(2015) The Year in Books – Part One

[This is Part One (of four) of my review of my favourite books I read in 2015. None of them were actually written in 2015, but they’re all well worth reading if you’re into early 20th century Japanese aristocratic ennui, small Scandinavian archipelagos, disquieting fruit and vegetables, falconry as metaphor for struggles with repressed homosexuality, the latent darkness inside us all, historically-dubious Vikings, bento factory murder, social maladroit Dominican-American immigrants, 419 scams, and Medieval semiotics, respectively. In this post I’m going to go over my reading goals for 2015 and 2016, then talk about my absolute favourite book of 2015. Parts two through four will talk about my nine remaining favourite books of the year.]

Goals for 2015:

Goal #1: Read 36 books in 2015.

Result: I read 35 and a half, so fair enough.

Grade: B+

Goal #2: Keep the gender balance of authors roughly equal. (I didn’t keep much of an eye on this, but I hoped that after a year of only reading books by women in 2014 I wouldn’t naturally just fall back to predominantly reading male authors.)

Result: Books by men – 17. Books by women – 18. So fair enough.

Grade: A

Goal #3: Read more books from different countries across the world, especially books in translation.

Result: At best I half-managed this: America (9), Japan (9), the UK (4), Nigeria (3), Finland (2), The Dominican Republic/America (2), Canada (1), Ireland (1), Italy (1), Sweden (1), Argentina (1), and Chile (1) (full list at the bottom of this post). Obviously there’s nothing wrong with engaging with media from cultures you’re familiar with, but reading more broadly has only given me good results in the past, so I’m keen to continue and try to improve upon this goal in 2016.

Grade: C- (see me after class)

Overall: Pretty good. 3/5 stars. Also pretty lucky: I read relatively few books I didn’t like this year, and only one I actually hated (Do not read The Changeling by Oe Kenzaburo – it is hot garbage).

Grade: B


Don’t read this book.

Goals for 2016:

So, onto 2016. No huge arbitrary restrictions here, but a few general things I want to aim towards:

Goal #1: read 36 books, preferably a few more.

Pretty self-explanatory: three books a month seems like a reasonable goal considering I’m (a) busy, and (b) lazy.

Goal #2: read more books in translation, especially from countries whose literature you know sod all about.

Again, pretty self-explanatory, since this is a re-do of my half-passed-half-failed goal from 2015. Loads more books from Japan seems likely next year, but I also want to focus on the rest of East Asia, as well as Russia, Nigeria, and so on.

Goal #3: read more non-fiction

I’ve been meaning to do this for ages, but in the last two years I’ve only averaged around 2-3 non-fiction books a year. In 2016 I want to read more memoirs, essays, and books about history (especially Japanese history, as I know relatively little about the history of the country I live in other than that the Warring States period was brilliant, and that the Korean admiral Yi Sun-sin was also pretty great).

My favourite book of 2015:

And with that, I’ll talk about my absolute favourite book of 2015. As always, though I try to avoid spoilers, these reviews are still going to have an impact on a first reading of the books in question. I loved all these books, so by all means go out and read the book yourself before reading the reviews. (but then remember to come back and read the reviews. And like and subscribe to the blog. And make sure to link any reviews you enjoyed to your friends (using Google’s URL tracking tool, and then emailing me the relevant data). And follow us on Beebo.)


Do read this book.

John Darnielle – Wolf in White Van

Sean Phillips is the creator of the play-by-mail roleplaying game Trace Italian, which enjoys at-best moderate cult success. Slowly developed by a bedridden, teenage Sean during the gruelling months-long recuperation after an unspecified accident, the game is a sprawling, brooding, post-American wasteland that tasks the player with reaching the world’s one remaining safe haven – the titular fortress: the Trace Italian.

Years later, living a quiet life closed off by disability and severe disfigurement, Trace Italian offers Sean a modicum of interaction with the outside world through the exchange of letters with its few remaining players.

Wolf in White Van is a wonderful representation of the power of games, fantasy, and the act of artistic creation as a means of handling, and interpreting the world around us – not always in wholly positive ways. Post-accident, Trace Italian helps Sean to deal with pain, with boredom, and with isolation. This relationship is at the heart of the book, but we also look back to see how teenage Sean devotes himself to certain strains of heavy metal, and how, even younger, he’s drawn into dark, violent fantasy novels.

