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I got a pretty sweet book haul this Christmas (and a bottle of oyster vinegarette – books and oysters, my two favourites!)

I hope everyone has had as equally wonderful a Christmas season as I have ❤

“Sometimes,…our ignoble desire to read private letters is matched by a letter-writer’s ignoble desire to be read.”

I used to send my first ex-boyfriend postcards from each new city I visited, for quite a while after we stopped seeing each other  – unsigned, of course; a dramatic moment never passes me by.  I’d usually get a coy text message in response, “someone’s been sending me mail, I wonder who that could be…”

Cute, right? Vomit inducing. But I still wonder what happened to those postcards, even now nearly a decade on – are they tucked away in a drawer somewhere? Were they read and chucked straight in the bin? Were they even read, and I mean read, those short lines I’d imbued with so much meaning?

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A postcard I sent to my parents from NY. It still holds pride of place on their fridge.

And there is meaning in hand-written communication; the particular weight that time, thought, and effort offers up, that can’t be replicated by any other means – emails and text messages are but pixels; even a typed, printed letter doesn’t quite have the same power as something hand-written.

imageIt’s this power that John O’Connell explores in his book, For the Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication, published 2012.

I don’t generally like light history books; I tend to find them a bit toothless in both content and analysis, and a bit forced in their attempts to be airily amusing. The blurb on For the Love of Letters’ dust jacket made it sound like just that kind of book, but I’m glad I worked through my initial cringe and read it anyway. O’Connell is not only genuinely witty and deeply knowledgable about the history of letters, but the deeply personal context of the book set it apart for me.

The book opens with O’Connell preparing to pen a reply to a letter of condolence, hand-written and sent by a friend following the death of O’Connell’s mother; and closes as he completes his reply – a copy of which is included as an epilogue, a touch which adds a particular legitimacy to the narrative. What happens between is an agile trip through the history of letters, from the rhetorical theory set out by Isocrates around 400 BC, the origin of the modern postal system, to famous letter writers and styles – love letters, advisory letters, letters confronting death.

It’s light history, light philosophy, and light humour, but it’s the personal and charming elements of the book that make it a satisfying read – it feels far more like having a conversation with an old friend than anything else.

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I’m always interested in how people attempt to shore up their lives against time, the kinds of precautions we all take to safeguard our experiences against the unsympathetic eye of reality and history, so I am likely the kind of reader O’Connell imagined appreciating his book.

…the reason we write letters is the main reason we write anything: to convert the chaos of our lives into solid, time-locked narrative.
The writing of narrative, any kind of narrative, helps us stay sane by convincing us that we are stable, autonomous individuals moving smoothly through the world. (p. 22)

Perhaps I’ll spend this holiday season writing some letters of my own.

John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is so steeped in the character of New Orleans that it is impossible to imagine that the novel could exist anywhere else. Even though I loved the novel dearly when I first read it years ago, it took on an entirely different life after I visited New Orleans in person.

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It’s Ignatius J and I!

If, like me, you can’t get enough of the world of A Confederacy of Dunces, you should head over to An Ignatian Journey! A walking tour audio guide and a detailed story map, the site describes and explains a number of the places in New Orleans that appear in the novel, and were significant to author John Kennedy Toole.

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I can’t wait to head back to NOLA to give the walking tour audio guide a go, but reading through the story map is more than enough to make me feel like I’m right back there. Each of the 36 stops on the map are full of photographs (historical and contemporary), relevant quotes from the novel, and historical and cultural information on the locations. The narrative was written by Cynthia LeJeune Nobels, and she has done an excellent job in bringing the energy and quirks of Ignatius J Reilly’s New Orleans to life.

The site is a great addition to the scholarship around A Confederacy of Dunces, and will become even more valuable as each year passes, and the city of New Orleans inevitably changes. This is the real power of the app, in my opinion – the tidbits that make the 1960s New Orleans of the book accessible and palpable to visitors of the city as it exists today. One nugget that I personally love is that the former Dr Nut soft drink plant at Elysian Fields is now the site of Dirty Coast Press (see entry 12)! I rep their shirts at every possible chance (I’ve got two more coming in the mail, as it happens!), and now I’ll feel an extra layer of connection to the city when I wear them!

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities did a wonderful thing by commissioning this project, and couldn’t have chosen better people to bring it to life.

Do yourself a favour this holiday season –

  1. read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces;
  2. visit An Ignatian Journey and pretend you’re there tramping those streets;
  3. buy and read A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook, cook all the food and glut yourself in a way that would make Ignatius J. Reilly proud.

