Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover

2011年 9月 28日

Currently I am reading two books, but I put both of them on hold for a few days when, through a twisting path worthy of a Kinky Friedman novel – well – I came into temporary possession of… a Kinky Friedman novel. Monkey Boy, a colleague here in Mie, decided to aid his house cleaning efforts by relieving himself of the burden of myriad books left in succession by his predecessors at his work-provided apartment. Perusing the list I selected a number of volumes of which I hope to write forthwith; however, one volume caught my eye in a peculiar way that niggled or tickled my interest, but not to that point where I selected it. I convinced a friend from Nabari – who was coming to my home to receive my former gas range – to tote the books with him on the way. Some juggling occurred when a colleague in Ise asked if I could get that same book from Monkey Boy for him. On Saturday’s range-getting trip my friend delivered The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover by J. Edgar Hoover; and a few emails generated a plan for my Ise colleague to visit Wednesday after work. Mind you, my life is not so lonely that the sole purpose of the visit is to pass a book: we’ll talk over some home-brewed coffee and plot the salvation of the masses while he’s here.

During my time in Texas, I was introduced to Kinky through my subscription to Texas Monthly which contained his column. As a Chicago-born, Jewish cowboy one might consider him unique, but add to that his work as musician, writer and aspiring politician and you’ve got one of a kind.

Having less than four days custody of my colleague’s book, I decided to give it a look. Only 238 pages of moderately large print, divided into 49 chapters of 1 to 10 pages in length made it manageable. The book is one in a series of detective novels written with the author himself as the main character: an under-sexed, vulgar, middle-aged, depressed eccentric, living in meager surroundings, and with an eclectic mix of acquaintances.

Friedman makes almost exclusive use of:

  • puns
  • innuendo
  • name-dropping
  • cultural references (predominantly from the 30s to the 70s)
  • slang (much of his own construction)
  • random trivia (what bird has two feathers for each quill?)

None of which necessarily make for high-quality writing; however, his irreverence and dark satire are probably catchy for a number of readers. All in all, I found that each chapter contained something of interest for me and led me to the next. Under all the dark meandering thoughts of his character, the basic story was amusing and somewhat deep. He chose an interesting little twist of implication on the final page.

I found myself digging through my brain (since I have no internet at the moment) to find the references to historic figures, of which I think I recalled all but one. Since he often mentions fictional characters as if he were name-dropping, it is a little unclear. Many younger readers will find it a challenge unless they are a history buff or are sitting with Google nearby. A few literary references to Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, etc. find their way to the pages as well.

One critique which stands out is that the entire Chapter 42 could be stricken from the book without loss. Basically, two characters participate in a rant against a certain government agency which didn’t serve to advance the story, so much as to just sound preachy. Chapter 43 returned to the same vein as the story and referenced the important points from 42.

Do you like cultural references, satire, irreverence toward powerful government institutions and entendre? This could be for you. Even if you don’t, like me you may find some amusement; after all, any book using the word ‘tump’ has to have a little charm.


Japanese Beyond Words

2011年 9月 27日

Recently my reading has spiked, but I am still busy so write-ups are slowly forthcoming. Japanese Beyond Words by Horvat was recommended to me a handful of years ago as a source of good information about the connection between culture and language. When it was loaned to me I read a couple brief excerpts marked by the lender, but otherwise it sat on my shelf. Before my move I noticed a couple books seemed to be on permanent loan to my collection and guilt prompted me to quickly read them so they could be restored to their proper homes.

Horvat worked in Japan for many years and often wrote short articles for periodicals. I believe most of the chapters were developed from his articles. Each section covers some aspect of language, but more so the culture behind the language. I found the articles generally easy to read and mostly helpful; however, two regrets came up. One is simply that I already know the content of several chapters, having lived in Japan more than seven years and ostensibly beginning my interactions here about 23 years ago. The other regret was not having read the book sooner, as it could have helped me more easily deal with a difficult situation regarding my work contract. There were only a few small points where I disagreed with the author or felt he was covering an unimportant point; otherwise I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning about Japanese culture and language.

Confucian thinking comes up more than once; which is interesting since most people think about Buddhist and Shinto influence on Japan. Every Japanese person seems to know a little about Confucius and there are some deeply rooted connections in society here. One is the concept that specific relationships should be valued and others should not; which results in the often befuddling “private politeness” versus “public nonchalance”.