Wolf in White Van is primarily interested not just in art and creation as palliative treatment in a difficult, confusing world, but also as a way of channelling something strange and unintelligible within us. Don’t worry – this isn’t cliché scraping-back-the-veneer-of-polite-civilisation-to-reveal-the-darkness-beneath that you might expect from the above description. Nor does it take the angle of ‘Heavy Metal corrupted my children into worshipping Satan’, either.

It deals with dark thoughts and genuinely disturbing ideas – things you don’t like to think about, that no one else ever sees but that you fear, at least at times, utterly define you. And that, for some people, for whatever reason, sometimes get the chance to do so. But instead of attempting to shine a light on some dark, animalistic evil that’s apparently hiding within us all, it’s something much more honest: an unsure acknowledgement that there is something inside us. Not something dark or evil, not really – but something that resists examination, and that affects us in ways we can’t fully understand.

It’s an examination of the muddier side of the human mind that feels incredibly honest and, despite the sometimes extreme nature of events, relatable. The toughts and impulses that can come to you from who knows where; the ways of acting that startle even yourself; the patterns of thinking that don’t corrupt you, or make you a bad person, but that are strange and kind of terrifying. and usually come without any form of catharsis.

(Next time, in Part Two – Natsume Sōseki’s ‘The Miner’, Isabel Greenberg’s ‘The Encyclopedia of Early Earth’, and Junot Díaz’s ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’.)

My full list for 2015:

(Books in bold are highly recommended)
Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Helen Macdonald – H is for Hawk
Junot Díaz – This is How You Lose Her
Isabel Greenberg – The Encyclopedia of Early Earth
David Mitchell – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Kirino Natsuo – Out
Ogawa Yoko – Revenge
Colm Tóibín – Brooklyn
Mizuki Shigeru – Showa: a History of Japan, 1926-1939
Siri Hustvedt – The Blazing World
Tove Jansson – The Summer Book
Angélica Gorodischer – Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was
Karin Tidbeck – Jagannath: Stories
Amos Tutuola – The Palm-Wine Drinkard
Tanizaki Junichiro – Some Prefer Nettles
B.J. Novak – One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Half of a Yellow Sun
Junot Díaz – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
John Darnielle – Wolf in White Van
Mishima Yukio – The Sound of Waves
Ursula K. Le Guin – A Wizard of Earthsea
Oe Kenzaburo – The Changeling
Roberto Bolano – By Night in Chile
Adaobi Tricia Obinne Nwaubani – I Do Not Come to You by Chance
John Green – The Fault in Our Stars
Gabrielle Zevin – The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
Ruth Ozeki – A Tale for the Time Being
Murakami Haruki – The Strange Library
Ogawa Yoko – Hotel Iris
Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose
Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice
Jim Crace – Harvest
Natsume Soseki – The Miner
Sylvia Plath – The Colossus
Sofi Oksanen – When the Doves Disappeared

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An Abandoned North Korean School in Gifu, Japan

A few months ago I heard about an old abandoned North Korean school less than an hour by train from my apartment. Now, you’re probably thinking: ‘Wait, there’s a North Korean school in Japan?’. Well, apparently as of 2013 there’s not one North Korean school in Japan, but 73. I already knew there was a substantial Korean population in Japan (known as Zainichi Koreans), but while researching this school I learned all about the substantial pro-North Korean population, and the Chōsen gakkō system, which is basically a large group of schools that teach Zainichi Korean children of pro-North Korean families. Everything in these schools is done in Korean rather than Japanese, and it seems, as far as I can tell, to insert a healthy amount of North Korean propaganda into the mix. For what it’s worth, Japan seems really not into having these schools around. You can learn more about it here and here if you’re interested.

Anyway, snappily titled 東濃朝鮮初中級学校 (that’s Tono Korean Elementary and Middle School to you and me), this abandoned school sits at the top of a tall hill in a little residential area about a twenty minute walk from a rural station in Gifu prefecture. I went there with some friends last Autumn, and while we were expecting big padlocked gates and angry No Entry signs there was no attempt to keep anyone out. Here are some photos of the fascinating-but-incredibly-spooky building.

