Note: I'm taking part in Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-thon this Saturday, October 18th, but I will not be posting any updates here.
When I'm not reading or cheering, I'll be hanging out on Twitter and Instagram. Come say hi!

Monday, November 30, 2009

'The Old Capital' Discussion (JLit Book Group)

Welcome to the discussion of our first selection for the Japanese Literature Book Group, The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata.

Originally published serially from October 1961 to January 1962. The original Japanese title is Koto 古都, which literally means 'former capital' and refers to the city of Kyoto as Edo (now Tokyo) became the capital in 1868.
First translated into English in 1987, with a new revised edition published in 2006, both by J. Martin Holman.
Set in the traditional city of Kyoto, The Old Capital tells the story of Chieko, the adopted daughter of a kimono designer and his wife. Since her youth, Chieko was told that the childless couple kidnapped her in a moment of profound desire. When Chieko learns unsettling truths about her past, her life of love and affection is thrown into disarray.

This delicate novel traces the legacy of beauty and tradition from one generation of artists to the next as they navigate, with an ambivalent mixture of regret and fascination, the complex world of postwar Japan. This simple story of chance, art, and devotion resounds with deep spiritual and human understanding.

Yasunari Kawabata is widely recognized as one of the most significant figures in modern Japanese literature. The Old Capital was one of three novels specifically cited when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.
A few questions to get us started, but please feel free to ask about, or discuss, any aspect of the book.

What did you think of the story?  Did you like it?  Was it easy to read, or a challenge?
There were a lot of place names mentioned which would've meant much more to someone familiar with Kyoto.  Did that bother you?
What did you think of the translation?
What did you think of the relationships between the characters? Chieko's parents? Chieko and Naeko? Chieko and Shin'ichi?
How was the behaviour of the characters different from what you might have expected?  Do you think this is due to a purely cultural difference?
When Yasunari Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, he apparently remarked "that in his work he sought a harmony among man, nature, and emptiness."  Do you think he achieved this in The Old Capital?
[Your Question Here]

The Old Capital has been reviewed by:
Absorbed in Words
The Reading Life
We Be Reading
Rebecca Reads

Further thoughts on the book:
Over a Hedge
The Reading Life
If you've reviewed this book and would like me to include a link here, please let me know.

Note:  The comments may contain spoilers so if you have not read the book yet, proceed at your own risk.

The small print:  Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) contain my Associates ID.  Purchases made via these links earn me a small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunday Salon: Reading in progress

I was going to post about some of my reading plans for next year regarding challenges and whatnot today, but it's late now so I'll just have to post about them another day.  Instead today when I haven't been distracted by various other things like Google Wave or those household chores that for some reason never seem to do themselves, I've been reading The Old Capital for the Japanese Literature Book Group as the discussion starts tomorrow.  It's a fairly slim book but I still have a bit left to go so I'm going to go curl up in bed now and try to read some more of it before falling asleep. 

In the meantime I'd love to hear your suggestions of Japanese Literature titles as I'd like to add a couple more books to the schedule for both the Japanese Literature Book Group and the Read-along group. Please leave your recommendations either here or on yesterday's What would you like to read in 2010? post.  Thanks! And you're not committing yourself to reading along with us by suggesting a book if you don't want to, although we'd love to have you.

OK, now back to my book.  I hope you're all having, or had, a lovely weekend.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Japanese Literature Book Group and Read-along: What would you like to read in 2010?

The current schedule for the Japanese Literature Book Group and the Japanese Literature Read-along group is as follows:

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The discussion of The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata will start on Monday, November 30th.  How is everyone doing?  Talk about last minute, I'll be reading most of The Old Capital this weekend!  If there is anyone else out there that hasn't started yet, you still have time.     

Our next book will be The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, and the discussion for that one will be begin on January 25th, 2010. 

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We are currently reading I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume.  We read Volume One for November 15th, and will be discussing Volume Two on December 15th, and Volume Three on January 15th. Volume One is the shortest of the three and you could still easily catch up if want to. You're welcome to join in the discussion any time.

(Slightly off topic, as it has nothing to do with books, but everything to do with cats, you have to check out this amazing cat-friendly house.)

The next book is tentatively set as  The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.

To give everyone a chance to find the books, I thought now would be a good time to select the next couple of books for either group.  So what would you like to read in 2010?  Are there any Japanese literature books that you've been wanting to read but haven't got around to yet?  Or any titles that you've already read but would like to discuss with others?  It might be fun to do some themed months later on but this time the nominations can be any genre or author.  If you have one suggestion or many, please leave a comment with the titles.  Then in about a week, I'll set up a poll so we can vote to choose our future group reads.  How does that sound?  If you have any questions, please let me know. 

Also a reminder that if you're on Twitter, you can follow @readingjapan for updates on the reading groups, and any other Japanese literature news that comes up. 

I was also recently able to join Google Wave (Thanks Trish!), a new platform that is kind of like email, instant messenger, and Google Docs all rolled into one. It's still in beta and as such is still invite only but I have a few invites to share. Quite a few book bloggers have joined up already, and there are quite a few different book-related discussions going on, so let me know if you'd like to join too. I'll dole out the invites first come first served. As Google Wave isn't restricted to 140 characters like Twitter is, we could perhaps discuss our group read titles further over there, and I've just started a Japanese Literature Wave for any general JLit discussion. Sound confusing? It is a little at the very beginning but it's pretty easy once you get started. And if you're not interested that's fine too. The main discussion will always take place right here.

OK, so get nominating those books you'd like to read.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

green tea and karinto

I thought I'd join in a new meme (new to me, that is) this week as it combines two of my favourite things: books and tea. Thursday Tea is a weekly meme hosted by Anastasia at Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog. To play along, all you need is some tea, a book, and the answers to these questions: what tea are you drinking (and do you like it)? What book are you reading (and do you like it)? Tell us a little about your tea and your book, and whether or not the two go together.

