Hello Japan! January mini-challenge: Something New

Hello Japan! mini-challenge

On Tanabata’s book blog, In Spring it is the Dawn, she challenges her readers every month to do something Japanese. Each mini-challenge has guidelines and January’s was “try something Japanese that you haven’t tried before”, which I did. And it was most certainly an experience.

For my birthday earlier this month I booked a karaoke booth at a local Japanese restaurant. I love Japanese food, I love karaoke, as do several of my friends – what could possibly go wrong? The only real question was why I had never done this before.

There were some setbacks. A few karaoke-friendly friends couldn’t make it so I ended up with a group heavy on the “I’ll come but I probably won’t sing” side. On arrival, as we squeezed ourselves into a tiny room that could only possibly have seated the advertised occupancy of 20 if they were all model-thin, was boiling hot and had the music volume so loud we couldn’t hear each other across the table, I began to worry this wouldn’t be all it was cracked up to be. The hostess didn’t explain the computer properly and we appeared to have a songlist composed solely of Madonna, Britney, Mariah and Japanese acts we’d never heard of.

Thankfully, while I knocked back my first flask of warm sake and caught up with my friends over the as-always immensely tasty food there, some of my more computer-savvy friends worked out not only how to adjust the volume to an acceptable level but also that there was a huge long list of songs to choose from hidden in a sub-sub-menu. And we were off!

And it was a brilliant night. Sure the computer crashed a few times, wiping our carefully crafted playlist. We suspected that the karaoke tracks and videos were largely cheap knock-offs, with hilariously wrong lyrics and videos either from some tourist agency or a sort-of Japanese Pop Idol show. But everyone had a good time, everyone sang (sometimes all at once with harmonies and everything) and I laughed so much I cried.

I loved that we had to take our shoes off and that we sat at a table at floor level, something I’d only seen in films before. I loved that the most resistant of my friends let inhibitions go and belted out tunes wholeheartedly. If they had let us we could have carried on all through the night and they would have made a fortune out of our sake and Asahi consumption, but sadly they closed at 10.30pm.

It was a great way to spend an evening with friends and I shall definitely accept any opportunity to try it again.

(By the way, this is my 100th post! Very exciting. I was hoping to post about my newly redecorated library on this auspicious occasion but progress has slowed on that front, mostly because I’ve been too exhausted to help Tim out with the legwork. We will finish it…one day.)

That’s prostrate, with two Rs

Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years
by Sue Townsend

Oh, Sue Townsend, you never let me down. I’ve been struggling to read much lately but as soon as I opened this book I was tearing through the pages, laughing out loud and loving reconnecting with the characters that are so familiar they are like extended family.

I pretty much grew up with Adrian Mole. I somehow got hold of the first two books when I was about 10 (I think they’d been given to my older sister, not to me) and I read and re-read those volumes many a time through my teens. I think I have bought and read all of the subsequent volumes, and though grown-up Adrian is far more annoying than the teenage boy was, I still love being back in that world.

Adey, as Pandora still calls him, is approaching 40, is living next-door to his parents in a converted pigsty, is worried that his wife Daisy is gaining weight and losing interest in him, and is having trouble with his prostate (which everyone keeps calling his prostrate, much to his irritation). Still, he enjoys his job at a local independent bookshop and his five-year-old daughter Gracie is a treasure, albeit one with an overactive imagination. And surprisingly, the glamorous and successful Pandora (MP and junior minister) still shows enough interest in him to make his wife jealous.

This wouldn’t be an Adrian Mole book if he wasn’t teetering on the brink of total failure and there are moments when you wonder if he doesn’t bring it on himself (he’s so earnest) but he is ultimately a very sympathetic character surrounded by everyday-type chaos. What I’ve always thought Townsend does particularly well is to make Adrian a terrible writer when he’s trying to write (which he’s still convinced is his forte despite only ever having published a cookbook that his mother had to ghost-write when he couldn’t get past the introduction) but a brilliant diarist. His daily life, boring to his own eyes and those of his friends and family, becomes wonderfully funny through a combination of keen observation and fantastic characterisation.

In this book, for possibly the first time, my favourite character was Adrian’s mother Pauline. She freely admits to a long litany of faults but is devoted to her family and amazingly capable (she is often the only one who can persuade Gracie to wear her school uniform and not one of her many fancy dress costumes…and she does it without tears or tantrums). She is also writing an autobiography full of shocking lies that she has provisionally titled A Girl Called Shit and is threatening to take Adrian’s sister Rosie on The Jeremy Kyle Show to reveal who her real father is.

As ever, the diaries are set in the recent past (2007–2008) and provide an often-satirical look at life in Britain. There are the precursors to and early rumblings of recession, the resignation of Tony Blair, the summer floods and the smoking ban.

