Saturday, 23 June 2018

Tokyo Style Guide by Jane Lawson

Thankfully Jane Lawson's book, Tokyo Style Guide is more of a walking tour of Tokyo than a pure style guide, as my interest in shopping is minimal. Unfortunately, it's also a hardback book, so it didn't get to come on holidays with me. I browsed it a little before leaving, but have thoroughly enjoyed going through it properly now that we're back - it has helped to make sense of some of what we saw and experienced as well as providing fodder for next time! 

This is not a comprehensive travel guide for all the things to see and do in Tokyo.
It's best used in conjunction with other guides (unless you're a complete shopping junkie, then Jane is your guru!)

Most of Lawson's walks feature specific shops and areas of Tokyo renown for their stylish wares or style icons, but there's also a lot of important, practical stuff, like where to get a good coffee, yakitori and tasty dumplings. Lawson also includes temples, parks, markets and other interesting sites that the first-time, overwhelmed visitor to Tokyo might miss. We skipped most of the shopping experiences in this book but I still found lots to inspire me in planning where to go and what to expect.

Lawson stresses the 'magic' of finding your own way, 'getting lost in Tokyo is to be expected, so take a deep breath and make it part of the fun.' I was very grateful to have read this particular section BEFORE going to Tokyo. We only got a little bit lost once, although one or other of us got bamboozled by directions numerous times, just luckily not both of us together! (Which probably what makes us such a good travelling combo). It's not always easy to go with the flow when you're tired and stressed in a strange country, but Japan was certainly one of the easier countries in which to do so.

What I really loved about Tokyo Style Guide though were the pages and pages of fabulous, colourful street photography. They prompted me with good ideas before heading off as well as giving us lots of good memories when we got back home.

Lawson's other helpful tips included wearing slip on shoes and checking your socks for holes.

She went through some useful phrases which included the Japanese characters so that you could feel confident about walking into the right toilet block or out of the correct doorway.

Some of the train travel info was out of date as the big wide world of phone apps has made this much easier in just two years.

Tokyo Style Guide was a December 2016 publication - a lot can happen in Tokyo in 18 months!

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Winter is Coming...!

You know how it is. 
Some days you just wake up in one of those moods! 
For no apparent reason everything feels wrong, out of sorts and prickly.

After grumping my way through another wet, dreary, Sydney morning, I slunk off to the Art Gallery of NSW for one last peek at The Lady and the Unicorn exhibition.

Beauty always helps.
As does a walk.
Especially if that walk includes the sun finally breaking through the grey clouds, making the leaves sparkle and glisten like little green diamonds.

It was then that I realised that today was the Winter Solstice.
The shortest day of the year.
The beginning of the astronomical winter.

Oh woe is me!
The six coldest weeks of the year still lie ahead of us.

The solstice officially occurs in Sydney at 8:07pm.
Our day will only be 9:53:50 hrs long - a whole 4hr 31mins shorter than the Summer Solstice.

I've been thinking that we need to reinstate or establish some kind of warming ritual to make this short day/long night more enjoyable.

The Japanese celebrate by soaking in a hot bath with yuzu fruit, the English gather at Stonehenge to watch the sunrise, the Koreans eat red bean porridge and the Irish gather at Newgrange to see a shaft of sun light up an ancient burial chamber. At Casey Station, in the Australian Antarctic Division, they cut a hole in the ice and leap in briefly before retiring into a mobile hot spa. In Hobart, for Dark Mofo, the brave and foolish go for a nude solstice swim!

Maybe we could start National Doona Day - when we go to bed early and snuggle up with the ones we love under the covers?
Or we could bring back firecracker night - light a huge bonfire and let off catherine wheels?
Or perhaps we could simply speak a word of kindness.

Where and how will you be celebrating today's solstice?

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates

My first experience with Yates was way back in 2012 when I read Young Hearts Crying. It was so depressing, I haven't been able to try another one until now!

I love the covers that Vintage have selected for all their Yates books, they capture the melancholy and dissatisfaction that seems to infect all of his characters in one way or another. Cold Spring Harbor was no different, although ultimately less emotionally exhausting than Young Hearts Crying.

So many hopes dashes, disillusionment and mental health issues. Media reports often comment on the rise in mental health problems in our modern world, but Yates' novel remind us that they were always there, just not diagnosed and often self-medicated with copious amounts of alcohol.

Belonging was obviously a major theme in Yates' own life that carried through into all of his novels. His parents divorced when he was four, he moved around a lot, always short of money. His mother drank too much, he was bullied at school, joined the army in WWII, became a journalist, married, had children, divorced, remarried and had another child. He also drank too much, smoked and suffered from bouts of bronchitis, tuberculosis and bi-polar behaviours, before dying at age 66 of emphysema.*

In Cold Spring Harbor we have alcoholic mothers, absent fathers, divorced families, a family who moves around a lot and is always short of money, prep school bullying and army life. Everyone seems to be living a life of quiet desperation.

'My characters all rush around trying to do their best, trying to live well within their known and unknown limitations,' Yates explains. 'Doing what they can't help doing, ultimately and inevitably failing because they can't help being the people they are.'*

It's bleak stuff, on the very edge of hopeless. As with Young Hearts Crying, I got to the end and wondered what was the point of all that angst? Did I learn anything new about human nature? Did the characters learn anything new about themselves? Was there some political or social commentary being made by the author? I think it's probably a big fat no to all of that!

