Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Howl's Moving Castle
Diana Wynne Jones
(Harpertrophy, New York: 2001)

READ: December 2006

I think this was made into a Japanese anime movie not so long ago, by Miyazaki, if I'm not mistaken. Anyway, I'd heard good things about this book, so I figured it would make a good Christmas vacation read. And it did!

Sophie is an ordinary girl destined for ordinariness, when one day, through no error of her own, she runs afoul of the Witch of the Waste, who transforms her into an old woman. So Sophie sets out to seek her fortune, and ends up in the always-moving castle of Howl, a young and unlikeable wizard whose help Sophie has decided to seek. Things become, as they so often do when wizards are involved, most extraordinary.

The tale is quite enchanting, and while a little simple at times (again, targeted for readers much younger than me), I really enjoyed it. It was funny, the characters were decently-developed, and the story touching. A good read.

Things Not Seen by Andrew Clement

Things Not Seen
Andrew Clement
(Penguin Young Reader Group, New York: 2004)

READ: December 2006

This is not the usual kind of book I like to read. I was given the book in September by an American teacher who was at our school for a week as part of a student exchange. Nevertheless, it was good.

Bobby wakes up one morning to find he is invisible. He just isn't there anymore. This, understandably, freaks his parents out. He's a little freaked out, too. His parents don't want to get doctors involved as they fear Bobby will be taken away from them for research purposes, so they set out to do their own investigations. Social services gets involved after Bobby is absent from school for almost two weeks, and many other hijinks ensue. Bobby also makes friends with Alicia, a girl who suddenly went blind about a year earlier, and she also gets involved in trying to figure out how to make Bobby reappear. You can kind of figure out the plot from there.

While the plot is simple, I can see why it's a popular book with its pre-teen target audience (which a quick Internet search indicated). I haven't read enough in the genre to really assess it, but it's kind of entertaining, mildly compelling, and just quirky enough to keep you reading.

The Book of Ikebana by Kawase Toshirou

The Book of Ikebana
Kawase Toshirou
(Kodansha International, Tokyo: 2000)

READ: December 2006

This is partly a how-to book and partly a why-to book. Ikebana is the Japanese art of arranging flowers. Allow me to quote from the book's Foreword - he says it better than I could:

[T]his book discusses flowers in detail from a variety of perspectives as they have been passed down through the generations in the hearts of the Japanese. And to make flower arrangement more enjoyable, it provides easy-to-understand explanations - in both Japanese and English - from the basics of handling flowers to fairly advanced professional techniques, all richly illustrated.

I'm slightly hopeless at arranging flowers. But I've gotten some neat ideas from this book. I also like reading about the culture of flower arranging in Japan.

This book is part of a series of books on Japanese life and culture that are published in bilingual editions by Kodansha International. I plan on picking up a few more before leaving Japan, as I think they're well-written and interesting.

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes
Stephen Hawking
(Bantam Press, Great Britain: 1988)

With an introduction by Carl Sagan.

READ: September - December 2006 (intermittent)

This is not a big book (185 pages), but in it, Stephen Hawking covers a massive amount of ground. Starting from the Greeks, and running through Newton all the way to Einstein and beyond, Hawking attempts to outline for us, the non-science-y people, that area of physics that explores questions of time and space and, most importantly, the search for a theory that would explain it all. The meaning of life in one sentence (or rather, since it is physics, one equation).

I won't pretend I even begin to understand everything he talked about (in fact, the truth is far from that), but it is a fascinating read. Though a little tough and dry at times, Hawking generally does a good job of explaining concepts. A piece of advice for those who want to read it: Rather than reading it in dribs and drabs over a few months like I did, read it in as concentrated a period of time as you can. I want to re-read this book again at some point in the next year or so, and do exactly that - I think that way I'll get a better understanding of it.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Jules Verne
(Puffin Classics: 1995)

First published in French in 1870.

