Who is Frances Rain? by Margaret Buffie

Who is Frances Rain?
Margaret Buffie
(University of Toronto Press, Toronto: 1987)

READ: December 2007

Back in the days of Scholastic book fliers, I ordered this (gr. 5? gr. 6?). I've read it a few times since then, and it remains one of my favourite childhood books.

Elizabeth is going to her grandmother's cottage on Rain Lake, north of Winnipeg, for the summer, like she does every summer. Although this time, instead of it being just her, her little sister, and older brother, her mother and her mother's new husband have decided to come along. In an attempt to avoid the family strife, Elizabeth goes wandering, and she stumbles across a haunted island, of sorts, with a mystery to be solved.

It's a wonderful, short read, and while I can now see more clearly the gaps in the plot and the short-cuts sometimes taken by the author to meet certain conventions of the genre, it remains a magical, fantastical, and riveting story sure to impress and inspire kids. I highly recommend it.

Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now by Jan Wong

Red China Blues : My Long March from Mao to Now
Jan Wong
(Doubleday Canada, Toronto: 1998)

READ: December 2007

For those of you who, like me, always thought Jan Wong was just a writer of fluffy, though amusing, columns in the Globe & Mail (lunch with Jan Wong, anyone?), this will set you straight.

I stumbled across this book in a second-hand shop in Ottawa, when I'd walked in intending to get something nice and light-hearted to read over lunch one day. Remembering how fascinated and curious I'd been to learn more after reading Ian Johnson's Wild Grass, I decided to pick this up. And - WOW! It's an amazing book. It's eye-opening, elucidating, and entertaining. Or to put it more bluntly, it will knock your socks off.

I don't think I can hook you any better than by posting here the publisher's blurb (from the Chapters website):

Jan Wong, a Canadian of Chinese descent, went to China as a starry-eyed Maoist in 1972 at the height of the Cultural Revolution. A true believer -- and one of only two Westerners permitted to enroll at Beijing University -- her education included wielding a pneumatic drill at the Number One Machine Tool Factory. In the name of the Revolution, she renounced rock and roll, hauled pig manure in the paddy fields, and turned in a fellow student who sought her help in getting to the United States. She also met and married the only American draft dodger from the Vietnam War to seek asylum in China.

Red China Blues begins as Wong's startling -- and ironic -- memoir of her rocky six-year romance with Maoism that began to sour as she became aware of the harsh realities of Chinese communism and led to her eventual repatriation to the West. Returning to China in the late eighties as a journalist, she covered both the brutal Tiananmen Square crackdown and the tumultuous era of capitalist reforms under Deng Xiaoping. In a wry, absorbing, and often surreal narrative, she relates the horrors that led to her disillusionment with the "worker's paradise." And through the stories of the people -- an unhappy young woman who was sold into marriage, China's most famous dissident, a doctor who lengthens penises -- Wong creates an extraordinary portrait of the world's most populous nation. In setting out to show readers in the Western world what life is like in China, and why we should care, Wong reacquaints herself with the old friends -- and enemies -- of her radical past, and comes to terms with the legacies of her ancestral homeland.

Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Go to your nearest bookstore or library and read this book. You won't be sorry.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

The Player of Games
Iain M. Banks
(Orbit, London: 1989)

A Culture Novel

READ: November-December 2007

I picked this up, mostly out of curiosity because Randal has been singing Iain M. Banks' praises for a while now. Though when he found out I was reading it, he said he would have recommended others of his books, rather than this one.

It was fine, but for someone who is only moderately familiar with the genre, Banks' particular mix of science fiction and fantasy, at least in this book, didn't really do it for me. The Player of Games tells the story of Gurgeh, a renowned game-player from the Culture, a super-advanced galactic civilization. He is sent, through a strange set of circumstances, to the Empire of Azad to participate in the Empire's ultimate tournament, a series of games which, for Azadians, determine job positions and social ranks.

While it was an interesting read, I found it a little long and ponderous at times. The story did have many parallels in today's world, especially in how its overall "point" (so to speak) was about racism and sexism, but I found it handled a little clumsily at times. Randal says I need to read more books in the genre to gain a better appreciation of what SF&F authors may be trying to do in similar cases, and he's probably right. That said, I'd be interested in reading more Banks because I can tell he has better things to offer.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything
Bill Bryson
(Anchor Canada (Random House), Toronto?: 2004)

READ: November 2007

I'd been wanting to read this book for months now, and boy, was it worth the wait. In his Short History, Bryson explains everything from the beginnings of life on our planet, to astrophysics, natural disasters, dinosaurs, and Einstein's theory of relativity, in plain, simple language. Well-known as a travel writer, Bryson brings his particular brand of humour to these, and many other questions of scientific import. Entertaining and elucidating, it's one of those books I should have taken notes on while reading. Well-documented, and well-thought out, this is one of the most entertaining and informative reads I've had in a while. My first Bryson book, but definitely not my last.

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories edited by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories
Roald Dahl, ed.
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 1983)

Originally published in the United Kingdom in 1983.

READ: August-November 2007

In the late 1950s, Roald Dahl started collecting ghost stories. He was looking for the best of the best, the cream of the crop, with the intention of making a television series based on these stories. The series died after the pilot episode, but it left Dahl with an appreciation for the difficulties in finding truly good ghost stories:

The best ghost stories don't have ghosts in them. At least you don't see the ghost. Instead you see only the result of his actions. Occasionally you can feel it brushing past you, or you are made aware of its presence by subtle means. [...] If a story does permit a ghost to be seen, then he doesn't look like one. He looks like an ordinary person.

