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.