READ: September-November 2006

A 19th-century classic. Through a strange twist of fate, Professor Aronnax and two companions, his man-servant Conseil and a French Canadian (!) harpooner (whaler) called Ned Land, journey to the deepest, darkest depths of the sea with the elusive Captain Nemo on his fantastic submarine, Nautilus. It's a fantastic journey, but the reading is not for those who want their stories told quickly: the Professor is a noted marine biologist, and he wastes no opportunity to minutely detail every creature of the sea that he encounters.

However, the story itself is entertaining, and while I don't know Verne's background (nor have I read anything else by him - an oversight I should correct someday), I admire the level of work and research that must have gone into the writing of this tale. While submarines did exist when Verne wrote this, many of the features of Nautilus were not yet possible, and his imagination has to be admired. Finally, I found the political vision of Captain Nemo, a man who has turned his back on most of mankind, to be fairly un-Victorian, giving the book an interesting resonance for contemporary times (at least for me). Besides, if nothing else, this book was worth reading just to see how the 19th-century French viewed their provincial Canadian cousins.

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr

Lost Japan
Alex Kerr
(Lonely Planet Publications, Australia: 1996)

First published in Japanese in 1993 as Utsukushiki Nippon no Zanzo (Shincho-sha, Tokyo). Translated by the author Alex Kerr in 1996 for the Lonely Planet Journeys series.

READ: November 2006

Along with Alan Booth's books, Lost Japan is lauded pretty much everywhere as one of the best books ever written about Japan.

I agree. I couldn't put it down.

My recommendation: Read this book.

There's really not much more I can say. It's just a wonderful book. Even for those who are not Japanophiles, this book can be appreciated on many levels. Yes, it is about Japan and the Japanese, and was written by a man who has lived most of his adult life in Japan. A memoir of sorts, it is a story about looking for beauty, a beauty whichi happens to exist in Japan but is rapidly disappearing as Japan continues stumbling blindly forward to the future.

As a side-note, this book was originally written in Japanese, and Alex Kerr was the first foreigner to win the prestigious Shincho Gakugei Literary Prize of Japan in 1994 for it.

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language
Melvyn Bragg
(Hodder & Stoughton, Great Britain: 2005)

READ: September-November 2006

I kept seeing this book in the English-language section of one of the bookstores in nearby Nagoya, and finally I had to buy it. And man, what a compelling read!

As the title suggests, Melvyn Bragg has set out to give us a history of the English language. But far from being dry and pedantic, he has a humorous, often light-hearted twist on the story. He gives further details where needed, and glosses over other parts of the story when they are not key to the advancement of the telling. (A skill I sorely lack.) The result is a thoroughly entertaining read about an important movement in history - the development and entrenchment of the English language across large swathes of the world.

Obviously, this book is a little Euro- ethnocentric, but, well, it is about the English language specifically (not just language in general), so that's hardly avoidable. While he sometimes explodes into overblown grandeur, overall Bragg does a good job of recognizing his bias (and, indeed, the bias of the language itself).

This book is apparently at least based in part on a television documentary (I think for the BBC) that Bragg did a few years earlier, but that's all I know.

Why I Hate Canadians by Will Ferguson

Why I Hate Canadians
Will Ferguson
(Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., Vancouver: 1997)

READ: July-September 2006

In this book, Will Ferguson (one of my favourite Canadian authors) takes a mostly-humorous, somewhat-serious look at what it means to be Canadian. Far from being a boring political study, he draws personal anecdotes and other strange stories, in an attempt to examine his own attachment or connection to "Canada" and "Canadianness".

Before continuing with my review, however, I feel obliged to mention, in the interests of full disclosure, that I read this book on the plane to, and immediately after arriving in, Japan, while Will Ferguson wrote this book pretty much immediately following his return to Canada after many years of living and teaching in Japan. That is to say, there might just be some weird alignment of the stars which caused me to enjoy this book. Or it is simply a good book. I still haven't figured out which.

