31 January 2006

Reading report

It's been a while since I posted a reading report, so bear with me. And please bear in mind, these are things I've read over the past several months.

Let's see, I've been rather focused on Japan of late. First I was interested in Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha — I read a preview of the movie that said something to the effect that the best thing about the movie was that more people would read the book because of it. I did enjoy the book, finding it to be quite well written. However, I didn't really think the ending rang true — too happy, too Western somehow. *shrug* I actually haven't seen the movie yet — I haven't seen any movie in over a year, but that's a subject for a different blog entry — maybe I'll see it when it comes out on video.

Then, because I was intrigued by the novel and curious to read some non-fiction about geishas, I read Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003) and Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: A Woman, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan by William Johnston (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). Publishers Weekly says of the first book, "Masuda's account of being a geisha in rural Japan at a hot springs resort is at once intriguing and heartbreaking. There is nothing idyllic in her description of geisha training or life between the world wars." The book certainly presents a different image than Golden's novel — Masuda, even when her career is going well, is not a glamorous being. The book is more focused on being an autobiography than on what a geisha is, actually.

The second book is about Abe Sada, Japan's "most notorious female criminal" — she strangled her married lover and cut off his genitals. When she was captured a short while later, she explained that she did this because of her love for him, because it was the only way to control him forever. The author quotes from original testimony and the court transcriptions of Sada's arrest and trial, and for the most part did a good job of examining the story without sensationalizing it. While it's quite horrific in many ways, the story is also fascinating for what it reveals about Japanese culture at the time.

(Sada's story is the basis for the movie Ai no corrida (1976), released in the U.S. as In the Realm of the Senses — another movie I haven't seen. Having read the book, I can say most definitely it's not a movie I would watch when Mairi was about.)

I wanted to read Geisha, by Liza Crihfield Dalby, but it was checked out at the time. Dalby is reportedly the only Western woman to actually apprentice herself as a geisha in Kyoto, which she did in the mid-1970s. I'm still hoping to read this one, one of these days.

Since I couldn't read Geisha, I got my hands on copies of Dalby's other two books: The Tale of Murasaki: A Novel (New York : Anchor Books, 2000) and Kimono: fashioning culture (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993). The first is a fascinating blend of 11th-century Japanese writer Murasaki Shikibu's own writing (her diary and poetry) — she was the author of the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji — and Dalby's own imaginings of how and why she wrote as and what she did. Honestly, I found this to be much more enjoyable than Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha.

Kimono is a non-fiction, an in-depth look at the history and present status of the national costume of Japan. Publishers Weekly calls the book an "exhaustive chronicle of the history and social meanings of the robe ... concerned with ... the confining robe in which women can't, among other things, cross their legs." She describes how it was only with the creeping Westernization of the 19th century that kimono came to be formalized as Japanese, as well as how and why the kimono came to lose the sartorial battle and be come a hobby more than a type of clothing. The book also contains a wonderful section about the kimono and it's colors in the Heian period (794-1192), reproducing (in English) a period document, "Colors for a Court Lady's Dress" by Masasuke.

Then, because I was feeling so totally uneducated in terms of context — I've never studied anything of the Orient other than some art history, a decade or more ago — I decided to read a history of Japan. No, that the title of the book: A History of Japan by Conrad D. Totman (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005). It's a fascinating book, I'm quite enjoying his approach to history. But I do wonder occasionally just how much of a geek it makes me to be reading this when I don't have to for a class... I've only made it twenty-five pages into the book, through the Introduction and first few sections. I'm now learning about the "late foragers" and Jomon culture — something slightly familiar to me from my art history studies, they made awesome pottery.

I also have the Edward Seidensticker translation of The tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (New York: Knopf, 1976-77) checked out, but who knows when I'll get to that.

Oh, and somewhere in there I reread The Nightingale by Kara Dalkey (Ace, 1991), part of the Fairy Tales Series created by Terri Windling. It's a retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson's story, now set in Heian Japan instead of China and with a young woman rather than a bird as the main character. I think I was better able to enjoy the book, having just immersed myself in the culture a bit.

And now for something completely different.

This one's a holdover form last summer typography class. Letters of Credit: A View of Type Design by Walter Tracy (Boston, MA: D. R. Godine, 1986) was one of the books on the recommended reading list from my Rare Book School class, so I got a copy through Interlibrary Loan. I must not have been in the best mood for it, as I really couldn't get into it. I skimmed through, but I'll have to request it again some day when I'm really wanting to focus on the topic, I think.

No, we're not thinking of moving again, not yet. My friends Amy and Dave are thinking about building a house, and in the process of talking with them I got interested in passive solar design again. It's just such a great concept — build and orient your house right and pay much less for heating, cooling and lighting. This book is The Sun-Inspired House: house designs warmed and brightened by the sun by Debra Rucker Coleman (Citronelle, AL: Sun Plans Inc., 2005 — distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing), another ILL request (I love working in a library). Some definite posibilities for if/when Chris and I build our next house. Most of the floor plans in the book are also available to see at her Web site, Sun Plans.

My other recent ILL request was Maggie's Weaning by Mary Joan Deutschbein (Schaumburg, IL: La Leche League International, 1999). I've reached the point where I'm ready to be done with tandem nursing (yes, Mairi still nurses, usually once a day). Mairi is not ready to stop, however, and has resisted all my (so far) gentle attempts to stop. This book was recommended by another mom who had nursed her first daughter quite a while and I thought we'd give it a try. We'll see... It's a nice little book, the child's age is purposely kept somewhat ambiguous, and she has a little sister who's nursing.

For fun I've been rereading some Charles de Lint, Dreams Underfoot (Tor Books, 1994) to be precise. It's a short story collection, mostly set in Newford. I like to reread de Lint whenever life is seeming too normal (hey, be nice!), too mundane. He has such a way of questioning the things that our world tends to take for granted — that fairies are something only children and the insane believe in (and are always nice and cute), that we can't really change anything, that it doesn't really matter what we believe. His stories certainly aren't always happy, but I really enjoy reading and rereading them nonetheless.

Finally, two books I'm supposed to be reading but haven't gotten to: Adobe Photoshop CS2: one-on-one by Deke McClelland (O'Reilly Media, Inc., 2005) is something I bought to help me adjust to the new version of Photoshop, since it includes some fairly major changes (plus the IT folks skipped right over CS, so I'm actually adapting to two version changes, sort of). I've always liked Deke's approach to Photoshop, I'm sure I'll find this book helpful — I just haven't made time to read it, yet. It Pays to Talk by Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz and Charles Schwab (Crown Business, 2002) is about family finances and the importance of communicating. It looks to be a good book, and I really do want to read it... But at the end of a busy day, when I'm already tired, it just doesn't grab me, you know what I mean?

Phew! I think I'm going to try to do this a bit more often — too many books to remember and write about!

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