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review 2015-12-24 02:52
Picture Book Nostalgia
Animalia - Graeme Base
The Discovery of Dragons - Graeme Base
Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time - James Gurney
Dinotopia: The World Beneath - James Gurney
Voyage of the "Bassett" - James C. Christensen;etc.;Renwick St James;Alan Dean Forster
Owl Moon - Jane Yolen,John Schoenherr
The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural - Patricia C. McKissack,Brian Pinkney

Earlier this year, after moving into my new place, I dug up some of the boxes in my parent’s basement to consolidate and prune my collections. Of course, digging up some childhood favorites, I had to pause to flip through them again, reminding me of days past when there was plenty of time to read, whether on hot summer days or cold winter nights. Many of these books were Christmas or birthday gifts, of course, the inscriptions from family members still scrawled on the inside covers, 1988, 1990, 1994. How well did they hold up?

                                Animalia - Graeme Base                        The Discovery of Dragons - Graeme Base  


Animalia and the Discovery of Dragons by Graeme Base


Australian writer and illustrator Graeme Base was always one of my favorite authors in elementary school and soon after finding his alphabet book Animalia in my primary school library, I became entranced with studying each lush, beautiful page filled with larger than life animals, trying to come up with all of the hidden alphabetical items for each letter. Each letter includes a funny poem highlighting it, such as "Lazy Lions Lounging in the Local Library," which became kind of my mantra.


This eye for detail and humor continued with the Discovery of Dragons, published some years later; by that time I was a fantasy-loving kid, and the weird, pseudo-scientific historic examination of the various dragon species was very interesting to me. I'd recommend any of Base's work for story times.


                               Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time - James Gurney                      Dinotopia: The World Beneath - James Gurney  


Of course, my favorite topic as a kid was definitely dinosaurs, so these imaginative, amazingly detailed books by James Gurney were some of my favorites. Framed as a recovered nature journal of a nineteenth century professor and his son shipwrecked in a lost world of sentient, peaceful dinosaurs, Gurney's paintings really bring the world to life. A true utopia, there is no real conflict (though are some delicious explorations and mysteries of this ancient world), but the story is really told through the pictures. While the dinosaurs themselves are a little old fashioned in their forms (no feathers, a little lumbery), how can one knock messages like "weapons are enemies, even to their owners?" Those dinos have some pretty compelling ideas! 


Voyage of the


I recall spending a lot of time as a kid looking at the art in this lushly illustrated book, which is beautiful and captivating (particularly the little details and asides the fill many of the paintings), but I do not recall if I’d actually read the story. James C. Christensen, a renowned fantasy artist, paints vibrant, ethereal paintings filled with detail, natural and mystical.


However, the story is pretty facile and the writing far blander than in Dinotopia, in spite of a similar premise. An answer to Darwin’s HMS Beagle, the Victorian Professor Algernon Aisling, his daughters, and a dashing crew of dwarves and gremlins set out to chart the realms of the imagination, though their results, while enchanting, are rather uninspiring. 

Picking up quite the menagerie of mythical creatures along the way, less and less space is allowed to give anyone a personality and sometimes we forget they’re there at all; occasionally, they are re-mentioned as if to say, oh yeah, don’t forget, the Sphinx is still there too! Maybe its just because I'm not religious, but the message here, "by believing, one sees," comes off as a bit of a platitude to me. 


Owl Moon - Jane Yolen,John Schoenherr


This was, I think, the first picture book I recall being read as a child. It may have sparked the obsession with owls I had until after first grade. I remember my Mom reading it to me, as well as listening to the gentle narration on cassette tape. Jane Yolen’s magical, spare language, and the evocative art of brings this moonlit winter landscape alive, celebrating the natural world. I still enjoy walking around in the snow at night, and throughout my childhood became obsessed with owls, especially owl calls, often going to sleep listening to cassette tape recordings of the calls of various wildlife. 


The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural - Patricia C. McKissack,Brian Pinkney 


I checked Patricia McKissack's The Dark-Thirty from my middle school library in 6th grade, and it became a great introduction into the world of American, specifically African American, folklore, like nothing I'd heard before. Referencing the half an hour around sunset as the time best suited for telling ghost, the stories here are definitely spine tinglers! For some reason, I read this around Christmas, which while not really thematic seemed to suit the dark but hopeful tone of these spooky stories, as it is simultaneously the darkest and the most festive time of the year. 


Upon returning to the book, the best aspect was that each of the stories, in addition to ghosts, monsters, witches, and other scary supernatural creatures, confront a different aspect of the oppression faced by Black Americans throughout US history, introducing readers to these topics. The evocative, moody drawings by Brian Pinkney compliment them perfectly. I definitely recommend this one! 






