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Posts tagged books

Cool Tokyo Guide

This fun, little guidebook by Abby Denson is aimed primarily at young people (10-25 years old), but has useful aspects for anyone. I would have liked a little more dealing with the seasons and festivals (when to go to see certain things in Tokyo) and less on where to buy souvenirs.

The book contains many useful phrases and helpful hints. The information on ibuprofen is incorrect though. Ringl is not ibuprofen in Japan. Ringl is the same as Tylenol (acetaminophen). If you need Advil or Motrin in Tokyo (or any part of Japan), use the information on this page instead.

Japan Journeys


I just finished Japan Journeys: Famous Woodblock Prints of Cultural Sights in Japan by Andreas Marks. This is mostly a picture book, featuring about 200 Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e / 浮世絵). Artists include Hokusai (北斎), Hiroshige (広重), Utamaro (歌麿), and Kunisada (国貞).

The prints include a brief description and some historical context. They are arranged by location.

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I have a couple of critiques/recommendations should anyone want to do something similar.

The first is that some, if not many, of the ukiyo-e are too small. The book is inexpensive (under $20 for a hardback and all in full color), but I would have preferred a larger book, both in terms of page size and length, so that the prints could be seen in more detail. Some of them are stamp size, and they all should have been at least 8″ on the short side.

The second is that I would have liked to have also seen modern photos of these places, even if the places look radically different today. I’m imagining something like what I’ve done here and here.

Daunt Books in Marylebone

daunt books london marylebone

Interior of Daunt Books on London’s westend in Marylebone

While killing a little time (before my wife and son went to a play) on our final full day in London we walked in Daunt Books. The place looked photo worthy so I took today’s photo. After taking the photo I went to the London section to see where I should wander to next. I picked up a photo book called something like “Beautiful Places in London” and opened to a random page about a third of the way through the book. Amazingly enough, the photo on that page was basically the same as the one you see above!

Happy Declaration of Independence Day

samuel adams beer grave stone 4th of july

Samuel Adams grave stone in Granary Burial Ground (aka The Old Granary)

My view of American history has changed over the past month. First, I read David G. McCullough’s 1776 which seriously altered my take on the revolution. The year 1776 was actually a very dark period in American history (until the last week) as independence seemed very difficult to come by in July and nearly impossible by mid-December with numerous defeats and retreats.

Seeing the actual places in New York and Boston where some of the events of 1776 occurred after reading 1776 also gave me a new perspective.

July 4 is celebrated as Independence Day even though independence didn’t actually come until the war ended in 1783, and the legal separation from America’s point of view came on July 2. But the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4 so that is the day that stuck.

Today’s photo is of the tombstone of one of the signers of that document, Samuel Adams. His father started the brewery that many know the name Samuel Adams by today. However, the modern Samuel Adams beer of the Boston Beer Company didn’t get started until 1984, despite the commercials which make it look like it has been brewed since the 18th Century.


I received this book as a Christmas gift. When I first saw the description of it being about WW2 and sharks I thought it may be the same story as In Harm’s Way, which I read about 10 years ago. It turns out this is a totally different story. Apparently, there were lots of GIs in WW2 who had to deal with being stuck in the Pacific Ocean with the sharks.

Unbroken is currently the #1 bestseller for nonfiction. It reads like fiction, and I have a hard time believing much of it is nonfiction. Considering that the current top ten books for nonfiction also include memoirs of George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and a book about how heaven is real, I guess they use the term “nonfiction” very loosely these days.

Hillenbrand is a talented author, no doubt about it. However, anyone with even the smallest degree of skepticism or critical reading skills will be able to see how improbable her account is of the whole truth. Everything happens just right. She, as the author, is omniscient, telling us what people were thinking (or when they sweat or how they felt) in the 1940s, even shortly before their deaths. The level of detail is amazing, especially since her primary sources of information are interviews conducted about 60 years after the events took place. Many conversations from the mid-20th Century are given as if word for word, in quotation marks even.

Finally, the primary character in the book, Louis Zamperini, became a born again Christian after the bulk of the events portrayed in Unbroken took place. Why is that a problem? There are two reasons in my opinion. Looking back on history with his born-again mindset colors the past whether he intends to or not. The prior hardships suddenly become harder, the prior victories more victorious, the prior descent into wickedness much more wicked, and the ascent into Jesus’s arms all the more glorious. The other reason the past history can become distorted is that Zamperini made his living from telling his WW2 story and his subsequent conversion to Christ. Whether intentional or not, it becomes impossible not to embellish. Zamperini probably even came to believe his subsequent stories. The mind is funny that way. There are many others who have done the same. See, for instance, the Paul H. Dunn story.

Criticisms aside, Unbroken is still an amazing read. I can certainly see why it is a best seller. You will probably enjoy it more if you leave your skepticism at the door, and read it like you would read fiction. The book reads like a Hollywood movie. Personally, I would have preferred a PBS documentary instead, but more people seem to prefer the former.

If you are interested in the Pacific War and/or Japan then there is much to find here. I have been to many of the places described in the book (Omori, Ofuna, Kofu, Sugamo). They are completely different now (and I was completely unaware of the POW camps in Omori and Ofuna) than they were during the war, but it is fascinating to reflect on the vast changes. I was aware that Sugamo Prison became Sunshine 60, something I reflected on nearly every time I gazed at Sunshine 60.

I Am A Cat (吾輩は猫である)

i am a cat soseki natsume

Before I completely forget the contents of this book, I figured I better write a little something about I Am A Cat by Soseki Natsume. (Soseki Natsume was born just a few minutes to the east of where we currently live in Nishi-Waseda and his grave is just a few minutes to the north.) This was the last book I’m planning on reading in English while in Japan. I finished it more than a month ago so the details are a bit foggy at this point.

This is one of those books that you constantly hear about and see referenced in other works so you feel a little behind the times not having read it. Now I’ll at least know what people are talking about. The version I read was only the first of three volumes. The setting is the Japan of a little more than a hundred years ago (as that is when it was written). The author takes the role of a cat, sort of a “fly on the wall” who no one is afraid to talk in front of and who can creep into any conversation without being detected.

The book is occasionally hilarious, frequently witty, always observant of Japan then (and now as things don’t seem to have changed much), but sometimes dull. Even though I laughed out loud at times, I was bored at others and did not feel as inspired by the end to want to read the next two volumes.

The introduction by the translators was too long and overdone if I remember correctly. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite passages. Maybe I only find it funny because I know so many teachers.

“My master seldom comes face to face with me. I hear he is a schoolteacher. As soon as he comes home from school, he shuts himself up in the study for the rest of the day; and he seldom emerges. The others in the house think that he is terribly hard-working. He himself pretends to be hard-working. But actually he works less hard than any of them think. Sometimes I tiptoe to his study for a peep and find him taking a snooze. Occasionally his mouth is drooling onto some book he has begun to read…

There are times when even I, I a mere cat, can put two thoughts together. ‘Teachers have it easy. If you were born a human, it’s best to become a teacher. For if it’s possible to sleep this much and still to be a teacher, why, even a cat could teach.’ However, according to the master, there’s nothing harder than a teacher’s life and every time his friends come round to see him, he grumbles on and on.”