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Today's tea is an ordinary green tea. I don't remember where I got it from anymore because I put it into a tea canister and didn't think to make a note of it. I love all kinds of tea but green tea is great when you want something a bit refreshing, and calming at the same time.  I know my Bodum teapot doesn't really match the Japanese pottery but it is great for making tea.  And that's Bailey there in the background.

I thought I'd also include a snack, because the only thing better than tea and a book, is tea, a book and something sweet, right? But also because it ties in nicely with the current Hello Japan! mini-challenge which is focusing on Japanese food. Karinto is like a sweet cracker, made from deep fried bits of dough that are then coated with sugar, and maybe sesame seeds or peanuts like we had today. The slight sweetness of the karinto goes really well with hot green tea.

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The book I'm reading is The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata. I have to admit I'm not too far into it yet but I'm enjoying it, and I have high hopes for it. Kawabata is a Japanese author, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and as the story is set in post-war Kyoto, it's a perfect match with both the green tea and karinto.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tears of the Desert: A Conversation with Wendy of Musings of a Bookish Kitty

Back in September, Wendy, of Musings of a Bookish Kitty, and I decided to read Tears of the Desert together, which we did, and then we chatted about it.  But then bad timing, procrastination, life and what have you getting in the way, and we never got around to posting our thoughts on the book.  Well here at last, our joint review.  The summary was written by Wendy, the rest that follows is our conversation about the book.

Tears of the Desert: One Woman's True Story of Surviving the Horrors of Darfur
by Halima Bashir & Damien Lewis
Non-Fiction, 2008
Hodder & Stoughton, trade pb, 363 p.

In the winter of 2003, the Sudan Liberation Army and Justice and Equality Movement acted out against the injustice they saw taking place in their country. Black Africans were being oppressed and treated like second class citizens by the government. The government retaliated with more violence, taking it to an entirely different level. Not only were the soldiers in the rebellion targeted, but the innocent as well. Children and women are being raped, entire villages wiped out, and survivors are forced to leave the country or hide or risk certain death. The Sudan government controls the media within the country and has continuously tried to control the truth going out.

Halima Bashir is just one person who was caught up in the conflict. Her memoir, Tears of the Desert, is her attempt at giving voice to the hundreds of thousands of people who have been murdered and displaced by the Darfur conflict.
"Darfur. I know to you this must be a word soaked in suffering and blood. A name that conjures up terrible images of a dark horror and an evil without end. Pain and cruelty on a magnitude inconceivable in most of the civilized world. But to me Darfur means something quite different. It was and is that irreplaceable, unfathomable joy that is home." [pg 4]
Wendy: I am not really sure what draws me to books like this. The Holocaust has long been a part of history that has frightened and moved me. It is a time in the world’s history that is so painful, not to mention shameful. And not just for those who were directly involved. It is a blight on all our records. Stories about the Holocaust are told and re-told, the hope is that the same mistakes won’t be repeated. But they are. Again and again. The Holocaust was not the first instance of genocide nor was it the last. While the murder and rape of hundreds of thousands of black Africans in Darfur has not been labeled as genocide by the United Nations, it is still an atrocity that cannot be justified.

Nat: I know what you mean. Sometimes I shy away from these kind of books because I know that the stories told within will be painful and perhaps hard to read, but at the same time I think it's important for us to read these stories so we can be more aware of the terrible things that are unfortunately still happening in the world today. It's easy to be complacent while watching the news about countries half a world away from us, thinking that it doesn't affect us. But then the news, when it even reports it, only focuses on numbers and facts. Reading Tears of the Desert, and getting to know Halima and her family through the pages of the book, really put a human face on the tragedy occurring in Darfur.

Wendy: I appreciated how Halima Bashir told her story. I have read other books on Darfur that focus on the conflict and the atrocities. Halima wanted to offer a more well rounded picture, I think, and she did an excellent job for someone like me, who has never traveled to Sudan nor experienced a life like the one she has lived. The love for her country, her village and her family came through—I could not help but love them too. I was quite fond of her grandmother. She was so full of spirit. She may not have always been the wisest of women in her decisions, but it was impossible not to respect her.

Nat: The grandmother was quite the character, wasn't she? Some of her choices were more detrimental than helpful but she was a strong, determined, courageous woman and everything she did was out of love for her family. She ended up being a great role model for Halima and it seemed like a lot of Halima's later bravery was drawn from her grandmother's strength. Her grandmother would've been proud of her, I think.

I really enjoyed how Halima told her story too. I loved how she started off with her childhood, showing how happy she was growing up in her village, surrounded by her family. It's what made her story all the more moving for me, knowing that the bad was yet to come, but that it would come.

Wendy: No conflict arises out of nothing and it was interesting to see the growing discontent in the country through Halima's eyes, especially during her younger years. She is an amazing woman. She has so much courage and strength. Despite the odds that were definitely not in her favor, she continued to work toward her dream of becoming a doctor.

Nat: I have nothing but respect for her, for all she went through, for all she endured to achieve her dream of becoming a doctor, and to help her fellow Zaghawa. In the book she doesn't focus on the politics too much but of course some of it still comes through, mostly in discussions with her father. I'm admitting my ignorance here but one thing I hadn't really realized was the involvement of the British, by installing the Arabs to govern Sudan, in helping to create the atmosphere in which this conflict would eventually ignite.
'Back then the British came to our country for one reason,' my father continued. 'They came to take what they could for themselves. They took the land to grow their crops; they took the mountains to mine gold; and they tried to take the people to work for them. But we Zaghawa resisted, and we were never truly conquered.'

My father glanced at me, his eyes glinting. 'But you know the worst thing the British did? The very worst? When they left they gave all the power to the Arab tribes. They handed power to the Arabs. Now that's the sort of things you should be learning at school.' [pg 100]
Wendy: I was also really taken by her experiences as a refugee in England, the struggles she had to go through there. It must have been so difficult for her being in a strange country, surrounded by strangers and the unknown. While I have moved around a number of times in my life, it was always within my own country and I was never completely alone. My heart ached for Halima.