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text 2015-12-07 22:12
Subcultural Studies: Hipsters and Other Animals
The Hipster Handbook - Robert Lanham,Jeff Bechtel,Bret Nicely
A Field Guide to the Urban Hipster - Josh Aiello,Matthew Shultz
Hipster Haiku - Siobhan Adcock
Look at This Fucking Hipster - Joe Mande
What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation - Mark Greif,Kathleen Ross,Dayna Tortorici,n+1,Christian Lorentzen,Jace Clayton,Reid Pillifant,Rob Horning,Jennifer Baumgardner,Patrice Evans,Margo Jefferson,Rob Moor,Christopher Glazek
Hipster Animals: A Field Guide - Dyna Moe


In this new segment of BookLikes, I will be discussing my readings on the state of contemporary North American subcultures, countercultures, and popular culture in general- the advent of the internet has seemed to have had a radical effect on the accessibility, authenticity, and style of how "millennials," 20 and 30 somethings, define themselves. I'll be reading some books to try to discover what is this nebulous attribute known as "cool" in our, at heart, consumerist and conformist society. What better way than by taking a look at some of the ways people make fun of each other? We will be starting with "hipsters." What even are they? What's wrong with them? Am I one? I'm not even going to attempt to define the term, it's impossible and its already all over the internet anyway. 


The term "hipster" seems an artificial definition, manufacturing a subculture for a time in which, for multiple reasons, none really seems to exist. The conflicting themes of sincerity and irony appear to be at the heart the millennial condition and thoughts about what a hipster even is. After all, irony is almost as notoriously difficult to define as hipster.


Probably the most standard definition of a hipster is that they refuse to be identified as such, in spite of the fact that, like porn, we know it when we see it. So if someone self-identifies themselves as a hipster, that mean they are not one- after all, if the definition of hipster is that they won't call themselves the term, then that indicates someone gauche enough to do so indicates they can't be one, right? But of course, by definition, if calling oneself a hipster means you can't be one, you really are one because you are, in effect, claiming not to be! It's a paradox!   


As a Minnesotan, discussions of “hipsters,” whatever they are, seem topical. Minnesota was declared the most hipster state in the country a few years back and not too long ago, St. Paul was named the most hipster zip code in the nation. What is all this? What are we to make of it? It was for some answers that I went to this collection of books attempting to grapple with the complexities of this millennial trait. Here, I discuss some works that treat the phenomena in their publication order.


The Hipster Handbook - Robert Lanham,Jeff Bechtel,Bret NicelyWhen I was younger, growing up not really connected to the “cool” and “fashionable,” whatever those are, and living on the fringes of various suburban subcultures, I wondered about the future and what trends, new fashions, and fads would come into being in the futuristic 2000s. Just after I started college, I heard of new “hipster” thing on NPR, specifically talking about this book, The Hipster Handbook by Robert Lanham. Now, looking back upon the so-called “hipster” subculture ten years later (again after living upon its fringes) as it has begun its decline into stereotype and, well, the mainstream, Lanham's book seems to have an interesting place in the history of today's pop culture landscape.

At more than a decade old, it is still relevant to today's 20 and 30 something “counter” culture, and one that has certainly permeated the fabric of American society since 2002. As a pseudo-academic anthropological study of this exotic subculture, Lanham illustrates the various brands of the movement, from the Loner, introverted obsessives with a love of cataloging (of which I have an affinity) to the "bipster," appropriators of blue collar chic, many of these studies still resonate with the stereotype. In addition, Lanham also chronicles the many indicators of good taste as striven for by hipsters, including a (presumably) apocryphal glossary of slang, and lists of books, music, movies, and artists essential for the culture. Whether one denies vehemently one's hipsterhood or accepts it wholeheartedly (if such a contradiction is possible), much of the evolution of current trends were anticipated here.


The same cannot be said for another early work in the genre, A Field Guide to the Urban Hipster - Josh Aiello,Matthew ShultzA Field Guide to the Urban Hipster. Like the Hipster Handbook, it affects a scientific style, in this case biological rather than sociological, but unlike Lanham this one has not aged well at all. While both are dated artifacts from an earlier period of pop-culture, the “Field Guide” feels a lot more mean-spirited and has less of an understanding of the topic. Even for it's time, "Field Guide" seems super-dated.

It is the first to illustrate a peril with defining hipsters- any lack of "getting it" by the authors comes off badly. Ostensibly, the book explores the various “species” of young hip urban dwellers, but seems to lack focus as to what exactly this constitutes; I mean, since when have Outlaw Bikers ever been considered hip or urban dwellers, let alone Ex-Frats? Do "Mods" even actually still exist? The author only clumsily effects the language and tropes of true nature guides, (complete with fake Latin scientific names) and relies mostly on stock stereotype in its mocking of such groups as hippies, academics, punks, goths, etcetera. Also, the entries come off condescending and downright misogynistic to boot. This uncomfortable element will return in later accounts.


