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.