Though he makes many sweeping generalizations about the whole mess we like to call "Canada", I found him to be, more often that not, fairly on the mark. Through his political musings and wanderings, Ferguson attempts to pin down why Canadians are what they are (what makes us tick) and also what personally keeps him going as a Canadian. In particular, I had a hearty laugh at his exposure of the Canadian Dream (success without risk) and the three Great Themes (keeping the Americans out, keeping the French in, and trying to get the Natives to somehow disappear).

Sometimes funny, often tongue-in-cheek, while it doesn't provide as many belly laughs as the other books I have read by him, I'd recommend this if you're into books about Us.

Lonely Planet City Guide to Kyoto

Lonely Planet City Guide to Kyoto
Chris Rowthorn
3rd edition
(Lonely Planet Publications, Australia: 2005)

READ: July-August 2006 (and ongoing reference)

Yes, I like Lonely Planet guidebooks. And yes, you know exactly why I bought this book. Anyway, we used it thoroughly when we went to Kyoto in August, and we plan on going back once or twice in the next few months, so I feel I got my money's worth. (Heck, even if I had never gone to Kyoto, it was worth every penny - it's interesting, informative, and has pretty pictures.) It's fairly extensive, covering pretty much anything you might be interested in seeing in Kyoto, and there's a lot! There are also short sections on things to do in Nara, Osaka, Kobe, and Miyama-cho (a small town north of Kyoto), as each is an easy day-trip from Kyoto.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
J.K. Rowling
(Bloomsbury, London: 2005)

READ: August 2006

Ah, the always irrepressible Harry Potter and his gang. Yes, I managed to wait many months before reading the latest instalment. In fact, it was one of the few English books at my school's library, so I felt compelled to borrow it.

I have kind of enjoyed the Harry Potter books thus far, and this one was the same. At times, I found it hard to put down, and at others, looked for a fast-forward button. Don't even get me started on the movie versions of these books, but J.K. Rowling, while a good, entertaining writer overall, could do with a bit more editing sometimes. Anyway, Harry and his friends get up to more hijinks - some of them are fun, some make you shake your head and roll your eyes. It was a good read, and I have to say I am anxious to read the next one to see how it will all end!

2006 Booklist (Part 2)

books from my japanese bookshelf

  1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

  2. Why I Hate Canadians by Will Ferguson

  3. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking

  4. The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg

  5. Lost Japan by Alex Kerr

  6. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

  7. The Book of Ikebana by Kawase Toshirou

  8. Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan by Alex Kerr (unfinished)

  9. A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester

  10. Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

  11. Things Not Seen by Andrew Clement

still waiting:

constant companions:
  • Lonely Planet Guide to Japan

  • Lonely Planet City Guide to Kyoto

  • Japanese for Busy People (Kana Version) by the Association for Japanese Language Teachers

  • How to Tell the Difference Between Japanese Particles: Comparisons and Exercises by Naoko Chino

  • Japanese Verbs and Essentials of Grammar, 2nd ed. by Rita L. Lampkin

  • Basic Kanji Book, vol. 1

  • Minna no Nihongo I

  • How to Teach English by Jeremy Harmer

  • TESL Certification Course: Training Manual prepared by Oxford Seminars

  • Handbook for Team-Teaching, rev. ed. prepared by the Japan Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology

  • Resource Materials and Teaching Handbook prepared by the Japan Council of Local Authorities for International Relations

Japanese for Busy People by the Japanese Association of Language Teachers


Japanese for Busy People (Books 1&2 and Kana Workbook)
Japanese Association of Language Teachers
(Book 1 - Oxford University Press, USA: 1995; Book 2 - Fitzhenry & Whiteside: 1996)

Read: from May 2005 onward (I still use Book 2 regularly)

When I first started wanting to learn Japanese over a year ago, Randal lent me his old text, Japanese for Busy People (Book 1), that he'd used when he'd started Japanese lessons many years before. So I was quite pleased when the Japanese course that I took at Algonquin turned out to use the same text as well!