 Hipster Haiku - Siobhan AdcockA much more stylish and humorous take down of hipsterdom, circa 2006, is the collection of tongue in cheek haiku by Siobahn Adcock, which also seems to be among the first hipster books to be published based on a blog, a tradition which seems to be the norm these days. Adcock's casual poems are like a self-deprecating time capsule of pop culture references, name dropping a lot of familiar stuff, websites, bands, authors, shops, all that stuff. Of course, it is all pretty dated, as well, but that seems to be the fate of hipster studies- things barely last a year before being abandoned. 


The stereotypes remain, though, and Adcock's work is a nice reflection of this juxtaposition between the sincere and the ironic that exemplifies the culture, with an insider's understanding of the ridiculous nature of the genre. I certainly got a lot more of the references now than when I first read back in '07.


Look at This Fucking Hipster - Joe MandeThe "Field Guide's" notes of misogyny return here in this next entry, another blog later shoehorned into a book, and one that takes a much more critical stance towards the idea of hipsters.The strong current of "hipster sexism and racism" is well known as the many photos here of young white people dressed in absurd and insulting “Indian” headdresses prove.


Grainy, pixelated, unacknowledged photos of people dressed in weird costumes from the user submitted website are crammed into the pages with some of the least successful jokes I’ve seen in such a product. The limp commentary, with its questionable use of ableist, transphobic, and racist subtext seems to smack of hypocrisy. If it were just the pictures, PBR, huge glasses, and thin mustaches, it might have had a bit more appeal, but the authors’ rather scolding tone comes off as bitter. Griping at people for not “really believing in anything” and “apathy” for attempting to follow interests not shared by the commentator have some rather unfortunate implications, I feel.


Am I wrong in thinking that there is a latent hint of reactionary sentiment to much of this humor? A downplaying of the motives behind "eating local," say, as born only of image rather than any genuine belief is not unlike the blog Stuff White People Like (which, whatever its creator's intentions, has been taken wholesale by white supremacists and myriad conservatives to illustrate everything they perceive as wrong with our "liberal generation.”) I mean, I'm not gonna even touch the insufferable book on the topic by noisome Fox News contributor Greg Gutfeld, in which he appears to do little more than lament that he wasn't popular in high school and now, its popular to like the environment and social justice, blah blah blah. 


What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation - Mark Greif,Kathleen Ross,Dayna Tortorici,n+1,Christian Lorentzen,Jace Clayton,Reid Pillifant,Rob Horning,Jennifer Baumgardner,Patrice Evans,Margo Jefferson,Rob Moor,Christopher GlazekFascinating stuff, but also frustratingly vague and obtuse, “What Was the Hipster” is a transcript of a discussion on a sociological approach to subculture and essays responding or attempting to clarify the discussion. The participants only barely scratched the surface focusing on reasons behind various styles, discussions of classicism and racism, and identity but these ideas are hardly given any space to really get to the guts of the debate. The very discussion of the phenomena of the “hipster,” the current counter/sub culture (if it can even be called that) is very complex and difficult to parse and the participants struggle to convey and formulate their ideas, talking around each other and name dropping everything from philosophers, ‘90s bands, and ‘80s TV-shows in but in fact, it seems, they are unable even to come to a consensus on what a hipster actually is.

One of the goals of the "investigation" was its hope to express the reality of the hipster to future readers, which is itself a bit ironic, as the book, now five years old, is already showing its age. The hipster meme has already been declared dead and/or dying numerous times. In particular, the descriptions of the Peruvian hipsters from Lima who only embraced their Peruvian chicha musical identity when it was embraced as ironically cool by a French recording studio based in New York. This globalizing presence appears to be part and parcel of the hipster idea, as things become "cool" divorced from their origins only to loose their "authenticity" in the process. Themes of irony, authenticity, sincerity, and nostalgia all seem to be at the heart of the idea and lead to some of the most incisive essays in the collection.

To me, an essential part of hipsterdom, like that of all putative modern “subcultures,” if any such even truly survive, is consumption. With the proliferation of the internet, ideas and styles merge and mutate, leading to conflict among groups about meaning and identity. For my own part, I find subcultural studies like these to be very interesting, exploring the creation of modern social identities; the weird dichotomy of what is “cool” and “uncool.” For instance, the typical pursuits of the geek/nerd stereotype were traditionally the very definition of “uncool,” while the aspects associated with stereotypical hipsters were what “cool” people wanted, but there has been an odd shift; now, self professed geek activities have a social attache that approaches “cool,” while hipsters who ironically wear nerdy glasses and play D&D or whatever are insulted as in-authentically appropriating these things. "What was the Hipster?" only discusses these aspects in passing, and thus, it maybe the starting point for an academic study of modern youth subcultures but it is a flawed beginning.


