Books read, January 2023

Much of this month’s reading was All Japan, All the Time, as I got started on the draft of The Market of 100 Fortunes (my third Legend of the Five Rings novel). Some of that was direct research; some was just me getting my head back into the correct cultural gear; some was me figuring, well, I’ve got a bunch of Japan-related books that have been piling up on my lists, so why not use this as an impetus to read some of them.

Prince of the Godborn, Geraldine Harris.
Children of the Wind, Geraldine Harris.
The Dead Kingdom, Geraldine Harris.
The Seventh Gate, Geraldine Harris. Not Japan-related; reading these was kind of a present to myself before I really buckled down for a month of hard work. They got their own lengthy post, which I will not attempt to recap here.

Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600-1868, Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. Gerald Groemer. I find it interesting that Groemer freely admits in the introduction that he’s not merely translating Nishiyama’s essays; he’s materially altered them to provide context or transitions or conclusions that an Anglophone reader might expect. Since he did so with Nishiyama’s approval and vetting, though, it’s all above-board. Meanwhile, the book itself is a collection of some of Nishiyama’s work, much of it written at a time when Edo-period culture was still being sneered at by Japanese literati as crass, cheap stuff compared to the glories of earlier eras. Since I’m viewing it all from a more modern perspective where of course such things are worthy objects of study — value judgments aside, how can you ignore the cultural products of such a new and thriving society as early modern urbanized Japan? — that part was a little eyebrow-raising, but the material itself was interesting.

Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period, Mary Elizabeth Barry. Same era of study, different era of studying. (Far more engaging on the level of the writing itself.) Barry’s very interested in the publishing boom of the Edo period and the mentality that had writers cataloguing and categorizing basically everything they could, and how this both was born from and contributed to the changing understanding of Japan and where people fit into it. Really interesting for getting a more commoner-level perspective on things, since as the period went along, rising affluence and the changing balance of economic power meant that townspeople developed their whole own culture — which is exactly why I wanted to read this book.

The Easy Life in Kamusari, Shion Mura, trans Juliet Winters Carpenter. A novel, for a change of pace! This reminded me of nothing so much as a kinder, gentler, Japanese counterpart to Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster. The narrator, Yuki, is less a delinquent and more just aimless enough that his family peremptorily packs him off for a year of working as a forester in rural Japan. He learns a lot about trees, and moons after a girl in town, and every so often magic wanders through and waves hi at the rest of the plot, and it’s all extremely cozy, even when death-defying stunts are involved. The title page said this is the first in the “Forest Series,” so I’m looking forward to more to come.

Shinto: The Way of the Gods: Introduction to the traditional religion of Japan, Vincent Miller. Dear god, this was not a well-written book. I don’t just mean I side-eyed the presentation of certain concepts — though that, too — but that on the level of organization, prose, grammar, and even formatting, it was an ongoing train wreck. I usually roll my eyes when people say “this didn’t get proofread” because I know what can slip past even diligent eyes . . . but when you have section headers and even the start of a new chapter sitting in ordinary type one blank line after the previous paragraph, when you have sentences like “Team is a collective noun, which is singular, so it needs singular verbs” and “(not uncommon is a double negative)”, then it looks a hell of a lot like somebody just poured the text into a PDF, complete with comments from the copy-editor they ignored, and sent the thing to print without a second glance. But this book does make liberal use of highly specific terminology (even if it doesn’t mark the long vowels, another decision I side-eye), which is useful to me in doing further research in other, less train-wrecky sources. That’s pretty much the only reason I’m keeping it.

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Randall Munroe. Hey look, something not about Japan! This was actually a Christmas gift to my husband, and I suggested to him that it could live on the kitchen counter, because it’s the ideal sort of book for reading a few pages here and there while you’re making tea. Munroe is best known for the webcomic xkcd; here he puts that to use illustrating exactly what the subtitle says, very well-thought out answers that use math and physics and so forth to answer questions like “could we build a Lego bridge from New York to London?” and “if you call someone random up and say ‘God bless you,’ what are the odds that they’d just sneezed before answering the phone?” Many of the answers are hilarious, even while they’re describing how the scenario sketched by the questioner would result in the annihilation of all life on earth.

One caveat, though: the book was published in 2014, and there are two places where it unexpectedly stepped on pandemic-related buttons. One is the question of whether getting everybody to quarantine for a few weeks could eliminate the common cold (which leads Monroe to make some breezy estimates of how such a “pause” would affect the world), and the other is a footnote commenting on how a sudden increase in the human death rate would affect the answers he’s giving above. Neither is offensive or anything like that; they were just buckets of cold water poured over an otherwise entertaining experience.

Voices of Early Modern Japan: Contemporary Accounts of Daily Life During the Age of the Shoguns, Constantine Nomikos Vaporis. I did not look closely enough when buying this book, and I didn’t realize it’s a textbook. As in, complete with sections for “Ask Yourself” and “Topics and Activities to Consider” and “Further Information,” including referrals to films and websites, for each chapter. (I skipped basically all of that in reading.) I’m really unclear who the intended audience for this is; mostly I assume that the sorts of people interested in primary documents from hundreds of years ago are not the sorts of people who need sidebars to helpfully explain what brocade is or gloss the word “missive” as “letter.” But who knows . . .

Anyway, primary documents! I am a nerd and honestly loved reading a lot of this. It’s one thing to know that people needed travel papers to get through checkpoints on the highway; it’s another thing to get an actual example of what travel papers said. Or divorce documents. Or a note recording a loan and the terms of repayment. Or sumptuary laws (which turn out to have often been quite vague!). Many of the things here are either very brief or excerpted to be so, which in a few cases I regretted; I also wish that it hadn’t quite so obviously been designed for a course where maybe the professor is only assigning a few selections, leading to some pieces of information being repeated a lot throughout the book. But if you’re my brand of nerd and think it’s super-cool to read the official letter authorizing two brothers and their uncle to hunt down and kill their father’s/brother’s murderer, or a petition from peasants to the lord of a neighboring domain, then this is kind of awesome.

