31 Months in Japan

31 months

by Larry K. Collins and Lorna Collins

Larry and Lorna are two Californians who became part of the Universal Studio team to oversees the construction of the theme park in Osaka, Japan.

Anybody who has traveled or stayed in Japan will resonates with the authors’ experience:  the inconvenience of changing slippers inside the houses, the complicated recycling and trash schedule, the confusing street layouts, the friendliness and honesty of Japanese, the overcrowded subway, the miniature size of everything, and the various food items.  Anybody who has done business with the Japanese will also nod sagely about all that tatemae, nemawashi, meshi exchange, saving faces and keiretsu that requires business handbooks to decipher…

The stay happened in the 90’s, so by now, most of those experiences have been written a million times over and sound a bit old.  The authors were able to develop close relationship with some of their Japanese friends and coworkers, so some chapters provide in depth looks into Japanese lives usually not captured by a gaijin’s eyes.

What fascinates me most, in this book, is the story about the construction of a theme park.  Little did I know so much goes on behind everything when I visited a theme park!  Who knew that they need water quality control for all the pools and lakes, includes the water that may splash on you in a ride?  How they have to measure the water level every 1/10 second?  What the crew went through to get the right look of a setting?  The construction project is complex enough without the complication of translation and cultural difference.  The incident of Jurassic Bonsai makes me smile.  As a project engineer, Larry provided a lot of interesting anecdotes that will surely make me look at the rides anew the next time I visit Orlando.

There are laughs and tears, sweet moments of friendship and exhilaration of a job completed.  As the authors group their experience under topic rather than timeline, once in a while things get a bit confusing.  The writing at times feels like a journalistic reporting and mildly impersonal.  Some editing would make the book more enjoyable.  Overall, it’s a good read for the unique experience the authors present.

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Published in: on March 2, 2012 at 11:46 am  Comments (1)  

Red Poppies

by Alai

Told through the eyes of the youngest son of a chieftan, it describes the feudal life in Tibet around the Second World War. The protagonist is assumed to be an idiot, the result of being conceived while his father was drunk. However, he keeps confusing everybody around him, as he will at times act with great wisdom, predict the future, or spurt words of profounded truth. This especially befiddles his father, who keeps wondering if his son is a fool acting smart, or a smart person acting like a fool, and cannot decide whether the boy is a contender as his heir.

A conflict with a neighboring lord sends the Maichi Chieftain to China to seek help. In return for the firearms, the chieftain agrees to plant poppies on his land. The poppies brings so much riches that the family is the envy of all his neighbors, and more conflicts ensure.

When I started reading the novel, I was shocked by the cruelty and brutality the Maichi family so wantonly display. Then I remember what I just read in Holy Cow and other books – how people in the West projected their idea of Utopia in Tibet, and imagined a world where everyone is friendly, gentle, spiritual and loving. The fact is Tibetans are just human. Why should it be more shocking that a group of Tibetan boys go around torturing animals, when boys do that in all other cultures? Or if a French king can kill a man to steal his wife, why can’t a Tibetan lord do the same? It also reminds me how the Chinese government maintained that they did the right thing to liberate Tibet from serfdom and slavery, and to bring civilization. I most certainly do not agree with their excuse of invasion, and, somehow after I’ve penned it, it curiously sounds like something coming from the previous U.S. administration.

Anyhow, once I stopped being unsettled by the sex and gore, the book is a totally captivating read. There may be doubts about Young Master’s intelligience, but certainly not about the author’s brilliance. The prose is at times poetic, and the slightly-off mind captures things and moments in a fresh perspective. In one scene, the young man makes love in a poppy field, and the sap oozes out of the crushed poppies, “as if they were ejaculating, just like me”. As the protagonist is so unpredictable, the book becomes a compelling pageturner.

This is solidly one of the best novels I read this year. In fact, it has won the Mao Dun Prize, China’s most prestigious literary award. The author, Alai, is an ethnic Tibetan living in Sichuan, China, and the original story was written in Chinese. I definitely would love to read more of his books, though it looks like Red Poppies is the only one translated into English so far.

Published in: on September 15, 2010 at 2:12 am  Leave a Comment  

First OBCZ in Hong Kong!!