In preparation for the ill-fated television series, Dahl read over 700 ghost stories. He published this collection almost 25 years later, adding a few stories he hadn't included in his original list, and removing some others. The result isn't the scariest book ever. You can't pick up this book expecting to be scared out of your boots. Many of these stories are, to be honest, not very scary. But they are all well-written, and many of them were quite successful at making me feel fairly unnerved. A few positively rose the hairs on the back of my neck. I still think, for example, of Harry by Rosemary Timperley with a chill and a shudder. Others are just clever; for example, W.S. by L. P. Hartley and Playmates by A. M. Burrage. The bulk of the stories are from the first half of the 20th century, so the writing style may not be to everyone's liking, but overall, the stories are fairly entertaining and interesting, and it's a fairly worthwhile read.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden
Francis Hodgson Burnett
(Wordsworth Editions Limited, Ware (Hertfordshire): 1993)

New introduction and notes added in 2000. First published in 1909.

READ: October-November 2007

Though it's a classic of children's lit, I'd never read this before, and now I know why it is so highly thought of. I don't know how I missed it. What a fantastic, amazing book. You can always tell, with a really good book like this, why exactly it is the classic it became. The Secret Garden tells the story of Mary Lennox, a spoiled, selfish little girl, who is sent to live in Yorkshire with her hunchback uncle after the death of her parents in India. After discovering a secret garden, a transformation comes over her and the inhabitants of the Yorkshire mansion that perhaps can't be explained by anything other than magic. It sounds a little hokey, perhaps, but the writing is charming and sure to win you over. It charmed me from page one, and I was sad to put it down.

Obasan by Joy Kogawa

Joy Kogawa
(Penguin Books, Markham (Ont.): 1983)

First published by Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1981

READ: October-November 2007

I first read this in my second-year university course in Canadian literature and, looking for something to read on my bookshelves at my parents' house, decided it was time for a re-read.

I had forgotten how compelling a story it is. Obasan tells the story of the displacement of the Japanese Canadians in WWII through the eyes of a child. Naomi has never been to Japan, and doesn't really understand what is happening when her own family gets broken up because of the war. She has never thought of herself as different, and continues to live in some sort of denial of that fact, until many years later, after the death of her uncle who helped raise her, when she starts to become more aware of the true extent of the injustice and prejudice that had been levelled against Japanese Canadians for so many years.

To be sure, I have a better appreciation now for the Japanese culture, and also WWII events, that I did not have when I first read this. It's a really poignant story, and, given the heady nature of its subject matter, does a surprisingly good job of not being too heavy-handed, with one or two exceptions. Kogawa really captures the sense of a child, bewildered by the changes around her but, in the way of children, easily adaptable to whatever circumstances are thrown her way. The writing is very accessible, and the story, while sometimes glossed over in history books, is one that every Canadian ought to know.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

The Da Vinci Code
Dan Brown
(Doubleday, New York: 2003)

READ: October 2007

I picked this up because it was cheap and I figured I should see what the buzz is all about.

Well, it was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be - PULP. I guess there's nothing de facto wrong with that, and I guess it's more high-quality pulp than some other pulp (if that makes any sense).

I know the book generated both a lot of excitement and a lot of flack over its actual content. As far as the whole idea of the Holy Grail being the fact that there is a family alive today who is descended from Jesus Christ, and that the Church is deadly afraid of this and has gone to great lengths over the past two millenia to attempt to eradicate both the knowledge and the family - sure, it was plausible enough. I mean, I have no background in this sort of thing. I also don't believe it (or maybe I do, but don't really care), but it's an interesting theory. Why not, right? It was fun to read for that aspect, I guess.

However, I couldn't stand the writing style. I know one of the conventions of novel-writing is to end each chapter with a bit of a cliff-hanger, but here each chapter was about 2-3 pages long (with a few exceptions), and it just became too much. It felt like I was reading the transcript of a really long, fast-paced TV show. A lot of people looking at each other for 4 seconds before the all-too-frequent commercial breaks, after stating (or thinking) "there's something I must tell you" or "but wait! there's more" or "oh, listen! are those police sirens?" It was just too contrived, too formulaic, and I don't want that in the books I read.

Here's an idea: Make it into a movie. It's pacing is such that you'll barely need a rewrite. I suggest Audrey Tautou for the female lead - she's dreamy...

JPod by Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland
(Bloomsbury, New York: 2006)

Distributed by Holtzbrinck Publishers.

READ: September - October 2007

Six video game designer co-workers, whose last names all start with the letter "J" (hence the title), doomed to work forever on the same video game that will never be released.

It sounded vaguely like the premise of Microserfs, but I am pleased to say that the only thing the two books have in common is that the protagonist works in the high-tech world. JPod is so different from Microserfs. It is a book about a surreal, strange world, where morals are constantly shifting and things are never quite what they seem. It just kept getting weirder and weirder and weirder, until finally, partway through, I started wondering where the book was derailing to. Randal, who was also reading it at the same time but was further ahead than me, told me, "Just keep reading. You'll see." It got right back on track and the weirdness somehow all made sense in the end.

CBC Television has made a television series out of JPod, and I'm curious to see how it will work in this format.* I don't know how they will make episodes out of the book, or whether it will just be a spin-off, so to speak, loosely related to the events in the book.

Anyway, I was hooked start to finish. A great read.

* Unfortunately, I don't have cable, so lacking any good bunny-ears, I'm going to just have to wait for it to come out on DVD or something. It starts January 8, 2008 (tomorrow, incidentally).

Gods of War, Gods of Peace: How the Meeting of Native and Colonial Religions Shaped Early America by Russell Bourne

Gods of War, Gods of Peace: How the Meeting of Native and Colonial Religions Shaped Early America
Russell Bourne
(Harcourt, New York: 2002)

READ: September 2007

I read this faster than I normally would have wanted to (a loaner while I was in Winnipeg this fall), but it was an interesting history of the relationship between the early settlers and the natives in America, and in particular, about the interplay between the settlers' religions and the native religion(s).