Book 1 is really well-organized. It has short, concise lessons that introduce a few grammar points and some vocabulary, then many exercises to get you using, learning and really remembering what you have learnt. Book 2 is slightly more unwieldy, but still good. It has more grammar and vocab in each lesson, and I find the order in which it is all introduced - thematically (eg., At Work, At the Health Club, etc.) rather than by grammar topic - to not always be intuitive. Plus, I bought the kana version, which is good for practicing my hiragana and katakana practice, of course, but makes reading slow! That will improve with practice, I know.

I also picked up, somewhere along the way, the Kana Workbook for the Japanese for Busy People series. It was VERY useful for practicing katakana and hiragana and really getting them to stick in my head. Now if only they produced a book to teach me, equally simply and painlessly, the 1,945 kanji designated necessary by the Japanese government.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Watership Down
Richard Adams
(Avon, New York: 1975)

READ: May-July 2006

This is one of those books that it felt like everyone else read in high school (or saw the movie of) except for me (that, and The Hobbit). I borrowed the book from Randal's endless bookshelf.

If you've only seen the movie and have not read the book, READ THE BOOK. It is wonderful. It is the story of Hazel and his brother Fiver and some other rabbits from his warren who strike off on their own into the unknown larger world after Fiver, who has a sense for these sorts of things, feels impending danger coming to the warren.

Definitely not a book just for children, Watership Down is a larger tale of environmental destruction and a study of societies. It's very, very good.

Tokyo: A Certain Style by Kyoichi Tsuzuki

Tokyo: A Certain Style
Kyoichi Tsuzuki
(Chronicle Books, 1999)

Karin Goodwin is often listed as the author. Perhaps she translated? (Original photos and text are Tsuzuki's.)

READ: March-July 2006 (intermittent)

What a fascinating little book. We found it on one of the bargain shelves at Chapters, and it quickly became a permanent fixture in the washroom (only the best books are reserved for the "throne" at our place). This is a long way from Zen gardens and stripped-down, bare interiors. Instead, Kyoichi Tsuzuki took many candid shots of people's apartments in order to show how Tokyoites really lived. And how do they live, you may ask? Well, according to this book, they live in tiny little spaces sometimes barely deserving of the word "room", and they fill these spaces with stuff, stuff, and more stuff. It was just insane to see how some of these places were just filled to the rafters - and beyond! To be fair, many of the people whose places were profiled were artists and other such occupations in which much "stuff" is often accumulated. But it's a crazy read, loads of fun, and really really really interesting to see.

Quirky sidenote: I don't have the book handy* so I can't give you an exact quote, but in Wrong About Japan, Peter Carey makes a reference to a book showing how Tokyoites fill their homes with stuff. He describes the book at some length, without actually mentioning it by name. But there is no doubt that this is the book he meant!

* It's sitting in a storage locker in Ottawa, halfway across the world from where I am currently writing this. That excuse should hopefully be good enough.

The World's Greatest Art: Asian Art by Michael Kerrigan

The World's Greatest Art: Asian Art
Michael Kerrigan
(Konecky & Konecky: 2005)

READ: May-July 2006 (intermittent)

Another great "throne" book. This small but thick volume has a few hundred pictures of some of the greatest Asian art with descriptions and some history. Much of the art (includes paintings, sculptures, pottery, etc.) is from China and Japan, but there is also a decent selection from other Southeast Asian countries: Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and so on. It's a nice overview of some of the most beautiful art there is.

The Cook's Encyclopedia of Japanese Cooking by Emi Kazuko

The Cook's Encyclopedia of Japanese Cooking
Emi Kazuko
(Barnes & Noble Books: 2003)

READ: April-July 2006 (ongoing)

A book I sorely wanted to bring with me to Japan, but couldn't spare the space for. But I look oh-so-forward to using it when I return home to Canada - it will help me recreate some of the Japanese meals I have eaten here and loved! It's a really nice cookbook. There is a whole first section explaining various Japanese meats, vegetables, noodles, and cooking utensils. Then many, many recipes organized by type. Some of these seem somewhat complicated, but others quite simple. Plus, if you've ever wanted to find out the difference between all those kinds of tofu sitting on the shelf at the grocery store, this book will surely be able to tell you.