Nat: I found that part of her story interesting too. As if surviving, and managing to escape that hell wasn't hard enough, without having to fight to not be sent back there. I suppose in some ways she was lucky to have people who were willing to help her, but lucky seems the wrong word entirely considering all that she lost.

Most of the articles and interviews available online are from 2008, when the book came out, and I can't seem to find any updated information on the internet. I know that she has won her case and has been granted asylum in England, and I only hope that someday she will be reunited with the rest of her family. This was truly a touching story, and one that I think everyone should read.

Wendy: Like you, I scoured the internet in search of some sign that Halima was reunited with her family but to no avail. So many families in Darfur have been torn apart by the crisis. My heart goes out to those families.

Listen to an interview with Halima Bashir from the CBC (Part 3).
Listen to an interview with Halima Bashir on NPR, or read an extract from the book.
Watch an interview with Halima Bashir from SBS Dateline.
Read an article from the New York Times.

Buy this book at: Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk | BookDepository.co.uk | BookDepository.com

In part thanks to Natasha's Darfur Awareness Campaign last year, when Jodie proposed The Year of Readers, as a way to bring literature into the lives of others by choosing a literary charity to support for the year, my thoughts quickly went to Darfur. As a result, since January of this year every book I've read and every book I've acquired has counted towards my donation to Book Wish Foundation.


Book Wish Foundation is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) public charity (EIN: 26-1285319) with a mission to provide reading relief for people in crisis. In partnership with organizations that work on the ground in some of the most distressed places around the world, we support reading to improve education, mental health, and job training.

We focus on people in long-term crisis situations because they may face problems so grave that reading relief is not a major component of the aid they receive, although reading may have a great positive impact on their lives. Refugees, internally displaced people, school-aged children not in school, the homeless, the critically ill, and the desperately poor are among the populations we aim to reach.
One of the main projects of Book Wish is supplying English textbooks and aid to the people of Darfur in refugee camps in Eastern Chad. As an English as a Second Language Teacher, helping people to improve their lives through language and literacy, is something I can fully get behind. However, Book Wish doesn't just give books, they provide a variety of aid, and you can target your donation to specific projects, if you wish to do so.

Both Wendy and I chose to support Book Wish Foundation this year for the Year of Readers, and it was this that prompted us to read Tears of the Desert Together. And reading it just confirmed my desire to help in any small way I can. If you can spare even a few dollars, they could really use your help as well. You can contact either Wendy or I, or donate directly through the Book Wish Foundation website [Click on the link or the button above to access the Book Wish site], or consider the Book Wish Holiday Challenge: For each book you receive this holiday season, donate $1 to help someone less fortunate read. 

Thank you again Wendy for reading along, and for putting up with me!

(#49 for 2009, Non-Fiction Five Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge)

Also reviewed by:
Maw Books Blog
Diary of an Eccentric
Shhh! I'm Reading...
Bermudaonion's Weblog
Devourer of Books
The Printed Page
Bookworm's Dinner
If I've missed yours, let me know and I'll link to it here.

The small print:  I purchased this book for my personal library. Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sunday Salon: Reading Retrospective (October and November 2002)

Monday Salon? I had most of this typed up yesterday but then it got late and here it is now Monday. I think it's still technically Sunday somewhere though, or if not we'll just pretend. Anyway, I didn't get around to posting my reading retrospective last month, so I thought I'd combine them this month. Taking a look back at my reading journal for 2002, the year I started recording what books I read, it was an interesting mix of books I read over those 2 months. However, the highlight would definitely be reading two more books by Sarah Waters, including the fabulous Fingersmith. I read her Affinity earlier in 2002, so I think it's safe to say that 2002 was the year I discovered Sarah Waters. What I can't believe is that I haven't read anything by her since! I've had The Night Watch waiting on my shelves for ages so I really must rectify that next year.

So, what else was I reading 7 years ago? I started off October with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. I wrote in my journal that I was so glad to have finally read these, to read the original text instead of the Disneyfied version. As I've never played chess and don't have a clue about the rules, I'm pretty sure I didn't quite get all the references in Through the Looking Glass, but it was still a fun read. And  I'm looking forward to the Tim Burton film of Alice in Wonderland coming out next year.

Next up was some Canadian lit, Martin Sloane by Michael Redhill. What I jotted down at the time: The characters, especially the absent Martin Sloane, linger long after the book is over. The story was perhaps a bit weak in places but emotional while remaining subtle, and in it's own way quite haunting. I do remember liking it, and as I still have my copy I should probably try to reread it someday. In mind I also associate Martin Sloane with Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved, another one I want to reread some time, or other literary fiction where art plays an important role.

Quite a few of the books I read during these two months were for online group reads. This was before I started blogging but back then I used to belong to several Yahoo Book groups, and I really have them to thank for getting me to read books I might not have otherwise. And it's thanks to those groups that I started compiling a wishlist and began collecting books at a faster rate than I read them. To look at my massive TBR (To-Be-Read) mountain of unread books now, all I can do is sigh.  I don't regret it though.

The next book I read, Empire Falls by Richard Russo, was also a group read. I don't remember the discussion anymore and although I know there are fans of Russo, I wasn't particularly enamoured by this book. I have to admit that I don't even remember the story at all now either, but in my journal I wrote that I thought that other than the main character, the other characters weren't fleshed out enough. That the story had possibilities that just weren't realized. If I were to try another book by Richard Russo, which one would you recommend?

Then it was to Victorian England with Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters.  This is probably my least favourite of Waters' three Victorian novels but that's not to say that it wasn't also very good. It was definitely a very fun romp! Sarah Waters does such a great job at setting the atmosphere, and describing the characters, you can't help but become engrossed in her stories, at least I can't.