Cold Spring Harbor was most likely Yates' final attempt (it was his last published book) to work out his own sad life story. I can't decide if Rachel's closing words to her new born son were a sign of hope, wish fulfilment or irony on Yates' behalf.
"Oh you little marvel," she said. "Oh you're a wonder, that's what you are. You're a miracle. Because do you know what you're going to be? You're going to be a man."

* Nick Fraser Rebirth of a Dark Genius, The Guardian 17th Feb 2008

Book 6 #20BooksofSummer (Winter)
20℃ in Sydney
16℃ in Norther Ireland

Sunday, 17 June 2018

What To Do When I'm Gone by Suzy Hopkins & Hallie Bateman

I'm glad this is a book I don't actually need right now. What To Do When I'm Gone: A Mother's Wisdom to Her Daughter is exactly what it says it is. When Hallie had one of those moments during her early twenties when she suddenly realised that one day her mum would die, she felt devastated by this future loss. She discussed it with her mum, who promptly sat down to put together a list of things to do and not do in the event of her death.

Told in diary form with graphic style illustrations, Suzy proceeds to give advice on how to handle the days after she is gone. The first 8 days contain all the stuff Suzy feels a young woman would need to get through that phone call, that first day, the funeral. We then jump days to include things like that first birthday, the first dream as well as all those times when a young woman turns to her mum for support (the break up of a relationship, having kids of her own, changing jobs, growing older, bad days etc).

It's deeply personal, heart-breaking and so, so poignant. But it is also life-affirming, positive and feels very authentic. This book is designed to help younger women cope with loss and grief, but with an end date 20 000 days later, the advice and support within these pages could help anyone who has experienced death and loss. In a nutshell, it's resilience, memories and courage that will keep you going, keep you strong and keep you safe. Nothing unusual in any of that, but having it all together in a lovely book package can help it to feel like the great, big, warm fuzzy it sets out to be.

Even if you haven't lost someone close, reading books like this can prepare you a little for that time. In the middle of your grief, pages from this book may pop back into your mind to help you get through the next bit.

Book 5 of #20BooksofSummer (Winter) Drop-in title
16℃ in Sydney but the wind chill factor made it more like 7℃
15℃ in Northern Ireland

Friday, 15 June 2018

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

The Child in Time was my latest book club read and one of McEwan's earlier works that I had yet to read. For this particular book club gathering we agreed to extend the meeting to include a viewing of the BBC movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald.

I thought it might be interesting to do a before & after type post to compare the two mediums for telling this story.

I finished the book last weekend. During the week I jotted down these thoughts about McEwan's 1987 Whitbread award winning book:

My previous experiences with McEwan helped me to ride through the consistently inconsistent feelings that his books always seem to evoke in me. I find him to be such a frustrating writer - moments of utter brilliance that leave me breathless and wowed followed by rambling, self-indulgent musings about time, memory and love. Normally I love rambling musings about time, memory and love, but McEwan struggles to find the point, any point, for the reader to catch ahold of (at least this reader anyway).

The car crash in The Child in Time had all the early makings of the infamous ballooning accident in Enduring Love, but somehow the scenes featuring the loss of the child left me cold. The pacing and voice wasn't quite right - I couldn't really engage. I fully expected to feel the panic, the fear and the disbelief but instead I was kept firmly at arms length. Perhaps it was McEwan's way of showing us Stephen's way of grieving. He kept busy, searching and questioning. By trying to fix the problem, bloke-style, he kept his grief at bay, sedating it with alcohol and routines.

Meanwhile Julie allowed herself to succumb to her grief. She embraced the grieving process, chick-style, although it also had the same outcome as Stephen's way, in that they both ended up isolated and alone. The difference being that Julie chose her isolation, it was part of her plan to deal with the pain and loss she was suffering.

Stephen floundered his way towards letting go and acceptance, whereas Julie understood that this was exactly the process she was going to have to work through.

There was some weird shit going on with time that almost made this a ghost story or a time travel story or even a homage to Benjamin Button. A dream-like or perhaps nightmarish quality infused the story. Puzzled by the whole Charles and Thelma storyline though.

The links between the loss of a child with governmental child care policy and the innocence of childhood felt rather clumsy to me. As did the comparison between (bad) city life and (good) country life. In the city we saw the breakdown of transport systems, the rise of poor people wearing beggar's badges to identify them and regulate their movements and invasive technology. Politicians practised disinformation and deception on their constituencies, authoritarian ideals were becoming the norm and the weather seemed to be unpredictable. Meanwhile our characters who returned to the country were searching for an innocence and purity of old. Nature acted to comfort and solace our characters. It worked for Julie, but not, ultimately for Charles.

I have no idea what year the book was set in? It felt slightly futuristic, yet old-fashioned as well. The badges for the poor added to this uncertainty. Beggars badges were phased out of the UK a century or so ago. But they provided another example of an authoritarian government. The kind of government that peddles in disinformation & propaganda & nationalistic policy. Sounds remarkably familiar!

Was the PM gay or was the PM a woman? No name or pronouns used. Was this McEwan's political novel, having a go at Thatcherite England?