The next instalment of the Mole diaries is due out later this year and I greatly look forward to it.

Published 2009 by Michael Joseph.

Where dark and light meet

The Ivory and the Horn
by Charles de Lint

I first discovered de Lint years ago and quickly fell in love with his world where fantasy and real-life middle America meet in stories that are both scarily dark and almost frothily light. It’s an amazing creation that this collection of short stories opens up beautifully.

Short stories are a perfect fit for de Lint. All his tales are set in the “realistic” city of Newford and the magical realm that many of its inhabitants travel to – some at will, others involuntarily or only in their sleep. The short story format allows all these different experiences to be depicted without laborious explanation.

The characters are mostly people who are struggling with life in some way and need an escape, or did when they were children. Many are or have been homeless. There are also a lot of artists and writers, presumably because their creativity and social circles tend to make them open-minded and curious about the world.

Not everyone in these stories goes to the magical world. Some have strange experiences that as a reader you put down to magic. Others are fully immersed, even to the point of drifting through the “real” world while living in the magical one. This is roughly the progression of the book. We see more and more of the magical world in later stories. In early ones, it’s more hints and whispers.

The stories are narrated in the first person, or alternate between first and third person, and de Lint’s writing allows you to quickly get to know each character, so that when they pop up later in someone else’s story it feels familiar and friendly.

The dark element comes from the reasons people have for escaping to another place, or wanting magic on their side. From chronic shyness to psychiatric problems to child abuse and the many reasons why a person might be homeless, the possibilities of magic are anchored heavily down to earth. There’s a strong sense of living inbetween, of the magic being a metaphor for other coping mechanisms.

The stories stand alone if you want to read them that way, which is good as most of them had been previously published in magazines or anthologies. Each has a strong storyline, a journey for its main character, a start, middle and end. They gain further dimensions by being in a collection but they don’t depend on it.

I do love being able to revisit characters from books I read years ago. One of the main linking characters is Jilly Peppercorn, an artist and star of my favourite de Lint novel, The Onion Girl. I didn’t realise when reading that book that she had featured in several previous Newford books. In fact, de Lint said in an interview that she is the “warm beating heart of the city” (can’t find the link right now).

One criticism I have of this book is that it’s occasionally trite. For all of the dark pasts and presents, most characters end their story in a better place and they almost always learn a life lesson. I suppose when dealing with depressing subjects it helps to have a lighter side.

In a similar vein, all of the narrators are such…good people. I know a lot of people struggle to read about a main character who’s bad or unpredictable, and it’s a nice idea that most people are good at heart, but I think there’s room in de Lint’s universe for a few more, if not evil, at least selfish or mischievous characters.

But they’re minor quibbles. I loved these stories. I think my favourites were “Bird bones and wood ash”, about a woman who is imbued with supernatural abilities by animal spirits and uses them to fight evil, literally donning a black bodysuit, gloves and hood, but it drains her and joining forces with a social worker almost ruins everything; and “Mr Truepenny’s Book Emporium and Gallery”, about a dreaming place invented by a child that is falling to rack and ruin because she never visits anymore.

I have been reminded how much I enjoy this blend of myth and reality – de Lint calls on all sorts of mythologies, from Native American to the Brothers Grimm to Shakespeare – and I will definitely have to look out for the Newford titles that are missing from my collection.

Published 2005 by Tom Doherty Associates

I said I would

I come from an active family and I have a health condition that requires me to maintain my fitness so as not to fall to pieces, so it is with great regret that I admit that I am frankly pretty rubbish at doing exercise. I have good intentions but I don’t follow through with them.

Over the years I have tried many forms of exercise, from kick-boxing to trampolining to pilates to plain-old gym workouts. I quite like swimming but Bristol doesn’t have a central public pool and I’m rubbish at figuring out buses (I know it’s a poor excuse). Bizarrely the one thing I managed to keep up the longest (now lapsed) was the one I always maintained that I hated: running.

I don’t really consider running fun or pleasurable. It’s a free form of exercise that makes me feel like I’ve worked really hard because…well, I find it really hard.

My Mum said this to me back in 2009. She had talked me into entering a 5k race for charity (Lupus UK) and as she ran with me she alternately egged me on and chatted about anything and everything to take our minds off the painful physical effort. One thing she said that really resonated was that, because she runs a lot and has done for years, enters races, has run the London Marathon twice, people tend to assume that she finds running easy and fun. She does not. It has always been hard and she still finds it hard. That’s why she does it. You get a greater sense of achievement when you do something that you find really hard.