I ended October with Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland. As it's a collection of loosely connected stories rather than a single narrative, perhaps unsurprisingly I liked some more than others. I've had Vreeland's The Forest Lover on my TBR stack for ages and really should try to read it sometime. I'm sensing a trend here.  Looking back at these titles, I don't think I've read any of the authors since, and for most it's not out of not wanting to.  My how the time flies!

I started November with some light reading, Bookends by Jane Green. I wrote in my journal, "not bad for chicklit although the main character's storyline was so very predictable."  Well, it was chicklit after all. 

Next up was the wonderful Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. A completely engaging, well-written, atmospheric, twisty story. My favourite of these two months and it even made my Top 5 List for 2002. If you haven't read it yet, you really must!

My next read was a play, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, which I read before going to see it performed at the National Theatre in London. Glenn Close played Blanche and it was a truly fabulous performance. Ah, I really miss going to the theatre. Some of the big musicals do play in Japan but they're performed in Japanese by a Japanese cast! Besides the language comprehension issues, I just can't imagine watching something like Les Misérables, or Cats, in Japanese!  Oh well, I'm glad I did get to see some great plays and musicals while we lived in England.

In reading, I ended November with another chicklit, Pastures Nouveaux by Wendy Holden, but it was one that I quite enjoyed. In my journal I called it "delightful British chicklit" that reminded me of a modern version of a Jane Austen story, and I'm a big fan of Jane. 

So not a bad couple of months worth of reading.  As for my reading this month here in 2009, it's not going as well I'm sad to say.  I've really been struggling to read and blog this fall, a combination of a lack of time, and to be honest a little bit of burn out.  I am hoping to get back in the swing of things soon though.  And I am reading, just not as much or as quickly as I would like.  Right now I'm in the middle of In the Wake of the Boatman by Jonathan Scott Fuqua and am quite enjoying it so far.  I'm planning to start The Old Capital very soon, for the Japanese Literature Book Group, as the discussion date is fast approaching.   The discussion will begin on Monday, the 30th so that leaves me a week.  Plus I'm also still reading Northanger Abbey on my iPhone whenever I'm stuck in a train commuting, and am about half way through it as well.  So some fun books on the go, if only I could find more time to spend actually reading them.  I also posted my review of Big in Japan: A Ghost Story this week, which was another interesting release from Chin Music Press that reminded me a little bit of Ryu Murakami.

What are you reading this week?  What were you reading in years past? 

Have a good week everyone!

The small print:  Links in this post to Amazon (including book covers) and The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

'Big in Japan: A Ghost Story'

by M. Thomas Gammarino
Fiction, 2009
Chin Music Press, pb (ARC), 209 p.
While playing to lackluster crowds in their hometown of Philadelphia, progressive rock band Agenbite clings to the comforting half-truth that they’re doing better in Japan. When their manager agrees to send them on a shoestring tour of that country, however, they’re swiftly forced to give up their illusions and return Stateside.

All but one of them, that is.

Brain Tedesco, the band’s variously haunted chief composer, has fallen in love with a part-time sex worker – the first woman ever to have touched him – and his illusions have only just begun. What ensues is a Dantesque coming-of-age tale in which Brain must navigate the borderlands between fantasy and reality, past and present, sex and death – even as forces beyond his control conspire to undo him.

By turns compassionate and ruthless, erotic and grotesque, riotously serious and deadly funny, Big in Japan: A Ghost Story is a sparkling, gut-wrenching, face-melting debut novel. [From the back cover]
As you know, I’m always happy to read books that somehow relate to Japan, so I was thrilled when I was contacted by Chin Music Press about their latest title, Big in Japan, which just came out on November 1st.

What stands out for me about this book is how we really get into the brain of Brain! (sorry, couldn’t resist!) The main character, Brain (formerly Brian), is so socially inept and naïve, it’s hard to believe there actually are people like him out there. However, his awkward social maneuvers and the thought processes behind them did make for some amusing reading.

Brain wasn’t happy go lucky to begin with, but his gradual descent into despair was like watching the proverbial car crash in slow motion. What was fascinating though was following the process, and seeing the events, which ultimately led to the final scene. I never liked him as a character, but I almost felt like I understood how he could reach such a low point. The story was all a bit odd and unsettling, but mostly in a good way. The way that gets under your skin and stays with you even after you’ve finished the book.

I should warn you that the book does contain scenes of graphic sex and colourful language. If it were a movie, it would most likely be rated an R. As such the story was rather crude at times and one scene in particular was quite … um… revolting. A Western man’s obsession with Japanese women isn’t an original storyline in itself, and it’s taken here to the extreme, but when I occasionally wondered what the heck I was reading, Gammarino’s writing pulled me along and kept me engaged in the story. And when I closed the book after reading the last page, I couldn’t help feeling that underneath all the sordidness, at the heart of the story there lies something much deeper, almost philosophical, about human relationships and desire.

Review in Metropolis magazine
Music playlist for Big in Japan

Thank you to Jennifer of Chin Music Press for the opportunity to read this book.

Buy this book at: Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Chin Music Press

My Rating: 3.5/5
(#57 for 2009)

The small print:  This book was received free of charge from the publisher for review purposes.  Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) and The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

'I Am a Cat' Volume One (JLit Read-along)

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Welcome to the Japanese Literature Read-along discussion of Volume One of I Am a Cat by Sōseki Natsume.

A little background:
Natsume Sōseki is the pen name of Natsume Kinnosuke. He was born in 1867, and is often regarded as one of the best Japanese writers of the Meiji era.

I Am a Cat was originally published as a short story (what is now chapter one), but because of its success, he was encouraged to develop the story further. I Am a Cat was published in ten installments, in the literary journal Hototogisu, between 1905 and 1906.

From the back cover:
I Am a Cat is the chronicle of an unloved, unwanted, wandering kitten who spends all his time observing human nature - from the dramas of businessmen and schoolteachers to the foibles of priests and potentates. From his unique perspective, author Sōseki Natsume offers a biting commentary - shaped by his training in Chinese philosophy - on the social upheaval of the Meiji era.
The original Japanese title of I Am a Cat, Wagahai wa neko de aru, has a much deeper meaning than the simple English translation. The language used is very formal, and highly inappropriate for an unnamed stray cat turned house cat. So the satire begins from the very title itself.