Sorry this post is a few months late, but back on March 20, 2010 I was in Hong Kong to meet with some BookCrossers. We met at a restaurant called Brunch Club & Supper, which serves an American menu, with salad, egg benedicts, crepes, sandwiches, appertizers, coffee and the like. It was a nice meetup, with several oldtimers (azuki, ktp28 and wandering-B) since the first Hong Kong meetup (about three years ago?), and a few new faces (criminologeek, penejoe and yukihosnow). Watakeet, who was the first HK BCer I met, was unfortunately not available but was 100% there in spirit. : ) Nice chat, lots of good books piled on the table, wandering-B brought some book thongs and azuki some labels, so everybody went home happy.

What’s more, we found that Brunch Club has two big mahogany bookshelves. (Is that mahogany? I have no clue, just some very awesome looking wooden bookshelves.) They are full of books, mostly English titles, as this is likely a place favorited by exprats longing for the taste of home. We spoke with the manager, explained what BookCrossing is, and with her blessing the shelves are now an Official BookCrossing Zone!!!

There’s well over a hundred titles on the shelves. We put some of our books on the shelf, and needless to say, my resolution of not taking books home totally crumbled. I haven’t visited many OBCZs, but I’d proudly say that this is probably among the biggest and best OBCZs. Oh how I wish I have an OBCZ closer to home! If I were to live in Hong Kong, I’d totally haunt that place.

So now Hong Kong has its first OBCZ, and a very nice one at that. Please come by for a visit when you have the opportunity!

Brunch Club is located at:
1st Floor, 13 Leighton Road
Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Tel: 2890-2125
http://www.brunch-club.org

The restaurant is an easy walking distance from the Causeway Bay MTR (subway) station.

Published in: on August 17, 2010 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hana Kimi

Argh. I have been staying up late these few nights. Why? Because I got suck into Hana Kimi.

The original title is 花ざかりの君たちへ, Hanazakari no Kimitachi e ~ “For You in Full Blossom”, which is really a mouthful in any language. It is a Japanese manga series about a girl who disguised herself as a guy to attend an all-boys high school. Mizuki Ashiya is a Japanese girl who lives in the United States. One day, while watching a track and field competition on TV, she becomes enamoured with one of the high jumpers, Izumi Sano, and decides to transfer to Japan to attend the same school that Sano does.

Needless to say, there are plenty of jokes and funny scenarios of a girl living with a dorm-ful of high school guys, including overtones of homosexual loves. One of her classmates starts wondering about his sexual orientations when he finds his heart fluttering at the sight of her(him). Yes, a manga with a harlem of ikemen!! I don’t know how Mizuki manages not to blow her cover (to the whole world). I mean, Asian guys tend to be less muscular and hairy, and more androgynous, but still, to have her walking around in shorts… maybe she does have some hairy legs? Then I remember reading Norah Vincent’s Self Made Man, in which she disguised herself as a man with remarkable success, and mentioned that people choose to believe what they believe, and once they identified her as a male, she could be careless and still maintain her cover. Either way, once you let go and enjoy the manga, it’s actually a lot of fun.

It has been a while since I got that into a manga. The last one was Hikari no Go. I only have vol 1-9 on hand, so after blowing through them, I went on to YouTube to see what anime version they have. To my surprise I found that there are in fact two TV dramas made from this title, one Japanese and one Taiwanese.

This is a pic of the cast:

I am not sure about the Japanse Mizuki. I mean, NO ONE will for a moment mistake her for a boy. She looks like a girl with short hair, period. Not effeminate, but outright female. The Taiwanese girl, Ella, does a better job passing for a guy. In fact, I think most of the Japanese male cast scale a higher kawaii factor… I haven’t watched the Taiwanese version and opted instead for the Japanese first, but from what little I’ve watched, looks like the Taiwanese one is a very close redition of the original manga, while the Japanese one just takes the title and run away with it. They also changed the school, Osaka, from one that excels in academic and athletes to one that uses looks as admission criteria (and as a result the average IQ drop at least 3o points).

As for Sano… I didn’t know at the start that he IS Hanazawa Rui from Boys Over Flowers. Oguri Shun has lost a lot of baby fat since then… and most definitely handsomer… I like the manga version better though. Oguri seems to bring in too much of Hanazawa into this series, at least in the beginning. Moreover, being a monosyllable, expressionless, moping guy is one thing, but acting mean is not cool at all. The manga Sano is not mean. He does say a few angry words, but he’s a yasashii person through and through. There are a lot of tender moments in the manga. It’s really cute and heart warming how he goes from “what the heck do I do with a girl?” to “I want her by my side and protect her” from one moment to the next. He makes me wish I had a boyfriend like this. But in the TV drama, Sano is rather cold and said some very rude and hurtful things.