Hipster Animals: A Field Guide - Dyna MoeThis issue is noted in the author's notes of the latest "field guide" of hipsters, Hipster Animals acknowledging that this work will, no doubt, be rendered obsolete quickly in coming "cycles of coolness," but will still be good for nostalgia, of course. In a perhaps hopeless attempt to avoid "judgement," the Author’s Note posits "we are all equally repulsive. Everyone is the worse."

A specific collection of vignettes of the "postcollege upwardly mobile" (no dudebros or "mainline geekery," for instance, though that one I'd love to see), creatures we are probably all familiar with at their various dens in urban areas and college towns across North America. Like any good field guide, the various markings, calls, diets, habitats, and other fun facts of the species are detailed to aid identification of common types.

The illustrations are cute and amusing and colorful. I also enjoy the witty, blink and you'll miss them in jokes of a lot of the animals represented as well, like, the Experimental Coffee Gastronomist is a civet. How cute is that? Also, am I wrong, but could the Outdoor Screening Heckler, a loon with a penchant for shouting jokes her "friends find hilarious" at movie screens wearing a Minnesota necklace be a reference to our state movie comedians, MST3K? There seem to be a couple of sly nods to our state, so I am forced to wonder if the author may be a former Minnesotan. Also, I liked the diversity of species included as well; aside from the usual mammals there is also plenty of space for other Classes as well, birds, reptiles, even a few amphibians, fish, and mollusks.


As can be seen, in spite of being declared dead numerous times over the last decade, the idea of the hipster remains a popular whipping kid for the internet, even after become, basically, the default style of millennials- in fact, a lot of criticism of the term is probably part and parcel of the dominant wave of young people bashing these days.


From what I can tell, most hipster hate comes from two camps- those hopelessly square suburban stiffs with way too much of an obsession about "ethics" in video games, who maybe mutter something to the effect of “Uptown? Why would you wanna go to Uptown? Nothing but hipsters there. I never eat anyway fancier than the Olive Garden off of 394!” and the insufferable snobs who seem to take pleasure in looking down on everyone else; “Uptown? Please. Totally corporate, didn’t you know the action’s all in Northeast now? The pizza still blows compared to NYC, though!” Of course, the really cool people all live in St. Paul anyway. I kid, I kid!


Okay, enough of that. Next up, crust punks!


*Theme music for entry: "These Burgers," The Moldy Peaches, 2001


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text 2015-11-06 00:26
Dabbling in some Japanese Literature
Botchan (Master Darling) - Sōseki Natsume,Yasotaro Morri
Japanese Gothic Tales - Kyōka Izumi,Charles Shiro Inouye
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion - Yukio Mishima,Ivan Morris
House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories - Yasunari Kawabata,Edward G. Seidensticker,Yukio Mishima
Coin Locker Babies - Ryū Murakami,Stephen Snyder
Kitchen - Banana Yoshimoto,Megan Backus
Mushishi, Volume 1 - Yuki Urushibara
I'll Give It My All...Tomorrow, Vol. 1 - Shunju Aono

In preparing for my trip to Japan, from which I returned more than a month ago, I began to read a few of the Japanese works of literature that I had been gathering at library book sales over the years. Of course, this type of "theme" reading is something that I'm all about. Basically, I'll put together a theme reading list for just about any activity or event in my life, so absorbing some of the works of prominent Japanese authors throughout the 20th and 21st century was a given! 


Reading these works before taking off, during my stay in Japan, and after my return was quite interesting, as my experiences influenced both my response to the culture and changed how I saw the books I was reading as well. Here, I've arranged them in order of publication. 

I opened up my reading this summer with Botchan by Natsume Soseki. Often called the Japanese equivalent of Huck Finn, as in a classic work of literature that most people encounter in high school, Botchan was still a pretty funny read, even across the cultural and time divide. 


Written in 1906, during the Meiji Period, a time of great change in Japanese society as the nation works to modernize and industrialize itself, Botchan exemplifies this uncertain but exciting time. Following an self-confident, some would say arrogant, young college graduate from Tokyo as he reluctantly starts his first job as a teacher in an out of the way, rural town, I actually found a lot to sympathize with in his situation. In a way, I could see some parallels between this "untrustworthy narrator" and the complaints about Millennials today. 


As the headstrong kid butts heads with his fellow teachers and their set ways of doing things, he feels he is being set up to fail. Not sure exactly what he wants, homesick for his cosmopolitan hometown, he does not adapt well to this new environment and soon begins plotting to get back at these insincere phonies to hilarious result. I particularly enjoyed the nicknames he gave all of his coworkers on the first day. 


I first read this collection of eerie Japanese stories by Kyoka Izumi some years ago, when I was looking for weird tales from different cultural backgrounds. I found it even more interesting as a companion on the trip as I learned more of the locations and history written about by Izumi. 