A bit of trivia:
Sōseki Natsume used to feature on the 1000 yen bill. This series was retired in 2004.

Vocabulary and Cultural Context
There are plenty of references, many of which I probably didn't catch myself, but these are some of the ones that I thought might enhance your understanding.
(Click on the links for more information.  Page numbers refer to the Tuttle Publishing, Three Volumes in One Edition, ISBN: 080483265X)

He has a weak stomach and his skin is of a pale yellowish color, inelastic and lacking in vitality.  Nevertheless he is an enormous gormandiser.  After eating a great deal, he takes some taka-diastase for his stomach and, after that, he opens a book.  (p. 6)
Taka-diastase is a digestive enzyme discovered by Dr. Jokichi Takamine in 1894.
Photo © Mitsui & Co., Ltd.

The next day, when, as always, I was having a pleasant nap on the veranda, the master emerged from his study (an act unusual in itself) and began behind my back to busy himself with something.  At this point I happened to wake up and wondering what he was up to, opened my eyes just one slit the tenth of an inch.  And there he was, fairly killing himself at being Andrea del Sarto.  I could not help but laugh.  (p. 10)

After the two men left, I took the liberty of eating such of the boiled fishpaste as Coldmoon had not already devoured.  (p. 29)
Boiled fish paste, or kamaboko.
Image © www.kamaboko.com

From my same old place I watched his morose consumption of a typical New Year's breakfast of rice-cakes boiled with vegetables, all served up in soup.  (p.30)
Rice cakes, or mochi, is made by pounding cooked rice until it is a sticky mass.  The soup is called o-zoni, and the soup stock and types of vegetables included varies widely in the different regions of Japan, but it always includes mochi. The later incident of the cat dancing around the kitchen with mochi stuck in his teeth was very funny. Mochi is indeed very sticky, and even more so once the hot soup softens it up.

"My wife had earlier asked me, as a year's-end present to herself, to take her to hear Settsu Daijo. I'd replied that I wouldn't say no, and asked her the nature of the program for that day. She consulted the newspapers and answered that it was one of Chikamatsu's suicide dramas..." (p. 81)

"... They said that as they had used the very best quality, it would last longer than most memorial tablets. They also said that the character for 'honor' in Tortoiseshell's posthumous name would look better if written in the cursive style, so they had added the appropriate strokes."
"Is that so? Well, let's put Myoyoshinnyo's tablet in the family shrine and offer incense sticks." (p. 89)
A Buddhist family shrine, or butsudan, is still a common sight in many Japanese homes but seems to be less common with young Japanese.

Then, simultaneously erecting every single one of my eighty-eight thousand, eight hundred, eighty hairs, I shook my whole body. (p. 91)
The number 8 is considered a lucky number in Japan. It also has many occurrences in Buddhism and as such is considered an auspicious number for Buddhists.

But when, one of these days, some master sculptor, some regular Hidari Jingorō, comes and carves my image on a temple gate... (p. 92)
There is apparently some doubt as to whether Hidari Jingorō was a real person, but he is said to have carved the nemuri neko (sleeping cat) on one of the gates at Nikkō Tōshō-gū, a famous Shinto shrine in Nikko, to the north of Tokyo.

The proof that he has not attained enlightenment is that, although he has my portrait under his nose, he shows no sign of comprehension but coolly offers such crazy comment as, "perhaps, this being the second year of the war against the Russians, it is a painting of a bear." (p. 24)

He spoke excitedly, in a tone of voice appropriate to an announcement of the fall of Port Arthur. (p. 113)

"...But it's positively shameful that a citizen of Tokyo should never have visited the Sengaku-ji Temple." (p. 114)

We visited Sengaku-ji in March 2006.

A few guidelines for the discussion:
Feel free to discuss anything that happens in Volume One. That said, please beware that if you haven't yet finished reading Volume One, the COMMENTS MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS. Please read at your own risk.

And speaking of warnings, DON'T READ THE INTRODUCTION, to the Tuttle edition at least. I should have known better but I read it and it spoiled the ending!

Also, if you have gone on to read further in the book, please wait to discuss specifics of Volume Two until next month. However, if you'd like to bring up a general question, please do so and that way I'll keep an eye out for it in my own reading.

You are welcome to post your thoughts or questions any time. Even if you haven't had a chance to start reading yet, please feel free to join in later.  For those participating in the discussion, I would suggest checking the box to subscribe to follow-up comments so that you will be notified when new comments have been left on this discussion post.

If you have posted about Volume One on your own blog, please leave a link in the comments and I'll update this post with your links so that we can all visit.

I think it goes without saying, but please be respectful of other people's opinions. It's our different perspectives or insights that will make the discussion more interesting. And there are NO stupid questions! If there is something in the text that you wondered about, don't hesitate to ask about it. We may not know the answer but we can try to figure it out together. 

OK, with that out of the way, here are a just few simple questions to get the discussion ball rolling, but please do feel free to comment on any aspect of the story.

What do you think of the story so far?  The schoolteacher?  The cat?  The schoolteacher's 'friends' who are always telling tall tales?
Have you had any difficulties reading the first volume?  Any burning questions?
What impression do you have of Japan from this portrayal?
As it's a satire, what do you think the author is saying about Japan, and this class of people?
What name would you give the cat, if you could?  Or do you like the fact that he remains nameless?
(Your question here... )

The following participants have shared their thoughts on Volume One:
Gnoegnoe at Graasland
Terri B. at Tip of the Iceberg
Claire at Paperback Reader
Mee at Books of Mee

The small print:  Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) contain my Associates ID.  Purchases made via these links earn me a small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sunday Salon: October in review

Note: No, I haven't forgotten that today is the day our Japanese Literature Read-along group will begin its first discussion, on Volume One of I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki. I'll work on the post when we get back from our photo outing this afternoon. So stay tuned.