*For the sake of any legal issues that might arise, I think it’s worth officially noting that I definitely didn’t go here and all these pictures were taken by a different man whose name I forgot.


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Thoughts on Studying Kanji, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Needlessly Complicated Japanese Logographic Writing System [Part 1]

1407180428-barakamon-e01-s10So you want to learn Japanese. It’s a common story. Just think of all the manga you could read, all the anime you could watch, and all the people you could no doubt impress by needlessly saying ‘karaoke’ with the original Japanese pronunciation. Maybe you could even go to Japan. In that case, just think of all the places you could see, all the interesting people you could meet, and – statistically speaking if you’re a white man – all the Japanese women you could pursue with a single-mindedness bordering on mania.

So you buy a textbook, sign up for weekend classes, and everything goes well at first. After a little while you feel like you’re making real progress. You’ve memorised hiragana and katakana – Japan’s two phonetic alphabets. Your listening skills are improving. You’ve got your ‘sumimasen‘ (excuse me), your ‘arigatō‘ (thank you), and your ‘琴奨菊さんが1番好きな力士だ。’ (Kotoshōgiku is my favourite sumo wrestler) all sorted out.

You’re dimly aware that there’s something out there waiting for you, though. Something that’s eaten linguistically-better men and women alive. Something every single one of your teachers and textbooks warned you about from the very beginning.

And eventually kanji catches up with you. One day you’re foolish enough to think ‘I’ll just learn a few kanji and we’ll see how it goes’ and the next thing you know you’re tearing you hair out. About the three different readings for each kanji. About the 2000+ hideously complex characters you’ll have to learn. And about why exactly and ‘happy’ (幸) and ‘spicy’ (辛) have to look almost bloody identical.

After a brief, bloody skirmish you delete the app off your phone, abandon your textbook on the shelf between your copies of Russian Fluency in 30 Days and Legerdemain & Skulduggery: A Beginner’s Guide, and you give up. You’ll just focus on speaking and listening for now. Kanji can come later. Maybe.

I said it was a common story, and it is. People who study Japanese absolutely bloody love this story, in the sense that misery absolutely bloody loves company. Especially new, wide-eyed company that is about to go through the same misery you had to endure, but has no idea what they’re getting themselves into just yet. Learners of Japanese love telling beginners horror stories about how awful kanji is, before informing them that one day they’ll understand.

Yup, kanji isn’t easy. It would be so much easier to learn Spanish, with its Latin roots and its lovely, lovely single alphabet. And yes, the official list of Jōyō kanji – i.e. the list of kanji in everyday usage – currently stands at 2,136. That’s like learning the Latin alphabet (upper and lower case), and then learning it 40 more times. But harder. Impossible, right?

Well, no. It’s not exactly easy, but it’s also not one of the twelve labours of Hercules. This post is the first in a series of advice about learning kanji – all written by an amateur who, at the time of writing knows around 1,400 Jōyō and 100 non-Jōyō kanji, but who can only just about call his overall Japanese skills ‘lower-intermediate’. And who makes mistakes as often and as embarrassingly as any other bumpkin.

Future posts will deal with advice and small warnings and so on, but the rest of this post will deal with the common story I told you above, why it happens, and why the standard approaches to both teaching and learning kanji are incredibly stupid.


Why They’re Incredibly Stupid:

Now, when I say that the standard approaches to kanji are incredibly stupid, I’m not trying to hype up my new, patent-pending method of learning kanji. I’m also not criticising any specific methods of learning kanji. Whatever works for you is great, and different methods work for different people (though the people who champion one specific method often act as if theirs is the only good one (sometimes it seems like every article or YouTube video about how to learn kanji is titled ‘Learn Kanji – The Right Way!‘), which is not only wrong but also leads to people getting disheartened when that specific method doesn’t gel with their way of learning. Instead of thinking “Maybe I just need to try a different method” it’s very easy and understandable to think “Maybe I’m just no good at learning kanji”).