And I get that. When I get back from a run I really feel like I’ve pushed my body, done something that’s good for me. I’m proud of myself every time. That’s worth the pain and effort. On occasion. However, the occasions have got further and further apart so this year I signed up to a gym with a swimming pool and then bam! Along came a bold new idea: hulaerobics.

I’ve heard it said that when committing to a new exercise regime, one of the best motivators is to sign up to something with a friend or two. I can’t promise it works in the long run but it did get me to try out something I very much doubt I would have tried alone.

The ominous-sounding hulaerobics class is held at the Southville Centre. I don’t remember owning a hula hoop as a child so it wasn’t much of a surprise when, while waiting for the class to begin, my attempts to hula lasted approximately three seconds each.

Thankfully the class was aimed at beginners, which most of us were, and much of it was devoted to the simple task of learning to keep the hula hoop spinning (there was also some aerobics thrown in, if you hadn’t guessed that from the name). Apparently, by the end of the course we will be salsa dancing while hulaing. It feels a long way off but not impossible.

In one hour, as well as holding my abdomen tenser for longer than I have since I was a gymnast umpteen years ago, I learned to keep the hoop spinning (mostly) and do stuff with my arms at the same time. Result!

I had a lot of aches and pains afterward and I’m still tired today, so I’m not certain I’ll be going back next week, but I may yet be persuaded.

Bigger issues than story

David Golder
by Irène Némirovsky
translated from the French by Sandra Smith

This was another book club pick, in fact this one was my choice, so I was pretty nervous before the meeting. I’d chosen it based on Némirovsky’s brilliant final work Suite Française but this was a much earlier novel of her’s, with no guarantee of the same brilliance. What if everyone hated it? Or was bored by it? What if it failed to generate any discussion?

I needn’t have worried. While this is a slim volume and not as good as Suite Française, in my opinion, it did have plenty for us to talk about.

David Golder is a Russian Jew who works endlessly on obscure international financial deals to maintain the fabulously wealthy lifestyle to which his wife and daughter are accustomed. However, while he lives in a Paris apartment, they live in a multimillion franc estate in Biarritz, accompanied by an endless stream of hangers-on.

Golder isn’t the most likeable character, but we meet him near the end of his life and the impression is given that it was a difficult life and that he worked incredibly hard for himself and his family. His wife and daughter seem to only care about money, only showing Golder affection immediately before asking for a handout and getting very aggressive when he honestly tells them that business is rough and he can’t afford it right now. Add to that his failing health and you have a very sad, lonely picture of a man.

Némirovsky toys with the reader a little regarding characters’ true selves. At first Golder’s daughter seems much nicer than her mother because that’s what Golder sees. Only later is her selfishness fully exposed. And with Golder it’s the reverse – at first all you see is obsessiveness about money and his scheming seems horrible but it becomes clear, as we discover more about him and especially when we learn about his past, that he has his reasons, that his family and business associates encourage him, maybe even force him, to be this person.

I was glad to discover I wasn’t the only one at book club weirded out by the way the narrative labels everyone as a Jew, in an insulting sounding way, even though the author herself was Jewish and indeed died because of it. It could be part of the characterisation of Golder, that he has an odd skewed view of Jewishness. Or it could just be the vernacular of the time.

There was a general feeling that the book is very bleak, there is no ray of hope, no good person to contrast everything else against. But despite that Némirovsky has an easy, fluid writing style that keeps you reading even though there’s no-one to like and a fairly uneventful story.

I can’t recommend this as highly as I had hoped but I will still be interested to read Némirovsky’s other novels if they continue to be translated into English.

First published in France in 1929 by Editions Bernard Grsset
This translation published 2007 by Vintage


So you might have noticed that this site was down for a few days. I finally decided to abandon my non-WordPress-friendly host and sign up elsewhere. I may have been in too much of a hurry to do this properly…

It turns out that it’s a good idea to check back-ups have actually worked before relying on them. Somehow the result of my last site back-up is a directory full of empty folders. Not so helpful. So I had to reinstall an old version of my doctored-to-suit-me theme (which thankfully Tim had held onto long after I thought I had any need for it). At some point I’ll go back in and tweak it to how I like it.

Also, I hadn’t realised that the WordPress export file contains only posts and pages. It doesn’t include anything else that you’ve personalised like images, links, site name and description, user name…stuff like that. No doubt I’ll continue finding things I need to update for weeks to come. I also wouldn’t be surprised if there’s very clear instructions on all this on WordPress.org somewhere.

Life is still hectic and I’m getting very little reading done but if you ask nicely I might just blog about the fun and pains of my new discovery: hulaerobics. Yes, it is what it sounds like.