The Art of Japanese Prints by Nigel Cawthorne

The Art of Japanese Prints
Nigel Cawthorne
(Advantage Publishers Group: 2000)

READ: May-June 2006

Another Chapters bargain-book find, I kept seeing it and refusing to buy it on the premise that I was moving to Japan soon and the last thing I needed to acquire was another book. Then I convinced myself that since I was moving to Japan soon, I needed to acquire this particular book, that I owed it to myself as a soon-to-be-Japanite and a lover of ukiyo-e, the specific focus of this book. So I bought it.

It was a great purchase and one I will not regret anytime soon. Though a slim volume, it provides an excellent overview of the development of ukiyo-e and a look at some of the masters of ukiyo-e. There are nice illustrations, interesting details, and well-written explanations. A lovely book.

The Lost Salt Gift of Blood by Alistair MacLeod

The Lost Salt Gift of Blood
Alistair MacLeod
(McClelland & Stewart, Toronto: 1992, c1976)

With an afterword by Joyce Carol Oates.

READ: May-June 2006

This is a book I had long wanted to read, supposed admirer of Canadian literature that I am. I have read one or two short stories of Alistair MacLeod's before. This is a collection of seven stories, all focused around family love and family relationships. They are all based in or focused on Cape Breton, but have meaning and value beyond those borders. There's a reason why Alistair MacLeod is commonly included in the canon of Can-Lit, and I am looking forward to reading more of his work in the future.

The Mad Trapper of Rat River by Dick North

The Mad Trapper of Rat River: A True Story of Canada's Biggest Manhunt
Dick North
with photographs and illustrations
(Lyons Press, Guilford (CT): 2003)

Sections of Parts One and Two originally published in 1972 under the title The Mad Trapper of Rat River. Sections of Parts Three and Four originally published in 1989 under the title Trackdown.

READ: May 2006

I was sent this as a Christmas/birthday present from my brother and sister-in-law in Vancouver. They'd picked it up (assumedly) on their northern travels to Yukon that they'd done earlier in 2005. To be honest, I was a bit skeptical at first, but after the first few pages, I was hooked.

No one was sure where the mad trapper came from. He'd shown up in a town in the Northwest Territories in 1931 or so, and most knew him as one Albert Johnson. But they didn't know where he came from, and he wasn't fond of making friends. After a run-in with the RCMP which left one member dead, Johnson led the police on a 5-week chase through the backwoods and snow of the NWT and the Yukon.

The author, Dick North, is a northern journalist who has had a lifelong interest in the mystery of Albert Johnson. He details the manhunt as if he were there, and then he proceeds on a long exploration of who Johnson was. He goes through many possible suspects, and details why each one does or does not match up with what was known about Johnson. It ought to be boring, it ought to be tedious, but it is not. It is quite a remarkable story, and I recommend it to all you Canadiana junkies out there.

The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan by Alan Booth

The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan
Alan Booth
(Viking; Penguin, Toronto: 1986)

READ: March-May 2006

Alan Booth's two books (the other is Looking for the Lost, which I have not read yet but is on my shelf awaiting) are largely heralded as the two best travel books about Japan. I had heard this a few times, and then after Will Ferguson went on and on about him, I figured I had to find his books. One Chapters order later, they arrived.

I took my time reading this book, mainly because it was so delicious. Booth moved to Japan in 1970, and in 1977, he set out from the northern tip of Hokkaido and walked all the way across Japan, all the way south to the southernmost tip of "mainland" Japan, Cape Sata on the south shore of Kyushu Island. It was over 2,000 miles (as the title suggests). He tells poignant and often funny stories of the people he meets, of people who follow him slowly in their cars in the rain because they can't understand why he refused their offer of a lift, of people he chats with about life, death, and WWII in little pubs in small towns. It is a touching portrait of Japan.

