My Accidental Introduction to Yoshikawa Eiji

I really enjoy the writings of Yoshikawa Eiji.  I’ve already written far too much about Yoshikawa and his writings in my thesis Yoshikawa Eiji’s Three kingdoms as Japanese literature, but in that sort of academic paper there isn’t much opportunity to mention my personal experiences with his writings.

I encountered Yoshikawa by accident.  I was at a Barnes and Noble bookstore looking for a Yoshimoto Banana book (a very different author) when I saw a paperback of Musashi (actually, as I later learned, only the first part of the story) and bought it based only on the information on the cover.  I often find myself reading multiple books during the same stretch of time, and I remember while reading Musashi I was also reading Foucault’s Pendulum so the two books will always be strangely linked in my brain despite having little in common.  I was sad when I reached the end of my incomplete Musashi and so I soon invested in a volume containing the complete text.  Since then, I’ve spent many hours reading various writings by and about Yoshikawa Eiji in both English and Japanese.

When I read the literary works of Yoshikawa Eiji, I enter a vivid world with rich characters.  Unlike many books where the protagonist is a generic “everyman” or “everywoman” (although typically with a bit of spunk) which take place in the “here and now” or thereabouts, Yoshikawa’s books take place during specific times and places in history centered around actual historical people.  Of course there is a lot of fiction filling in the details.  In the past I have said that if a person is going to read only one book of Japanese literature, it should be Endo’s Silence.  However, typically when I am recommending a book to introduce someone to Japanese literature, I will suggest Yoshikawa’s Musashi.





A Knife in the Dark

I have happy memories associated with Little House on the Prairie and the other books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Some people seem to consider the books to be “girly” or fluff, but I think them to be a great read both for what they are and for the memories experiencing the books with family.

I was about five or six when my mother read the series aloud to me and my older sister.  The things I remember most from the story are 1) the kids using the pig’s bladder as a ball and 2) the snow fort and subsequent snowball fight.  But what I remember best was that while my mother was reading about the struggles of the Ingalls’ family, my father would quietly appear in the doorway behind her and mime the story–somehow even the most somber of stories was hilarious when depicted in that manner.  When my sister and I would burst out laughing, my father would disappear behind the corner before my mother could turn around.

A few years ago, while visiting my parents, I stole those same books (which technically belong to my sister) to share with my children.  We spent a few months of after dinner reading time working our way through the series.  The kids found the stories interesting and entertaining.

In order to carry on the tradition of silliness, and also to make sure everyone was paying attention, I would occasionally slip in a little bit of extra content.  Typical favorites would be to add “A Ghost in” at the beginning of a chapter name and/or append “of Doom” to the end.  So while reading These Happy Golden Years and not long after advertising “Sleigh Bells of Doom”, I read out the chapter title “A Knife in the Dark”.  Nobody believed me until I displayed the actual text.  So now that chapter (or at least the title) is probably the family favorite and best remembered both for the ominous tone and for the memory of disbelief.

Some may say that the “Little House” books are for girls, but to me they represent fatherhood.  For the stories about about the fathers in the books.  For the stories acted out by my father.  And for being a father with children dubious about a chapter entitled “A Knife in the Dark”.

Escaping to Discworld

A couple years ago I had a lovely six months reading through Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series.  This summer I’m binging on Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.  I’ve read most of them before, but I’m really enjoying consuming the books in mass quantities.  There are several reasons I think they make great summer reads.

It’s nice not to have to worry about what to read next–you just grab another book in the series.  However, the Discworld series adds an extra dimension because I can easily jump around between storylines thanks to Jakub Oleksów’s reading order guide (there are newer versions than the one in the link, but they don’t always seem to mention the artist and I think he should get credit for his creation).  If I should need a break (I didn’t) from the misadventures of Rincewind (a “Wizzard” who cannot do magic), I can easily switch to another storyline such as the city watch or industrialization.  So in the Discworld series there is something readily available for any mood (or at least any of my recent moods).

The Discworld novels, for the most part, are written such that they can be appreciated on various levels.  The entire family engaged in much laughter as we read aloud Tiffany Aching’s encounter with the Nac Mac Feegle in The Wee Free Men.  Boy #1 and Boy #3 can read through the same book and enjoy it for entirely different reasons with Boy #1 commenting that he “got” so many more of the jokes on his second read now that he’s older.  Boy #3 decided to build The Mended Drum out of Popsicle sticks.