Nakatsu in the TV drama is excellent! Ikuta Toma totally steals the show, and deserves the Best Supporting Actor award he received. No wonder some fans would rather wish him to be Mizuki’s love. I would have picked him too. Interesting how the chemistry is different than the manga. In the manga, it’s so obvious Sano and Mizuki are deeply bonded, sorry Nakatsu you don’t stand a chance.

On the other hand, Umeda is so much more fun in the manga. Campy and sexy.

And… Nakao… This is the actor, Kimura Ryo’s pic on his official site. I am like, gosh, he can be Mizuki!!! What big beautiful eyes!

The handsomest of them all? My vote goes to Shirota Yuu. He’s Kagurazaka Makoto, Sano’s competitor from another high school. He’s half Spanish.

Ahem, really, it’s embarrassing to be oogling over boys a decade younger than me… Last week another BookCrosser commented that she wishes there were more manga in America that are not the typical shoujo high school romance genre, as she’s grown out of them. What failure I am!

Published in: on August 8, 2010 at 10:42 pm  Comments (2)  

Throwaway Daughter

by Ting-Xing Ye, William Bell

I enjoy this book more than I expected and I was closed to tears several time when reading it. I know it will be about an adopted girl going back to China to look for her birth mother, and some tear-inducing moments are likely to appear, but this novel is so much more. I guess in part my tears is from the knowledge about the background of the story: the cultural revolution, the Tiananmen massarce, the abandonned baby girls, all intensely painful chapters of recent Chinese history that the mere mention, without any detail, is potent enough to stir up emotions in me. The author has successfully tie these events together in the story without appearing contrived.

The story was told by many voices. At first I thought it would be confusing, but after finishing the book, I felt it necessary to allow the reader to understand all the characters, and it would be a shame to cut out any voice. Sure, none of the facts will be missed, but the characters won’t be as authentic and complete.

Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 8:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Peony in Love

by Lisa See

I really loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (and I’m looking forward to the movie
http://www.screendaily.com/news/distribution/fox-searchlight-strikes-us-deal-for-wangs-snow-flower/5013717.article though I was surprised to hear that Hugh Jackman will appear in the movie… huh? I love Wolverine but… Apparently they have included a modern timeline to the story… maybe two women trying to find out the link between their grandmothers?) so I started reading this with high expectations.

Peony in Love begins with a young girl who loves books and is totally enchanted by the opera Peony Pavilion, about a cloistered girl who met her lover in dream and after dying of lovesickness, her body was found by the man in her dream and she returned to life. Peony’s father stages a performance of her favorite opera in their house for her birthday, and Peony chances upon a young man with whom she promptly falls in love. Knowing that marriage matters are arranged by parents and each has a betrothal, Peony is sick with longing for love.

In all honesty, I did not like the story in the beginning. It is way too obvious where the plot is heading. Star-crossed lovers is one thing, but tragic romance bore out of stupidity doesn’t quite get my sympathy. After the story reaches the predictable point, there is a while where little happens, as Peony mills around doing nothing much. Fornutately I persevere and the second half of the story becomes interesting. So, my word of advice is, skip or skim through the first part if you like, but it’s worth the effort to continue on!

After reading the novel and the author’s notes, I have to say that I like it even more than Snow Flower, and also that this is a more accomplished work. Wu Wushan’s Three Wives’ Commentary 吳吳山三婦合評〈牡丹亭還魂記〉is an actual book that was published in 1694, and still in print after over 400 years (you can buy a copy at http://book.douban.com/subject/3177126/). So are Xiaoqing’s poems. Lisa See has closely woven the known historical facts into her fiction, and create a superb story. With Snow Flower there is more creative liberty, but with Peony, she is more limited by the facts, and thus I am more impressed with her success. Originally I had thought that Peony will reincarnate to finish her work, but I have to say See’s way of linking the three wives works better in a novel, and gives Peony more opportunity to grow as a character.

I really like how the author chances upon a little known cultural work/fact, things that even the average Chinese may not know about, makes it an obsession, and spins out a lovely tale, like nu shu in Snow Flower, and the Three Wives’ Commentary in Peony. She has reached across time, to give voices to the women lost in history. A strong, powerful amd memorable voice.

