Jul 31, 2011

Water for Elephants

I've been seeing this book, Water for Elephants, on my local bookstore's shelves for a while, but I never noticed that it had any sort of Canadian connection at all. In a Canadian bookstore, Canadian books, especially those that make the New York Times bestsellers list, will have a giant display with maple leaves and flashing red and white lights decorating it. Here in Japan though, it's just another English book. Imagine my surprise when I decided to partake in the Canadian Book Challenge and this showed up on the list. It's not set in Canada (although Canada shows up when they buy alcohol during Prohibition) but is by a Canadian author.

The good thing about being a NYT bestseller is that the book is actually available on Kindle. Yay! What I love about the Kindle is the instant availability of books. What I hate is that so few Canadian books are available. It can take months for Canadian books to arrive here. It's so nice to have a book at the click of a button.

I really enjoyed this book. I was initially hesitant because I hate circuses, and if this hadn't been one of the only Canadian books available on Kindle before I started the Readathon I would not have bought it. Lucky then that was the case!

This book flips between 1931 and the present day. Pre-war fiction is some of my favourite, so that was a step in the right direction. The train-hopping brought back memories of The Journey of Natty Gann, my favourite childhood movie, so another step towards enjoying it. But it was the imagery of the writing and the enjoyability of the circus characters, from Jacob's roommate and his dog, the prostitutes with hearts of gold, to the animals themselves, that brought this up to a 5-star for me.

I hate the idea of freak shows (I spend quite a bit of time being stared at in rural Japan, don't wish it on anyone!), I hate the idea of performing animals, and clowns creep me right out. So this book had a way to go to get me to even like it! I guess that's why it's a bestseller, right?

The protagonist is Jacob, a Cornell veterinary student who suffers a tragedy that pushes him out of the world of the intelligentsia and straight into the trains of the dispossessed during the Depression. He brings us into this new world just as ignorant as the reader, and introduces us to interesting characters and Marlena, the horse and elephant rider who becomes the object of his affections as he fights with the working men of the circus to end the tyranny of the two men who run it.

The characters were rich and some were likable and others were easy to hate. I'm not a big fan of adultery in fiction but the husband of the love interest was so horrible to his wife and others, including beating animals, that I can't blame her for looking elsewhere for love. What I really liked was the circus slang. It's almost too bad this is a one-off novel, this would have been really good as a world-building novel.

I know many people were put off by the Hollywood ending, but I'm happy that is was tied up so neatly. I still wish that some of the characters would have gotten better endings, but you can't have everything.

This is my fourth book for the Fifth Canadian Book Challenge.

Jul 24, 2011

Ten Wishing Stars

Since we didn't have a book about Tanabata itself, we made do with this book, Ten Wishing Stars: A Countdown to Bedtime Book. That makes it sound like a hardship, which of course it wasn't!

This is a delightful story about 10 sheep that each make a wish. It's a great bedtime book with a play on words. Sheep that count instead of counting sheep. Both my two year old and four year old have enjoyed reading it once a day for the last week, which means the images and prose are good enough to keep two fickle pre-choolers entranced.

This was a great book for tanabata preparation, as each sheep developed their own skills, from riding a bike to playing ball, and bonus points since every skill was something my kids could do as well, and of course for letting my kids practice their rhyming and counting skills!

The stars in this hardcover book are glow-in-the-dark which seem like a gimmick but work pretty well here. Great book for tanabata or just for kids to sleep.

Both kids really wanted to see sheep after a week of this book so we took a trip to a tourist farm. The sheep in real life are not as cuddly as in Sarah Dillard's illustrations. Poor Domba was quite scared!

Jul 16, 2011

Miss Hobbema Pageant

WP Kinsella is mostly famous for his novel Shoeless Joe, the book on which the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams is based. To me though, he is one of those very funny prairie writers who can see the funny in any situation, like the gifted Martyn Godfrey.

The Miss Hobbema Pageant is one of numerous short story collections that Kinsella wrote about Silas Ermineskin, Frankie Fencepost, and other characters from the Ermineskin reserve outside Hobbema, Alberta. It's the 6th of 8 books、but easy to jump into even without reading the rest.

Silas is the narrator of this book, and he's a jack of all trades. He gets into all sorts of scrapes with his best friend Frankie Fencepost, who seems to be lacking in any sort of inhibition. Silas is a published writer, a student, an assistant medicine man, and a confidante to many of the rich characters that populate the reserve.

The Miss Hobbema Pageant is funny. Many of the laughs come from Frankie's escapades, like joining the Miss Hobbema Pageant, but so many more come from the droll observations of Silas. The people who surround Silas are all true characters, from his siblings and no-nonsense mother to the people at his school in Wetaskiwin. Kinsella's book is full of imagery, and even though it's been over a decade since I was anywhere near Hobbema I can bring memories up in a second when I open these pages.

I don't know if any of what Kinsella writes is true to life on the rez. There are such a varied number of characters, from the medicine woman who doesn't take herself too seriously, the ambitious chief, to the strong and patient girlfriends of Silas and Frankie, who could be in any novel about the prairies, and are far from stereotypical. I often wonder what First Nations people think of this book but can't speak to this myself.