…The visitor who has just been bowed to very deeply by a company president finds himself jostled by silent strangers as he heads back to his hotel, where, the moment he enters, he resumes the role of visiting dignitary. Everyone from bell-boy to manager greets him with the deference accorded to a recent recipient of a Nobel Prize.

Living here, I am routinely exposed to extreme politeness followed by ambivalence – or even grossly discourteous treatment – which is perplexing. Understanding the culture that drives this makes it a little easier to adapt.

Another Confucian teaching is that “outward forms produce inward attitudes” making appearance extremely important here. Occasionally I participate in cycling events here. I purchased a bicycle in line with my budget and occasionally make improvements to it; however, I will encounter rank amateurs at these events who have dropped many thousands of dollars on bikes, accessories, clothing and the like. The practice is attached to the ancient belief that to be a cyclist they must have proper cycling gear. In some cases I find them as decorations at business covered in dust from lack of use, showing perhaps that internal change is also necessary.

Simple but powerful is learning how Japanese view proverbs, and seeing how they can grease the skids, relieving the initial tension of meeting a foreigner. “Unlike in the West where the proverb is often seen as a poor relative of serious thought, old sayings are revered as gems of wisdom handed down through the ages.” A topic deserving of more detailed approach later.

Horvat writes about the importance of ‘order’ in Japan, referencing the humorous anecdote about police responding to a burglary call to find the culprit putting on his shoes in the entry hall. He was willing to break into a home to steal, but would never think of stepping up into the home without removing his shoes. Conversely the photo of GIs standing on tatami mat floors in combat boots is used as a symbol of the breakdown of order after the Battle of Okinawa. Learning which defined rules are important to the ‘order’ aid foreign residents immensely in their acceptance here.

Our author got shocked reactions at the mahjongg parlor as he was laughing at the comics in his newspaper. Newspapers are serious in Japan and rarely have more than a single comic. More importantly the mixing of worlds is considered inappropriate. I have personally been bitten by this repeatedly as I like to send teachers off to conferences with a friendly, “enjoy yourself!” Mistakenly, I thought their sharp retort of, “It’s not FUN, it’s WORK.”, was a sign of being a little too tightly wound. Reading Horvat and rethinking my encounters, I think I was ‘laughing at the newspaper’ as it were.

Two important language study points came up as well, and I hope there are still readers interested this far down the page. First, Japanese pronouns are NOT pronouns. They are used as nouns and should be treated as nouns.  Thinking of them as pronouns will inhibit learning the language. Second, he recommends not trusting the written word, but trusting our ears because language is “an interrupted flow of air”. The way things are pronounced and the way they are written may vary in any language: focusing too much on the reading will lead us into ruts from which it is hard to extricate oneself.

Again, I found his work useful and approachable. I will most likely write a bit more about proverbs and history in the near future, but this is enough for today.

Odyssey and Iliad Improvement

2011年 9月 23日

All of our belongings are moved to the new house and our contract on the apartment has ended; however, there is still a lot of work to make it our place. The day of the move we recalled that there were no rods in the closets for our hanging clothes, and we had them draped over a mountain of futon and other sleep-related material. Wanting to resolve this quickly, went hunting at the hardware store and it was an adventure.

Traditionally Japanese closets do not have rods for hanging clothes and customs are slow to change here. While new homes will have rods installed, a trip to the hardware store will reveal no standard brackets or supports and no wooden rods. One is more likely to encounter bamboo for sale, but that is also a little rare.

Friendly staff, upon interrogation, directed me to steel tubes for handrails. Several times during our conversation, it was made clear that these were not clothing rods, but handrails – as if my using them as such would void some sort of warrantee; however, whenever asked about clothing rods, it was intimated that this was the product to use.

Tubes were available in 910mm and 1820mm lengths yet my closets are about 100mm short of each of these sizes. Inquiring about getting these cut brought forth all sorts of conversation. First, I was told they could not cut it for me; which surprised me a bit since they will cut a board once for free and many times for a small additional fee. After a bit, conversation regarding a cutting tool which customers could use floated up. It was kind of vague and mysterious and I was told to ask the register clerk by the lumber, but on initial approach I was told customers couldn’t use “the tool”. Mentioning the first conversation evoked a call to a person, apparently the keeper of “the tool”, who seemed to be seeking some secret code words before he led me to “the tool”, which turned out to be a radial grinder.