It’s easy to pickup where you left off (or even where you’ve never been) in Discworld.  The novels are great to take with on vacation because it’s not necessary to reserve a few hours in a special reading spot in order to appreciate the text.  I just tossed a couple of books in the suitcase when packing for each trip in July, and had something to enjoy as time permitted.

Some people categorize Pratchett’s Discworld novels as silly (they are) or state that it’s not “real” fantasy (just another way of saying silly), but that is the intent.  I’ve heard some people say that if you’ve read one Discworld book, you’ve read them all, but that is like saying if you’ve eaten one ice cream cone, you don’t need to eat another one since each book provides its own unique satisfaction  So this summer, even though I’ve been keeping busy, when I do find a few minutes to escape, I love heading over to Discworld.

And the question is?

I was still in elementary school when I was first introduced to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Initial contact was the 1984 video game on a Commodore 64 which I initially thought to be a clone of Zork, but quickly discovered it was much sillier.  I died frequently and never made it very far, but I learned to put on a robe before trying to access the pockets and to lay down in front of bulldozers.

Later (but still during my elementary school years), the BBC showed the television series.  I was expecting something like Doctor Who (and Douglas Adams even wrote “City of Death” which is one of my favourite Doctor Episodes), but quickly discovered it was much sillier.  Of all the bits in the show, the thing I remember the most is at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe where the animal that wants to be eaten.

In middle school I finally read the first book and in high school school I read everything available in the series at the time.  I also explored and enjoyed the world of Dirk Gently and his Holistic Detective Agency (my favourite part of those books being the sofa in the stairway).  By then I was sufficiently well-versed in the works to be able to claim to know the location of my towel.

In college there was a guy in the dorm that had the original radio show in cassette tape and he was kind enough to let me make a copy.  I’m typically not a fan of that sort of audio format–it’s much slower than reading and requires more effort than media that has associated visual components.  Nevertheless, I really enjoy the radio show and it is my preferred version of the story.  Over the years first the radio show (now in mp3 format rather than cassette) has continued to provide entertainment during road trips.

I enjoy the silliness associated with “The Guide” in all it’s many forms–it has been and continues to be a source of entertainment for me and my family.  If I had to choose a favourite media format, I would have to go with the radio show version.  While I suspect that more people have read the book, I feel it is definitely worth a listen.




Sherlock Holmes: Predictable and Original


Several years ago, my wife and I purchased a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories as a Christmas present for our niece and I mentioned that I had never read any Sherlock Holmes save an abbreviated version of Hound of the Baskervilles I encountered in fifth grade.  I believe my wife was appalled at this dearth in literary knowledge and as a remedy I soon received a nice version of the Sherlockian canon.  I like to consume literature in bulk–there was no intimidation at 2000-3000 pages, but rather a comfort of knowing there were many hours of reading material immediately available to me.  And so I began.

I really enjoy reading about the various adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but initially I was surprised at how well I could predict the outcome.  Not only did I out pace Watson, but sometimes even the great sleuth himself.  Initially I assumed I was just incredibly clever, but soon reality set in there was the realization that, though the details were different, the “twist” was something previously encountered.  I had read various mysteries including a binge with Agatha Christie while in college.  Before that I had ready Hardy Boys novels (also in mass quantities) and watched episodes of Scooby-Doo.  Sherlock Holmes was quite original when it was written, but it has since become the foundation upon which most modern Western mystery is built.

I think I enjoy the short stories more than the novels; that’s odd considering my general preference towards quantity.  The short stories come across as more tightly written and more focused on the mystery rather than a lot of back story.  Also, since I usually had a good idea where the story was headed, I think I missed out on a certain measure of suspense.

Even though most modern readers won’t be thoroughly astounded by the genius of Sherlock Holmes because of the predictability, it’s not due to lack of originally for it is the original.  Reading the text is a fun journey to the early days of the mystery genre.  If you haven’t yet experienced the world of Holmes and Watson, enjoy the originality and don’t fret the predictability.

