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.