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.