A Thousand Steps Into Night, Traci Chee, narr. Grace Rolek. Another novel! I had assumed from the cover copy, which refers to Miuko living in the land of Awara, that this was going to be set in a close analogue of Japan. Those influences are certainly here, but I think it would be more accurate to call this Asian-inspired fantasy in the way that a lot of fantasy is European-inspired without specifically modeling France or Germany or wherever. (Certainly the phonology does not restrict itself to Japanese forms; the magpie spirit, for example, is an atskayaki-na.) Not a problem, of course — it just means I got a bit more leavening in my literary diet this month than I expected.

The story itself was delightful. Early on, Miuko gets cursed by a shao-ha, a type of malevolence demon, and starts turning into one herself. But her quest to find a way to lift that curse before she transforms is complicated by the presence of another malevolence demon possessing the prince — and in a refreshing change from a lot of YA, the demon prince is not a love interest, not even in an “antagonist who will pivot at the end” kind of way. In fact, romance is basically not the point at all here. Halfway through the novel, the plot pulls a stunt I did not see coming, which addressed the weird odds and ends that had been accumulating along the road, in a very entertaining fashion. If there’s a flaw here, it’s the frequency with which a given plot segment kind of ends with “your princess is in another castle” — but since I enjoyed the ways in which that sent Miuko off on interesting new trajectories, I didn’t mind too much.

I can also recommend the audiobook to anybody who likes that format. I don’t know if this would have evoked Avatar: The Last Airbender to me quite so strongly without Rolek’s narration, but the magpie spirit in particular has serious Aang energy from time to time (albeit a little brattier than Aang tended to be).

Kojiki, trans. Donald L. Philippi. This is one of those things I’ve been meaning to read for ages, and now I’ve done so, and I don’t know if I’ll ever feel the need to come back to it. The Kojiki is one of the oldest Japanese texts and one of the two main sources for early Japanese mythology, but, well . . . it reads like a very old mythological text. Which is to say, not at all like modern fiction. Even skimming the chapters that dutifully list out all the wives a given emperor had and what children they bore (which was super important for organizing the court in the days when status depended on being able to trace your ancestry back to an imperial relative), there’s a whoooole lotta somewhat baffling incidents made comprehensible only by footnotes.

And oh, the footnotes. Philippi managed to defeat even my relatively completionist tendencies. There’s hardly a single page here without at least one footnote; it is very common for those to take up roughly half the page. Some of the footnotes then refer you to the Additional Notes in Appendix A, which go into greater detail than would fit underneath the actual text. And then the various proper names and terms and so forth are written in small caps if they’re explicated in the Glossary — which most of them are. The Glossary is nearly two hundred pages long. That’s the bit I gave up on. I looked up a few words, mostly ones that seemed to denote ranks or court positions, but the names . . . no. There’s a limit.

I should note a second limit here, or rather one which came first: my original intent was to read Basil Hall Chamberlain’s translation, which I picked up at Kinokuniya one day. I made it through his introduction and translation of the Author’s Preface, got to the first page of the actual Kojiki text . . . hit the bit where he gives the names of the first three deities as “High-Deity Master-of-the-August-Centre-of-Heaven,” “High-August-Producing-Wondrous Deity,” and “Divine-Producing-Wondrous-Deity” . . . realized he was going to do that for all the names . . . and bailed for Philippi’s translation instead. I mean, not that it’s all that much easier to cope with Amë-nö-mi-naka-nusi-nö-kamï, Taka-mi-musubi-nö-kamï, and Kamï-musubi-nö-kamï — in small caps — every time they’re named — but Chamberlain also praised this wonderful new theory called “solar mythology” in his introduction, which made me laugh like a drain, so yeah, I opted to borrow my sister’s copy of Philippi instead.

(Short form of solar mythology: everything that doesn’t run away fast enough is a solar deity. The two capstones of that concept in folklore were 1) when a solar mythologist, in all seriousness, tried to argue that a mythological hero’s horse being named “Black” somehow constituted proof of the solar origins of the hero, and 2) when somebody mocking the concept used its methods to argue that the guy who originated the theory was! himself! a solar deity!)

Japanese Myths, Legends, and Folktales: Bilingual English and Japanese Edition, Yuri Yasuda, ill. Yoshinobu Sakakura and Eiichi Mitsui. Wow does Yasuda have connections — or somebody at Tuttle does. The inside cover flap has blurbs from Her Imperial Highness Princess Chichibu; Elizabeth Gray Vining, former tutor to the Crown Prince of Japan; Mrs. Joseph C. Grew, Wife of former American Ambassador to Japan; Lady Gascoigne, Wife of former British Ambassador to Japan; and Count Makino, former Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal to the Imperial Court of Japan. There are more blurbs elsewhere, too, of similarly shiny provenance.

As for the stories themselves, they’re largely the ones you’d expect if you know Japanese folktales at all (e.g. Kaguya-hime, Momotarō, Shita-kiri suzume, etc). But unlike the other kids’ books I have, the Japanese text is written with kanji, which . . . honestly makes it easier to read? I don’t know all the kanji, because I’m barely 5% literate in the language, but it’s way easier to parse the sentences when they aren’t just an undifferentiated smear of kana. I won’t actually claim I read through all the stories in Japanese this month — just bits and pieces, and then the English — but I have it on my shelf now for when I’d like some reading practice.

Labyrinth’s Heart As is traditional, my own work doesn’t count. (But boy howdy did this eat the last week of the month.)

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