#11 Out, by Natsuo Kirino
For reasons of pre-trip research (well, and general interest) I've been poking around modern Japanese literature. I'm very glad I did, because Out was a fantastic book. Given the themes of the book -- the miserable lives of the night-shift workers at a boxed lunch factory -- it could easily have been an equally miserable read. Thankfully the strength of spirit of Kirino's characters, particularly the protagonist Masako, means that the book does not portray these working-class women as pitiful. The main characters are all given a great deal of depth and each treated with a degree of sympathy, despite their flaws. Kirino's writing is very much to the point -- there was no unnecessary waffling. Out is both a sympathetic examination of life for working-class women in Japan (the sexism they face, the rigidity of the role they are expected to fill) and a gripping thriller -- though not quite a "page-turner".
#12 In the Miso Soup, by Ryu Murakami
This was one of my birthday presents from TAP. A fascinating and eventually gruesome excursion into the Tokyo sex trade: a Japanese guide takes his American customer on a tour of the city's nightlife with unfortunate consequences. It was an interesting examination of relations between foreigners and the Japanese in Japan, and also on youthful disillusionment which leads to phenomena like high school girls "selling it" or getting involved in "compensated dating" -- forms of prostitution. It's not a long book but Murakami packs a lot in, considering. A thoughtful novel with a bit of gore used to good effect.
#13 The Xenophobe's Guide to the Japanese
Another birthday present, very sweetly given to me by our lodger Michael. A slim volume, amusing and informative though not quite as off the wall as I was expecting.
#14 Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, by Damien Keown
Some more pre-trip research -- figured since I'm going to be visiting a whole bunch of Buddhist countries, I should make an effort to learn a little bit about this religion which I was previously fairly ignorant of. The Very Short Introductions are nifty little books which I will admit that I am attracted to due to their pretty matching covers. However, apart from admiring the nice design of the book, I did in fact learn an awful lot about Buddhism after reading this. It was exactly the kind of introduction I was looking for -- not aimed at converting you though you would do well to read it if you were interested in becoming a Buddhist, academic enough to be intellectually interesting, and very engagingly written so that it was not at all a struggle to read (unlike, I must admit, the History book from this series). Damien Keown neatly encapsulated the origins of Buddhism, its history in different parts of the world, its different branches, and its most common practices. I'm very glad I made the effort to get hold of this book, it was definitely worthwhile.
#15 Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown
I just finished this one this morning, and I have to say ... this was actually worse than I was expecting. So many people have been banging on about Dan Brown that I figured he was worth a go, and though I wasn't going to go out of my way to get one of his books, when someone offered this in a swap I was quite happy to take it. I wasn't awaiting any great piece of literature, but I thought that all the people slagging him off were probably being a bit snobby. So, I embarked upon Angels and Demons with the expectation that it would be good fun, pacy and suspenseful, with some style and snappy lines. Unfortunately, Dan Brown misses the mark with this one. He tries very hard, he really does, but he just can't quite pull off the kind of panache that would make this a good book.
The plot is quite ridiculously over the top -- I'm not asking for full-on realism, but toning it down an inch or two would have done wonders. He's like that guy who takes a joke a bit too far and everyone stops laughing -- you've just about managed to reach the "suspension of disbelief" stage and he pushes it into the realms of the ridiculous. A case in point would be Langdon jumping on the helicopter at the end, in an act of supreme idiocy. And of course Langdon is a thinly disguised Gary Stu if I ever saw one! He is brilliant, handsome, resourceful, successful, athletic; he saves the day and wins the girl, virtually single-handedly. Brown's characters have all the depth of a paddling pool, despite his pathetic attempts to make them more three-dimensional: Langdon is repeatedly said to be claustrophobic (due to a traumatic well incident in his childhood) yet it doesn't seem to stop him jumping into every small, dark hole he can find. His desire to impress the fiery Italian love interest makes him magically overcome his (one) flaw. The book even veers into unintentional racism with the frankly awful portrayal of the Middle Eastern "Hassassin".
Basically, this is a very, very corny book. If Dan Brown had style it could have been good -- but his attempts at snappy dialogue fall flat and just come across as cheesy. A little more tongue in cheek and the book would have been amusing rather than groan-worthy, a little less over the top and it would have been gripping rather than laughable. It was sufficiently readable that I managed to finish it, but it was bad enough that I wouldn't touch anything else of his, even with a very long and very pointy stick.
In other news, we now have a dog. (!) Her name is Bess (renamed from the quite unsuitable Trixie) and she is a six and a half year old German Shepherd. She has short black fur, big ears, and a slender build but considerable strength. She's pretty insecure -- she was picked up as a stray and rehomed once before from Battersea Dogs' Home, but had to be returned after a couple of weeks because of her destructive behaviour when her owner was working. Luckily there is someone around in our house most of the time, and TAP has the time, patience and experience to train her out of the separation anxiety.
Other than chewing things up when left alone (she's already mangled a coat hanger) she is a friendly and laid-back dog, who so far has been very well-behaved with every person and dog she has met. We got her on Saturday so it's early days, but apart from puking on the living room carpet after stealing a whole bag of doggy treats she hasn't been any trouble. I'll have to take some photos this week to show her off! Though she's looking a little funny because she's got alopecia around her eyes and on her snout -- the vet thinks it's just from stress, so hopefully her fur will grow back when she settles in and she will be a bit prettier.
I suddenly feel that I am in great need of Urban Decay's mineral foundation, but I'm wondering whether it's a bit silly for me to invest in something like that when I'm buggering off to go on a 4.5 month backpacking trip in two weeks time. Do I give into impulse and buy it now? Will I use it if I take it with me? Will it go off if I leave it at home for that length of time? Will I have the money to buy it when I come back? Will I be a new person when I return, unconcerned by such petty things as foundation? Oooh but I want it! Now!