The serious side of fluff

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination
by Helen Fielding

This is a bit of a mishmash of a novel, combining hapless heroine, chicklit, rollicking adventure and post-9/11 paranoia. It doesn’t entirely work.

Olivia Joules is a freelance journalist with an awful lot in common with Fielding’s more famous creation, Bridget Jones – she’s man-obsessed, convinced she’s made for greater things than the job she’s doing and gives her imagination free rein without applying common sense – but Joules has a darker past and, when pushed, turns out to be a lot more capable. By the end of the book she’s a strong heroine but it takes her a while to get there.

The story is far-fetched and heavily influenced by 9/11. Possibly too much so. Joules is sent to Miami to cover an inane story for the Sunday Times’ Style magazine where she meets a man she’s convinced is up to no good on a global scale, with her usual ability to add 2 and 2 and make 7. However, this time there are an awful lot of coincidences that appear to suggest that her hunch was right.

Fielding’s style is very readable and Joules is likeable enough, but she still has too much Bridget Jones in her to be an interesting original creation. She makes lists. She jumps to conclusions from people’s initial appearances. It’s like Fielding started creating a much more interesting, strong character, but then held back. And threw in an awful lot of prejudiced nonsense to boot. Racially, mostly (I can’t explain that without giving away spoilers but if you read it you’ll see what I mean), but also against geeks/techies. In addition, she seems to be trying to write satirically and failing.

There’s a lot about this story that’s hard to believe, and I suppose to enjoy it you need to switch off from thinking that way, but I just couldn’t. I freely admit that I loved Bridget Jones’ Diary when I read it back in 1996, but I was a lot younger then and I think my tastes have changed somewhat.

Published 2003 by Picador.

UPDATE: See also this review by Judith of Leeswammes.

Talking books

by Knut Hamsun
translated from Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad

A few months back I went along to a new book group at a local pub. I only found out about it a few days beforehand and didn’t even know which book they were discussing, so that was an odd start to the evening but it was a great night. I met some new people, found out more about my adopted city and talked a lot about books. The chosen book turned out to be Hunger, which was already on my TBR, and the discussion about it inspired me to dig it out and give it a try.

The unnamed narrator of Hunger (except for when he gives himself pseudonyms) is a young, struggling writer, battling with his pride and the difficulties of getting paid to write, with the result that he is often starving or even homeless. The lack of food and warmth plays with his mind and the story delves into a dark psychology that to me seemed far more advanced than its publication date of 1890.

The writing is brilliant, and draws you on even when the narrator is incomprehensible or the storyline particularly dark, both of which happen often. There are dozens or more moments that stand out as somehow key – sleeping out in the forest one night (which struck him as a romantic idea and a potential source of food but turned out to be cold, wet and a long walk from the city); trying to sell the buttons from his overcoat to a pawnbroker; turning down a food coupon because he has told the police he is a rich man who lost his key, though it seems that surely they see through that lie and the writer hasn’t eaten in so long…

I completely agree with the member of the book group who said that she often wanted to scream at the narrator, he’s so frustrating. Although his pride does wear down eventually, for a lot of the book it gets in the way of him getting money or food. I did sympathise to a certain point. He seems to find it funny to tell lies to random strangers, including policeman, which is sometimes entertaining but other times costs him dearly.

I also think that the narrator probably has serious psychological issues that may have preceded the starvation. He has extreme highs and lows, achieving euphoria in his hunger or his writing but also stark depression. It’s a pretty extreme experience being described and it affected me deeply that the high moments were such small, simple things like a sunny day or decent night’s sleep. Interestingly, I don’t think eating was ever described as particularly pleasurable. In fact, he often vomits because the rare food he gets he eats too quickly, or it’s too rich.

One thing we discussed at the book group was the question of translation. This book is old enough that it has been translated into English multiple times. There were three or four versions round the table. This could mean that members of our group had very different experiences from each other. I wonder if all those who liked it most read the same version?

Thanks Hombre Mediocre for the book choice and for starting the group. I look forward to our January meeting.

First published in Norway in 1890.
This translation first published by Canongate Books in 1996.

New year, new books

Happy new year!

I now have a lot of new books, except I only physically have half of them so the photo doesn’t look as impressive as it might do. Stupid rubbish postal service. Not that I read fast enough to get through these before the end of the month.

So these are the books I received for Christmas…

Stack of books

An Image of Africa by Chinua Achebe
Silly Novels by Lady Novelists by George Eliot
And Now You Can Go by Vendela Vida
Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years by Sue Townsend
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
The Breaking Point and other stories by Daphne du Maurier

…and if anything I have less reading time than last year, so this should be an interesting exercise in time management. Please don’t judge me if it takes months for my reviews of these titles to appear!