I don't have much of a religious background myself, let alone an understanding of the Puritans' and Pilgrims' philosophies. Bourne, however, did a good job of presenting the issues and problems, and, at least from the vantage point of a "newbie" to the topic, he seemed balanced and reasonable. The book was a bit of an eye-opener, and I certainly want to read more on the subject in the future. In particular, I'd be interested in hearing if there are any similar books looking at the interplay between early settlers to Canada (well, before it became Canada, of course) and our First Nations peoples.

The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II by Donovan Webster

The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II
Donovan Webster
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 2003)

READ: August 2007

I'd read Webster's shorter article on the Burma Road in National Geographic some time back and it had tweaked my interest. Having been over in that part of the world (Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai in 2004) also helped.

Overall, it was a good read, but not the one I'd expected. The back of the book was a bit misleading - it made it sound like the River Kwai events would play a much larger part in the book than the one chapter that they were actually given. This in itself is a little odd since the whole fight for control of the River Kwai was not, at least as far as I know, part of the fight for the Burma Road at all (though, I guess, you could argue that control fo the River Kwai was at least partially necessary in order to further the fight to clear the Japanese out of Burma and, eventually, Thailand).

Webster did his research and develops the leading players quite well. I'd say it's more a book for the military history buffs out there than for li'l ol' me, however. It did have some interesting background on China and Chiang Kai-Shek, which is an area of history I'd like to learn more about.

Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester

Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded: August 27, 1883
Simon Winchester
(HarperCollins, New York: 2003)

First published by Viking, Great Britain: 2003.

READ: July-August 2007

I've said this before, and I'll say it again: Winchester could make the phone book interesting, I swear.

While not quite as entertaining as A Crack in the Edge of the World, Krakatoa is a fascinating look into the insides of this infamous Indonesian volcano, and the devastation it wrought over 100 years ago. As a trained geologist, Winchester knows what he's talking about, and as a trained journalist, he knows how to make his story interesting. The story was hard to initially piece together, and Winchester has done a formidable job. It was the first modern volcanic explosion of such a ferocious magnitude. Vulcanologists (yes, they are really called that) didn't really exist yet, and those geologists who did have an interest in volcanoes didn't really know what made them tick. There were also very few survivors, and virtually no eyewitness accounts. Furthermore, while very few people actually died as a direct result of the volcanic explosion itself (Krakatoa was a volcanic island unto itself, so there was no Pompeii villagers waiting to be buried), the death toll skyrocketed after a series of devastating tsunamis hit the surrounding Javan and Sumatran shores. We don't even understand tsunamis today, let alone back in 1883. Beyond the actual devastation, of course, is the science of why it all happened - why did Krakatoa explode? - and that is where Winchester, like he did in A Crack in the Edge of the World, truly shines. If plate tectonics and the inner workings of the mantle core had been presented to me in such an interesting manner back in my early school days, I might have chosen a quite different career.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson
(Avon Press, New York: 1999)

READ: July 2007

Well, the third time's a charm. I first started to try to read this a number of years ago, while still a grad student, and quickly put it aside. Too big, too much. Then I tried again this past Christmas, while on vacation in Bali, but having just finished Simon Winchester's lengthy, though fascinating, book on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it was again quickly put aside, again, too big, too much.

But as my time in Japan was winding down, I tried once more. And this time, I couldn't stop reading. In the classic "just one more chapter" routine, I stayed up quite late, night after night, reading on and on, wanting to know and see and hear and experience more and more.

In a nutshell, it's a fascinating (but GIANT) novel, covering over 50 years in cryptography (code-breaking, essentially), from WWII to modern-day. There are three major story lines, but once I got used to who was who (which took a few chapters), I never got lost again. It's an excellent, compelling, fascinating read, and I highly recommend it.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Banana Yoshimoto
trans. Megan Backus
(Grove Press, New York: 1994)

READ: July 2007

The first of the two novellas included in this book yanked out my heart strings and then carefully replaced them one by one. The second one didn't have quite that impact, but it was nevertheless worth every word.

This being the second book of Yoshimoto's that I have read, I am starting to get a feel for her style. Her prose is simple, yet even the most straightforward of sentences often uncovers a tumultous layer of emotion. While I don't think it's entirely necessary, I feel that having gone to Japan for a year allowed me to better understand the Japanese psyche that runs through her work, the almost clinical detachment that some of the characters display. These are both beautiful stories of loss and love.

Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

Anil's Ghost
Michael Ondaatje
(McClelland & Stewart, Toronto: 2000)

READ: June 2007

As always, I love Michael Ondaatje. I would leave everyone and everything in the material world behind, if only I could spend more time immersed in Ondaatje novels. Seriously.

I've read this one 2 or 3 times now (I've read all his books before, except the new one, Divisadero, for which I am anxiously awaiting the paperback release), and it is coming dangerously close to supplanting "The English Patient" as the most beautifully-written book ever. I love losing myself in his words. This book just gets more delicious each time. Anil is a forensics specialist who returns to her native Sri Lanka after almost two decades abroad as part of a human rights organization investigating some crimes committed during the ongoing civil unrest. It is a beautiful, moving story. Ondaatje was originally a poet, and that influence shows time and time again in his novels. His words are fluid, and trigger vivid images of what he is describing.

To prove I'm not entirely biased, while it is an excellent book, I must admit it is not perfect. The ending left me slightly unsatisfied. It ends quickly, on a sour note (for both the characters and the readers), and feels somewhat unresolved. Perhaps, however, that is a good parallel to the book's tale itself, of war and uncertainty and strife.