I enjoyed the happy-ish ending. I didn't need to know the sex of the baby (but I assumed it was a boy - having another girl would have been too painful. I want Stephen & Julie to be able to enjoy this baby without constantly comparing it to the one they lost).


So first - Cumberbatch - excellent choice for Stephen. He did that British, stiff upper lip, slightly weedy, prone to drinking too much when melancholy character so well. However, in the book, I found it hard to care for him beyond the surface empathy that his loss evoked. In the movie, Cumberbatch was able to convey so much more of Stephen's interior life via his gestures and expressions.

Extra scenes helped to connect the dot that were confusing in the book.

The film had to make some visual leaps of faith - they assumed the PM was male. They also made it clear that the new babe was a boy. The extra bits with the ghost-like boy gave the film a narrative cohesion that the book just missed.

In the film Charles refers his role in the Childcare Book as a joke book which gave me a clearer understanding of what his issues may have been. It didn't even occur to me in the book that his childhood may have been overly authoritarian and harsh, I assumed it was more of a mental illness affecting his behaviour, or perhaps I missed that bit?

The film was softer on the separation and distance between Stephen and Julie. They saw each other a number of times and had regular phone contact. In the book they were far more isolated and alone with their sorrows. The book highlighted how they had to work their own stuff out, on their own, so they could come together again at the end, stronger and more grateful. The film suggested they both just needed some space.

No car accident in the film. Why did they leave it out? Why did McEwan include it?

I felt more emotional throughout the film.

The film helped me to make more sense of the book. But the book explored the layers and themes more than the film. The film was a human drama. The book was more about ideas and politics.

The movie is well worth a watch, but pack a tissue.
The book is not my best McEwan, but it's also not my worst.

4/20 #20booksofsummer (winter)
 11℃ in the Blue Mountains
 18℃ in Northern Ireland

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Sugar Money by Jane Harris

A big thank you to the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction for shortlisting Sugar Money by Jane Harris otherwise I may never have stumbled across this gem of a story. Based on real events in Grenada in 1765, we follow young Lucien and his older brother Emile as they attempt to convince the hospital slaves to runaway, on behalf of the French priests of Martinique who used to own them when the French were in control of Grenada.

It's a story that shows up Anglo-European greed, manipulation and disregard for human life.

A few horrific, disgusting acts of violence were described by the slaves that almost defy belief. They were hard to read. I can't imagine how they were borne by the people they were inflicted on. Except that the scars inflicted during this time still linger on today. How it is even possible for one human being to think up these atrocious acts of torture let alone commit them against another human being is one of those things I have struggled with all my life? Man's inhumanity to man seems to know no bounds, whether it's in concentration camps, gulags, refugee camps, the slave trade or the modern-day human traffickiing problem. We've moved on from that time, but not that far.

Fortunately, Sugar Money is also a story about family, loyalty and courage.

The bond between the two brothers is complicated by the usual jealousies and age differences. Lucien's voice (that narrates the story in the patios of the time) is funny and vibrant. The story reads like a boys own adventure story (thanks to Lucien's attitude) with lots of action and tension to keep the pages turning. It's a period and place that I know very little about, so I was on tenterhooks the whole time, fearing what might happen next and suspecting that a story about slavery was never going to end happily ever after.

Issues around white appropriation of a black story are bound to be raised when a slave narrative is written by a young white woman - is this just a softer version of the greed, manipulation and disregard that allowed slavery to occur in the first place? I can't quite subscribe to this idea, but I appreciate the concerns. Yes, I'm another white person discussing this issue, but I learnt a lot about the horrors of the slave trade via this novel. Stuff I may never have learnt otherwise.

It is this particular curly issue that has caused me to delay this reader response for so long. In the end, though, I believe that any book or story that allows the reader to walk in another's shoes or bear witness to human tragedy is a powerful tool towards understanding and empathy, whatever the race, religion or gender of the author. Not every single survivor can bear to talk about their suffering, and nor should we expect them to relive their trauma for our edification. Add ancestral guilt (or pride) to the mix and we could talk around and around this topic until the cows come home.

Harris' story has got under my skin. I was horrified and fascinated in equal measure. She brought the cast of secondary characters vividly to life, as well as the lush landscape of the Caribbean, but it was the wonderful voice of Lucien that gives this book the sparkle and magic that will make it live in my memory for a long time to come.

3/20 #20booksofsummer (winter)
15℃ in Sydney & over 33 ml of rain
19℃ in Northern Ireland

Thursday, 7 June 2018

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier

I wanted to read The Lady and the Unicorn thanks to the exhibition currently on at the Art Gallery of NSW. As a long-time cross-stitcher, the tapestries fascinate me. I've been to see them twice so far, & hope to see them one more time before the exhibition ends later this month.

This is only the third time that the tapestries have left France in 500 years. Designed around 1500 in Paris, they are an extraordinary example of medieval art. Very little is known about their exact provenance which has created much speculation. Chevalier has used 'sensible suppositions' to weave her fiction.

Initially I was dismayed by what I felt was lacklustre writing. By the end of the first chapter, I wasn't sure I would be able to continue.