After receiving many warnings about unplugging while making any preparations or adjustments, the keeper swiftly departed. My wife was fascinated that I could use a tool which made such short work of a steel pipe and produced a fountain of sparks worthy of a summer festival. The cuts were the right length (measured twice) but were rough enough that they required some rasping and sanding, which gave me an excuse to pick up some more tools.

Installing the short rod was fairly simple, aside from curling my body up inside a closet; however, the 1.8 meter pipe was another story. Since all the parts are for handrails, the pipe had to be inserted into both brackets before installation. Screwing a bracket into paneling with a long pipe and gravity working against you is challenging. My wife felt too exhausted to hold a steel bar while I worked, so I used some storage cases as support. The cases came up short but fortunately, resting my copies of The Odyssey and The Iliad on top perfectly made up the difference.

Peaceful Beam

2011年 9月 22日

Several years ago I bought a book (comic, graphic novel) called Darling wa Gaikokujin (ダーリンは外国人) – outlining one woman’s experience being married to an eccentric foreigner – which I need to write a report about; however, that’s not today’s point. One arc in the book talked about her husband’s Odayaka Kousen (穏やか光線) or Peaceful Beam. He has a way of looking at people which calms them down, and my wife claims that I have the same power. Yesterday I put it to use, much to her pleasure.

We interviewed three movers and chose the third one. Last Saturday they moved us into our new home. I pushed my wife to get everything unpacked and put away over the three-day weekend, much to her displeasure. While I knew she wanted to vacillate, I had a stronger motivation. We were told that the movers could take away boxes for us, but if we called them back again there would be a charge. I wanted the quickly mounting pile of boxes to vanish soon and not renew itself afterward.

She called the movers and they said they would come by Wednesday (which turned out to be a typhoon day) afternoon, but they wanted a thousand yen. She immediately settled on paying them. While I try to be a very accepting person, this really doesn’t sit well with me. Tuesday night I spoke with her about the sales talk, lest I made a language error, and both of us recalled having one chance to dispose of the boxes.

When the movers arrived, they wanted to take the boxes right away, but I stood between them and the boxes when I explained I wanted to ‘consult’ with them. I mentioned that I was not expecting to pay based on the salesman’s presentation. They asked to take the boxes to the truck while they checked with the office. I took this as a good sign, because they lost negotiating position as soon as they took possession of the boxes. Sure enough, the workers loaded the boxes, and shortly after that the team leader came back and said everything is settled. They spoke very politely (and unforced), I spoke very politely, and my wife was amazed.

My wife lacks confidence in dealing with businesses when something needs to be negotiated, so I try to teach her my ‘secrets’ in communicating what they need to hear to accept my position. I want a strong and confident wife: she’s already plenty strong so we’ll just work on building more confidence. Of course, there are many situations in Japan where she will be treated very differently for being a woman and conversely many where I will be treated differently for being a foreigner, so we have to be mindful of those.

We had a lot of confidence in this situation because the downside for us was small. Before the movers arrived, we called a paper recycler nearby and found they would pay us for boxes if we delivered them. Knowledge is power.


2011年 9月 17日

The clock struck 2AM here in Ise, Japan as we prepare for our move back to Tsu. Seven short hours from now, the man from iTV cable company will cut my umbilical and charge me more than $200 for the operation. We ordered broadband service in Tsu, but will not be connected for almost three weeks. Until the 6th of October, I will have intermittent access wherever I can find a chance… Unless someone has an unprotected wireless connection near the new house.

This may possibly be the longest time without home internet in more than two decades. For some reason, Japan won’t make any quick connections: everything in its time.

Once I get settled I will write up a few book reports about “Japanese Beyond Words”, “Eat, Pray, Love”, and a special one whose title escapes me as it is taped up in a box right now. There is a lot of other paperwork I need to finish soon, so maybe this is a blessing having a distraction forcibly removed.