The Lady and The Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer

The Lady and The Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto
Pico Iyer
(Knopf (distributed by Random House), New York: 1991)

READ: April-June 2007

In the late 1980s, Pico Iyer came to Kyoto for a year, to try his hand at learning more about the Japanese culture. What he learns, and what any person who has spent a significant chunk of time in the country will likely corroborate, is that Japan is a country of contradictions, a country pushing relentlessly into the future while still holding particular ties to many of its traditional cultural and religious roots.

Iyer doesn't learn this by contemplating in front of a Zen rock garden, however. His guide turns out to be the most unlikely person, a petite, 20-something mother of two called Sachiko. She is small and superbly naive, but she dreams big, sharing her thoughts and ideas in her devil-may-care English.

This was quite a lovely book, though I sometimes found it strange and jarring to be reading it while in Japan. I'm not sure why that was. Perhaps it was that the Japan that I was reading about was all too much like the Japan in which I was actually living. While perhaps that seems strange, it isn't. Iyer's Japan is magical and mundane, steeped in culture and completely removed from the outside world at the same time. This is entirely too much like the Japan I know. If you've never been to Japan, Sachiko's character might seem overly precocious and naive, a cute character sketch from the late 1980s, but not possibly a real person...but once you come here, you realize that not much has changed, and people are really like this.

That aside, it was a great read and I recommend it to anyone who has the slightest interest in Japan. It's a nice, little romance, but can also be taken as much more.

Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

Confessions of a Shopaholic
Sophie Kinsella
(Dell Publishing, New York: 2001)

READ: May 2007

I actually have never had any desire to read this book, but I picked it up for $2.00 at a charity sale, so I figured what the heck? It was pretty much the fluff I expected, but once I got into it, it wasn't too bad. The writing was simple, and the story a little contrived (you just know she's gonna get the guy in the end), but it was entertaining and a quick read. I'm not running out to the store to buy any of the other books in the series, however; at least not just yet.

Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw: Travels in Search of Canada by Will Ferguson

Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw: Travels in Search of Canada
Will Ferguson
(Alfred A. Knopf Canada, Toronto: 2004)

This edition includes "bonus" material, including a tongue-in-cheek "cheat sheet" for students, "outtakes", various suggested cover designs, and a list of Canada’s "big objects by the side of the road."

READ: May 2007

I've mentioned this before (twice, actually): Will Ferguson is a funny, funny man. And with the intriguing title of this book, which I'd picked up in Canada before leaving for Japan but had made myself wait many months before allowing myself to read it, I was expecting more belly laughs.

And boy, did it deliver! Ferguson spent a few years traveling back and forth, here and there, across Canada, and the result is a series of short stories about strange happenings while on the road. He peppers these humourous stories with a good dose of history - not enough to choke those who always fell asleep during Canadian history class in high school, and just obscure enough to keep those Canadian history keeners (myself included) listening and curious. He goes everywhere: Victoria, B.C., for a poetry slam; Churchill, Man., looking for polar bears; Saguenay-Lac St. Jean, Que., to find a lost kingdom; and even St. Thomas, Ont., just outside London, in search of "Canada". It's always interesting, often funny, and never pedantic. This is the kind of literature I wish we'd read more of in my Canadian literature classes. For starters, I don't think he mentions the name "Susanna Moodie" even once (though I think he does talk a bit about Catherine Parr Trail) - kudos all around right there.

Japan: Its History and Culture by W. Scott Morton and J. Kenneth Olenik

Japan: Its History and Culture
W. Scott Morton and J. Kenneth Olenik
4th edition
(McGraw-Hill, New York: 2005)

First published 1970; subsequent editions 1984, 1994. The 4th edition is the first to include Olenik as co-author.

READ: April-May 2007

This book is a great overview to anyone who has an interest in Japanese history, but doesn't want to get stuck in thousands of pages detailing the lives, hopes and dreams of the various emperors and shogun. It's concise and informative, always interesting, and really helps one get insight into why Japanese culture has turned out quite the way it has. I found the last few chapters, about contemporary Japanese political and economic developments (since about 1970), a little weaker than the rest of the book; however, I understand that the immediate nature of contemporary events sometimes can make it difficult to figure out what is noteworthy and what is not.

Shortly after finishing this book, I headed down to Kyushu, the southernmost island of "mainland" Japan (ie., other than the Okinawan islands), and found myself recalling the history I had just recently learned. Certain events in Kyushu were at the centre of the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s, which, in turn, had a profound effect in shaping the Japan that was to eventually attempt to steamroll over the rest of East Asia in the first half of the 20th century. All in all, a very, very interesting book.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
John Perkins
(Penguin Group, New York: 2006, c2004)

First published 2004.

READ: April-May 2007

John Perkins worked for over three decades at the heart of an international business consulting firm, and claims that the modern American political/economic system is founded on a system which exploits and neutralizes developing nations in ways that force them to remain acquiescent to American economic policies. It's almost a Forrest-Gump-like story - Perkins seems to have been fairly intimately involved with some of the more important political upheavals of contemporary times, including the deaths of Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos and Ecuadorian president Jaime Roldós Aguilera in the early 1980s, and the (as an example of how the "EHM system" occasionally failed) overthrow of the shah in Iran in the late 1970s.

This has been quite a popular book over the last few years, and I don't know how much to believe and how much to disbelieve. The events in this book are either largely and/or entirely true, in which case we should be worried about the sham called democracy in which we participate, or it is the product of a conspiratorial and overly-fertile imagination. While many people, well-educated and otherwise, would argue the latter proposition, I have to admit I tend, most days, toward the former. I think Perkins does have a tendency to dabble in conspiracy theory (especially in other contexts outside this book (just do a Google search for his name)); however, I also think this is definitely a case of "where there's smoke, there's fire."