It was also interesting to compare Booth's Japan to Ferguson's, since Booth took his cross-Japan trek in the late 1970s while Ferguson was there, post-crash, in the mid-90s.

A wonderful, well-written book that I'd recommend to anyone with an interest either in Japan itself, or just in armchair travel in general.

Art History by Marilyn Stokstad

Art History
Marilyn Stokstad
(Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, N.J.; Harry N. Abrams, New York: 2002)

Volumes 1 and 2 combined, with ArtNotes companion workbooks. In collaboration with David Cateforis, and chapters by Stephen Addiss, et al.

READ: September 2005 - April 2006

This was my textbook for the first-year Art History course that I was taking at the university this year. It's a textbook, so I won't go on and on about it. But as far as textbooks go, it was quite good. Other than being way too heavy to carry anywhere (I never brought it to class), it is fairly comprehensive as far as European art is concerned. There were two tiny chapters on the entirety of Japanese art totalling about twenty pages in all (as I discovered when I went to write a paper on Japanese temple architecture). But I guess it's only fair that most art history classes, at least in this part of the world, will focus mostly on the European tradition in art and architecture. There was a decent amount on American art, though again, not much if you are interested in aboriginal art. Ditto for other Asian art, like China and Southeast Asia, plus a small bit of information on Islamic and African arts. Still, this book is widely recognized as being the best textbook there is for a general introduction to art history. If you have an interest in art and art history and don't know where to start reading, this is a good place. I tend to not keep most of my textbooks - they get outdated or are not compelling enough on their own, but I'm keeping this one for sure.

Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey

Wrong About Japan
Peter Carey
(Vintage International, New York: 2006)

First published by Knopf in 2005.

READ: March 2006

I picked this up one day from a secondhand book shop because it had an intriguing premise: Peter Carey, famous Australian author (among other things, he is the author of the novel True History of the Kelly Gang, which I really want to read someday) who is based in New York City, takes his 12-year-old son to Tokyo for a week after his son declares that he is going to live in Japan someday. Charlie is interested in Japanese manga and anime, not kabuki theatre and temple architecture. So he gets his dad to promise that they will visit the Real Japan, which they do. They meet a young Japanese boy who speaks English (I guess in Tokyo, anything is possible) who shows them some way-off-the-beaten-track aspects of Japanese life. There is a bit of Japanese theatre, despite Charlie's loud protests, and if I recall correctly, Carey gets away at one point by himself to visit one temple or something like that. But mostly there is anime and yakuza and comics and Mr. Donut. It's a short book, and you don't have to be a Japanophile to appreciate it. It's a fun read with a number of laugh-out-loud moments.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
Lynne Truss
(Gotham Books, New York: 2004)

First published in U.K. in 2003 by Profile Books.

READ: March 2006

Hee. Another funny book. I was given it as a present back in 2004 immediately before I left for Southeast Asia, but hadn't gotten around to reading it. By March of this year, plans were firmly underway to head to Japan for a year (or some) to teach English, so I figured it was time to figure out punctuation.

I've always been a bit of a punctuation stickler. Not always in my own writing (I do tend to drag things on and on), but when editing others' work. Plus in grade 8, my English teacher, Mr. Waddington (who, strangely, had been my French teacher the year before, but that's another story entirely), told me I overused commas. I'm not sure you can actually overuse commas - usually the problem is underuse, no? - but there you have it.

Anyway, this book hasn't helped really in terms of making me a better English teacher, but it was an excellent book nonetheless. It is quite funny. It's certainly not a how-to book. Truss doesn't really tell you when a comma is appropriate, but she can sure show many examples of inappropriateness. And the poor apostrophe! That's the one that drives me batty. It's so simple to use, yet so rarely used right. I can forgive things like "1970's" (shouldn't be an apostrophe), but "Orange's for sale" is only right if there is one thing for sale and it happens to be called Orange. And "it's" versus "its" - the easiest rule in the entire grammar book - let's just not go there.

