Books


I’ve decided to devote a little more of my time here to documenting what books I’m enjoying in. As a child I had an insatiable appetite for reading and though I don’t go through many a week like I used to I still love to sit in the park and read a book or hasten the perceived time of subway transit with an epic tome. One of the highlights of solo hiking this summer was trekking to a good vantage and taking a breather while reading a chapter or two. You’re never lonely when you can dive into a great story!

The last two novels I’ve read have been superb reads and definitely add some further variety to the already eclectic library in my apartment. One of the things I truly cherish about good literature is the ability of a talented author to transport you to distant lands/cultures. Stepping into a different perspective in an elsewhere setting can be a wonderful salve for the occasional culture burnout days.

The first of these books was Hitching Rides with Buddha (first released as Hokkaido Highway Blues in the States) by Canadian author Will Ferguson. The author spent 5 years in Japan as an English teacher. To conclude his time in there he embarks on an epic journey to follow the fall of the Sakura (cherry blossoms) across the length of Japan. The sheer scope of his proposed journey from the Southernmost point of Cape Sata to Sapporo in the far North is admirable in its ambition. Add to this his means of travel, sticking out his opposable and hitchhiking, and you have a travel book unique when compared to many others.

Ferguson has a cutting wit that has let him form a colorful perspective on Japan’s culture over during his time in the gateway to the East which is evidenced in vivid and often hilarious quips throughout his journey. This tempered with a somewhat profound sense of the symbolic and a dash of personal truth finding about what his time here has really meant created a book that I voraciously read in a handful of days.

I’ve read many a fellow expat’s blog since deciding to come over to the land of the morning clam but most of them have centered around my host country and not the bordering ones. It was very refreshing to read such a clever and candid account of a different culture. Noting similarities and differences was very engaging. There is also a stark contrast between even the best written blog with its brief and fractured installments compared to a well written novel with an overall story and interweaving themes.

Walking on a path of falling cherry blossoms.

Japan has always intrigued me with its odd tetter-totter between a pervasive and intricate, sense of tradition balanced against a ravenous appetite for modernity. Similarities between this juxtaposition of old-school social hierarchy and cutting edge technological lifestyles are echoed strongly here in Korea.

The two top references for my impressions of Japan are two distinctly different sources. My father has told me numerous stories about his time as a high school exchange student in Japan in the early 70s. He spent two years taking correspondence courses at the University of Washington learning Japanese and his anecdotes offered me a unique glimpse of a foreign land as even a young child. Asking him about the miniature Japanese instrument ornaments we hung on our Christmas tree is the furthest reaching memory I have.

The other source is the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. His vivid prose and sometimes baffling stories are rich in the folklore and nuances of Japanese society. My brother and I have both been known to invest much time in his books and are always on the lookout for the newest release. Though using vastly different methods of delivery both Murakami and my father are exceptional storytellers in their own trademark manner and have formed in me a very vivid sense of Japan with little to no actual personal exposure.

Kinda like if Chaim Potok and Stanley Kubrick got together to make an LA Confidential-esque story.

The second novel of note for me was a work of stark and prodigious imagination by Michael Chabon (the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The adventures of Kavalier and Klay”). The plot and setting of his story revolves around an audacious alter-history in which the Jewish societies displaced by the atrocities of the Holocaust did not relocate in the arid, scorching area of the Middle East but rather the cold, barren stretch of Sitka, Southern Alaska.

Surprisingly there was a proposal put before congress by the Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, back in the late 1930s that had tried to establish this very state. The residents of Alaska at the time weren’t terribly receptive and the bill never got very far.

I haven’t read literature so steeped in Jewish culture since I discovered Chaim Potok in Jr High. The differences between these two authors of the same cultural bent is as vast as eons heavy continental drift in opposite direction. Both feature a disgraced potential Tzadik but that is as far as the similarities extend.

Though I have never been a huge mystery genre fan, the gumshoe protagonist with a raw, rampantly cynical outlook on life while he rapidly plummets to a gritty rock-bottom pulls you in. The dark setting of Sitka on the brink of transformation due to US Reclamation is an apt one. You can feel the weary, jaded yet survivalistic perseverance of the characters in this book.

Reuben Sandwiches and Mighty Aphrodite

Living in the area where I grew up in rural/suburban Western Washington there were not a lot of opportunities to be exposed to the Jewish culture firsthand. My father realized that at one point and tried to counter with his own one of a kind enrichment lessons. I still remember the night he bought a bunch of Reuben sandwiches, rented “Mighty Aphrodite” by Woody Allen and explained Hanukkah to my brother and I in elementary school. He’s Irish Catholic but is cool like that.

As different as these two books are they had a common appeal for me. They both had cultures I am unfamiliar with yet fascinated by as foundations for the stories they told. Ferguson does not spend the majority of his time with other expats, he communes with the locals and he espouses a perspective on not just the national identity but a regional as well.

Chabon religious/social outlooks, mores, stereotypes, cuisine and even slang (some authentic and some created for the book) for his alternate universe. He strikes a perfect balance between imagination and reality. I highly recommend both these books. If you are in the mood for a lighter style read Ferguson’s travel accounts. Those hungering for a top-notch fiction with a heavy plot from one of modern America’s literary proteges should check out Chabon’s sleuth story.

Check back soon for the next status post concerning paper cuts and written adventures. I just finished “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz and “Fool” by Christopher Moore.