I may have been too critical as I was coming off the back of the incredible Sugar Money by Jane Harris written in the patios of 1765 Martinique and Megan Hunter's poetic cli-fi story, The End We Start From where the poetry existed in every word as well as in the gaps between. After two such innovative, exciting narratives, perhaps any regular story would have been a bit dull.

I'm glad I persisted as Chevalier's suppositions were enlightening and entertaining. She obviously researches her subjects thoroughly, then weaves this knowledge through her story with a deft touch. 

With a tapestry you stand close as you would to a friend. You see only part of it, and not necessarily the most important part. So no thing should stand out more than the rest, but fit together into a pattern that your eye takes pleasure in no matter where it rests.

Chevalier took the time to show us (via the faces of the women and the stories behind them) that not only can an artists intent and interpretation change with time but that different people view different things in the work, depending on their mood and experience. All theses ideas are valid as well as being the very thing that makes all art such a personal and rewarding experience.

I learnt a lot about the life and times of medieval France, the art of weaving and the lot of women in a strict patriarchal society.

Unlike many of the books I've read recently, Chevalier wrote a good old-fashioned ending complete with epilogue and a what-they-did-next wrap-up. Very satisfying.

2/20 #20booksofsummer (winter)
19℃ in Sydney
22℃ in Northern Ireland

Monday, 4 June 2018

The End We Start From From by Megan Hunter

There is a lot of space in Megan Hunter's The End We Start From. Known as a poet until now, her debut novel is written almost like a poem, but not quite. It's not prose as we know it either. It's fragmentary, somewhere in between.

Stark, sparse paragraphs, poetic words, no names, just letters of the alphabet. Everything is pared back to the bare minimum to create a startling story about the end of times. The End We Start From got under my skin.

Hunter's choice of epigraph was a poem by T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets,
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from

She then shows us the end of our known world (via an environmentally disastrous flood that covers London) through the eyes of a young woman about to give birth to her first child. The story reads almost like her journal entries. Brief snatches of time captured through the lens of baby love.

Many reviewers talked about the not-so-new idea of comparing first-time mothering with the end of the world. Curiously it wasn't this particular idea that captured my attention. I was intrigued by how this baby (and the other newborns) will be growing up in this new world which will be the only world that they know and understand. They won't have to accommodate or change or adapt to this new world order; it is their world. They won't spend their lives thinking about and regretting the wonderful old ways and wishing it could be like that again. They won't be climate change deniers or head-in-the-sander's; they will know, they will be living with it as a fact. They will belong to this new world. This is our hope and the way forward.

The story is contained not only within the carefully chosen words but also in the gaps and all that is unspoken. Hunter mentioned several times that she was trying to find a way to move between poetry and prose to find a form that suited her. It worked for me just fine.

London. Uninhabitable. A list of boroughs, like the shipping forecast, their names suddenly as perfect and tender as the names of children.
The cupboards reveal themselves more by the day: their wooden backs, the greying corners we never used to see.
Days are thin now, stretched so much that time pours through the
Z has learnt to smile. He has cracked with it. The smiles built up inside him, R and me smiling madly into his face until it couldn’t hold any more. It cracked, and out came his smile, urgent, almost demented.

Hunter also interspersed these fragments with flood mythologies. They reminded us that since the beginning of recorded time, humans have been grappling with the chaos that mother nature throws our way. We make up stories to help us make sense of the unknown. It made me wonder what stories would then be made up for future generations about this disaster.

My only quibble was the ending. However so many authors these days fail to capture a satisfying end note that I'm becoming used to that feeling of let down after a great read. So much thought seems to go into the epigraph but the search for an equally apt epilogue is not always given the same care.

Benedict Cumberbatch's company has apparently bought the movie rights to the book.

A shout-out to the brilliant cover design by Naomi Clark and illustration by Kazuko Nomoto. I picked this book up for the first time purely thanks to the lovely, lovely cover.

1/20 #20booksofsummer (winter)
16℃ in Sydney
20℃ in Northern Ireland

Saturday, 2 June 2018

#6degrees June

#6degrees is a monthly meme hosted by Kate @Books Are My Favourite and Best.

Oftentimes I haven't read the starting book for this meme, but I can assure you that I only play the next 6 books with ones I have actually read. 
If I've read the book during this blogging life, then I include my review, otherwise, you just have to take my word for it!

This month the starting book is The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.
Are you game?

Old image alert - Kate @Books Are My Favourite & Best now hosts #6Degrees but this is a good refresh of the rules.

The Tipping Point is a book I know about, but not one I've read.

The best link I could think of was thanks to the tag about little things on the front cover.
I automatically started humming Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly's song, From Little Things Big Things Grow.

The song was turned into a picture book a number of years ago with illustrations by Queensland artist Peter Hudson and the kids from Gurindji country.

Another book inspired by a song is Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.
One of the characters is obviously a huge Beatles fan.

Essentially Norwegian Wood  is a nostalgic coming of age story about lost love and lyrics.
The logical place to go after that is Nick Hornby and High Fidelity.

Although sadly, this is one of the few times when I preferred the movie over the book.
The movie had a killer soundtrack...and John Cusack.
Say no more!

Cusack also played a role in another book-to-movie classic, Stephen King's The Body, which became Stand By Me at the movies.

The Body is a short story in King's Different Seasons collection.

