Books read, June 2015

Very, very belated. But at least I’m managing to get it posted before August?

High volume of reading this month, and 100% of it was for work. It was revision/copy-edits/whatever, or it was material for a blurb, or it was research, or it was Hugo reading. There was nothing I finished this month that I picked up just because I felt like it. This makes me slightly cranky, even though I enjoyed a lot of what I read. Especially since so far in July, the pattern has been much the same.

Anyway, the books. I’m leaving the Hugo stuff out because I discussed it already in a separate post.

Chains and Memory, Marie Brennan. My own books don’t count.

sooper-sekrit novella, Marie Brennan. Neither do my own novellas. Even if I read them twice in the course of revision.

The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan, Reiko Chiba. This is a tiny book my husband picked up somewhere: only forty-two pages in all, and small pages at that. But it’s bound as its own thing, so it gets an entry. Brief discussions of the so-called “Seven Lucky Gods” (Benten, Bishamon, Jurojin, Fukurokuju, Hotei, Ebisu, and Daikoku): nothing terribly in-depth, but a very pretty little introduction.

Ichiro, Ryan Inzana. Graphic novel. I found it intensely frustrating, because it feels like the plot has only just gotten started when oops, the book ends. A Japanese-American boy who’s just moved to Japan gets dragged into the world of the spirits, where he finds out there’s a war going on . . . and then he gets booted back home, story over. I can’t find any sign that there’s a sequel en route. This appears to be the whole story; Ichiro learning not to be a little brat is what it’s actually about, not that whole spirit war thing.

A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine, John K. Nelson. This book is amazing if you’re intending to write something that deals closely with Japanese religion. (You may notice a regional theme in this month’s reading choices.) It’s loosely organized according to the calendar of festivals and ceremonies, but with digressions into related topics like the politics of Shinto — both on a national level and a “how do the priests at this particular place get along” — and full of wonderfully concrete detail. It’s easy to find books that will talk about the theology or history of a religion; much harder to find books that talk about the daily, lived reality of that religion. This one is excellent for the latter.

Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution, Michael R. Underwood. Full disclosure: the author is a friend of mine. Read this for blurbing purposes; it’s a novella coming out soon from, and I believe one of my proffered blurbs was “Catnip for story geeks.” There’s a multiverse where each realm is governed by the laws of a particular narrative genre; the Genrenauts are the people who parachute in to fix stories when they go wrong, lest those problems rebound in bad ways on Earth.

Isami’s House: Three Centuries of a Japanese Family, Gail Lee Bernstein. Historical/anthropological study of a gentry family in north-eastern Honshu, from the Tokugawa Period up to the present day. Their patriarchs were the headmen of a particular village, and ranged from exemplars of what a good, functional lord/peasant relationship should look like down to wastrels who nearly frittered away the entire family fortune. (I shouldn’t actually call them “lords,” because they weren’t samurai, but it’s the easiest way to shorthand it for this post.) The twentieth-century portion was depressing to read, as the family’s fortunes spiraled downward through a series of body-blows: the modernization of Japan, the militarism of the Taisho period, World War II, and the seven sons of the extremely prolific Isami turning out to be major disappointments, while his seven daughters tried to hold things together. But if you want an on-the-ground view of social dynamics through those three centuries, this is great.

What Is Japanese Architecture?, Kazuo Nishi and Kazuo Hozumi, trans. H. Mack Horton.
Architecture in the Shoin Style: Japanese Feudal Residences, Fumio Hashimoto, trans. H. Mack Horton.
Feudal Architecture of Japan, Kiyoshi Hirai, trans. Hiroaki Sato and Jeannine Cilotta.

Lumping these three together because I bounced back and forth between them, mostly failing to learn what I wanted to know (which was the use of space in pre-modern domestic architecture). It turns out that “the shoin style” is based more or less entirely on a particular type of room that became common in aristocratic dwellings and later in more plebian ones; this tells you bupkiss about what people were doing in all the other rooms of the house. The Hirai book has this great fold-out map of the Asano daimyo’s residence in Edo, which was huge: it IDs gates, entryways, and the shoin rooms, but virtually nothing else. What were all those other rooms used for? I still don’t know. But man, if you want a bone-dry discussion of how by a certain year the flooring panels of the tokonoma had become thinner and ooooh this person made the daring move of having the chigaidana on the left side of the room instead of the right, or you really need to know what the “Three Supreme Shelves” were, then the Hashimoto book is for you.

Yokai Character Collection, Michael Goldstein, illustrated by Chip Boles. I didn’t realize when I bought this just how short it was: 73 pages, each one mostly filled with pictures. It would make a great gift for a kid in your life: there’s a paragraph on each yokai (a nebulous term for supernatural creatures), alphabetized according to the Japanese syllabary, with the name of each critter written in hiragana below the Roman letters and that page’s syllable highlighted in red. The full syllabary is printed at the back of the book. Somebody of the right age to read the first Harry Potter book would probably love this, and bonus points if you want them to learn Japanese.

A History of Japanese Religion ed. Kazuo Kasahara, trans. Paul McCarthy and Gaynor Sekimori. Giant brick of a book, but hella useful if you need a refresher course on these matters because the last time you read about the history of Buddhism in Japan was your sophomore year of college. It discusses everything from the archaeological evidence of prehistoric religion to the early days of Shinto and Buddhism to Shugendo (a thing I never even heard of during that college course) to folk religion to Christianity to the “new religions” that began springing up toward the end of the Meiji Period. I have decided that I love Dōgen for not being a flaming misogynist the way the other founders of major Buddhist sects were. This book is sometimes short on the details of theology, and frequently short on the details of practice, but if you need a road map to get you started on knowing what the broad currents were, this is a good place to start.

Folk Religion in Japan: Continuity and Change, Ichiro Hori, ed. Joseph Kitagawa and Alan L. Miller. Based on a series of lectures, which means there’s a certain amount of repetition, and also (conversely) things that don’t really get explained because the audience was assumed to understand already. Good for getting a sense of the shamanistic strands in Japanese religion, though, outside the mainstream establishments of Buddhism and Shinto.

The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan, Ivan Morris. The thing I’m going to write isn’t set in the Heian Period, but I’d gotten this book as a Christmas present and wanted to read it, so. It was hilarious going in places, because boy howdy, you can tell that somebody who wrote for earlier editions of Legend of the Five Rings had read this book; the courtly events of Rokugan are taken wholesale from Genji’s world. The book itself is fairly engaging, even if (as the introduction in my edition notes) certain parts of the analysis have become rather dated by current historical standards.

In the Labyrinth of Drakes, Marie Brennan. This one doesn’t count either.

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