The Great Gatsby

2011年 9月 9日

As a youth, I read a lot of books. Hundreds upon hundreds adorned my shelves. Nor was I a stranger to the school and public libraries. Naturally, I have an odd sensation when people talk about novels with an assumption that they are part of a cultural literacy and yet, I have never read them. Specifically, when it seems that everyone read something in a high school class. Perhaps my fascination with Science Fiction and fantasy novels is partly to blame. For one of my high school English requirements I took a class which required Dune, Lord of the Rings, Out of the Silent Planet, and numerous short stories from 60s pulp.

The Great Gatsby fell in this realm of hearing the name repeatedly, but only having the vaguest notion of its content. April 2006 brought me a step closer when I inherited the book through an odd means that is normal to my current living situation. I took over a teaching position from a friend moving on to his next adventure. Commonly, our jobs are tied to specific living arrangements, so I was required to move into his apartment. Having no TV nor stereo, I wanted to buy a few of his belongings. To my surprise, he wanted to sell everything he wasn’t transporting as a lot: Gatsby was resting amidst the miscellany.

Since then, he traveled with me in my next two moves. Preparing for my move on the 17th, I decided I should read some of the books I keep toting hither and thither. Here are some of my thoughts on this “Great American Novel”.

Upon advancing through a number of chapters, I was having troubles identifying the relation between events introduced; almost as if I were reading two novels. Further I found it hard to identify with most of the characters: rich, vapid, course, and without direction. At points I even wondered if I should read the whole work: after all, just because a lot of people are intense about something doesn’t mean it is for me (i.e., Harry Potter).

Had I set down the book, I would have missed out as all of the bits tie together well as the story progresses and the characters make sense as part of the story.

Fitzgerald has a very amusing way to describe scenes and I find his sentences very ‘full’. Much like eating pasta with a complex sauce, leaving the tongue to ponder what elements went into the preparation. At times I found him making cultural or literary references, which seemed esoteric to me, as if he expected any reasonable reader to know them. In practice this could quickly become tiresome; however, he salted us with just enough to make me want to learn more and not so much as to write him off as an arrogant boor.

Critics have complained that Fitzgerald confused his geography. One example was having the “ash heaps” on Long Island rather than across the water. However, I had no trouble with this at all. Certainly it was no accident, as the physical location requiring passage on trips to Manhattan is critical to this tale. He has created a mythical world that is very like a bit (or a couple bits) of our real world. Almost like fantasy, but easy to grasp because of its connections to reality.

A few details of the ending seemed a little hasty or forced to me; however, overall I found it an enjoyable read. Now, where can I find a copy of the Lord of the Flies?

Monkey Jizo

2011年 5月 24日

Here’s another short book report from the same folk tale series as Mouse’s Marriage. I bought several books at the same time from the 100 yen shop. They are simply bound, but in traditional style; and on inexpensive paper, but printed to appear like traditional paper. Even Japanese friends are amazed at what can be had for 100 yen these days. Last time I promised I would include photos and – although delayed a little further – I will fulfill that.

Monkey Jizo (or さるじぞう, in Japanese) caught my attention early on. Many of the folk tales, although directed at children, are quite creepy (and I have no fondness for horror), so I found the more innocent appearance inviting. Furthermore, the title prompted all sorts of imaginative ideas about what the covers might contain, yet the story remained elusive until I read it. Let this not imply that the story is complex in anyway however, on the contrary, it is simply a fun children’s story of a moral nature.

Like so many Japanese tales, it begins with a poor old farmer. Working in his field in the mountain, he takes a break to eat mochi with kinako sprinkled on top. Wind blows kinako all over him, and without cleaning himself off, he takes a nap. Monkeys come out to investigate and mistake him for Jizo – a Boddhisatva whose likeness appears in small statues under little shelters along pathways all over Japan – presumably because the speckles of kinako make him look like stone.

According to the boss monkey’s orders, they haul him across the river to place him in a vacant Jizo shelter; however, while crossing the river some events unfold. First, the monkeys sing a silly work song about willingly wetting their willies in order to keep Jizo’s willy water-free. Even though the old man is awakened and humored, he toughs it out, stifling his laughter. Second, midway through the stream, the old man looses a smelly fart, prompting a discussion about the source of the noise and the subsequent odor. With a little help from the old man’s slyly mumbled comments amidst the confusion, it is decided that they heard a shrine bell and were smelling incense. Clearly they are carrying a true Jizo in their estimation.