At the very least, some of the response to this book has at least raised a bit of a debate about global finance and the development of the Third World, bringing these issues beyond the confines of APEC and G8 protests. It's an interesting read, even if you choose to disbelieve most of what he says, and it's well-written, unlike many other books in this genre. It occasionally smacks of conspiracy, but at the very least, it will get you thinking and being more aware.

Mightier than the Sword: "My Hero" by Tom Holt

Mightier than the Sword: "My Hero"
Tom Holt
(Orbit, London: 2002)

Mightier than the Sword is Tom Holt's Omnibus 2 which consists of the novels "Who's Afraid of Beowulf?" and "My Hero". "My Hero" first published by Orbit in 1996.

READ: April 2007

I read the other half of Tom Holt's Omnibus 2, Mightier than the Sword, "Who's Afraid of Beowulf?", in March.

Of the three books by Tom Holt that I have now read (the third is Falling Sideways, which I read back in January 2006), I think this one is the weakest. It is funny and entertaining, but it suffered from the same thing Falling Sideways did to some degree: too many characters and too many parallel storylines. Figuring out who everyone is and what their purpose is in the story, is all a bit unnecessarily exhausting. Even when they all come together at the end, it isn't all clear. I think what made "Who's Afraid of Beowulf?" so successful, in my opinion at least, is that it avoided this almost entirely, by having just two sets of characters (Good v. Evil, essentially), rather than a bunch who come together at the climax only. That can be done well, but in this case, it was just a bit too scattered.

That being said, I did enjoy the book. It was an interesting premise: Jane is an author whose fictional characters start to need her help, and then when she tries to help them, it turns out she needs theirs. Fiction becomes reality, and vice-versa.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Memoirs of a Geisha
Arthur Golden
(Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 1997)

This edition published by Vintage Contemporaries, New York, 2000.

READ: March-April 2007

I haven't seen the movie, but have wanted to read the book for a while. Initially, I was confused. I had always thought that Memoirs of a Geisha was a novel, but it began with a word from a translator who claimed to have translated Sayuri's words faithfully from the Japanese. I then realized that, of course, this was part of the novel, meant to give it an added aura of authenticity.

It's a wonderful book. Nitta Sayuri, a 9-year-old girl with unusual blue-grey eyes, is not born into the world of geishas, as most are, but is taken from her small village, after her mother dies and her father can no longer care for her, and sold to a geisha house in Kyoto. This is, effectively, akin to being sold into slavery. Many girls who trained to be geisha did not succeed, managing to incur substantial debts along the way, indebting them indefinitely to the geisha house to which they belong. For Sayuri, the story is, at least at first, much the same, but as she becomes more committed to the idea of becoming a geisha, things change.

A compelling read, I hated putting the book down at the end of a chapter, always wanting to read "just one more chapter". Though sometimes I lacked sympathy for Sayuri, I could not doubt that her story was a fairly common one in Gion, the famous geisha district of Kyoto. The book also spans a key point in modern Japanese history, from the late 1920s through the 1930s, to WWII and the post-war Occupation years. Arthur Golden apparently did a fair bit of research for the book, and as far as I know, his account of what it meant to be a geisha in those days is fairly accurate. I might see the movie now, to see how it compares.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
(Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 1988)

Translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman, 1988.

READ: March 2007

I'd read One Hundred Years of Solitude many, many years ago (back in high school, in fact), and really enjoyed it. This book was one of the few left to me by my predecessor, but I hadn't gotten around to reading it yet.

Now, I was feeling a bit down about Japan at the time I read it, so I think it was a bit of a relief to be so suddenly transported to Colombia. It is the story of Florentino Ariza and his lifelong wait for Fermina Daza, a beautiful, haughty woman who once told him she would marry him but then did not.

It was a compelling read. It was supposed to be the book I brought with me on my trip to Hokkaido, but I handily finished it in the 3 days before leaving. That being said, I started to be filled with dread sometime during the last 100 pages. The characters were starting to do and say things that I thought were leading to a dumb, Disneyfied, happy ending. While that's a bit harsh, I was disappointed in the end. I guess I just don't have any sympathy for Ariza, who spends his life in a weird fantasy world where everything is done with the intention that one day Fermina Diaz will come back to him, and when she does, everything must be just so. I see that as being a bit compulsive, in a creepy way rather than a cute, or devoted, way. Maybe I'm just too unromantic to appreciate it.

Vintage Murakami by Haruki Murakami

Vintage Murakami
Haruki Murakami
(Vintage Books, USA: 2004)

Includes the opening chapter of his novel Norwegian Woods; "Lieutenant Mamiya's Long Story: Parts I and II" from his novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; "Shizuko Akashi" from his non-fiction book on the 1995 Tokyo subway attacks, Underground; and the short stories, "Barn Burning", "honey pie", and "ice man".

READ: March 2007

Reading this collection of works from Murakami, who is apparently one of Japan's top contemporary authors, was a bit of a tease. I'd just start getting into a story when it would end, leaving me wanting more. Luckily, many of these stories are, of course, parts of longer novels, and so someday, more I can get!

His style is sparser than I normally like (sometimes I wonder if that's more of a translation thing, though I guess the trick to being a good translator is to use a style consistent with the author's style in their original language), but they are interesting and insightful. The excerpts from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in particular still leave me shuddering while thinking about them late at night (almost a month after I finished reading the book!), and I may definitely have to read that entire book someday, if none other, in order to exorcise those memories.