I love short story collections.
One of my favourite short story writers is William Trevor.
His brick of short stories is one of the most brilliant pieces of story-telling I've ever read.

Sadly he died in 2016, along with a slew of other well-known authors.
Including Richard Adams.
Watership Down was one of my favourite childhood reads.
The rabbits in this story are a perfect literary example of how little things can make a big difference.

And so we go back to The Tipping Point.

For the first time, in #6degrees history, I have created a loop rather than a chain.
How did you fare this month?
By the by, it's 14℃ outside, but feels like 11.
Which is better than #6degrees (see what I did there?)
Winter has arrived with a vengeance!

Thursday, 31 May 2018

20 Books of ... whatever season it is wherever you are!

Where did that time go? 
It really feels like I was preparing my 2017 list just the other day.
And it still feels summery here in Sydney.
Tuesday was a balmy 26℃, although today has turned decidedly cool.
Perhaps winter is coming after all!

Like Cathy, I have failed miserably at this challenge every year, but the fun is in the compiling, not the completing!

In 2017 I read 10 and a half books from my list.
In 2016 I ticked off all 20 books, but I cheated by changing my list halfway through.
2015 was my first foray into #20books and I read 11 out of 20.

So what have I learnt about myself and #20books over this time?

I love any excuse to browse through my TBR piles.
I love wondering about which books I might feel like reading over the cold winter months.
I love thinking about which books I have already committed to reading for readalongs.
I love imaging the unknown new releases and spontaneous reading challenges that might tempt me in the next 3 months.
I love ticking things off lists.

My attention span wanders off to other things by August.
I'm a mood reader & it's impossible to predict my mood 2 months down the track let alone 2 weeks.
I hate being dictated to - even when it's a list of my own making.

Obviously the pro's outweigh the con's, so without any further ado here is my list of 20.


I've just started this so I'm going to sneak it into #20books to guarantee at least one tick!

Shell by Kristina Olsson

I loved Olsson's memoir, Boy, Lost a few years ago & was thrilled to recently receive a lovely hardback ARC of this October release set in Sydney during the 60's & 70's.


My June book club read.

My July book club read.
I've just discovered that I've already read my July book club book, Tim Winton's The Shepherd's Hut.
So I will jump onto Lisa's Indigenous Literature Week instead.

I have several half-finished books that would be great for this week.


My August book club read.


Austen in August


Meanjin A-Z Fine Fiction 1980 to Now edited by Jonathan Green

Some fine Australian short stories to tide me over the slow reading days.

Maisie Dobbs #14 In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear

Because everyone needs a winter comfort read.

Maigret's First Case by Georges Simenon

They're nice slim volumes, perfect for a quick, easy read and a quick, easy tick!


Tokyo Local by Caryn Liew and Brendan Liew

A recipe book full of delicious looking recipes, street photography and tips for travellers.


Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

An ambitious inclusion since this book has yet to make it's way onto my TBR pile.
It's just a matter of time though!


We currently have this exhibition on at the Art Gallery of NSW.
I'd like to read the book before popping into see the tapestries again.


South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

A new Murakami is due in October.
These short stories will hopefully tide me over until then.


Last Stories by William Trevor

The master of the short story form, William Trevor's final 10 stories are here in this final volume for me to savour.


The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

A cli-fi verse novel with a gorgeous cover.


Rice, Noodle, Fish by Matt Goulding

It might be cheating a little to add 2 cook books to my list, but this one is more a travel guide with food as it's raison d'être.


Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell

For when I need a bit of light, easy fluff.


Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates

For when I want to feel annoyed about spelling harbor without it's 'u'!!


Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

A modern, contemporary Japanese author who gets rave reviews.
I'm curious to see why she is so popular.


The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

I've never read this or seen the movie, but it sounds so appealing and heart warming.
It could be the perfect choice one cold, dull, wintry weekend.

Have you read any of my choices?
Which one should I read next?

The Drop-Ins

What To Do When I'm Gone by Suzy Hopkins & Hallie Bateman
Calypso by David Sedaris
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

After returning home from our trip to Japan, I wasn't ready to let it go, so when I finished Memoirs of a Geisha, I turned straight to this glorious historical fiction set in Korea and Japan for solace. Not that Pachinko was a comforting read as such. There was tragedy, sadness, grief, loss and war. But there was also love, loyalty and strength of character.

Basically Pachinko is an epic multi-generational story. The consequences of a brief love affair by a young Korean girl with an older married man impacted several generations. The repercussions of the affair brought about great change and great joy as well as tremendous suffering and opportunity. 

Min Jin Lee explores the nature of belonging via all her characters. I hadn't realised how many Koreans had immigrated to Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 -1945 and how much discrimination they faced, and continue to face. After the war they were given the opportunity to move back to Korea, and some tried. But they often found that they had become so Japanese to their Korean neighbours that they were rejected. The political division into north and south Korea also prohibited the return of many former nationals. Yet they didn't belong in Japan either. 

To belong somewhere, is it country, language, culture, education, family, nature or nurture?

The Japanese call the Koreans who came to Japan during this time zainichi (foreign resident staying in Japan). They are a distinct minority group in Japan that are differentiated from even the Koreans who immigrated to Japan in the 1980's.