Farmer Giles of Ham

Tolkien BooksI have long been familiar with Tolkien’s The Hobbit and also The Lord of the Rings, but remained mostly ignorant of his other works apart from a 1982 print of The Silmarillion which somehow ended up in my collection.  This past Mother’s Day my wife received a couple volumes of other Tolkien tales and I noticed in one that among the “other books by the author” it listed The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and was intrigued enough to order it in a volume combined with Farmer Giles of Ham.

When the book arrived, I took a quick peek and immediately selected Farmer Giles of Ham as the next after dinner read aloud book for the family.  Upon completion, the family unanimously agreed that it is a terrific tale.  I think what made it so great for the entire family is that the writing is very Tolkienish, but it’s an easier read of a fantasy story (perhaps more a fairy tale) as compared to the more well-known stories involving hobbits and elves.

The story certainly contains a sufficient quantity of elements to hold the attention of all ages:  An unexpected hero going on a quest, knights, a magic sword, giants, dragons, battles, and a talking dog named Garm.  There was also the unconventional inclusion of a blunderbuss.  There are no spoilers here, but it can safely be said that the story is both amusing and entertaining.

In true Tolkien fashion, all the key players have clever names; often both a formal “book-Latin” name as well as the common “vulgar” name.  Even the the book title is referred on the title page with the lengthier “The Rise and Wonderful Adventures of Farmer Giles, Lord of Tame, Count of Worminghall and King of the Little Kingdom”.  These names tend to be more pompous and less serious than what I’ve seen in other works by Tolkien.  While the reasoning behind the names is explained when appropriate, the descriptions do not seem to require as many lengthy history lessons or descriptions of lineages as compared with that with which I was previously accustomed.

The writing style is elegant, but also accessible.  Tolkien puts words together in clever combinations that not only tell the story, but also contain wit enough to make reading alone pleasurable even were there no plot.  I did find the tone less formal than is typical.  Also, I think the words used are a little easier–I think I understood all the words and only had trouble pronouncing a few.

While not at the same literary level as The Lord of the Rings, Farmer Giles of Ham is a fun, accessible story.  Many people (especially younger readers) stall when reading Tolkien for the first time due to the immensity of Middle Earth and the history and culture that is described between (and occasionally even during) the action scenes.  For those who have started and failed or those that want a more gentle introduction, at under 80 pages Farmer Giles of Ham may be just the thing.



Le Petit Prince–read it more than once

Some books are worth reading more than once.  One book with a lot of reread value is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and there are five copies in my home.  Although all are the same story, each book is different and makes me remember different things.

Little PrinceThe first book is a 45 year old Le Petit Prince in the original French.  I believe I stole it from my parents’ home and it most likely was previously claimed by my mother or sister.  I remember as a kid reading an English translation (which my parents probably still have along with another French copy) and enjoying the story while marveling that my parents and sister could read it.  Later when I was studying French I read portions of the text and experienced the story in new ways because I was forced to slow down (and often read it aloud).

小王子 was purchased for me by a good friend on a trip to China that I didn’t get to take.  My Chinese is lousy and I can only pick out words here and there, but since it has English on the left page and Chinese on right, I can read the English and appear like I’m capable in Chinese.  This book reminds me of what I gave up and what I gained by not going on the trip.

The English copy of The Little Prince was a gift from my sister-in-law and it was accompanied by doll in the picture above.  It’s a different translation from the one I grew up on (suggesting another book for my library) and so provides the opportunity to see the familiar tale in another way.  Because of the doll, the book was often packed separately from other books as we moved several times.  Being separate, I remember various times pausing from my packing or unpacking and reading various snippets.

In general, I don’t like shopping in stores, but I do like bookstores and also enjoy Japanese stores so browsing in Japanese bookstores is particularly fun.  I purchased 星の王子さま on a trip to Tokyo with the family in 2008.  When I peek at the book, I remember that trip, my other times in Japan, and the many hours I spent reading Japanese novels and stories in grad school.

Finally there is Il Piccolo Principe which I purchased as a Valentine’s Day gift for my wife this year.  It doesn’t remind me of any trip to Italy, but rather makes me think about my wife.  It makes me think about what she gave up and what she gained in joining me on an adventure.  Along with the book, I also gave her a wooden card with a favorite quote (in the English translation I knew as a child) laser engraved on it.


If you haven’t read The Little Prince, I recommend it.  If you have read it, it doesn’t take long to read it again and it usually seems better than you remembered it.  You definitely want to read it more than once.