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

The Moon and Sixpence
W. Somerset Maugham
(Penguin Books, London: 1944)

First published in Great Britain by William Heinemann Ltd. in 1919.

READ: March 2007

I hadn't read this kind of book in a while (you know, "real" literature) and wasn't sure what to expect, but it had an interesting premise as being loosely based on Paul Gauguin's life.

Well, once I picked it up, I almost couldn't put it down, and finished it in a compulsive burst of reading. I think it took me three days, and only then because I had to stop reading for sleeping and working. The narrator, a writer (go figure), is likeable enough, but the main subject, Charles Strickland, is a thoroughly disagreeable, unlikeable man. Yet somehow it didn't matter. The book is cleverly written in such a way that I spent my time not wondering what is going to happen to Strickland, which would have held much less interest for me (we know the outcome from page one anyway), but in a way that compelled me to see how the narrator learned more about Strickland. It's really quite good. Disappointing lack of anybody resembling Vincent van Gogh, however. ;)

Wild Grass: China's Revolution from Below by Ian Johnson

Wild Grass: China's Revolution from Below
Ian Johnson
(Penguin Group, London: 2004)

Some of the material previously appeared in a slightly different form in the Wall Street Journal .

READ: March 2007

Here's an excellent example of how a well-respected journalist should write a book based on his columns and expertise in a particular area.

Ian Johnson is a roving correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and lived in Beijing for seven years. In his book, Wild Grass, he tells the stories of three people in China, three stories of people who tried in little ways to resist the corruption and oppression of the Communist Party. The first is a paralegal who is jailed for having helped peasants mount a legal battle against illegal taxes. Second is an architect fighting to save Beijing's historic buildings, which are being destroyed at an alarming rate. The last is a daughter who has been jailed and running into difficulties with authorities because she tried to find out answers about her mother's death in prison (where she was jailed as a Falun Gong practitioner).

I know shamefully little about China and its politics, and understand even less. I was depressed for at least two days straight after finishing this book. That being said, it was an excellent read and I strongly encourage anyone with any interest in the outside world (esp politics) to read it. Johnson knows his subject, he knows how to make a story interesting, and he knows how to make things resonate on a personal level. There were a few "of course Communism is bad and of course it is failing" moments, but overall, he does a good job of exposing the Chinese government's current weaknesses in policy and strategy without devolving too far into the land of democracy-and-market-freedom-is-great. It is well-written, and the endnotes put Thomas Friedman to shame.*

* Not that that is very hard to do.

Mightier than the Sword: "Who's Afraid of Beowulf?" by Tom Holt

Mightier than the Sword: "Who's Afraid of Beowulf?"
Tom Holt
(Orbit, London: 2002)

Mightier than the Sword is Tom Holt's Omnibus 2 which consists of the novels "Who's Afraid of Beowulf?" and "My Hero". "Who's Afraid of Beowulf?" first published by McMillan (London) Limited in 1988.

READ: March 2007

Hildy Frederiksen is just your average archaeologist until the day she accidentally awakens King Hrolf Earthstar and his twelve companions from their centuries-old sleep. King Hrolf is determined to carry on, and finish once and for all, his war against the Sorceror King.

This is only the second book of Tom Holt's that I have read. I quite enjoy his style so far, and plan on reading more (including, of course, the second novel that is included in this book, "My Hero"). He's a bit of an oddball, an interesting mix of scifi-meets-fantasy-meets-humour. Anyway, this book was quite enjoyable; a quick, easy, entertaining read (just over 200 pages), and made me laugh out loud at a number of points.

Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan by Alan Booth

Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan
Alan Booth
(Kodansha America, New York: 1995)

READ: February 2007

I've mentioned this before: Alan Booth is often mentioned as the quintessential travel writer of Japan. Like in The Roads to Sata, Booth takes us deep into the heart and soul of Japan and ordinary Japanese. Published a few years after his premature death from cancer in 1993, Looking for the Lost, is actually three shorter novellas detailing three different walks he took in Japan.

First, Tsugaru. This is the peninsula at the very northern end of Honshu, the central Japanese island, in Aomori Prefecture. Booth sets out in May 1988 to walk the same route taken by a Japanese author 44 years previously.

Second, Saigo's Last March, wherein Booth recreates the route taken by Saigo Takamori in August 1877, when Saigo, a previous government minister and one of the leaders of the loyalist army that defeated the shogun, led a final, ill-fated protest again the new government.

Third, Looking for the Lost itself, which, I was slightly thrilled to learn, was Booth's recounting of his walk along the length of the Nagara River through Gifu Prefecture (!). He is following what might be the path taken by the survivors of the ruling Heike clan after they were run out of the imperial capital of Kyoto and forced to flee in the late 12th century, one of the seminal points in Japanese history.

As I expected, Looking for the Lost was a tremendously enjoyable book, though, I must admit, there was something almost disquieting about reading about Japan in such a personal way, but one that was so different from my own (and my own could never hope to be similar). We all view countries in our own ways, and while I don't know if Booth loved Japan, he certainly was fascinated by it. And that, I think, is what makes his two books so good. He is not vaunting Japan, nor, à la Will Ferguson, poking fun at its idiosyncracies. He just tells the story as it is, as it happens.

I think I may have enjoyed Looking for the Lost even more than The Roads to Sata. The fact that there were three stories of three very different parts of Japan, each meticulously described with great personal anecdotes that really brought the regions to life, was excellent. It also probably helps that I am now in Japan and can better relate to some of his experiences. Also, the Japan he describes here feels different from the Japan in Sata, which was a Japan of the late 1970s and vastly more inward-thinking than it is now (as difficult as it is to imagine; Japan still being largely fixated on itself and often unaware of the larger world outside its borders).