The Japanese, like most countries in the world, have not readily or gracefully accepted cultures and peoples who differ from themselves. Sunja's story highlighted all the discrimination, subtle and institutional, that this group of Koreans endured and the impact it had on individuals, families and the community as a whole.

I didn't like the cover at all when I began the book (I preferred the prettier pachinko-style smaller format and international covers) but by the end I became quite attached to the young woman on my cover. Her stoic stare gradually revealed the pain and determination to survive in an hostile environment. And I got to wondering who was this woman and what was her story.

As Lee found when she researched this book,
the Korean Japanese may have been historical victims, but when I met them in person, none of them were as simple as that. I was so humbled by the breadth and complexity of the people that I met in Japan that I put aside my old draft and started to write the book again.

It is this human complexity that she conveys so well in Pachinko.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

I like to think that I have taken my 'what to read whilst travelling' choices to an inspired level of brilliance, but I really outdid myself with our recent trip to Japan. Reading Murakami in Japan now feels like the ONLY place to read Murakami!

Not only does the usual Murakami weirdness make sense when you're actually in Japan, but you also realise just how important the environment is to Murakami and his characters. His descriptions of the trees, forests, waterways and urban spaces are everywhere as you move around the country. As are the crows.

In this case, the boy named crow is a mentor to our young protagonist, Kafka Tamura, perhaps an alter ego, a Japanese Jiminy Cricket. Whatever crow is or isn't, right from word one, Murakami is flagging that symbolism, mythology and psychology will be our prime concerns in Kafka on the Shore.

In Japanese mythology, crows are seen as a sign of 'divine intervention in human affairs' (wikipedia). Western mythology tends to associate the crow with bad news or as a harbinger of death. They're selfish, spread gossip and neglect their young. And they're everywhere in Japan. They sit on telegraph wires, fence posts and roof tops. You often wake up to their cawing, even in the city.

Cats are the other creatures that dominant not only Murakami stories, but many Japanese stories, yet curiously I didn't see one single cat in three weeks, let alone a talking cat! The opposite of the crow, cats are creatures of good luck, although still often associated with death and hauntings.

Silence, I discover is something you can actually hear.

There is no denying that Murakami is on very intimate terms with kooky.

If the talking cats weren't enough, a cameo appearance by Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders of KFC fame might tip you over the edge. A reference to the (fictional) Picnic at Hanging Rock as an example of another group loss of consciousness event caught my eye. Did Murakami know that it was an urban myth? Is that what he was implying about his own story? The sense of mystery and other-worldliness was certainly a shared atmosphere between the two stories.

I was also amazed by truck drivers who suddenly became classic music afficiandos, quiet librarians who turned out to be sex fiends and sex workers who quoted philosophers. What's not to love? The kookiness gets under my skin and into my head. Just like what happened to me with his previous books.

1Q84 is still roaming around in my head, Colourless Tsukuru less so, but it's still a memorable book experience.

Things outside you are projections of what's inside you, and what's inside you is a projection of what's outside you. So when you step into the labyrinth outside you, at the same time your stepping into the labyrinth inside. 

One of the really enjoyable aspects to reading Murakami in Japan is the place names. Suddenly they really mean something. Most of the action in Kafka takes place in Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku. 

We didn't get to Shikiko with this visit, but we did see one of the huge bridges, from a distance, that joins Shikoko to Honshu and we spent some time at the station that is the interchange for the JR line that goes to Takamatsu. Seeing the name of the city featured in my book up in lights suddenly grounded this surreal story into reality.

This is only my fourth Murakami (see my Author Challenge tab for details) so I'm not sure I can safely name all his common themes and ideas, but there are a few that I've clocked. Going into the woods/fear of getting lost, weird sex, talking creatures, dreams, random jazz references, loneliness and silence. And for me, the reader, there is an over-riding sense of bewilderment (WTF was that about?) as well as an overwhelming sense of wanting more (whatever it was a think I like it!) 

I'm caught between one void and another. I have no idea what's right, what's wrong. I don't even know what I want anymore. I'm standing alone in the middle of a horrific sandstorm. I can't move, and can't even see my fingertips.

Murakami doesn't wrap his stories up with a neat, tidy bow or resolve many of the story lines. This should be totally frustrating...and it is, but somehow you love being kept in the dark and confused at the same time. Perhaps it's the likeable characters? Or perhaps it's the not so subtle way he plays with your head? Or perhaps it is the hope that the next book he writes will bring you one step closer to understanding this maddening man and his ability to suck you into his world. 

Every one of us is losing something precious to us....Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That's part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads - at least that's how I imagine it - there's a little room where we store those memories.

Image source
Murakami likes to do the whole books in books thing. Kafka's backlist was an obvious start -The Castle, The Trial, Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony in this case. But he also referenced The Arabian Nights, the complete works of Natsume Soseki, a book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann (I can only assume it was Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem), Electra by Sophocles, The Tale of the Genji and 'The Chrysanthemum Pledge' in Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Ueda Akinari.

So many tangents, so many connections, which one should I tackle next?

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Travel Guides - Japan

My recent trip to Japan was a long time in the making.
I've been wanting to go ever since I studied Japanese at school.

I'm not sure why I didn't prioritise it earlier in my travelling career, except for the vague notion that I've had that I should do the bigger long-haul trips to Europe and the America's in my younger years and save the shorter, closer-to-home trips for later.

