It is no secret that my brain and I read a ton of books. For one thing, my job is literally getting paid to read (and, of course, translate) books, so I process a pile of books like that every month. Then there’s the research I do for translations, plus all the manga I need to read to keep up with the industry to some degree, and occasionally, re-reading books I’ve already translated to remind myself of who said what when there is a serious chunk of time between the release of one volume and the next (like with Blue Morning, the series that releases one volume a year if we’re lucky and is also super complicated with political machinations set in a peerage system that no longer exists in Japan. I think I’ve read volume one about fifteen times now.)
And then I read for the sheer pleasure of reading because what a pleasure it is! I came across an article recently about how to make more time for reading, and to be honest, I was baffled by the suggestions. Who isn’t already reading over breakfast? Or carrying a book everywhere they go? What do these people do on the train?? I would like to read more for pleasure, for sure, but I am cramming about as much reading into a single day as a human being can. Unless they come up with a way to read while you’re asleep. Yes, I take the occasional break from reading to watch a movie or play video games, but generally, if I have five free minutes, I am picking up one of the books scattered around my house and reading it.
A lot of those books I talk about here because my brain and I like to share the fun. But there are just too many books to share all of them. Mostly because sharing them takes away from time for reading them, and you see the problem there, yes? But I really do like to hold up examples of interesting brain treats for people to try, so a pile will build up on my desk: books to write about. I’ll pluck a book from the pile every week and let my brain do battle here, but most of them eventually get shelved without a word because it’s been so long since I read them that I feel the battle will be a little one-sided. (My brain is such a forgetful creature.) I’m always a little regretful at shelving them unwritten since they are good, and I do want to tell people that. So I am taking a hint from Ash over at Experiments in Manga and doing a sort of “Quick Takes” of my own, freeing my desk from the pile of finished books guilt-free for once.
Obaataimusu: Satoshi Oshiro
I picked up the first volume of this yon-koma manga that runs in the Okinawa Times when I was at the Times office for a meeting last year. I asked about local manga, and they were quick to suggest Obaataimusu. I wasn’t too keen on it at first—the art seemed a little too crude and I anticipated a lot of lame oyaji jokes. But it turned out to be super hilarious and more than a little bit political, and the art, while simple, is surprisingly expressive. I’m regretting I didn’t grab the other volumes while I was there. Each strip follows Obaa (80) and Ojii (85) through random and bizarre moments in their daily life in Okinawa. One running gag is Ojii’s impressions of people and things, my favourite of which is when he imitates a US base. There’s also some pretty silly sight gags playing on the fact that Ojii is super tall, so he will wham his head against the edge of the frame when coming forward from the background. It’s all very light-hearted, a nice little volume to dip into for a few pages for some giggles before getting back to work.
Everything Belongs to the Future: Laurie Penny
I’ve been following Penny’s work as a journalist/rabble-rouser for a few years now, so I was excited to pick up her first novel (more novella in length, though. This is a slim volume). I’ve read her essay collections Unspeakable Things and Meat Market (both great, both highly recommended), and I was curious to see how she’d bring her considered, powerful thinking on feminism, class, queerness, and all the other ideas she broods so concisely and angrily upon into the world of fiction. Science fiction, to be precise, a genre that has long been a place to discuss social issues, so really, it should come as no surprise that Penny’s voice is perfectly at home here. Everything is the story of a world where you can live for pretty much as long as you want, if you have the money or the connections to get a steady supply of the longevity treatment required—the fix. So naturally, a gang of anarchist punks set out to overturn a system that tips the scales even more in favour of the richest of the global elite.
For such a short book, Penny manages to cram in so much. So much distinct characterization, so much story, so much of a world so scarily like our own, and so, so much thinking, thoughts on the world we have and the world we should have. Like all her work, the writing here is spare and to the point. Penny is not one to waste words. Still, she takes her time where it counts to burn images into the reader’s mind, like this delightful walk-on character: “an absurdly attractive young dirtbag who owned nothing he did not steal, who occasionally slept on a bare mattress in the basement and surprised everyone by turning out to have two law degrees.”
Turning Japanese: MariNaomi
Even though this is blurbed by Yumi Sakugawa, a favourite of mine, I still wasn’t particularly interested in Turning Japanese. I have a kind of aversion to Japan memoirs. They so often turn to Western fetishization of a culture I live and work in, and I just can’t handle yet another ride on the “Weird Japan” train. But I back a lot of comics on Kickstarter, and I ended up backing 2dcloud’s spring collection last year, mostly because it looked like it was going to be a tight finish and I wanted them to make it past the line. And they did! So I picked Turning Japanese as a reward (along with Someone Please Have Sex With Me by Gina Wynbrandt (also good!)), mostly because I knew MariNaomi was a good artist, so I figured I’d give it a chance. I was still ready not to like it nonetheless. But I was so wrong!
MariNaomi chronicles the period of her life after the break-up with a long-term lover when she reinvents herself in several ways and finds herself “swept up in a whirlwind romance” and on a plane to Japan, a country she has a tumultuous relationship with because of her own family history. So the tale of her meeting Japan on her own as an adult, lover in tow, is contrasted against the Japan she knew as a child through her family and her mother. I related to a surprising amount her story on a pretty personal level, not because I am secretly half-Japanese (I am not), but because my mother is German and I had a lot of similar experiences growing up (stuff like my mother almost never spoke German in the house unless she was on the phone with her family or her family was visiting). So it was a new lens on a story I knew well in a way. But her take on Tokyo is also nuanced and far from the annoyingly prevalent Weird Japan narrative. Her black and white, somewhat minimalist drawings occasionally reminded me of Marjane Satrapi, but still with a loveliness all her own.
There are still more books waiting on my desk to be either written about or placed on a shelf somewhere in this house full of books. But this is probably enough for today. You know what they say: too many books spoils the brain*!
*NB: No one has ever said this. Ever.