“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.

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!

 

“Mother doesn’t cook… she burns.”

A couple oimagef weeks ago I posted my pretty enthusiastic reaction to the publication of A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook. I’m well aware that I’m a small fish screaming into the abyss of a very big Internet sea, so I was boggled when author Cynthia LeJune Nobles got in touch, offering to send me a copy of the book. Once I got over the immediate suspicion that I was having some kind of hallucination, I was so thrilled by such a generous offer, and when the postman handed me that padded envelope postmarked Baton Rouge today I may have deafened him with my undignified squealing.

Having been a huge fan of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces novel for years, having only recently returned from my first ever visit to New Orleans, and being very familiar with the kind of presence food has in both book and city, I was already head-over-heels by the mere concept of a cookbook companion for A Confederacy of Dunces. I had such high hopes for Nobles’ cookbook, and it exceeds them all. From the cleverly designed front cover right down to the meticulous indexes (I love a well done index, don’t judge me), A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook: Recipes from Ignatius J. Reilley’s New Orleans is an absolute treasure.

The book is so much more than a standard cookbook – a mix of new and classic Louisiana recipes, exposition on characters and locations that appeared in or inspired the novel, and extensive research on the cultural and culinary landscapes of 1960s New Orleans, with quotes from the novel scattered throughout. It’s nice to finally appreciate the significance of places like the Prytania Theatre, Fazzio’s Bowling Alley, and the Woolworth’s store where Burma Jones is accused of stealing cashews – which had been the actual site of a September 1960 civil rights sit in.

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Burma Jones’ mentioning pickle meat, accompanied by a “what the hell is pickle meat anyway?” write-up.

The nearly 200 recipes in the book come from a range of sources. Some of the recipes are for the many, many foods directly referenced in the book – wine cakes, macaroons, stuffed eggplants, pralines, red beans and rice, “potatis” salad”. Others are based on Nobles’ close reading and creative interpretation of the original text, such as Toole’s description of Ignatius in his green hunting cap “looking like the tip of a promising watermelon” lending itself to Nobles’ recipe for “A Promising Watermelon Salad” (p. 41). Still other recipes find their origin in the broader milieu of the novel – recipes central to New Orleans life (twelfth night cake, turtle soup), recipes belonging to places central to the book (like those remembered from the long-gone D.H. Holmes department store), and recipes based on food trends and habits of the 1960s.

The recipes are split across 15 chapters, with each chapter written around a theme inspired by the novel – the D.H HolmDSC08282es department store, the Louisiana seafood industry, the Lucky Dog hotdog company, even a chapter of recipes for John Kennedy Toole himself. I particularly like that in addition to the thematic introductions at the start of each chapter, almost all of the recipes come with their own mini-introduction. These give more specific details about characters, plot points, Louisiana locales, and general food history, adding a lovely depth to the general chapter information. You’re left in no doubt about how each recipe fits in with the A Confederacy of Dunces world, proving exactly how well each considered each recipe’s inclusion in the book is.

Much to my personal delight, there’s 10 – 10! – oyster recipes, and a recipe for pickled okra. I never forgave myself for running out of luggage space and having to leave those jars of pickled okra unpurchased in that French Market pickle shop, but now I’ve comforted myself by making my own.

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Bet I’ll end up eating the whole bottle in one sitting.

The book is fantastically researched, absolutely brimming with detail from start to finish. It doesn’t seem right to call it a labour of love though; the love is evident – love of food, love of New Orleans, love of A Confederacy of Dunces – but there isn’t even a hint of the laborious about it. Each aspect of the book is strong – the recipes are independently interesting and delicious sounding, it’s a great resource for mid-20th Century New Orleans history, and it makes a wonderful contribution to A Confederacy of Dunces scholarship.

You can get an idea of what kinds of recipes and informational tidbits you’ll find in the book on Noble’s pinterest page – but the full book is well, well worth having in your collection.

A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook: Recipes from Ignatius J. Reilly’s New Orleans, by Cynthia LeJune Nobles, is available from LSU Press or amazon.com.

“You’re a bad banana with a…greasy black peel!”

imageNo other time of year seems to lend itself better to redemption stories than Christmas; It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, even the story of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, that perennial redemptive favourite by Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, needs little introduction, so here’s some Grinchy information!

Which Grinch is which?
While the story has retained all its Seuss-y rhyming glory even after nearly 60 years, it’s become difficult to separate the original with the popular image – largely influenced by the 1966 TV Special, adapted by Suess’ friend and famed Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones.  The original Grinch is drawn in black and white, red eyes the only colour given to him, while it was Jones who gave him his now-famous sickly green shade. Even some of the most iconically Grinch-y facial expressions can be attributed to the 1966 special instead of the book.

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The real Grinch?
The Grinch is the first adult (not to mention the first villain) to be a lead character in a Dr Seuss book, stating he’s put up with the Whos’ Christmas-ing for 53 years. Seuss was 53 in the year he wrote and published the book – so it’s hardly a long bow to draw to compare the two – but Seuss himself made explicit his identification with the Grinch in a 1957 article in Redbook: “I was brushing my teeth on the morning of the 26th of last December when I noticed a very Grinch-ish countenance in the mirror… So I wrote about my sour friend, the Grinch, to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.”seuss grinch

The Grinch: second-rate bible-basher
Written and published within a single year, 1957, Geisel claimed the Grinch was one of his easiest to write. With most of the book finished in a mere matter of weeks, the ending was a different matter – Geisel later stating, “I got hung up getting the Grinch out of the mess. I got into a situation where I sounded like a second-rate preacher or some biblical truism… Finally in desperation… without making any statement whatever, I showed the Grinch and the Whos together at the table, and made a pun of the Grinch carving the ‘roast beast.’… I had gone through thousands of religious choices, and then after three months it came out like that.”

It’s hard to imagine the ending any other way – a lovely, simple realisation with a lovely, simple resolution. It’s a grumpy old-person kind of thing to complain about the commercialisation of Christmas, but with Australians spending somewhere between just over $1000 and $2500 each over the holiday season, depending on who’s estimates you believe, it’s hard not to have those inklings (…maybe my horror at those figures says more about me, count this as an admission of my poverty). If it’s not just me, maybe that’s why How the Grinch Stole Christmas has remained a favourite for as long as it has – the Grinch’s attitude at the start of the book is all too easy to sympathise with, but we can all do with a reminder of the fundamental truth of the season:

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