I have to give another warning for readers: keep an open mind. Lisa See has created in detail an afterworld according to Chinese beliefs. A place with its own rules and likely very foreign to most readers. Just suspend your belief. Afterall, come to think of it, doesn’t the vampire world has equally bizzare taboos and beliefs? That said, I do find the idea of single entry visa from the afterworld, and other concepts quite interesting. And the idea of a ghost who goes around binding little girl’s feet — the most horrifying ghost of all!

Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 7:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Krik? Krak!

by Edwidge Danticat

The youthful face on the cover and the title had misled me to expect a light, young adult read. This book is, however, a serious and excellent collection of short stories about life in Haiti and Haitians in America, and is in fact a finalist for the National Book Award.

In Haitian tradition, a story teller says “Krik!” to alert listeners that a story is about to be told. The audience responses with “Krak!”, to let the storyteller that they are giving her their attention in anticipation of a good tale. In this book, your anticipation will not be disappointed, for Danticat is a genius in capturing the spirit of her characters and creating beautiful imagery with little words. Powerful, memorable characters, often living an impoverished and at times tragic life, that stay with you after the story ends, dispite the little time you have come to know them. The woman who longs for a baby to hug, the woman who prositutes while her son sleeps, the immigrant mother who lives with her Americanized daughter, the man who goes on a raft, the girl who finally finds her name, the little boy who recites his speech in a play.

Often an anthology may have a few good stories, padded by mediocre ones, but this collection is excellent throughout. Higly recommended and likely to earn a spot on my best ten of the year list.

Published in: on June 24, 2009 at 2:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone

by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

From Amazon.com:

The Green Zone, Baghdad, 2003: in this walled-off compound of swimming pools and luxurious amenities, Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority set out to fashion a new, democratic Iraq. Staffed by idealistic aides chosen primarily for their views on issues such as abortion and capital punishment, the CPA spent the crucial first year of occupation pursuing goals that had little to do with the immediate needs of a postwar nation: revamping the Iraqi tax code and mounting an anti-smoking campaign.

As the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post, Chandrasekaran has probably spent more time in U.S.-occupied Iraq than any other American journalist. In this acclaimed firsthand account, the former Baghdad bureau chief of The Washington Post gives us an intimate portrait of life inside this Oz-like bubble, which continued unaffected by the growing mayhem outside. Chandrasekaran unstintingly depicts the stubborn cluelessness of many Americans in the Green Zone—like the army general who says children terrified by nighttime helicopters should appreciate “the sound of freedom.” But he sympathetically portrays others trying their best to cut through the red tape and institute genuine reforms. He also has a sharp eye for details, from casual sex in abandoned offices to stray cats adopted by staffers, which enable both advocates and critics of the occupation to understand the emotional toll of its circuslike atmosphere. Thanks to these personal touches, the account of the CPA’s failures never feels heavy-handed.

This is a quietly devastating tale of imperial folly, and the definitive history of those early days when things went irrevocably wrong in Iraq.

When I opened the pages, I suddenly felt very proud to be Chinese. For right there, in the first pages, smack right in the middle of the map of Green Zone, is the marker “Chinese Restaurants”. Not pizza parlor, not hamburger joint, no, it’s Chinese restaurants. Mind you too, it’s not just one, but two of them. As some travelers commented, you will always be amazed that no matter how far you travel, there’s always a Chinese restaurant where you least expect it.

A really interesting and engaging book. We’ve all read about how inept the US govt’s handle of the Iraqi occuption is, but condensing the interviews and anecdotes into one volume really opened my eyes. A lot of it seems to be variations on the same theme: big, lofty idea thought up by someone unqualified for the position. Like the idea of using a food ration debit card, when neither electrity nor telephone was working; or Operation Smiles when the hospitals had been looted clean of the most basic supplies and beds, and patients are dying from the most curable sicknesses and injuries. Too bad when, filling positions, what matters is not what certificates or diplomas you hang on your wall, but whether there is a photo of you with Bush and Cheney.

While there are a few people who went there with the intention to make some quick bucks (the ludicracy of the contractor’s story is really something), in all honesty most of the people who went out to Iraq brought with them good intentions.