Certainly there was no jetlag before, during or after our time in Japan (not like our trip to Cuba and Mexico 18mnths ago where I was shattered for the entire first day in Cuba and for several days again when we finally got home).

We started planning Japan about a year ago.
We knew we wanted to catch some blossom time, but it also had to fit around our work schedules, B17's HSC exam timetable and Mr Books club football commitments.

I patiently waited until August 2017, though, for the latest Lonely Planet Japan to be published before really getting into the nitty gritty of the planning.

At work we're regularly asked which is the best travel guide.
Every trip I take, I decide to do a thorough comparison, to help me answer this question, but every trip leaves me with even more indecision than before I started. There are simply too many variants involved - the type of holiday you want, the author of the particular guide, your mood, the country you're visiting etc.

After Vietnam, I felt that the LP was good for the day-to-day on the ground stuff, like where to get tickets, how much they cost, how to get to and find the various places and what plugs, visas and shots you might need. I found the Eyewitness books good for the history of the country (great to read on the plane) as well as highlighting favourite venues to visit with maps and great colour pics. The Wallpaper city guides had great walks, a focus on the architecture (& shopping, although I've always ignored that section) and good suggestions for drinks and meals. The Trip Advisor app was our main go-to for restaurants and experiences at this time. Their rating system helped to narrow down the often overwhelming choices available.

In Cuba the LP helped us to work out where we actually wanted to go. It was such an unknown adventure, we didn't even know where to start. Yet it was the Eyewitness guide that filled in the gaps for some of the smaller towns that we stayed in. In the bigger towns and cities, the LP walks were a fabulous way to orient ourselves and to see a great cross-section of the area. In Havana, I grew frustrated with the LP because of how they divide the city up into the various suburbs for what to see and do, but then put all the sleeping, eating and drinking sections together at the end. When I'm staying in Centro Habana, I want ALL the stuff associated with Centro Habana to be together. I don't want to have to flick around trying to find a good place to grab a rooftop cocktail! Which is where the Wallpaper Guide came in handy again. Cuba is also where we embraced AirBnB for the first time. All but one of our stays was found on the app.

In Mexico, the Eyewitness guide had fabulous maps and walks around most of the ancient sites. As did the Moon Guide, but everything in the Moon guide was catered for American tourists only, from giving all the prices in US dollars (as opposed to the Mexican peso!) to where to find American food and other places that American likes to hang out together. Useful only for helping us to cross off certain places to not go to for dinner or to hang out! It also had some odd comments that we found skated very close to offensive.

With all this under my belt, I thought that for Japan we would use the LP to plan some of the bigger stuff as well as do their walks, use the Eyewitness Travel Japan for the history and iconic sites, AirBnB for accommodation and Trip Advisor for food.

For the record we have never knowingly stayed in a LP recommendation for accommodation. I have looked at their options over the years, but they're either too expensive or not actually anywhere near where we want to be. Back in my pre-internet, pre-app, backpacking days, the LP did help me track down YMCA's and Youth Hostels. But now I prefer a quieter, cleaner, cosier form of accommodation, embedded in the local community, which is why AirBnB has been perfect for us. 

We take the time to read all the reviews and comments. We look for English speaking hosts, and factor in things like distances public transport, restaurants and other things to see and do. We adjust our expectations for every country we travel to. We take the time to find places that sound like they will suit us and meet our needs and we leave honest reviews that take into account all these factors. Cuba and Japan are two very different countries which demanded two very different styles of travel, yet AirBnB worked beautifully for us in both. 

Trip Advisor used to be great, but the current filters are not very useful and keep going back to the default ones they want you to use. It is still handy to check out nearby restaurants and experiences when you first arrive in a new city, but it's getting harder to sort out the ads from the genuine reviews. I still write honest reviews, but I've become warier. Most of our Japan eating experiences came from friends, our AirBnB hosts or the good old-fashioned serendipitous walk by.

The LP helped me to narrow down my choices about where to actually visit. When I first sat down to fill in the blanks for our 3 week trip, I was overwhelmed - the new edition was so thick with options. So I started with the lovely colour top 25 photographs and a piece of paper. I wrote down which of the iconic sites and places I really wanted to see. Then I read through the 'First time in Japan' and the "If You Like' sections. Each chapter then had a small box of highlights for that region/city.

Sadly, I barely used the Eyewitness guide at all. I found the history section very dry and uninspiring and it didn't cover all the places we were planning on going to (whereas the LP did), so I didn't pick it up again. I also picked up a LP Best of Japan not long before we left, but ran out of time to read it & decided not to pack it to save on weight and space. The road map of Japan came along for the ride, but we used the MapsMe app the whole time instead. The map was handy, though, in the early stages of planning to see where all the places where in relation to each other. The final two books on my pile were a LP Pocket Kyoto & Osaka and a LP Tokyo.

The LP Tokyo was an old edition. I tore out the map and marked out the walks as suggested by LP for Shinjuku and Shibuya (the 2 areas where we were staying). I also tore out the two chapters for these suburbs and just took them along instead of the whole book. The Kyoto & Osaka book was brand new so I didn't want to tear it up (yet!) The Pocket guides really are handy for tucking into your pocket or handbag, although nothing any of the books said prepared us for 4 days in Kyoto during Golden Week!