There’s plenty of things I miss about living in Japan, but pretty high on the list is book shopping. Hard-copy books and brick-and-mortar book stores still occupy a space in Japanese life that they sadly no longer do in other countries (like Australia, unfortunately). Even though I was only back in Japan for a two week holiday this time around, with a tightly scheduled itinerary (…well, tightly scheduled stumbling from bar to restaurant to bar to late night ramen), book shopping was still high on the priority list.

Straight white men are sadly overrepresented in my bookshelf, and I make a point to seek out and support writers that aren’t straight, white, or male. I do have a particular interest in the experiences of women, so I was excited to discover Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women by Kittredge Cherry waiting for me on a Fukuokan bookshelf.

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Cute dust-cover.

Womansword is a collection of short essays on the context, use, and implications of a number of common Japanese words and phrases relating specifically to the experience of womanhood in Japan.  The words are collected loosely into themed chapters – childhood, work, domestic life, sexuality, and ageing. 

Some of the terms included in the book are hilarious, and probably going to make their way into my speech. One such fantastic term is gokiburi teishu – or “cockroach husband”. As Cherry notes, “what could be more useless, annoying, and downright repulsive than a cockroach in the kitchen? A husband in the kitchen…” – not the most fair, modern, or accurate take on the division of domestic duties, but justified by the idea “that meal preparation actually takes longer with the ‘help’ of any inexperienced cook”, and that the kitchen was traditionally one of the only places that women felt “no pressure to bolster the male ego” (p. 58).

Cherry also explains the structure of the kanji characters used for many of the words and phrases. For example, the character for woman (女) repeated three times forms a character which means cunning or wickedness (姦). This character forms part of the verb “to seduce” or “to rape” (姦する), or part of the adjective “noisy” (姦しい). Charming. As Cherry notes, “there is no character composed of three male ideograms”, the implication of this being “that a trio of men getting together is nothing remarkable.” (p. 26)  While the commentary on the ideograms used in Japanese is particularly interesting if you have a knowledge of Japanese (and would have been really helpful while I was studying!), the explanations are both clear and succinct enough to be interesting to anyone with an interest in how languages work.

While the book is focused on the specific experience of Japanese women in Japan through the lens of Japanese language, many of the issues described in the book parallel the experience of woman worldwide, from the silly to the serious – clashes with mothers-in-law (p. 133), the struggles of infertile women (p. 90), the difficulties of finding equal work for equal pay (p. 103).  I started writing this review a fortnight ago, in a very different state of mind. Japan could certainly do better by women, but the recent US presidential election has proven that plenty of places can do better by women. I also believe that it’s white ignorance and complacency that leads to so many problems. I’m certainly not ignorant of the privileges I enjoyed living in Japan as a white, Australian woman; that as an outsider I had a wider degree of latitude to say and do things that other women don’t have, especially at difficult times. The only way forward is to understand where our own privileges lie in a system that benefits certain populations over others; and when not challenging that systematic privilege, to use it to bolster those who don’t share it.

Anyway. Womansword was first released in 1987 and reissued in 2002. The updated introduction to the 2002 edition notes a number of the cultural and legal changes in Japan since the book was first published – broader sexual harassment and child abuse laws, rising numbers of single mothers, and controversy surrounding the legalisation of the contraceptive pill – but the content of the book remained (as far as I can tell) unchanged. Unsurprisingly, the book is now somewhat dated, but remains nonetheless a fantastic read – especially to see what has (and hasn’t) changed.

One part that tickled me, and that I had never heard of before, was door-to-door condom saleswomen, known as “skin ladies”: I thought that this was surely too weird to be true to any great extent (rare to say regarding Japan), but it was actually a thing, from the end of World War 2 to the early/mid 80s!

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Definitely better to buy door-to-door than from this nasty condom vending machine on the streets of Kyushu… including super racist packaging!

I was pretty happy to learn that a 30th Anniversary Edition of Womansword is due to be published later this November (it’s already added to my Christmas list…) While some online reviews of the forthcoming edition note some of the more recent inclusions – Prime Minister Abe’s “womanomics”, and the term “x-gender” for people who identify as non-binary or genderqueer, for example – it’s hard to tell exactly how much has been updated. But given the speed at which Japanese slang emerges and morphs (and the changes in legal and social attitudes to women in the last 30 years, of course), I would like to think that a significant amount of the book has been updated. I can’t wait to find out!

 

And it seemed then, with the affectionate gesture, the reassuring smile that accompanied it, the pleasant walk home, that the episode was closed, the incident over, but what incident, where flattery, even of a dubious nature, is involved, is ever over for a woman? What episode, in which she’s admired, however obliquely, is ever really ended? She will reopen what seems to you a finished chapter, and manage somehow, to add a disconcerting epilogue to some drama you assumed was done with quite some time ago.