What I do know is that this is the only Kinsella book I brought to Japan and now I am kicking myself. This book only whet my appetite for more debacles on the Ermineskin reserve.

Canadian Book Challenge 3/13

Jul 7, 2011


The 7th day of the 7th month is known as Tanabata in Japanese. It's about two star-crossed lovers, the stars Vega and Altair, who are separated every day except for the chance to meet on this day.

It's not celebrated with a day off, but by decorating a bamboo tree with paper rings and stars and writing down wishes. Older kids and adults generally focus on skills. I think that originally the moral of the story was these two stars weren't focusing on their work and instead spending too much time with each other, and were punished by banishment from each other for 364 days a year. Therefore people are encouraged to write down what they want to be better at. It's written as a wish, the same way as at Shinto Shrines, but in Japanese culture there is a feeling that if you write something down it is a declaration that will help you achieve that goal. So older kids will write down something about studying or getting into their school or team of choice. Younger kids usually wish to be a character though.

My son wished to be Gokai Red (red Power Ranger) and to have a donut shop. My daughter wished to be Minnie Mouse and eat her brother's donuts. I usually wish to improve my Japanese but this year I wished for my kids to use more English. Japanese is going on the backburner as making my kids bilingual is the big goal.

I wish there was a decent book about tanabata for kids in English. Wouldn't it be great if Franklin or Clifford or Fancy Nancy went to a tanabata party and wore a nice yukata? Maybe the only way to get that is to write my own book. Ha! That'll never happen.

Jul 3, 2011

Readathon Roundup

I finished the Under The Midnight Sun Readathon earlier today. It was pretty fun, actually. I think it would have been more fun had I been in the same timezone as everyone else instead of a day ahead!

Since Papa was off to a wedding I had the kids all day Saturday, so my reading time was limited. I did quite a bit while the kids were playing outside, I just pulled up a lawnchair and made a giant cranberry slushie and had one eye on my Kindle and one eye on the chibis. It got to be a little too hot for us at one point so I slathered on more sunblock and went to the neighbourhood kiddy pool. Had to put the Kindle away for that!

This was my first time using a Kindle outside. It is great! I can read perfectly no matter how bright.

Domba chose to read Red is Best as her nighttime book so that was my first book. It was good, really light-hearted after starting into the somewhat bleak The Birth House.

After the littles were tucked in I retreated to the porch with some cold black tea for caffeine and kept reading. It was great, with the wind coming up the mountain and my porch light illuminating my Kindle. At this point I started to switch off with flashcards though. See, I had a Japanese test (JLPT N1) today and I was starting to get worried! I turned in at about 3am, unable to stay up longer.

I got about 3 hours sleep and then up again for Sunday chores. Once that was done I finished off the Birth House and wrote a review for both books I finished! Then it was off to my test! I wasn't that worried about the little sleep I had, since the best score I ever had was after pulling an all-nighter drinking (way back when we had to drive 4 hours to take the test!). I thought maybe it would help my score. I started in on re-reading the Miss Hobbema Pageant. The short Silas & Frank stories were perfect for the bus ride, but I was verging on homesick by the time I arrived at the test site.

I wish that I had been able to go all-in for this readathon. It was great to make an appointment to read and stick with it. Next time I'll make sure I don't have a test I've been studying for a year for, and make sure my husband isn't off getting smashed with his work buddies! I really appreciated the support from my fellow readers, though. It's nice to be part of a Canadian reading community, since I feel pretty isolated from Canada here. Thanks guys!

The Birth House by Ami McKay

When I was in university, I took a class called History of Medicine, which I ended up hating. The only time women were mentioned was when it came to what problems they need to have treated. Nothing about women who treated other women or even the whole village. You'd think that the women in the class would bring it up or write papers on this though, right? No, we learned our lesson very early on. Everytime a woman would ask a question or put forth an opinion, the prof would diagnose us with hysteria and suggest a treatment depending on the time period we had been discussing.

I want to buy a copy of this book and send it to him.

This is the story of Dora Rare, a midwife in a small town in Nova Scotia in the first half of the 20th century, as well as the townspeople of Scots Bay and Boston. She is an engaging protagonist, one who grows in strength throughout the book due to the hardships she experiences and witnesses. The over-bearing temperance advocate who is also Dora's aunt and an adulteress and the doctor with his ridiculous ideas are easy to hate although at times they border on caricature.

I especially liked the brides from Newfoundland. They remind me so much of the island girls in my neighbourhood, who have embraced me despite the fact that I'm so different. My neighbours come from different islands around the prefecture, but all speak a different dialect, and about the only thing they have in common is generosity of spirit. So much like Dora's friends 'from away'.

I think that this is one of the books that is coloured by your own perception. Mine was destined to be favourable, as I gave birth to Domba at home with a midwife in attendance after Spinky was born due to an induction for the doctor's convenience and I was looking for better options. I am a natural birth advocate, and of course I found the doctor's assertions that he could control childbirth to be laughable. That being said, I do favour science and would choose a safety-tested drug over a herbal remedy any day of the week, but that choice wasn't available for anyone in Dora's time.