Golden Week crowds at Fushima Inari-Taisha, Kyoto

I felt very prepared for this trip and had a number of things I REALLY wanted to do. I got to tick most of them off. The rest can wait for the return trip! Mr Books fell in love with the JapanTravel app which he used to plan all our train travel. We like to be organised at the beginning, then as we became more confident in using the trains and buses and negotiating the crowds, we're happy to make stuff up as we go along.

In the end, it was the Lonely Planet books, MapsMe, AirBnB and JapanTravel apps that got us around Japan with the best results.

I will happily conduct more intensive research and guide comparison for future trips!

My blossom photos.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

During the planning stages of my trip to Japan I asked around and checked on Goodreads for the best books set in Japan. At the top of nearly every list I came across was Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.

When it was first published in 1997, and later when the movie was released in 2005, I avoided it at all costs. My impression was that it would be some kind of tacky white American male wish fulfilment fantasy story. Not at all my cup of tea, green or otherwise!

However I succumbed to popular opinion and packed it in my travel bag with many reservations. At best, I thought it would be a good book for the plane when I needed something light and easy to consume.

As it turned out serendipity was on my side.

I also took Murakami's Kafka on the Shore to Japan. In fact, I had started reading it a few days before departure. My review for it will turn up here soon. I finished it, about halfway through our time in Japan, as luck would have it, on our first night in Kyoto.

Starting Memoirs of a Geisha in Kyoto was an inspired thing to do. We stayed in the Higashiyama area, just a handful a streets away from Gion, the main geisha area in Kyoto and where the book was set.

I knew about the controversy surrounding the author and whether or not he had permission to name the geisha who provided him with a lot of the information for the book. From this I had assumed that the book was based on her life story. It wasn't until I finished the book and read Golden's acknowledgements page that I realised this assumption was not entirely correct.
Although the character of Sayuri and her story are completely invented, the historical facts of a geisha's day-to-day life in the 1930's and 1940's are not....Mineko Iwasaki, one of Gion's top geisha in the 1960's and 1970's, opened her Kyoto home to me during May 1992, and corrected my every misconception about the life of a geisha.

 A quick check on the internet, showed that Golden had been sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Iwasaki who claimed that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity. Golden claimed otherwise, saying he had tapes and notes to the contrary. They eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum of money. Iwasaki then went on to write (with Rande Gail Brown) an autobiography titled Geisha of Gion (2002) which claimed to tell the real story.

Both books were best sellers and both books have been loved and hated in equal measure on Goodreads. Golden for paternalistic inaccuracies and Iwasaki for grandiose, emotionless boasting.

From what I have been able to ascertain (and please correct me if I'm wrong) there were various levels or ranks of being a geisha. The highest ranking geisha were from the Gion, Pontocho and Kamishichiken districts. A lower rank of geisha were the so-called onsen geisha, or hot spring geisha, who worked in towns famous for their hot spring baths. Lower still were the ones who worked in a jorou-ya (brothel). A maiko was a junior or apprentice geisha.

Geiko Tomeko 1930's

Another controversy surrounded the mizuage ceremony as described by Golden in his book. This is the process by which a maiko became a fully fledged geisha (or geiko as geisha were called in Kyoto). Golden describes his character's virginity being sold off to the highest bidder. It was a pretty ghastly moment in the story and I wondered at the time just how true it was.

Initially I was relieved when a google search indicated that Iwasaki strongly refuted that this ever happened to her and that no such custom ever existed. However further reading seems to indicate that it was in fact a common practice, even for the higher ranking geiko (Sayo Masuda and Liza Dalby). 1959 is the key date here though, as this is when mizuage was made illegal along with other acts of prostitution.

Mizuage still exists as a form of initiation from maiko to senior maiko, but without the sex. The ceremony now focuses on the change of hairstyle and 'turning of the collar' on the kimono. According to her autobiography, Iwasaki became a maiko at age 15, in 1964, five years after the change in law.

So after all that, did I actually enjoy the book?

Yes, I did.

I read it as historical fiction, not as a memoir, and thoroughly enjoyed the glimpse into another world in another time. It was a quick, easy read. The romantic element felt unbelievable, rather Cinderellish really. For me it let down the historical aspects that I enjoyed learning about. It also happily mentioned the names of streets, buildings and streams that I was able to walk down, through and around, imagining what it must have looked like 70 years ago.

I could do nothing but step into my shoes and follow her up the alleyway to a street running beside the narrow Shirakawa Stream (that's a tautology by the by - kawa and gawa means river or stream). 

FYI: Hitler adopted the swastika from an ancient Hindu, Buddhist symbol denoting a temple.
It is still used in Japan (& other Asian countries) to indicate the site of a Buddhist temple.
Confronting to the Western eye, but true.

Back in those days, the streets and alleys in Gion were still paved beautifully with stone. We walked along in the moonlight for a block or so, beside the weeping cherry trees that drooped down over the black water, and finally across a wooden bridge arching over into a section of Gion I'd never seen before. The embankment of the stream was stone, most of it covered with patches of moss. Along its top, the backs of the teahouses and okiya connected to form a wall. Reed screens over the windows sliced the yellow light into tiny strips.