And yes, most importantly, Booth does find the lost Japan he'd been looking for for the past 20-some years. He finds it, most poignantly for me, in Gujo-Hachiman, a small castle town about an hour's drive north of Gifu City. Having been there myself last October, some 15 years after Booth's visit, though I wasn't yet aware of Booth's opinion on the town, I felt at the time that it was a relatively untouched corner of Japan. Sure, the town has some industry and modernized facilities, and there are convenience stores like everywhere else, but there's also a certain charm, a certain Japanese-ness, some kind of magical / traditional quality to Gujo-Hachiman's streets and buildings that is hard to find in the rest of Japan, if at all.

So, my only problems with Booth's books are that there's only two of them and that I cannot help but compulsively read both of them entirely too fast.

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

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

READ: February 2007

So, um, I first read this about two months ago, and after writing a review for it here in the stacks, I got a hankering to read it again. So I did. It's quite a compelling book, and I finished it in four hours flat.

I'm not reviewing it again - you can read the original review here.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje
(Bloomsbury Publishing, London: 1992)

This edition published 2004.

READ: February 2007

In my last year of high school, I was expressing my discontent about what I had read recently (I don't remember what it was now) to one of my English teachers (I was taking 3 different English classes that year), and he recommended I read some poetry by a Canadian poet and author called Michael Ondaatje, as well as Ondaatje's novel In the Skin of a Lion. Well, there's been no turning back. Michael Ondaatje, without a doubt, has been my favourite author, bar none, ever since then.

I'm never quite sure which I like better, The English Patient or In the Skin of a Lion. I think The English Patient edges out ahead, but then I re-read the other and remember how excellent it is.*

The English Patient has some of the same characters as the other book, but you don't need to have read In the Skin of a Lion to appreciate this one. Hana is a young Canadian girl who is in Italy working as a nurse in the last days of World War Two. She has stayed behind in an old Italian villa to nurse a dying patient who suffered extensive burns to most of his body a few years earlier, does not remember who he is (or so he claims), and is not expected to recover. The story unfolds parts of the English patient's past in a wonderful, sometimes dream-like, narrative. There is also a romance between Hana and a young Indian sapper who has come to defuse mines in the area, as well as the reintroduction of Caravaggio into Hana's life, an old friend of her father's (who was killed in the war) who worked as a spy for the Allies through the war and has now come to join Hana in her isolation. But the focus of the story is the English patient and the strange circumstances that led him to the villa where he now lays dying.

I was so excited, though trepidatious, when plans for a movie were announced. Well, the movie was awful. Elements of the story were changed, apparently at random, that made the story lose so much of its powerful magic for me. If you've only seen the movie, don't hold it against the book. Please.

People seem to either really like Ondaatje or really don't. I personally am addicted to his fluid prose, so poetic and often dreamy. Others find him wordy and inaccessible. While I generally tend to agree with the posit "why say in 25 words what you could say in 10", I don't think that always works so well in fiction. I remember, in university, in 4th-year poetry class, being irritated by Elizabeth Bishop who, as I told my dismayed teacher, needed a serious editor to cut out the superfluous words she was tossing in. I switched my project to P.K. Page who was much better at being concise. Salman Rushdie is a prime example of a writer in love with the sound of his (boring, pedantic, unnecessary) words. But there is very little I would cut out of Ondaatje's work. His words are precise and appropriate to generate the extremely vivid images that I get when I read his books and his poetry (his poetry tends to be a lot more sparse in words). I see faces, I hear voices, I can even smell the place he is describing.

So, yeah. I like this book. Everyone should read it.

* If you still can't make yourself like The English Patient, at least try In the Skin of a Lion. It's written in a more concrete style. I know a number of people who have liked that one but couldn't get into The English Patient. And for those of you who are history buffs, it's about Toronto in the 1930's.

English for Use in "The Way of Tea"

English for Use in "The Way of Tea"
no author listed
(Tankosha, Tokyo: 2003)

READ: January 2007 onwards (intermittent use)

At my school, I was asked to join the tea ceremony club (sado). The members are me, a bunch of giggling first- and second-year students who don't want to speak English, and three Japanese teachers who don't speak much English at all. So the teacher who is in charge of the club bought me this book. It is targeted toward Japanese-speaking people who have to introduce and explain the tea ceremony in English, but it works well for me, too. Mostly, it is like a Japanese-English dictionary specifically directed at tea ceremony. There are long lists of the items used in the ceremony, with illustrations, and the names of each written in English and in Japanese (both in kanji and in hiragana/katakana). There are a few short explanatory sections, written in English and Japanese, and the last section has some short skits, again in both languages - I guess to demonstrate common conversations one might have while explaining tea ceremony to a foreigner. I wish it had more how-to sections - how to fold my tea cloth (fukusa), how to hold the tea cup, etc., but I guess it's technically targeted at people who already know how to do all that. Anyway, it's helping the tea club bridge the language gap, and it's a handy little reference book.

The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman

The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century
Thomas L. Friedman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 2006)

Expanded and revised version, 2006; original edition, 2005.

READ: January 2007 (unfinished)

All you need to know about this book is summarized thus: Ugh.

For those of you who feel that isn't an adequate review, read on:

I was looking forward to reading this book. It had been recommended to me by a few people, and I kept seeing it at bookstores - even those bookstores that only sell a handful of English-language books. But the fact it was alongside Danielle Steele and Da Vinci's Code* should have tipped me off.

I made it through 300-some pages, so 2/3 of the way through, before I decided enough was enough, that I had much more worthy books on my shelf, and I wasn't going to read it anymore. The problem was, I didn't like the book from about page 5! I was giving Friedman the benefit of the doubt. I thought he might change! Alas, I can be too patient of a reader sometimes.