What is stupid, then, is not any one specific method of learning kanji, but instead how teachers and ex-students tend to think about it, and as a result how we make new learners think about it. This problem leads to the story above, where the new learner is stopped dead in their tracks by the chthonic horror that is kanji. This problem comes in two main parts:

(1) People tell you that kanji is one of the scariest things in the world

Like I said before, people are weirdly into telling Japanese beginners about how awful kanji is, and how they’re just going to hate it. But lots of teachers also do this. Every teacher I’ve had except one, actually. Even Japanese textbooks – including textbooks specifically designed to teach you kanji – do this. This is not only incredibly annoying, it’s setting you up to fail from the very beginning. If you approach kanji knowing only that everyone thinks it’s awful, endless, near-impossible, you’re going to have a much harder time than if you approach it with an open mind.

I’m not saying that learning kanji isn’t difficult – it is, and, like most things, the beginning stages of the learning process are probably the hardest. But nothing else I know has such a poisonous popular image. And that changes beginners’ experiences of it, and only pushes people to give up where they might not otherwise. When you’re studying Japanese vocabulary and you forget a word, or five, or ten – even ones you’ve reviewed dozens of times – the natural reaction is to shrug it off and think “Oh well, I’ll get it next time”.  But the moment you forget a kanji character all that baggage comes up and it’s amazingly easy to throw up your hands and think ‘For god’s sake, I guess kanji really is impossible’ and inch towards giving up, rather than taking a step back and realising that frequent roadblocks are a part of any learning process.

Learning anything is difficult – learning thousands of Japanese words, many of which sound incredibly similar, is really, really difficult. And it takes a really, really long time. But there isn’t a culture of fear and anger surrounding it. People just accept it as part of the territory of learning a language. The moment someone starts learning kanji, however, everyone warns them how awful it is, how long it will take, how many mistakes they’ll make, and no one actually seems interested in giving practical advice about how to learn, or how useful kanji can be.  So it remains something weird and different and apparently impossible, rather than what it actually is, which is something that’s difficult, useful, and doable. Something that with the rise of electronic dictionaries, memorisation apps, and new methods of learning and has become far easier over time, but which still retains its reputation as the academic equivalent of just punching yourself in the kidneys over and over again until you die.

(2) They coddle you, letting you avoid it for far too long

I don’t know if you should start learning kanji on your first day of studying Japanese, but that’s definitely a far better idea than what 95% of students are pushed towards – i.e. learning almost no kanji for months and months and years.

If you’re going to read Japanese you’re going to have to learn to read kanji, full stop. But Japanese text books, even up to a pretty high level, rarely make you do this, and in my experience teachers almost never do. Which is largely down to the aforementioned ‘It’s impossible, you’re never going to learn it’ attitude that hangs around the Japanese-education community like the ghost of a bad fart.

What this attempt to shield you from kanji means is that, while you could be going at a steady, manageable pace – learning a few kanji a week alongside your regular studying and steadily getting better over time, instead you’re left functionally illiterate for years, and then you’re suddenly faced with the prospect of cramming thousands of kanji all at once somewhere awful down the line. Which is about as appetising as eating the fetid, meaningless apparently-food Japanese people call Nattō.

So, I guess if you come out of this with anything it should be that kanji is difficult, but doable. You can learn kanji – literally everyone can. It’s not only for people who are great at languages (I’m pretty rubbish at languages – 10 years of French and I could barely say “Where is the cake? In the dustbin.”), or only for people who are geniuses (I still sometimes get mixed up on the whole ‘small/far away’ thing). You can learn kanji, but like everything else it takes time and consistent effort. There are tricks that will make it easier, but they’re the ‘how to make sure you’re not wasting those 20 minutes of studying per day/every other day’ kind of tricks, rather than the ‘this one quick trick a mom discovered to learn kanji instantly that doctors hate’ kind of trick.

Just don’t let people turn you against it before you’ve even started. Take it from me – it’s not impossible and it’s not evil and it’s not out to get you. You can start whenever you want, going at your own pace and you’ll make progress so long as you try. You’ll make mistakes and get frustrated at times but the most important thing to remember is that even then you’re always making progress.

[Next time we’ll talk about some practical tips for learning kanji, and some of the genuinely-great benefits that starting to learn kanji can bring.]

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