The prose was delightful, and McKay has a knack for bringing the characters to life through their dialogue. That being said, this wasn't a five-star book for me. Sometimes it went a little too far in pushing the message. It felt kind of like a season of Degrassi to me, trying to fit in all issues! That being said, a midwife does see so much more than a regular person would, I'm sure my own midwife knows more about me than she'd care to, so it makes sense that Dora would see what is hidden. 4/5 stars from me!

The Birth House by Ami McKay (CN/JP)
5th Canadian Book Challenge 2/13

Red is Best

My daughter loves pink. When asked for tanabata what she wants to wish to be, she always chooses "Pink". When pressed she might amend it to "Pink Gokaija" (pink power ranger). But every answer to every question is pink.

That's why the book we chose last night, Red is Best (CN, JP, US), really resonated with me.

In the book, the author's daughter Kelly describes just why red is best. Red mittens, red boots, red jacket, everything red! The power of red makes everything better, apparently.

Of course, Domba didn't agree with the book. "No!" she cried. "Pink is best! Pink mittens, pink ball, pink jacket." I'm not a big fan of pink, but I am a huge fan of debate. Looks like she is made of the same stubborn stock as me, and I couldn't be more thrilled.

Now, I'm sure you are thinking this is an odd choice of book for someone suffering through 33C heat and 87% humidity, right? Actually, Japanese tradition holds that you should think of cold things in the summer. The obi I have for my yukata is a lovely purple with a snowman pattern to evoke feelings of coolness. I think ghost stories are for near Halloween but in Japan they are for summer, so the chills will cool you down.

The part I liked the best was that Spinky could read the last line all by himself by sounding it out. Woohoo!!!

I read this on a break from The Birth House for the Under The Midnight Sun Readathon. It kind of feels like cheating, but the author is Canadian, the clothes the character wears are very Canadian, and all three of us enjoyed it so I hope it counts!

Red is Best by Kathy Stinson and Robin Baird Lewis
5th Canadian Book Challenge 1/13

Jul 2, 2011

Happy Canada Day!

Canada Day in Canada is lovely. A lie-in, bbq, neighbours out and about, and fireworks at night. Here it was just a regular workday. Hard to get my littles excited about it, but I tried!

My mom kindly supplied us with Canada Day clothes for the kids and they were very excited to wear them. I know that doesn't sound too thrilling but dress-up is irresistible for my two.

We also had a Canadian themed dinner with maple-glazed salmon, baked potatoes and plum tomatoes straight from our garden, and even the last of my frozen brussel sprouts. I know that doesn't sound very special but I can't remember the last time we had potatoes instead of rice or noodles so it felt pretty Canadian to me. Then we had a bento-style fruit dessert.

Watermelon is so much more expensive here than in Canada so this was a real treat. Prices have come down in recent years (or maybe I've just gotten better at ferreting out deals!9, but for a whole soccer ball sized watermelon you are looking at about $25CDN. I just buy quarters and make it last. I made pickled watermelon rind so as not to waste anything.

This year because of the energy shortage and because of all the people up north still living in shelters the mentality in Japan is to save everything, from energy to food. Japanese weddings are famous for the amount of food waste they produce, but even that is being cut down. We have yet to turn our airconditioner on and most of my friends here are the same. It's a nice mentality of we're all in this together (although obviously we are not, we know nothing of the ongoing devastation in the Tohoku region and sometimes I am amazed at my own arrogance that the little I am doing will help them in anyway) and for many Japanese people this makes them reminisce of the Showa era (1926–1989). I'm not sure why, since the most recent part of that era was the wasteful bubble era!

For me though, it conjures up feelings of the Canadian prairie mentality. When you live hours away from anywhere and it's -37C and there are mountains of snow everywhere you will darn well figure out a way to reuse every single thing in your house. And then reuse it again.

Part of getting my kids to think Canadian like I do (or try to) means getting them interested in the things I grew up with. Books are obviously a big part of that, but tv and music are too. So on this Canada Day we sang the anthem (Svend version) and watched some Canadian vignettes.

The Log Driver's Waltz was my kids' favourite, by far. It was mine too! I'm quite disappointed actually that I've never danced a waltz with a log driver, I was sure I would once I grew up. Oh the unfulfilled dreams of youth!

My first readathon

I'm ready and raring to go for the Under The Midnight Sun Readathon hosted by John at The Book Mine Set. I've never done one before, but I like the idea. I have a date with some Canadian books on my calendar!

I'm starting with The Birth House, mainly because it was the first Canadian book I noticed that I could buy for my Kindle. I'm actually pretty shocked at how few Canadian books are available. Even more annoying is that there are Canadian books available for Kindle, but not in the Canadian region. Oh so frustrating!

I know it's Under The Midnight Sun, but our sunset is about 7:30pm in summer, which means my littles will be in bed much earlier than if we were in Canada and the sun was shining so much longer. More reading time for me!