– p. 40, In Love, Alfred Hayes

“Tainted. It’s a funny word, isn’t it? Is it like fruit, rotten a bit? But not completely spoiled?”

I’m not much into romances (doomed or otherwise), and I have little time or sympathy for self-pitying men (fictional or otherwise), so Alfred Hayes’ 1953 novel In Love is not the kind of book I would usually be drawn to, much less enjoy. I’m glad I put those doubts aside and ordered a copy anyway  – it might only be the end of July, but I think In Love may be my favourite read of 2016.

In Love begins with a man of nearly 40, propping up a bar mid-afternoon in New York, telling a pretty young thing about the decline of his last affair. A fairly dreary setting, for a fairly dreary protagonist. Despite the man’s poetic reminiscences, it’s a largely unsatisfying relationship for both of them, once lust and convenience are both discounted – he is “often bored… with absolutely nothing to say to her” (p. 28), she is “frequently depressed” (p. 28), lonely and self-conscious. With no desire to commit to her in any kind of way, the protagonist’s interest is only really piqued once she leaves him, for a (somewhat) more reliable, and richer, man.

Men are never more interested in a toy than when someone else wants to play with it.

… the temporary possession of her had given me the illusion that it [my life] was not, while I had her, barren; now that she was gone, the barrenness that she had temporarily helped conceal lay exposed. It was because we thought so much that love could save us, that having nothing else but the dry labor of our work we looked so anxiously toward love. (p.60)

Had Hayes been a less skilled writer, In Love could have quickly descended into either sentimental dreck or tedious whining, but Hayes’ prose is simply glorious – it’s the reading equivalent of slipping into a warm bath.

She always insisted that she could remember every detail of the very first evening we were together; how, for example, there was snow falling, and how the taxi meter, a little yellow glow above it, ticked, and how she felt, excited, in the interior of the heated cab, touching hands, but sad too, sad inside, the way you feel when you like a man, and when you know that with him it will happen, and you’ve made up your mind even before it happens so that he doesn’t really have to ask you, it’s something… you feel and he feels, a pleasurable tension between you, a silken tightness, waiting to get to a place, his apartment or yours or a friend’s room or a hotel, or even a deserted country road, so that you sink into a trance of waiting, a deliciousness that’s somehow sad, too, and you feel, because of the sadness both there and not there, inside the cab and holding hands and not inside the cab at all and not holding hands at all. So that there must have been, for her, a momentary pang of something lovely, something that the hush of whiteness and the somnolent heat of the cab gave her. Perhaps it was the anticipation, that moment sustained by the drive home, when one is in a taxi with a stranger who is about to be transfigured into a lover, and there is an interval, as in music, when the chord of desire has been struck, and the chord of the fulfilment of desire hasn’t; when everything remains suspended and anticipatory, and the snow falls through the air of a city whose ugliness is temporarily obscured, and the cab itself seems to exist inside a magical circle of quiet heat and togetherness and motion; and, I suppose, for that moment, it is beautiful: the snow, and everything. (p.20-21)

I do so love a good unreliable narrator, and despite gestures towards self-awareness of his own faults, the narrator of In Love is neither reliable or particularly likeable. The unnamed female love interest is far more interesting, and far more sympathetic. That’s despite some of the more bitter commentary:

And I thought, suddenly, that all these women, accompanied or unaccompanied, alone or on the arms of men, going somewhere now on the street, must be enacting within themselves little dramas of copulation as equally calculated as hers. That, really, the city was nothing but a huge bedroom, with some office buildings attached, as they said in the army, for rations, and that for each of these women there was an absolute conviction that the universe was arranged for only one end: her in bed. (p. 111)

It’s a great pity that Hayes isn’t more well known, and In Love isn’t considered an American classic. I feel like the speed at which both cultural attitudes and literary trends changed in the 1950s meant In Love might have seemed unappealingly outdated soon after its publication, but good things never really go out of style.  I feel like I’ll be coming back to In Love time and time again.

I suppose no evening is ever again like the very first evening, the nakedness ever again quite the nakedness it is that first time, the initial gestures, hesitant and doubtful and overintense, ever again what they were, for nothing we ever want ever turns out quite the way we want it, love or ambition or children, and we go from disappointment to disappointment, from hope to denial, from expectation to surrender, as we grow older, thinking or coming to think that what was wrong was the wanting, so intense it hurt us, and believing or coming to believe that hope was our mistake and expectation our error, and that everything the more we want it the more difficult the having it seems to be… (p. 23)