Couldn’t be happier with the previous week. Definitely feeling like time left in the states is a valuable commodity and making the most of it. Thursday was a going away part for a good amiga who is going to be an ESL teacher in Columbia. It was great sharing that “looking at oncoming precipice I’m about to take the plunge off!” feeling with a friend and wishing her luck. Location was up on Capitol Hill and an outstanding dive bar known as the Quarter Lounge, definitely got my fill of pool and foosball for the week. Also was delighted at the unexpected appearance of my good friend Chad, an old college roommate who has been teaching and working in youth centered non-profits in India for past 3 years and is back in states to start grad school at UCLA (well-played amigo). He had some great advice about living abroad, trials and tribulations inherent, and some interesting new Grad School opportunities for someone in my background.

Turns out University of Texas is starting a child bereavement MA program that I’m going to have to look into. While discussing this with him our friend Jamie (an uber-sweet white South African from Zimbabwe) overheard what my hoped for program of study was and pulled me aside. I mentioned how I’ve been active in the grief support community as a group facilitator for kids for past ten years and how I hoped to have this be the focus of my future studies. Mentioned the fact that in high school I had kicked around the idea of making a Master’s thesis based on differing forms of culturally expressed grief by living in Asia to gain an appreciation for the effects of a collectivist society and then travel to Africa to work with kids who have are effected by the AIDS epidemic. As a child who lost their parent at an early age I knew firsthand how much of a loss it is to lose that sense of naivety and sense of security. I’ve always wondered how living in a society where death was so prevalent due to one singular ominous and prevalent form would affect a child’s view of the world and death in general. Add on to this the fact that in many of these areas it is such a fight to live that you have no time to stop to deal with loss or even your own tragically limited predicted lifespan and it has always been a hope of mine to live in Africa before finishing my academic career.

I could tell that Jamie was very intrigued and excited to give her input. She asked me how it was that this conversation topic and goal of mine had never came up and I laughed and proclaimed that we were usually at social events and I try not to bring up topic of grief/death due to its sometimes mood-killing effect. It turns out that her father in Zimbabwe has worked with children who have AIDS as a counselor and this is a passion of his. I think I may have made a connection for my next travel destination after Korea (who knows how long that will be, haha). All in all a great evening and very glad I decided to Trek into Seattle for the occasion. From friends returning, about to depart and sharing the resources of their distant homelands, I felt blessed to be connected to such a wonderful group of people.

The next day I visited my little brother to chat and catch up on things before departing for Vashon Island. This jewel of the Puget Sound is one of many islands that make up the San Juan Islands just off of the coast of North Western Washington but sheltered by the peninsula on the far West end. I hopped on the ferry (Washington State has one of the largest ferry systems in the Pacific Northwest) and met with my mother’s sister Mardi, who lives out on the island with her family and my grandmother, in the cabin. She had been the only aunt on that side of the family not in attendance at Easter so it was wonderful to see her before I depart. My uncle Nate picked me up and we cruised back to their house/mini-farm.

To grandmother's house we go!

After picking some asparagus out of the gardens, letting the sheep back into the pen and feeding the dogs my cousin Julie (named after my Mom) and the three of us loaded back into the car and departed back down to a separate dock. It turns out that my one of my uncle’s copilots (she also flies 747s and 777s internationally) is married to a ferry captain and they own and live on a BFB (Big Fucking Boat). It was previously a fishing vessel equipped for the Bering Sea in AK that had been renovated into a spacious and amazingly outfitted houseboat. The interior was beautiful and the functionality of the ship was quite amazing. 72′ long, 9,000 mile capability and they were waiting for the water maker to come in from New Zealand. King and Queen of the sea and sky, they were gracious and charismatic hosts!

After finishing dinner and getting dropped off at the dock via the small skiff (boat was too large to come into the marina) the four of us returned to the homestead. My aunt and I watched a movie (Shutter Island), uncle Nate had to fly to Japan (his primary run) the next day so he ended up dozing off after pouring me a couple shots of Patron. He is very insistent that I visit him in Tokyo on some of his layovers and said that he occasionally also flies to Incheon, bonus! After the movie my aunt and I stayed up for a bit and she shared some amazing stories about adventures with my mother when she was alive and the wonderful and mirth-filled times that had together way back when. I love hearing these stories as it makes me feel a connection to the woman who conceived me (she died at 30 when I was 2) and it was the perfect way to end an outstanding evening. Really can’t thank them enough for their hospitality and making me feel like an honored guest.

Captivating Read.

The next morning I woke up early and finished “Saturday” by Ian McEwan. This story is a modern rendition of “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf which was influenced by “Ulysses” by James Joyce. The theme of this book is consciousness and how our perspective of the world is based on so many things and is ever-changing even in the immediate moment. It takes place in the single day of the life of a prominent neurosurgeon in London who is consistently impressed at the enigma of self even though he has an in-depth knowledge of the function and structure of the human brain. Highly intriguing and a gloriously cerebral read!

I then loaded up the riding lawnmowers trailer and took a large load of fire wood over to my grandmother who lives next door on the property. It was great to spend some time with her and not only earn some brownie points with her for the firewood and helping to reinstall a cabinet on her wall but to exchange some stories, explain what drove me to go live on the other side of the world and her more stories. I even was gifted with some herbs and spices to take with me on the trip, thanks Grandma! After our time spent together my aunt kindly drove me back down to the ferry dock and I ventured back to the mainland feeling very grateful for the time spent with my extended family who show me so much warmth, I was really touched. Gotta say, can’t ask for a better weekend and am really going to miss these amazing friends and family I have here in Washington. Knowing they are all rooting for me is some strong Juju!