World War II when Japan was undergoing great change, Haruko goes from the relative freedom of a well-educated college graduate to a tightly the controlled world of a princess whose only duty was to produce a male heir. Spare and beautiful, it is a culture very foreign to us, but the thoughts and feelings of its characters are universal. While the storyline is somewhat similar to recent real-life events in Japan, this is a novelization, beautifully imagined.