Published in: on May 29, 2009 at 3:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Kickboxing Geishas: How Modern Japanese Women Are Changing Their Nation

by Veronica Chambers

From the dust jacket flap:

Forget the stereotypes. Today’s Japanese women are shattering them — breaking the bonds of tradition and dramatically transforming their culture. Shopping-crazed schoolgirls in Hello Kitty costumes and the Harajuku girls Gwen Stefani helped make so popular have grabbed the media’s attention. But as critically acclaimed author Veronica Chambers has discovered through years of returning to Japan and interviewing Japanese women, the more interesting story is that of the legions of everyday women — from the office suites to radio and TV studios to the worlds of art and fashion and on to the halls of government — who have kicked off a revolution in their country.

Japanese men hardly know what has hit them. In a single generation, women in Japan have rewritten the rules in both the bedroom and the boardroom. Not a day goes by in Japan that a powerful woman doesn’t make the front page of the newspapers. In the face of still-fierce sexism, a new breed of women is breaking through the “rice paper ceiling” of Japan’s salary-man dominated corporate culture. The women are traveling the world — while the men stay at home — and returning with a cosmopolitan sophistication that is injecting an edgy, stylish internationalism into Japanese life. So many women are happily delaying marriage into their thirties — labeled “losing dogs” and yet loving their liberated lives — that the country’s birth rate is in crisis.

Part of this book reads more academic than I expected. It’s rather comprehensive and the author definitely knows the subject well and has a deept understanding of the Japanese culture. Her “geishas” is a very bunch: young hip-hop DJ, diplomat’s-wife-turned-TV-chef-turned-government minister; an openly gay Osaka assembly-woman, restaurant owner, host club addict, competitive snowboarder, executives, and the stereotypical OLs and housewives. She covers a board spectrum of subjects, interviewed plenty of men and women, and presents a very completed pciture of modern day Japan. I like how she discusses the topic evenhandedly. For example, when she talked about the middle aged divorce, she certainly shows a lot of sympathy for the men.

The author is African American, and that adds a interesting perspective, such as the mention of the b-kei, Japanese who are fans of the black culture, which is slightly different from the typical Westerner focus.

The most interesting part for me is the discussion about Japanese men. It was kind of surprising to read how dissatisfied the Japanese women are with their men. Granted, the surveyed subjects are not necessarily representative of the whole population, but it still makes me feel “wow”, how come they view their men so poorly? In fact, among the men interviewed in the book, they did not come across badly at all. Some even appeared more open-minded and supportive than the average American guy I know of. Or were they too polite to be bash about feminism and working women in front of the author?

I mean, I have dated Japanese guys and know some as friends, and I certainly did not find them so lacking. Looking back at my single days, I think Japanese guys have better rep than Korean guys (who are supposedly even more male chauvinistic) and American guys (who only want sex and have a 50% divorce rate). And I and my friends certainly do not have such negative opinion of the men of our own cultures, there may be areas they fall short of compare to men from other countries, but the repeated expressed sentiment was really a surprise for me. I wonder if the author would consider for her next book to research how happy are the women of different cultures with their own men? She has totally piked my interest.

Published in: on May 29, 2009 at 2:49 am  Leave a Comment  

The Teahouse Fire

by Ellis Avery

“When I was nine, in the city now called Kyoto, I changed my fate. I walked into the shrine through the red arch and struck he bell. I bowed twice. I clapped twice. I whispered to the foreign goddess and bowed again. And then I heard the shouts and the fire. What I asked for? Any life but this one.”

Thus begin the story of Aurelie, a French American girl of nine in last 19th century. She was taken from her mother, against her will, to accompany her missionary uncle to Kyoto to “convert the barbarians”. When a fire broke out in the house she and her uncle stayed in, she ran away, and ended up in the garden of a Japanese tea master. She was taken in by Yukako, the tea master’s daughter, as partly a maid, partly a younger sister. They did not consider her a foreigner, as she did not have blue eyes and golden hair, but thought that she was just born a bit defected and retarded (as her language skills seeed seriously limited). (I guess if a child with Down’s syndrome can be called Mongol, such perception can go both ways…) As the two girls grew up, they witnessed the political changes in Japan: the birth of Tokyo as the new capital, the demise of power of the samurai clan, the influence of Western culture, the resulting nationalism… and with it, the realization that the art of tea had to adapt to the new world or die.

The beginning of the story strongly reminds me of Memoirs of a Geisha. Both are about a young girl being plucked from her normal childhood, to enter into a highly codified community of a Japanese traditional art as an outsider. For Aurelie, she was doubly an outsider, barely speaking the language and totally ignorant of the social rules and etiquettes. Thus, a perfect protagonist was created. As things were explained to her, they were explained to the readers, without feeling contrived.