After ensconcing him in the shelter they cast offerings of gold and silver coins before him. Outwaiting the monkeys, once he is alone, the old man scoops up the loot and heads home to share his tale with his wife. The greedy and nosey neighborwoman listens carefully and badgers her husband into a plan for riches. He agrees but stumbles clumsily through the process, ultimately bursting out laughing at the song mid-river. Outraged by the deception, and prone to rash action – as monkeys are known to be – they cast the man headlong into the drink. He finds his way home, tired and wet.

Reading the ending makes me wonder if Japanese tales have been toned down in the same manner as Western folktales over the recent decades. Did the original tale end in disaster for the husband of the greedy wife?

Mouse’s Marriage

2011年 5月 6日

OK, time for a book report. I’ll glide into this easily with a children’s book.

Nezumi no Yomeiri (ねずみのよめいり) is a folk tale of unknown origin. It is somewhat well-known, but not as ubiquitous as Momotaro. The version I own is a small paper book from the 100 yen store. It is bound with string and the pages are folded with print only on one side, in traditional style. Attempting to describe this leaves me realizing a photo or two would explain it simply. There are several books in the series, so I will include photos with the next one.

A mouse and his wife have a daughter of marriageable age. She is beautiful and impressive; and was always cared for lovingly by her parents. Her father sets about finding her the greatest husband in all of Japan.  Coming to the conclusion there is none greater than Mr. Sunshine who is above all others and warms the earth, he dresses the family up, goes out to a mountain and waits to petition the Sun.

In proper humble Japanese fashion, the Sun explains that the cloud is his superior for he can darken the Sun at will. We go through progression as the cloud identifies the wind as his superior, and the wind relinquishes his claim to the wall. Finally, returning to the treasure house by the mansion Mr. Wall explains that the young mouse Chutaro can chew through him as he wishes and indeed has caused much suffering for Mr. Wall.

We find that the daughter has always been fond of Chutaro and, likewise, he is attracted to her. The mother promises Mr. Wall that neither family will chew on him any longer. The young couple has many children and they live long, never wanting for anything.

All in all, a very simple tale, but fun. The progression is amusing much as The King, The Mice, and The Cheese, which I enjoyed immensely as a child. I thought the mother’s promise to the wall was very indicative of the power and exercise of influence of mother-in-laws in Japan.

The Whistling Season

2010年 1月 20日

Thanks to an unusually long train ride yesterday and a phenomenon mentioned on a fellow blog, I have now completed reading The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig. Overall I found it enjoyable, thought-provoking, and challenging.

The story centers around the Milliron family and is narrated by Paul, the eldest son. At the time of telling – 1957 – he is 61 years old, and the overwhelming bulk of the story takes place in 1909; our narrator is 13 years old, a 7th grader in a one room school house in rural Montana. After hiring somone to clean their home (being a household of consisting entirely of males who are too busy or uninterested to get that important chore straight) their lives start changing, later a peculiar teacher is hired and again their lives shift in ever more unimaginable ways.

Often modern storytellers, particular the Hollywood variety, leave me dissatisfied because they either write stories I find too predictable or they struggle to avoid the first condition by making wild, unbelievable left turns. Ivan Doig proves he adept at protecting me from both of these let-downs. Many twists and turns pop-up, surprising me greatly, but never violating my trust and suspension of disbelief.

Considering an authors background had really been on my mind lately after re-reading The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s linguistics background is key to the entire work. Likewise Doig is a history PhD and it repeatedly shines through in this volume as timing of many actual events lace into those generated for the story.

Classifying this novel would be difficult. It is definitely a coming-of-age story, but it also promotes thought on how culture shifts over time, it addresses love and mourning and conflict, it’s a drama, but also almost a mystery, and it strongly addresses issues of education from teaching method to administrative process.

When the country school gets their new teacher, he rambles, he gets excited, he takes unorthodox approaches, but he always is thinking about how to get ideas into heads and motivate curiousity. Also he carries something (or things) mysterious from his past, which consumes much of the readers concern nearly throughout the story. I found myself identifying with this character, for better or worse: often I try to tie odd concepts into my lessons, seeking to challenge how students perceive relationships of knowledge. Many a time, home room teachers are cocking their heads and squinting at me, but occasionally they also get my point and reinforce it at the end of class in much more elegant Japanese than I can generate. Fortunately, the children seem to grasp these flights more often than not.