Yes, the hype that surrounded its publication was worth it. It's a good book and quite enjoyable.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Jared Diamond
(Viking, New York: 2005)

READ: February-March 2006

I read Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel almost exactly one year ago and really enjoyed it. Collapse was one I'd been seeing around a lot, so it was time to tackle it. And it did not disappoint. Guns, Germs, and Steel is the better of the two, but Collapse is also worth a read.

The book is a series of case studies of environmental degradation, and the ways in which the societies affected did or did not overcome these collapses. Guns, Germs, and Steel looked at the winners in civilization; Collapse looks largely at the losers: the Vikings, the Easter Islanders, the Anasazi of the American Southwest, the Mayans, modern-day Rwandans, and so on. But he also looks at societies that managed to overcome their environmental difficulties; for example, the Icelanders. Iceland is an environment that should not work, yet it is one of the most prosperous nations in the world. Why?

Diamond's basic argument, to really dumb it down, is that not all failures of societies can be blamed on a cataclysmic event, on an act of God (or whoever), but that many times, a society fails because it does not respond appropriately to the environment around it. So the Vikings, for example, tried to live in Greenland in exactly the same fashion they had in Norway. Greenland's fragile ecosystem could not handle this, and so it eventually collapsed. Greenland itself, however, did not become inhabitable; the Inuit lived there for many centuries after the Vikings were forced to leave. But the Vikings were unable to adapt to a lifestyle that was more sustainable on Greenland's shores. Likewise, Easter Island, once a lush, thriving ecosystem, was continuously exploited by the Islanders until it, too, became what we now know it as: a barren, windswept rock of an island. There was no great event that destroyed Easter Island. People kept living there, farming the land and cutting the trees, until there were no trees left, and consequently erosion sped up.

Diamond also looks at a few modern-day societies who are facing potential environmental crises. Japan, with its post-WWII rapid deforestation, is one of these. So is the state of Montana, with the damage mining has wrought on its natural environment.

The pace gets sluggish at times, but overall the book is well-written and thought-provoking. I like the way Diamond approaches this subject - not too preachy, not too technical. He mixes just enough science with real-life meaning to make it interesting. Start with Guns, Germs, and Steel and move on to this one if you want to know more.

Hitching Rides With Buddha: Travels In Search Of Japan by Will Ferguson

Hitching Rides With Buddha: Travels In Search Of Japan
Will Ferguson
(Knopf Canada, Toronto: 2005)

Originally published in abridged form in the U.K. as Hokkaido Highway Blues by Soho Press in 2001.

READ: February 2006

Will Ferguson is one of my new favourite authors, and he's Canadian to boot! I actually haven't read much by him, but what I have read, I have enjoyed immensely. I spent a thoroughly enjoyable few days on Bali and Lombok in Indonesia two years ago, reading his book Happiness (TM). I really need to re-read it solely so that I may have the pleasure of reviewing it on this site.

Anyway, I digress. I'd been waiting for Hitching Rides With Buddha to come out in paperback, when I received it as a Christmas present from my parents who knew I was thinking of coming out to Japan later this year. And man oh man, is it ever funny. If you know anything at all about Japan, or don't know much at all but are interested in learning a bit, this book is for you. Taking Alan Booth's 2000-mile walk across Japan as inspiration, Ferguson, who taught English on Kyushu in the south end of Japan for about 5 years in the early to mid-1990s, set out to hitchhike clear across Japan. He is witty, he is insightful, and I promise he will make you laugh and laugh and laugh. I drove Randal crazy while I was reading this book as I kept laughing out loud every page or two. He couldn't understand it...until he went to read it himself a few months later. Then it was his turn.