Japanese Gothic Tales contains four novellas, written during the Meiji and Taisho periods of Japanese history. Eschewing the modernism aimed for by other authors at the time, Izumi's work is nonetheless influenced by this period of great change in Japanese culture. The stories themselves are surreal and eerie, particularly my favorite, "The Holy Man of Mount Koya," which deals with spooky creatures and magic in the mountains.


One of the major themes of all four of the stories is the relationships between men and women, and tragedy that results, along with strong supernatural elements- also, a theme of the story being told second hand via a secondary narrator relating some experience to a nameless viewpoint character gave the tales a folkloric air; there is also much to ponder regarding Buddhist and Shinto beliefs, Japanese philosophies, and the transforming history of the period. 


First published in 1956, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion was a gripping and taut psychological novel featuring a fictionalized telling of the infamous 1950 arson of Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto by a mentally unstable young monk. 


Yukio Mishima, one of Japan's foremost modern writers and himself a psychologically complex figure, delved into the dark resentments and philosophies of the neurotic Mizoguchi. A Zen acolyte groomed to join the clergy who developed a pathological love and hatred for the beauty of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, bound in with his misogyny and self-hatred. Self described as ugly, and afflicted by stuttering, he finds his family's dream of him taking over the Temple taken from him, and responds by burning the temple to the ground, justifying it through his Zen beliefs. Not exactly a happy tale, it is nonetheless a riveting account of an unhealthy mind. It does contain much to think about regarding Zen Buddhist teachings as well. 

Published in 1961, this collection of stories by Yusanari Kawabata explore some dark and surreal territory. I think that one of the literary terms appropriate here may be "decadence." The title story, "House of the Sleeping Beauties," for instance, is a fairly disturbing tale of an aging man paying to sleep next to drugged, unconscious, naked women, and much of the story is the narrator describing the physical appearance of each of the women and how they remind him of people and places from his past. He also considers strangling them. 


"One Arm" also involved a surreal episode of a man paying for a woman's body, in this case her physical arm, which is painlessly detached and he takes away with him, later to swap with his own arm. The last tale, "Of Birds and Beasts," discusses the authors love of animals and how this love translates more into cruelty than kindness towards his favorite pets. Not really sure quite what to make of these ornate, complex stories.                      


Wow, what to say about this one, this tour de force of pitch black humor and deadpan surrealism, this fevered tour of Japan's deepest id. 

Kiku and Hashi, their lives haunted by their newborn hours spent stifling in adjacent train-station coin lockers, abandoned to die by their pitiless mothers attempted to navigate their way through a bizarre and labyrinthine world. Growing up as adopted brothers, most comfortable in the abandoned ruins of Japan’s former industry, they begin to plot revenge against the society that created their mothers. While stoic, pole-vaulting Kiku finds a soulmate in Anemone, a cynical, crocodile loving model who shares his hatred of Japanese society and a desire to destroy it all, the sensitive, neurotic Hashi becomes a male prostitute, a pop-star, and loses his mind. Both share a penchant for murder and rice omelets.


From Tokyo to up to the northern town of Hakodate, all the way down to the Ryukyuan Islands, the trio encounter a host of bizarre characters while struggling with their own inability to get over their maternal abandonment. There is much analysis that can be attempted about what aspects of Japanese culture Murakami was parodying and exploring in this bleak book. Of course, Coin Locker Babies finishes up with no real resolution, or even any real ending, though there is plenty of tension.


The two novellas by Banana Yoshimoto collected in this book, the titular "Kitchen" and "Moonlight Shadow," were both effecting, melancholy, hopeful, and beautiful descriptions of personal loss and everyday pleasures. Evoking both the mundane pleasures and the grief of lost loved ones, Yoshimoto's stories illustrate the complex feelings of life.


Also, particularly in "Moonlight Shadow," there is a magic realist theme that I really found interesting as well. Focusing on young people not sure where they are going and trying to cope with the loss of loved ones, I think a lot of people can really identify with them. It is also really interesting to see these common human feelings through the eyes of a different culture as well. Of course, owing to Yoshimoto's lush descriptions of food, I am definitely looking forward to going to some more restaurants in Tokyo.


Along with the more "serious" works I've looked at so far, I also thought it would be relevant to read a couple of manga titles before the trip, as well. The first volume of Yuki Urushibara's Mushishi was an eerie, understated fantasy read I quite enjoyed- it had a supernatural theme that echoed Japanese folklore and belief combined with an interesting naturalistic scientific background as well. 


Following the Western costumed "Mushi master" (mushishi) Gingko, as he travels a feudal Japanese countryside helping people deal with mushi- strange, and inexplicable phenomena that may or may not be life as we know it, but which predates plant and animal life by eons. Urushibara's lush, atmospheric art does a lot to cultivate the mysterious feelings explored in her writing. I'm looking forward to seeing where the rest of the series goes.