Our character list is long, and many characters have multiple nicknames, like Tobias, aka Tobe, aka Toby, aka Peg Leg Pete the Pirate. I kept a page in a notebook where I was scratching down all the family connections and school connections. Doig has an amusing (annoying) habit of introducing people in different manner at different times, like “the two sets of Drobny twins”, “the Drobny brothers”, “Seraphina and Eva Drobny”, “the entire 6th grade”, “Sam Drobny”, … figuring out who was being referred to was sometimes like one of those logic puzzles (i.e., The blue car is next to the green car, neither Mr. Smith nor Mrs. Jones drives a blue car, the cat owner drives a green car, …) I have at least 64 characters scratched on my list, plus at least five horse or pets. While the list is long, most of them include development and add to the story, so they are worth their weight.

Although, I can be an intellectual snob, my one complaint would have to be the way Latin is addressed, almost as if the average reader should be able to understand tricky sentences. Fair portions of the Latin discussion went right over my head, and I would expect even more would be lost on the average reader. This didn’t ruin anything for me, but a lot of it seemed unnecessary. On the other hand, a few times he deftly slipped enough explanation into the dialog that it just seemed natural to have the Latin there.

Yesterday’s long train ride is due to timing. After a meeting, I ended out at the train station before the proper end of my work day and long before the express train. Apparently there are some folk almost spying on the foreign city workers looking for complaints to stir up, so sitting and having tea near the station at that hour would be unwise. I hopped a local train for an hour ride home, reading all the way, and almost missing my stop because my nose was in the print.

As someone pointed out on a book-related blog, they often read faster and faster as they get deeper into a work. Certainly, this was the case for me with this one. Perhaps getting more adjusted to an authors style allows the faster reading, yet another factor plays in here; I found myself more and more invested in the story as things progressed.

Haiku Picturebook

2010年 1月 8日

On my visit to the Basho Memorial Hall (芭蕉翁記念館・ばしょうおうきねんかん) we had great fun learning about Basho’s works and looking at many scrolls, all hundreds of years old, of calligraphy works. The hall has no website, but it is next to the Ueno City Hall (上野市役所) – just a short walk from Ueno City Station (上野市駅). It was only 300 yen to get in, but there are other attractions there that are 300 yen each. Afterwards we went to a famous restaurant whose owner is the 14th generation since opening. They are well known for dengaku (田楽). We ordered slices of tofu grilled on skewers over a fire with a sauce containing soy and yuzu. In the Spring, they use their more traditional sauce containing a special herb/spice.

Anyhow, most of the materials available about haiku were well over my head; however, I found a book called はいくのえほん, which I’ll translate as Haiku Picturebook. It is described as a book for children 4 to 5 years and up. For normal topics, I would consider that age way below my level; yet, regarding haiku, this proved to be a very useful work. There are 15 poems by 8 writers, Kobayashi Issa (小林一茶) being the most well represented, with 4 pieces.

Each poem is written out in hiragana, making it easily legible for 5 year olds, and again in the original mix of kanji and hiragana, preserving the feeling from the author. Finally, there is an explanation written out in simple terms and artwork to represent the scene or image. Because haiku is a very concise form, there are often special characters, special readings, or special words not used in normal speech. Having the hiragana makes these difficult bits very transparent. Further, subtle cultural references are another method for shortening verses. Having an explanation targeting children proved extremely useful for understanding those points.

Overall I greatly enjoyed the book, one shortcoming was the limited number of works, but that is easily offset by the low 1200 yen price (tax-free at the hall). There is also a book called 続はいくのえほん. Zoku, the first character indicates a ‘continuation’. We’ll call it Haiku Picturebook 2. I will probably go back in the Spring to eat the traditional dengaku and pick up the second book.

膝の子や (hiza no ko ya)

線香花火に (senkou hanabi ni)

手をたたく (te wo tataku)

This poem by Kobayashi Issa is one of my favorites. It’s about a child too small to play with fireworks, safely sitting on someone’s lap and clapping at the excitement as older kids play. Forgive the following crude attempt at translation.

Child sits on lap

Watching the incense fireworks

Excitedly claps