And it's not just a book for Japanophiles. While the action is obviously set in Japan and most of Ferguson's comments are targeted toward Japanese and foreigners in Japan, many of these comments also translate to a larger picture of human nature generally. I'm sure I often say on this blog that "this book is an entertaining read", but this time I really, really mean it. I can't recommend this book enough.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Small Gods
Terry Pratchett
(HarperPrism, London: 1992)

READ: January 2006

So while I was going through my mini sci-fi/fantasy reading binge, I added this book to the list (yes, same bookshelf). The only other Terry Pratchett I have read is Good Omens, which he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman. And I am, oddly enough, constantly getting the two books confused. But Small Gods is a good book, though not laugh-out-loud funny like Good Omens. It takes place in a time when the various small gods have been largely forgotten in favour of a few large, very important gods. One of these, Om, unfortunately has somehow gotten trapped in the body of a very small tortoise, and he must convince his chosen disciple, Brutha, and the people of his land that he is in fact the god Om and must be obeyed. There are, of course, neighbouring lands with competing gods, and most worrying of all, the Quisition, a thinly-veiled version of the Spanish Inquisition. Hilarity ensues. Read it.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
Douglas Adams
(Pan Books Ltd, London: 1988)

READ: January 2006

Another book sitting on Randal's shelf that he recommended I read. I was forewarned that it was not as good a book as the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, but it's not bad. It had some loose bits that I didn't really follow, but on the whole, it was a good read. But, of course, if you ever had to choose one or the other, Hitchhikers Guide takes the prize all the way. And that's all I have to say about that!

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Dai Sijie
translated from the French by Ina Rilke
(Knopf, New York City: 2002)

First published 2001

READ: January 2006

A delightful tale. I read this book in about two days flat. It compelled me to keep going, just a little further, just a little more. The ending is a bit abrupt and unsatisfying - I think that's partially it's style - not everything can always be wrapped up into a nice, tidy package at the end.

The story is set in 1970s Communist China. It tells of two city boys who are exiled to a remote mountain village for re-education during China's Cultural Revolution. While the work is hard and the hopes of returning to their families are slim, they become friends with the daughter of the local tailor. They also discover a hidden stash of Western literature - philosophy, novels, etc. - in Chinese translation. The book explores how this discovery changes their lives in small but important ways.

Falling Sideways by Tom Holt

Falling Sideways
Tom Holt
(Orbit (Time Warner Books), London: 2002)

READ: January 2006

This is a funny, funny book. It had been sitting on Randal's bookshelf for a while and when I finally asked him about it, he said, "Yeah, it's good. Read it. You'll like it." And he was right.

Basically, if you have read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, you know the world is run by mice, right? Wrong! Frogs are actually in charge of the whole shebang. Or perhaps humans are actually frogs who think they are human. Or the frogs are human but think they are frogs. Anyway, something like that. There are also numerous clones involved in the various shenanigans, too, for good measure.

It gets bogged down at a few points, and once or twice I lost track of the storyline almost entirely (as you might have guessed from the previous paragraph), but it really is an entertaining read, and a short, breezy one at that.

2006 Booklist (Part 1)

  1. Art History by Marilyn Stokstad

  2. Falling Sideways by Tom Holt

  3. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

  4. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

  5. Japanese for Busy People by the Japanese Association of Language Teachers

  6. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

  7. Hitching Rides With Buddha: Travels In Search Of Japan by Will Ferguson

  8. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

  9. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

  10. Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey

  11. The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan by Alan Booth

  12. Tokyo: A Certain Style by Kyoichi Tsuzuki

  13. The Cook's Encyclopedia of Japanese Cooking by Emi Kazuko

  14. The Art of Japanese Prints by Nigel Cawthorne

  15. The Mad Trapper of Rat River: A True Story of Canada's Biggest Manhunt by Dick North

  16. The Lost Salt Gift of Blood by Alistair MacLeod

  17. Watership Down by Richard Adams

  18. Japanese for Busy People II: Kana Version by the Japanese Association of Language Teachers

  19. The World's Greatest Art: Asian Art by Michael Kerrigan

  20. Lonely Planet's City Guide to Kyoto by Chris Rowthorn