Reading the book gives me the pleasure of understanding more about chado and recent history of Japan. I had attended a tea ceremony once and couldn’t say I enjoyed it, just found the whole thing too artificially formal, sitting painfully on my legs in a constrictive kimino, and a big show for just a cup of hardly palatable tea (the tea was made with grounded tea leaves froth to a foamy, bitter, dark green broth, served with a sweet that supposedly balances the bitterness but for me had the effect of making it more bitter.) I won’t rush for another cup of tea but at least I can see the reason why someone would love it, and appreciate better the thoughts and care that go into the art. Really a lot of thoughts and care. In one ceremony, the windows were closed off except for one, fitted with glass. The ceremony was timed such that the moon would sail into view at the moment the tea was prepared. When the guest arrived in a kimino that doesn’t go well with their decoration, the master had to rearrange the furniture, change the tea box, move the flowers… if they could repaint the room and change the carpet… they probably would too…

As a fiction, Memoirs is without doubt more accompanished. As Aurelie is more an observer in the background, she is often a reporter of events rather than the actress in the center stage. At times the pace feels too slow, the characters walking around the stage without much action and purpose, and some scenes and events are simply uninteresting. Definitely a bit of editing could make the read more pleasurable.

However, I was glad that I stay with the book, because the ending was worth it. In the last fifty pages or so, everything picks up speed, like a train leaving a station, building up, building up, and then with a blast and a loud horn, it runs at you with full force. I closed the book with tears in my eyes, and realize that if not for all the little clues and information the author painstakingly paved along the road, it would be impossible to fully understand Nao’s revenge, and to fully understand Yukako’s gift. All of a sudden I feel like asking Aurelie, don’t stop, don’t stop, tell me more…

Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 3:29 am  Leave a Comment  

Travels With A Tangerine: A Journey In The Footnotes Of Ibn Battutah

by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

I have to say it’s not a fast and easy read, but I am glad I did persevere to finish it. My first book to finish in 2009!

At moments the book does feel a bit repetitive, as the author visited one tomb after another, in unfamiliar places, of people I’ve never heard of (the maps in front were indispensable). He was following the 400-year-old footsteps of Ibn Battutah, the most famous Arabic traveller from Tangier (hence the Tangerine in the title – no other citrus was featured in the book). I am sure if I were more knowledgable about Middle Eastern culture and geography, I may find it more interesting; on the other hand, even were he to travel in search of European castles, Asian temples or Napa vineyards, things could still go stale after a while. What makes the book interesting was the human contact throughout his journey. Most of the people he met were friendly, easy-going, tolerant, cultured and generously hospitable. Incidentally, a few days ago I watched an Anthony Bourdain show, where he travelled to Saudi Arabia. His conclusion of his visit was in a similar tone, that he found the people open, generous and fun-loving, very different from the images we were usually shown or conditioned to conjour up.

The author is a scholarly traveller, and the amount of research he did about IB, his work and his period was evident. He did, however, write with a witty sense of humour. Not the laugh-out-loud type of J. Maarten Troost, but a subtle type that is more likely to joke at himself than his subjects.

Published in: on January 4, 2009 at 8:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jungle Child

by Sabine Kuegler

The book is way better than I thought it would be.

It begins with a idyllic childhood in the remote West Papua jungle, where her family went to live with the Fayu tribe, hitherto untouched by modern civilization. There Sabine ran wild in the jungle, swinging from vines like Tarzan, trading her family’s pots and pans for a baby crocodile, and throwing snakes at her sister. I won’t want Sabine as a sister… she is more a terror than my baby brother!

While the childhood is interesting, and the details of tribal life makes an intriguing anthropological read, and would make an entertaining book on its own, I enjoy even more how the book goes deeper into Sabine’s psychological confusion, as the girl grows up and realizes she is an in-between: totally unadapted to live in the complicated Western world, but also gone is the carefree girl who can run wild with her native friends. As her sister puts it: who will want to steal them as brides? They who don’t know how to prepare food or manage a household properly.

I really admire the author’s courage to live her life. I would love, howver, to hear more how the villagers are faring. While it is an inevitable fact of life, it is a pity to read about how as the author grows up, the siblings and her childhood friends go their own way. But at least she has a lovely, unforgettable childhood to treasure, and to give her strength.

The book’s website: http://www.junglechild.co.uk/ There is an extract of the book. I do wish though she would post some of the photos there.