I've missed posting something for the Sunday Salon for a few weeks. First it was the read-a-thon, and then just life getting in the way. All I can say is that the one good thing about not being able to blog much lately, and therefore not able to visit other blogs, means that I haven't been adding many titles to my wishlist either.  Since my wish list is already very very long, I suppose this is a small positive.

My reading is still going pretty slowly (I keep falling asleep pretty much whenever I finally sit or lay down with a book) but thanks to the read-a-thon I was able to read 6 books in October. That actually sounds better than it is though since most of them were quite short but they made for some enjoyable reading nonetheless.

I started off the month in a small town in New Mexico where I had to make some important changes to my life.  Next it was to Edinburgh, Scotland where I discovered a shocking secret about my friend, Dr Jekyll.  Then I spent some time attending the Cross Academy, where the students in the special night class are actually vampires.  After that it was to District 12 and Panem, in the not so far future in America, where I battled for my life in the Hunger Games.  My life was again in danger as I travelled in the dead of winter in the Mouse Territories in the year 1152.  And finally I ended the month in a small town in Switzerland where some shocking things occurred and mass hysteria ensued.  



Books completed
(click on the titles below to read my reviews; the book covers are linked to Amazon)
50. The Road from La Cueva - Sheila Ortego
51. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales of Terror - Robert Louis Stevenson
52. Vampire Knight, v. 1-3 - Matsuri Hino
53. The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
54. Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 - David Petersen
55. The Vampire of Ropraz - Jacques Chessex (review pending)



Best of the month? It's hard to choose. The writing in The Road from La Cueva was lovely. The art in Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 was fantastic. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was fascinating, even knowing the outcome in advance. The Vampire Knight series and The Hunger Games were fun to read. And The Vampire of Ropraz was an intriguing look at human reaction and panic in the face of disturbing, unexplained events. I guess if I absolutely had to choose though I'd go with Mouse Guard, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but really they were all good!

New-to-me authors:  Five out of the six were new to me.  The only one I'd read before was David Petersen with the first Mouse Guard book. Winter is the second in the series.  I really enjoyed all of these books and hope to read more by all of these authors. 
Books in Translation:  2  (The Vampire Knight manga series is translated from the Japanese, and The Vampire of Ropraz was translated from the French.)

Books in: 5 (3 purchased, 1 giveaway win, 1 for review: Mouse Guard: Winter 1152, which I've already read, The Summer of Ubume by Natsuhiko Kyogoku, Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, Away by Amy Bloom, Hell by Yasutaka Tsutsui)
Books out:  3 (I was very late sending out the books from my Book Blogger Appreciation Week giveaways.  Sorry.)

The Year of Readers: Reading for the Book Wish Foundation.
Money raised this month: $11
Total raised (year to date): $152

Reading Challenges Progress Report
(see sidebar for current challenges)

Completed
R.I.P. IV Challenge: 4 books

I ended up doing all my R.I.P. reading in October.  I'd set out to complete Peril the First, to read 4 books, which I accomplished but I'd hoped to read quite a few more.  Sigh. I'm halfway through Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen and enjoying it all over again.  This is one of the Austen titles that I haven't reread since I first did in my teens, quite a few years ago now, so, having forgotten much of it, it's almost like reading it for the first time.  And I plan to read at least a couple more R.I.P. type books anyway in the next month or so.  Thanks again for hosting, Carl!

Dropped
1% Well-Read Challenge

Joined
YA Dystopian Reading Challenge (by Dec. 31, 2009):  1/3
DystopYA Reading Challenge (by Dec. 31, 2009):  1/3

Ongoing
Dewey's Books Reading Challenge (by Dec. 31, 2009): 3/5
Lost in Translation Challenge (by Dec. 31, 2009): Completed - 16/6
Orbis Terrarum Challenge (by Dec. 31, 2009): 9/10
What's in a Name? 2 Challenge (by Dec. 31, 2009): 5/6
Herding Cats II: Attach of the Hairballs (until Dec. 31, 2009): Completed - 3
Manga Challenge (by Dec. 31, 2009): Completed - 7/6
Graphic Novels Challenge (by Dec. 31, 2009): 4/6
ARC Reading Challenge (by Dec. 31, 2009): Completed - Current ARC/Review status (for 2009): 14 read, 7 to go
Everything Austen Challenge (July 1, 2009 - Jan. 1, 2010): 2/6
Japanese Literature Challenge 3 (July 30, 2009 - Jan. 30, 2010): Completed - 3/1
Canadian Book Challenge 3 (July 1, 2009 - July 1, 2010): 1/13

Long-term Reading Projects (Total read in 2009)
Reading Japan Project: 16 (including manga, 1 in October)
Orange Prize Project: 0

October was also the first month of the Hello Japan! mini-challenge. Thanks to everyone who has participated so far. I hope you'll enjoy experiencing a little bit of Japan for many months to come.

Reading plans for November
The month is already half over but my first priority this month has been reading the first Volume of I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki for the Japanese Literature Read-along, and then I need to start soon The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata for the Japanese Literature Book Group at the end of the month.  I also should focus on some review books that I'm a bit behind on, and then maybe a challenge book or two if I can squeeze them in as the end of the year, when many of them finish, is fast approaching.

Other random bookish news:
I've been wanting to buy some Persephone books for quite a while now, but have held off, as I just know that once I start I'll want them all, which will be very bad for my wallet. But I could no longer resist when I found about the Persephone Secret Santa, so I signed up and I can't wait to finally get my first Persephone book! I also need to choose one for the person I am Secret Santa for. I'm going to browse the Persephone website over the next couple of days but I'd love to have a place to start. So please tell me your favourite Persephone titles.

I've also joined the Book Blogger Holiday Swap which should be a lot of fun. Despite the fact that we're still getting some pretty warm days, mixed in with the cooler ones, I think I'm starting to get into the holiday spirit!