Shunju Aono's dramedy series "I'll Give It My All... Tomorrow" has been very interesting to me. With it's unusual art style and mundane, slice of life storytelling, it is a realistic, heart felt, and funny glimpse into everyday life in modern Japan. A contrast to the escapist, larger than life style of most manga, Aono's work is low key, touching, and funny.


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Following the "exploits" of Shizuo Oguro, a bit of a sad sack who, in the throws of a midlife crisis, quits his soul-sucking job as a salary-man to follow his dream of becoming a manga artist. A man who often changes his identity, Oguro finds himself whiling away his days working on his cliched manga ideas, taking advantage of his father and daughter's generosity before being forced to take a job in fast food to make ends meet. As the series continues, we watch Oguro's pathos evolve, particularly through the lens of his friends and family.


It was very interesting seeing how these accounts of Japanese life were reflected in my own experiences in the country, and how my own responses and mental pictures of them also changed. Now, I have a frame of reference to look at them, and likewise, reading these works also prepared me for what to look for during my journeys. Of course, they we'rent perfect, either. I could only read English translations, which leaves a lot of the original feel of the language out, I feel. In Botchan, for instance, Soseki was fond of using witty puns, puns which would make no sense in English and, for the most part, were left out. Still, even through this imprecise method, reading these books allowed me, in a way, to continue my trip even after I returned home.


Sensoji Temple, Asakusa District, Tokyo


Now that my trip to Japan is already quickly fading into the fuzzy pleasantness of nostalgia, these books will allow me to keep my experiences close, at least until my next trip!


*Theme music for entry: "My Magic Glasses," Shonen Knife, Genki Shock, 2005

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text 2015-10-09 14:00
Exploring Japan through Books: Travelogs and Memoir
Hitching Rides with Buddha - Will Ferguson
Wrong About Japan - Peter Carey
In Ghostly Japan - Lafcadio Hearn
Halfway Home: Drawing My Way Through Japan - Christine Mari Inzer
Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats and Ramen - Abby Denson
Cool Japan: A Guide to Tokyo, Kyoto, Tohoku and Japanese Culture Past and Present (Museyon Guides) - Sumiko Kajiyama

So, it has been more than a week since my and I'm Reading Comeek's triumphant, if exhausted, return from Japan, and I have been slowly recovering, both from the awesome time I had, and from the jetlag. To prepare for the trip, I read and consulted with a variety of other foreigner’s experiences in Japan, as well as a few useful and detailed travel guides. Of course, I scrambled to finish a few of them before the trip, downloaded a few ebooks to read on that long flight and on the train, but my book eyes are always bigger than my ability to finish them so I find myself continuing my travels through my reading over these last weeks. It's like a little bit of the trip has stayed with me!



I also wrote up a long reading list of Japanese literature I’m trying to get through as well, so keep watching for my follow up entry on some of the various pieces of fiction from Japanese authors I also read, and in fact, am trying to finish up!


Hitching Rides with Buddha - Will Ferguson 

Hitching Rides With Buddha (Also published under Hokkaido Highway Blues, definitely the cooler title)


This one was quite an interesting, humorous, and thought-provoking account that I was glad I read. Back in the late ‘90s, curmudgeonly Canadian Will Ferguson came up with a wild and crazy idea for a journey; he would follow the Sakura Zensen, the Cherry Blossom Front, as it burgeoned from the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago at Kagoshima all the way to the northernmost tip of Hokkaido, and he would do it all by hitchhiking. Warned by his Japanese colleagues that the Japanese do not pick up hitchhikers, he soon was bumming rides from people from all walks of life across the length of the islands, leading to some deep insights into Japanese culture. Not one to shy away from debate, Ferguson was definitely a fun guide and the minor scrapes he got himself into were quite amusing, but there is a definite melancholy feeling to the story as well as Ferguson comes to question his reason for going on this adventure.


rainy night in Tokyo


Traveling through some of the same areas we visited, Tohoku and Hokkaido to be specific , it was particularly interesting to see both the differences and the similarities to Ferguson’s experiences with our own. For instance, the Canadian Ferguson was constantly mistaken as an American, whereas people mistook us for Canadians! In his descriptions of Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido and Japan’s fourth largest city, he compared its style and layout to a North American city. This definitely echoed our own experiences in Sapporo, as the layout and architecture of the city was much more familiar to us, and in fact, the culture of the place seemed familiar as well; both Hokkaido and Minnesota are agricultural regions, known for cold, only colonized by their current culture in the last hundred and fifty years. All in all, I would say that Ferguson’s account was a funny, exciting, and informative read that I’d recommend to anyone interested in learning more about Japan, or even those who are just looking for a fun trip.


Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey


A transplanted Australian living in New York, Peter Carey and his son Charley visit Tokyo to learn more about his son’s newfound obsession, manga and anime, and allow Peter a chance to rekindle his studies of Japanese culture. In fact, it seems he used his son’s interest as an excuse to write a book wholesale. While it was interesting to follow the pair as they argued about the “real Japan,” modern youth culture versus shrines and temples, it seemed pretty obvious that Carey was using his son’s interest as excuse to go on this trip and indulge in his own facile theories about Japanese culture. In the end, he basically comes to the conclusion that it is impossible for any Westerner to understand the Japanese.


Gingko tree in Sapporo's botanical gardens


This seemed much different than the experience described by Will Ferguson. However, I enjoyed reading this short book for some of its insights into Japanese pop culture (at least in the late '90s, early '00s) and seeing Carey and his son visit some of the same places I did on my recent trip, such as Asakusa and Akihabara. On the other hand, in rushing around from interviewing a sword-maker and various anime directors up to Hayao Miyazaki himself, he seems to neglect the simple pleasures of being in a different country.


In Ghostly Japan - Lafcadio Hearn 

 In Ghostly Japan by Lafcadio Hearn


I read this a few years ago, but decided to reread it prior to heading off on my first visit to Japan and I'm glad I did. There is a lot of food for thought and interesting facts in this short collection of vignettes and folktales. Lafcadio Hearn is a fascinating figure and a very evocative writer as well, with an almost modern style, despite writing the end of the nineteenth century. Hearn was born in Greece to a Greek mother and an Irish doctor father, educated in England, and became a journalist and writer in the United States before spending the last decade of his life or so in Japan, becoming a Japanese citizen. To this day, his work is more well known in Japan.



Daibutsu at Kamakura, prayer flags at the Tsurugaoka hachimangu shrine. #adventuresibs

A photo posted by @adventuresibs on Sep 22, 2015 at 3:56pm PDT

In this short collection of essays, Hearn muses on Japanese topics, in particular Buddhist traditions and folklore which reflect Japanese ways of thinking in a time of great change in Japanese society. For the most part, Hearn manages to avoid "exotifying" or patronizing his subjects, though he also is pretty obviously infatuated with their ways of life. For instance, the collection of Japanese proverbs, with footnotes and annotations, was very interesting, though of course, my favorites were the ghostly stories, particularly the tales of the Bon, the festival of the dead held in late summer. For anyone interested in accessible obscure and arcane lore about Japanese folklore, Lafcadio Hearn's work is a good place to start.

Halfway Home: Drawing My Way Through Japan - Christine Mari Inzer 

Halfway Home: Drawing My Way Through Japan by Christine Mari Inzer 


I’ve been prepping for a trip to Japan later this summer with my sister, and even more than thick ol’ travel guides, I’ve taken to checking out personal accounts of other people’s trips and experiences in Japan for inspiration. Teenager Christine Inzer’s account of her last trip to Tokyo to visit her relatives, was a particularly interesting look at Japan from the perspective of a person from a multicultural background. Born in Japan, but growing up in the US, Inzer writes with a self deprecating and stylish wit and with a skill and insight belying her age. Inzer's crisp, clear art and reflections of her experiences makes Halfway Home a very approachable comic travelog for someone looking to learn more about visiting Japan, especially with family. I certainly enjoyed her suggestion to try some of those Tokyo crepes!


Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats and Ramen - Abby Denson 

Cool Japan Guide by Abby Denson


In “Cool Japan Guide,” a cute (or, as maybe more appropriate here, kawaii) and accessible illustrated travel guide, cartoonist Abby Denson offers a lot of fun and useful tips for your first trip to Japan. Some of the advice may be a little common sense, but the book provides a lot of helpful basic information for planning for your trip, from getting ready to leave, to logistics, to leaving. In particular, it is geared to all of the standard Japanese activities tourists (especially tourists from a specific, slightly nerdy background) would be interested in and thus focuses mostly on Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, and the temples, Onsen, and museums you can explore. The author, also, devotes a particular detail to food and shopping you can check out.


While not the most exhaustive treatise, this slim comic gave me plenty of ideas and I definitely made use of a lot of her advice, such as making sure to grab some ekibento at the train stations, stopping by the post office whenever I needed some cash from the ATM, among others. In any case, a good place to start without being overwhelmed. 


Cool Japan: A Guide to Tokyo, Kyoto, Tohoku and Japanese Culture Past and Present (Museyon Guides) - Sumiko KajiyamaCool Japan by Sumiko Kajiyama


Of all the more formal “travel guides” I perused prior to and during the trip, your Fodor’s, Lonely Planets, and Frommers, Sumiko Kajiyama’s Cool Japan was my favorite. While not the most detailed, it was one that was written in engaging enough of a style to be just an interesting read by itself. Discussing three regions, the area around Kyoto, Tokyo, and Tohoku, the chapters were themed around historical and literary figures, including Murasaki Shikabu, author the thousand year old novel, The Tale of Genji, and the great haiku poet Basho as he traveled the north of Japan. Both of these focuses were very inspiring as we visited the suggested spots.