Published in: on October 25, 2008 at 2:30 am  Comments (1)  

A Thousand Splendid Sun

by Khaled Hosseini

I kept crying for a while after finishing the book.  A moving story indeed, especially towards the ending – well, it was well written from page 1, and continue to build up to a lovely ending.  A strong, solid work throughout and, unlike The Kite Runner, did not falter in the middle part. 

The title comes from a poem about Kabul writen by Saib-e-Tabrizi back in the seventeenth century:

“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”

It’s this beauty that draws the city’s sons and daughters home, despite of the danger and the rubbles.  The story is about Mariam and Laila, two women who are wives to a brutal man.  Both of them harbor loss of their loved ones, and in a world where they seem to be lone survivors of their families who departed them in brutal manners,  they slowly they overcome their hostility and become like friends, like sisters, like mother and daughter.   Unlike the protagonist in Kite Runner, these women are strong, and they have hopes and dreams that they are not afraid to pursuit.

It is also chilling to see how much the political and social environment could change in such a short time.  When Leila was young, she was able to run around the neighborhood and visited her male friend.  Then she had to done a burqa, and could not step outside without a male family escort.  It reminds me of The Handmaid’s Tale — somehow, that story doesn’t seem so foreign, so fantastical after all.  If it could happen in Afghanistan, what guarantee it couldn’t happen elsewhere?

Published in: on October 4, 2007 at 11:47 pm  Comments (4)  

The Rice Mother

by Rani Manicka

(This review contains spoilers)

Manicka’s first novel is a big, sprawling, absorbing multigenerational saga set in Malaysia. At the age of 14, Lakshmi is married off to Ayah, a man more than twice her age.  After they crossed the sea from Ceylon to Malaysia, Lakshmi is excited to see a big limo with driver waiting for them.  But the excitement soon turns to confusion as they drive pass a big house without stopping.  Finally, when the limo drops them off at a small house and Ayah takes off his gold watch and gives it to the driver, Lakshmi realizes that her mother has been mislead into thinking that her beloved daughter is married to someone rich. However, Lakshmi is strong and resourceful, trying to keep her six children safe, through the years of Japanese occupation and more.

When I started reading the book, I was curious how the author choose to tell the tale through so many protagonists, though it becomes clear towards the end of the story.  You feel like you are sitting with the different members of the big family under a tree in the courtyard, as each regales his or her own story, and each providing a different interpretation of the same event.  You can’t quite point the finger to say who’s wrong and who’s right.  In the end, you realize that most of them are just basically good but imperfect people who do not want to hurt others, who want to love the ones they care about, but somehow, somewhere, things gone wrong and there is no turning back.  And that’s the saddest of things.  Looking back, they could have made it better, but it’s too late.  Small hatres, small misunderstanding just take hold like a seed in the heart, and grow, and in the end snuff out the life and joy in the heart.   

[SPOILER]

I think the last words of Lakshmi to Ayah sums it up the best.   At his funeral, “she touched her lips to my father’s cold ears, but still I heard her whisper, ‘I ask the boon that in my next life, I am again given the same husband, for it seems I loved him all along.'”  I cried when I read that, and do so again when I type it now.

Published in: on August 6, 2007 at 3:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan

by Bruce Feiler

Another excellent book that I won’t have come across were it not for BookCrossing

I thought I know a bit about Japanese school system from all the mangas I read, but this book is so educating!  It delves from the funny, such as Bruce’s not-too-auspicious nampa adventures (concerns that Bruce is too “big” for Japanese women), to the thought-provoking, such as the little-known caste of burakumin and the conflict between the inaka and the metropolis. 

I also garnered interesting facts such as the perfect lenghth of chopsticks (15% of your height), and that Japanese school days are a whooping 60 days longer than American school days.

The book provides an excellent insight into the heart of Japanese culture. Certainly there are pros and cons for both school systems, the two are probably as far apart as can be among industrialized nations.  From the education of children, you can see the big picture of the national identity, business practice and the possible future of the countries.

The book is however a bit dated.  I didn’t have a clue how old it is until I came across pop culture references like Hikari Genji that are, in terms of pop culture, two generations ancient.  I don’t know how much things have changed, but certainly students are still required to clean the classrooms, hazing and suicide is still going on, and cramming for entrance exams still very much part of a student’s life.  Therefore, while the popstars are stars no more, the observations made and messages conveyed still hold true.

Published in: on May 30, 2007 at 4:17 pm  Leave a Comment