And I'm also excited because I just might be able to go to Book Expo America in New York in May next year! So yay for all the bookish goodness. 
Have a good Sunday everyone, and happy reading!

The small print:  Links in this post to Amazon (including book covers) or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.

'Mouse Guard: Winter 1152'

Written and Illustrated by David Petersen
Fiction/Graphic Novel/Fantasy, published previously as 6 individual issues, this collected edition published Fall 2009
Archaia, hardcover, 180 p.
The Winter of 1152 turns out to be a cold and icy season, and the Guard face a food and supply shortage threatening the lives of many a mouse in the Mouse Territories. Some of the Guard’s finest – Saxon, Kenzie, Lieam, and Sadie, with the old grayfur Celanawe by their side – traverse the snow-blanketed Territories acting as diplomats to improve relations between the mouse cities and the Guard, and seeking vital supplies for their headquarters at Lockhaven. But hungry predators, the dangers of ice and snow, and a wrong turn into the haunted depths of the abandoned weasel tunnels of Darkheather place even so intrepid a band of Guardsmice in mortal peril. This is a winter not every Guard may survive… [From the dust jacket]


Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 continues the story of the brave, loyal protectors of the Mouse Territories after the rebellion that took place in Mouse Guard: Fall 1152. The main characters are the elite members of the Mouse Guard, and it was wonderful to see them grow and develop a little in this collection. And despite the fact that it’s again a pretty straightforward adventure tale, there were some touching moments. Like in the previous book though, it’s all about the art. The colours are so vivid, and the detail is truly stunning. I don’t know what else to say about it so I’ll let the art speak for itself. I’ll just say that I think anyone who has enjoyed other books like The Tale of Despereaux, or movies like Ratatouille, will definitely love this series. Plus the good news is that Petersen is apparently working on a third series, Mouse Guard: Black Axe. Definitely something to look forward to.

For more information, visit the Official Mouse Guard website, and David Petersen's blog.



Buy this book at: Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk | BookDepository.co.uk | BookDepository.com

My Rating: 4/5
(#54 for 2009, Graphic Novels Challenge)

Also reviewed by:
Read About Comics


All images © David Petersen

The small print:  I purchased this book for my personal library. Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) and The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

'The Hunger Games'

by Suzanne Collins
Fiction/YA, 2008
Scholastic, trade pb, 455 p.
Winning will make you famous.
Losing means certain death.


In a dark vision of the near future, a terrifying reality TV show is taking place. Twelve boys and twelve girls are forced to appear in a live event called the Hunger Games. There is only one rule: kill or be killed.

When sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen steps forward to take her sister’s place in the games, she sees it as a death sentence. But Katniss has been close to death before. For her, survival is second nature.
[From the back cover]
To be honest, when I first heard about this book, I wasn’t all that interested in it. I’d seen the movie, Battle Royale, a few years ago and it sounded somewhat similar. Not to mention the other stories, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lord of the Flies, The Lottery, and the reality shows Survivor, and Big Brother that it’s been compared to. I wondered why people were getting so excited about a book that didn't seem very original, and I have to say that I’m really not a fan of reality TV. I do often like dystopian fiction though, and with all the hype surrounding this book, and these characters, on blogs and Twitter, I finally gave in. So I bought both books and set them aside for the read-a-thon. (This was a popular idea, as there were quite a few of us reading The Hunger Games during the recent read-a-thon). I haven’t got to Catching Fire yet, the second book in the trilogy, but I can say that The Hunger Games was a great read-a-thon book. It’s easy to read, and with lots of action and suspense, the story certainly kept me turning the pages. And even though we know that the main character will survive (1st person narration in her voice, and of course the fact that this is the first in a trilogy of books), it was still a very engaging, entertaining read. It may not be literary fiction but it was a lot of fun. It’s just the kind of book to get lost in for a few hours.

But again with the honesty, as much as I liked it, which I did, don’t get me wrong, perhaps more than I thought I would, I didn’t love it to bits like so many others have done. I had planned to read some other books during the read-a-thon as well but I could’ve just continued on with Catching Fire if I’d really wanted to. However, after reaching the end of The Hunger Games I just wanted a break from all the Drama, with a capital D. Somehow for me, the romance aspect of this story, so far anyway, is the least interesting part of it, and I guess I just felt it might be another love triangle à la Bella/Edward/Jacob, which I wasn’t quite in the mood for that weekend. I am curious to know how the rest of the story turns out though so I’ll definitely be continuing with the series. From what I understand, the second book ends with a cliffhanger so I think I’ll try to wait until closer to the release of book 3 before I read it.

Suzanne Collins website
Interview with Suzanne Collins
Read or listen to a sample chapter of The Hunger Games.

Buy this book at: Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk | BookDepository.co.uk | BookDepository.com

My Rating: 4/5
(#53 for 2009, R.I.P. IV Challenge, YA Dystopian Challenge, DystopYA Challenge)

Also reviewed by:
1morechapter.com
Paperback Reader
Life and Times of a "New" New Yorker
The 3 R's
My Fluttering Heart
Devourer of Books
S. Krishna's Books
Monniblog
Medieval Bookworm
Stephanie's Written Word
Books I Done Read
GalleySmith
At Home With Books
Nothing of Importance
Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Maw Books Blog
Bibliolatry
Hello, My Name is Alice
Bart's Bookshelf
Shhh I'm Reading
Bookmarked!
Diary of An Eccentric
Farm Lane Books Blog
Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin'?
My Friend Amy
Bobbi's Book Nook
Lesley's Book Nook
Have I missed yours? Let me know and I'll link to it here.