While I did not make it Kyoto on this trip, the sections on Tokyo and Tohuku were very useful for me, and I got some great advice on some places to go; in particular Kura Zushi Shinagawa in Tokyo, a great conveyor belt sushi place for extremely affordable sushi for 100 yen a plate. My mouth waters just thinking about it!



Conveyor belt sushi for dinner! #adventuresibs

A video posted by @adventuresibs on Sep 9, 2015 at 3:48pm PDT

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text 2015-08-24 22:43
Comics for Summer Camp
Troop 142 - Mike Dawson
Chiggers - Hope Larson
P.S. I Hate It Here!: Kids' Letters from Camp - Diane Falanga
Like many Minnesotans, as a kid I spent a week or so in early August attending a summer camp, doing all of the typical things; swimming, sitting around a campfire, hiking, learning about nature, playing capture the flag, and waiting until nobody else was in the showers so I can sneak in alone. In my case, it was a Boy Scout camp in the woods of western Wisconsin, tucked away on the shores of a large lake. I recall having a lot of fun on these adventures, but of course, there were also some less fun things as well. Still, I would not mind being able to take a week off for camping more often these days. Recently, I checked out a few comics that really brought back this time, bringing with it both nostalgia and recognition.


Taken together, Troop 142: A Graphic Novel by Mike Dawson and Chiggers by Hope Larson offer some interesting parallels in spite of looking through the summer camp experience through the eyes of different genders. Both explore changes in friendships and personalities in this alien environment of camp, bullying, and a feeling of not fitting into a current situation, and I definitely found much to recall in each of them. Troop 142, though, is the more “adult” of the two, with some pretty rough, realistic language and rather bleak message, while Chiggers takes a more laid back, even magic realist look at camp life, and is a bit more appropriate for younger readers. I do enjoy the fact that for both of them, there is no real closure, no cut and dry “ending,” as befits a single week in a kid's’ life.    



In Troop 142, a ragtag group of boys and their fathers head out to summer camp in the woods, circa 1995. Loosely following the viewpoint of the rather ineffectual father of two of the boys, we witness tensions rise among in the troop, as petty arguments, bullying, “troublemaking,” and other minor disasters reduce morale to an all time low.


I, too, was a Boy Scout attending summer camp in 1995 and so much of the world as painted by Dawson seemed very, very familiar. While nothing as extreme as the miserable group making up Troop 142, the elements were all there; the ludicrously gross conversations, the titles of the books everyone was reading, the merit badge breakdowns. I was a casual scout, for sure, only there for camping and hanging out with friends, tolerating (barely) the tempests in a teapot of adult disagreements, the uniforms, the piddling rules, the casual dropping of racial epithets by scout leaders. The dichotomies between the Scout Laws and the actions of the scouts and scout leaders alike, and the hypocrisy often evident among the authorities, especially as based on sexual orientation and religion seem written into the rules themselves. Things are changing, definitely, but it has been awhile since I’ve been involved.  



Chiggers, unlike Troop 142, features a mixed gender summer camp unaffiliated with scouting and focuses on a group of girls, rather than the whole sausage fest of Boy Scout camping. Still, the parallels between the two books as friends go at each other in the confines of a tent or a cabin during a week of living together. When Abby returns to camp, her best camp friend Rose is too busy for her, she finds herself crushing majorly on Rose’ geeky cousin Teal, and her annoying bunkmate is sent home after a case of chiggers in a particularly uncomfortable area (reminds me of my own eternal hatred of ticks). The mysterious, elegant Shasta, who has been struck by lightning, has an 18 year old boyfriend, is part Cherokee, among other tales, takes her place. Shasta and Abby become friends, even as Abby’s other friends find Shasta intolerable.  Minor betrayals and jealousies threaten these relationships,  Larson’s work is a bit more hopeful, though, as Shasta and Abby make up, and Abby hopes to hang out with Teal more. There is also a strange, semi-magical element as Shasta is continually haunted by strange, ball-lightning like phenomena, which seems only she and Abby can see. Weird things do happen while camping, of course.   



Finally, it’s always fun to read found and submitted material, and Diane Falanga’s P.S. I Hate it Here is one of the funniest, and most interesting entries in the genre. This one really brought back some memories as well, and is definitely a fun thing to flip through in late summer, as the buzzing of cicadas begin turning into the chirping of crickets as the season comes to a close. Along with this episode of This American Life, you have everything you need to revisit those heady, kind of stinky times.


*Theme music for entry: "Knowledge" by Operation Ivy, covered by The Aquabats!

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