Friedman is a columnist at the New York Times and I guess his The Lexus and the Olive Tree is considered (by some, at least) to be the definitive work on the Middle East. Well, all I can say is that I hope it is better-researched and more critical than The World is Flat. This book reads like a long, lengthy, never-ending magazine article. And, with all due respect to magazine writers, here we have an incredibly BAD magazine article. He has lengthy quotes from various players in the global market, but they are all CEOs and other people who have already bought into the "flat world" way of thinking. In other words, Friedman seems to have only spoken to people who already agree with his thesis. That just doesn't "do it" for me.

I need to start reading with sticky-tabs handy. There were many sentences and paragraphs that made me snort derisively, and I wish I could find one now to share with you. The amount of times Friedman pointed something out that was either blatantly obvious or blatantly one-sided just made me cringe. What? He's going to spend another 550 pages telling me businesses need to go global, that they can't do it all themselves and remain economically efficient? Tell me something I don't know. Or at least, tell me in a way that could possibly garner some debate. Maybe - here's a radical idea - maybe tell me what an anti-globalization activist thinks of his "flat world" inevitability. How about those countries who have yet been unable to jump onto the globalization bandwagon (for ex., swathes of Africa)? Oh, the world exists only of the United States, India, China and Bangladesh. I see. Am I really supposed to swallow the line that outsourcing American accounting to Indian accountants is good for everyone because now Indian accountants can stay in India and be employed (the fact that the Indian wage is a fraction of the American wage is discussed no further by Friedman other than as a statement of fact) while the American accountant can exercise his true talents of more complicated accounting (ie., rather than just straightening out Friedman's taxes once a year, he can sit down with Friedman and figure out how to best shelter Friedman's income from taxes). How about paying a bit of lip service to the other side of the coin? Isn't that what journalism should be about??? No, Friedman has already written off anyone who doesn't see globalization as the future. And that's just lazy writing, as far as I'm concerned.

If anyone knows a good book on globalization, please let me know. But this sure ain't it. Keep your $17 (what I wasted on it).

* OK, I'm sure Da Vinci's Code is a good book and shouldn't be tossed in with Danielle Steele. But it's just disgustingly everywhere!!!

A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester

A Crack in the Edge of the World: The Great American Earthquake of 1906
Simon Winchester
(Penguin Books, London: 2006)

First published by Viking in 2005.

READ: December 2006 - January 2007

There is no need to be an avid earthquake junkie to enjoy this book,* though it would be fair to say a passing interest in natural disasters helps. Former journalist Simon Winchester, who is trained in geology, has written an intensely compelling account of the famous 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The earthquake was simply devastating. Striking early in the morning on April 18, 1906, it reduced a large part of San Francisco, one of the United States' most vibrant cities, to rubble. And what the earthquake did not destroy, the widespread fires that subsequently broke out finished off. Many thought the city would not be able to rebuild, but within a few months, it was back on its feet.

This is not just a social history of the people of San Francisco, detailing how peoples' lives were interrupted by the earthquake. While that in itself might be interesting enough, it certainly would not be adequate to sustain my interest for ~400 pages. Instead, in addition to bringing the 1906 earthquake and its reluctant participants to vivid life, Winchester also takes us on a fascinating geological tour. To research this book, he in fact traveled from just outside Albany in New York State, and straight across the southern United States to California. He then continued his travels northwards, through British Columbia up to Alaska (which is frequently hit by large quakes), and then back down through the Rockies and across the North American plain to his starting point in New York State. Along the way, he visits some of the most important geological hotspots, and tells us about their most interesting histories. Who knew, for instance, that a little tiny town in Missouri has suffered tens of thousands of earthquakes in the years since it was rocked by some quite violent ones in 1811, and that someday (in another 100 years or so) it will be hit by more big ones? Also, have you ever stopped to think that Yellowstone Park's Old Faithful is really just biding its time before, one day, it will turn into a super-volcano?

Set against the backdrop of the 1906 earthquake itself, Winchester tells us about these quirks of geology, and also takes us on a fascinating tour through the history and world of earthquake science, plate tectonics. This book should be called "Earthquake Science for Dummies (and It's Interesting, Too!)". Winchester knows his subject, and he gives just enough of a personal touch to every part of his subject (throwing in anecdotes, etc.) that what ought to be dry geological theories become quite interesting.

In fact, I suspect Winchester could make the phone book sound interesting.

* Unlike your beloved reviewer.

2007 Booklist

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

  2. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman (unfinished)

  3. English for Use in "The Way of Tea"

  4. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

  5. Looking for the Lost by Alan Booth

  6. Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (re-read )

  7. Mightier Than the Sword by Tom Holt (Book 1: "Who's Afraid of Beowulf?")

  8. Wild Grass: China's Revolution from Below by Ian Johnson

  9. The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

  10. Vintage Murakami by Haruki Murakami

  11. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

  12. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

  13. Japan: Its History and Culture by W. Scott Morton and J. Kenneth Olenik

  14. Mightier Than the Sword by Tom Holt (Book 2: "My Hero")

  15. The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer

  16. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

  17. Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw: Travels in Search of Canada by Will Ferguson

  18. Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

  19. Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

  20. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

  21. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

  22. Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester

  23. The Burma Road by Donovan Webster

  24. Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories edited by Roald Dahl

  25. JPod by Douglas Coupland

  26. Gods of Peace, Gods of War by Russell Bourne

  27. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

  28. Obasan by Joy Kogawa

  29. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

  30. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

  31. The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

  32. Hard-to-Answer Questions About Japan by Uchiike Hisataka and Michael Brase

  33. Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now by Jan Wong

  34. Who Is Frances Rain? by Margaret Buffie