The small print:  I purchased this book for my personal library. Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) and The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

'The Frozen Deep'

by Wilkie Collins
Fiction/Classic
First published from August to October, 1874
Hesperus Press, pb, 103 p.
Exchanging vows of love with sailor Frank Aldersley the night before his departure on an Arctic expedition, Clara Burnham is haunted by the memory of Richard Wardour, and his mistaken belief that they will one day marry. With her gift of ‘Second Sight’, Clara foresees terrible tragedy ahead and is racked by guilt. Allied to different ships, the two men at first have no cause to meet – until disaster strikes and they find themselves united in a battle for survival. It cannot be long before they discover the nature of their rivalry, and the hot-tempered Wardour must choose how to take his revenge.

Based on the doomed 1845 expedition to the Arctic, and originally performed as a play starring both Collins and Dickens, The Frozen Deep is a dramatic tale of vengeance and self-sacrifice which went on to inspire the character of Sydney Carton in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.        [From the front book flap]
I had a feeling I was going to enjoy this story right from the start, as I couldn’t help but smile at the short opening paragraph.
The date is between twenty and thirty years ago. The place is an English seaport. The time is night. And the business of the moment is – dancing.
It sets a nice scene, don’t you agree? I’ve been in the mood for a classic or two lately (I’m also in the middle of re-reading a Jane Austen) so this was a good fit, and it was good to finally read something else by Collins as it has been a few years since I read The Woman in White.

I have to admit that I think this was the first time I’ve ever read anything about that “doomed expedition to the Arctic” so I really didn’t know much about it. However, reading this short fictional account inspired me do a little research. OK, this consisted mainly of reading up on it at Wikipedia and a couple of other websites, but it was enough to provide some details about what actually happened. In Collins’ tale, names and events have been significantly changed, and it has a considerably different outcome than the historical reality. But I can understand why it would have still been a topic of much interest when Collins wrote the story about 30 years after the actual expedition, and even still is today.

As always, it was also interesting just to spend a little time in the 19th century, observing how their lives were different from ours now, and just how long everything took. In this day and age of cell phones and easy internet connectivity and even satellite phones, it’s hard to imagine waiting years for news!
Mrs Crayford rises, and puts down the volume that she has been reading. It is a record of explorations in the Arctic seas. The time has gone by when the two lonely women could take an interest in subjects not connected with their own anxieties. Now, when hope is fast failing them – now, when their last news of the Wanderer and the Sea-mew is news that is more than two years old – they can read of nothing, they can think of nothing, but dangers and discoveries, losses and rescues in the terrible Polar Seas.
As the story is told in just around 100 pages, there’s not a lot of room for detail so we don’t get to know the characters as well as I would've liked. I especially would’ve liked more on Clara, and her ‘Second Sight’. The ending was also what I expected yet somehow I was still kept wondering for sure right up to the last. Ultimately, it can’t compare to the depth and twisty-ness of The Woman in White, but it was an enjoyable read all the same. Collins is definitely a master storyteller. I’ve got a copy of The Moonstone on my stack that I’m looking forward to reading and hope to get to before too long.

Read The Frozen Deep online

Buy this book at: Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | BookDepository.co.uk | BookDepository.com

My Rating: 3.5/5
(#56 for 2009)

I read this as part of The Classics Circuit Wilkie Collins tour which started this week and runs to December 10th. Visit the site for more information or see the full list of all Wilkie Collins tour stops.



The small print: Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) and The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Hello Japan! - November: Are you hungry?

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I'd hoped to get this posted a little earlier but here is the Hello Japan! mini-challenge for November. But first a quick recap for anyone who is new. Hello Japan! is a monthly mini-challenge focusing on Japanese literature and culture. Each month there will be a new task which relates to some aspect of life in Japan. Anyone is welcome to participate. You can post about the task on your blog. Or if you don't have a blog, you can leave a comment on the Hello Japan! post for the month. Everyone who completes the task will then be included in the drawing for that month's prize. For more information, just click on the Hello Japan! button above, or if you have any questions please feel free to email me at inspringthedawn AT gmail DOT com.

November's Topic

In a comment over on Paperback Reader's post for the October mini-challenge, one of Claire's readers jokingly asked if eating sushi counted towards the Hello Japan! mini-challenge. Then in a comment on October's link roundup, Kristen M. said about the next challenge [for November], "I hope it involves tempura". Well, you are going to get your wish! November is all about Japanese food. I hope you're hungry!

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November's Task

This month the task is simply to eat Japanese food, take a picture if possible, and tell us about what you ate. You can go to a Japanese restaurant, or make something at home. It can be a favourite dish, or you can challenge yourself to try something new. The choice is up to you.

If Japanese food is something you haven't really tried before, or you would like some ideas of other types of Japanese food, check out these links, because of course it's not just sushi!

JapaneseFood.About.com: For lots of recipes, an introduction to Japanese cuisine, Japanese table manners, and much more.
Eat-Japan: Search for recipes by entering an ingredient (ie. tofu, shiitake, miso) in the Keyword Search. This site also has a listing of Japanese restaurants in the UK.
japan-guide.com: A list of popular Japanese food.
Book of Yum Blog: For a few gluten-free recipes including gluten-free vegetarian yakisoba recipe, some gluten-free vegetable side dishes and a couple others. :)

Or you could borrow a Japanese cookbook, like Harumi's Japanese Cooking, from your local library.

The main purpose of this month's task is simply an excuse to enjoy some good food, and maybe even learn a little something in the process. If, however, you don't have access to any Japanese food, no restaurants nearby, no supermarkets that carry Asian food, but you'd still like to participate, you can tell us what you would like to eat if you could, or you could look up something relating to Japanese food,  Japanese chopsticks etiquette, for example, and tell us why you should never leave chopsticks sticking up vertically in a bowl of rice. And even those of you who are busy writing novels for NaNoWriMo this month, you still have to eat! ;)

November's Prize

One person who participates in this month's mini-challenge will be selected at random to receive this pair of chopsticks and chopstick rests.

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Once you have completed the task, don't forget to come back here by the end of November and add the link to the Mr Linky below. Please submit the link to the actual post, not just to your top page, and please only submit links to posts relating to the Hello Japan! task for this month. All other links will be deleted. Thank you for your understanding!