Strange Weather in Tokyo

Strange Weather in Tokyo

Title: Strange Weather in Tokyo
Author: Hiromi Kawakami (English translation: Allison Markin Powell)
Publication date: 2001 (English translation: 2012)
Country/culture: Japan

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

Strange Weather in TokyoWhat’s it about?

Tsukiko is drinking in a bar one night when she encounters a former teacher; they strike up a conversation, and continue to meet, talk, eat and drink over the coming months. Gradually friendship starts to deepen into something more, and Tsukiko must come to terms with her feelings, both of love and loneliness, in order to find happiness.

What did I find out?

One of the reasons I decided to do the Book Diaries slightly differently this year, i.e. take inspiration for my writing rather than for my life generally, was because of the theme I’d chosen: world literature. I realised that if I didn’t give myself a tighter focus, the ‘new things I found out’ would, for every single book, be the same: learning about a different country or culture.

This is not to decry the value in such discoveries – far from it – but it would have led to some very repetitive blog posts: ‘I found out about life in Nigeria‘, ‘I found out about life in Alaska‘, etc. So, as the purpose of this blog is to use books as a starting point for making personal changes, I chose instead to look for elements that I could relate to my overarching objective for this year: my writing.

However, there have been times when my overwhelming response to a book has had very little to do with writing – and this is one of those occasions. I’m therefore taking a pause, just for a short while, to acknowledge the ‘otherness’ of the cultures I’m reading about, and to reassure my own readers that I’m not oblivious to the impact these books are having on me: it is substantial, and goes way beyond the mere process of writing a novel. The issues I raise in these blog posts are only the ones I’m consciously teasing out: there will be many more cogs turning at a subconscious level, affecting me in ways I can’t yet see – but which will, nevertheless, change me (and, by consequence, my life) from this point forwards.

What do I now see differently?

I’m generally drawn to genre fiction rather than literary fiction; I can read it more quickly, it grips me more and I get caught up in its world more easily. Strange Weather in Tokyo is not what I would call genre fiction; it has more of the qualities that I would associate with literary fiction – a focus on the inner thoughts of the main character, a plot that drifts like smoke rather than running on a set route, and an utter joy in the beauty of language and evocation of setting.

And I found it a dream to read. I didn’t get weighed down with ruminations on the meaning of life and love, as I might have expected to with this kind of work; I merely went with the flow and enjoyed myself.

This was quite a novel experience for me, and it has reassured me that I don’t need to worry overmuch about distinctions of ‘genre’. Even if I am writing something more commercial than literary, I can still aim to imbue it with beautiful language: I needn’t sacrifice style and art for plot. True, this may prove to be more difficult in practice, but I am nothing if not stubborn, and having a high standard to aspire to is merely another challenge I intend to set myself.

How will this inspire my writing?

I’ve been aware for a while that ‘sensual’ details help to bring writing to life – descriptions of smells, tastes, and so on – but it’s often felt like a rather forced procedure: ‘oh, I need to add in a bit about how the ice cream melted on her tongue, how the scent of roses awoke memories of his childhood, etc’. This is not always something that comes naturally, and it’s been one of those things I’ve known I must practise in order to get right.

On reading this book I was reminded of how effective such details can be and why they are worth including. Tsukiko and Sensei frequently meet in a local bar; they eat there as well as drink, and the descriptions of the food are relayed each time in very specific detail. The texture of the sushi, the aroma of a stew cooking, even the consistency of the leftover bones… nothing is omitted. This appeal to our senses helps to embed us in the scene, and everything feels more real and personal as a result.

A number of my characters don’t eat and drink as such, as they are ghosts and don’t have normal human appetites. However, I’m intrigued to think that I could use this as another way of pointing out their ‘otherness’. Humans need and love food, even to the extent that our mouths water when reading about it, but ghosts don’t (or can’t) enjoy it in the same way. How better to distinguish between the dead and the living than by homing in on one of the key things that makes humans ‘human’?

A musical interlude

Sometimes I agonise for days over which song complements a book, but this track popped straight into my head. The life and culture of the performers is a world away from that described in the novel, but there is a strange mixture of beauty and quirkiness in both the song and the book that make them feel like a perfect fit.

It’s Madness, and It Must Be Love.

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited

Title: Brideshead Revisited
Author: Evelyn Waugh
Publication date: 1945
Genre: Fiction

What’s it about?Brideshead Revisited

Charles Ryder befriends the flamboyant Sebastian Flyte at Oxford University, and is soon drawn into his world. The idiosyncratic and aristocratic Marchmain family, their country house Brideshead and their Catholic religion all become intertwined with Charles’s own life, which will never be the same again.

Where did I get hold of the book?

For a change I got this one from the local public library. I now have a small studio space at our pop-up community arts centre, where I do some of my writing, and as this is in town, the public library is just a short stroll away.

What did I learn from it?

I learned that we can have an impression of a book without reading it, which isn’t necessarily borne out once the content has been consumed.

Before I picked up Brideshead Revisited, I was very familiar with what I thought was its basic essence. Friends of mine had watched the TV series during my schooldays in the ’80s, and I was aware that there was a flamboyant, upper-class character called Sebastian with a teddy bear by the name of Aloysius. I also recalled that reminiscences of halcyon days at Oxford University featured heavily. That was about all I knew, and as I’d been to Oxford myself, I thought it would make a pleasant, nostalgic read.

How wrong I was. While Oxford and Sebastian do play a prominent role in the first part of the book, this is merely an introduction to this dreamy, privileged, moneyed world. Later chapters see Sebastian flee abroad in an alcoholic haze, while Charles becomes a painter, gets married and travels South America. His relations with the Marchmains are by turns close, distant and then close again. There are deaths, infidelities and disappointments, and a significant part in this ongoing drama is played by the Marchmains’ Catholic faith and its exigencies.

The book was therefore not quite as I expected, but in a good way – it was so much more. And I now know not to make any assumptions about the content of ‘well-known’ books in the future!

How did it make me see the world differently?

Despite what I’ve just said, I can’t pretend that the ‘Oxford’ content wasn’t a favourite part of the novel for me. I found myself avidly working out which colleges they lived at, which streets they walked down, which tea shops and pubs they frequented… all of this holds so many memories for me, it would have been impossible not to take myself back in time.

And this reminiscence did cause me to think a little more about my life now, and how it differs from the life I had then. Like Charles in the prologue and epilogue to the book, I am now about (well, a little more than) twenty years on from my time as a student, and the need to be a grown-up, earn a living and contribute usefully to society has overtaken the leisurely days when my time was more my own. Don’t get me wrong: I did work hard, but there was still a much greater freedom from schedule and the opportunity to explore life and its many different options.

Compare that to now, and daily routine is to a large extent determined by the requirements of employers followed by a simple desire to collapse in an exhausted heap at the end of the day. And yet I know I have the chance to do something about this, to re-create my days more in line with the freedoms I enjoyed of old. My freelance work does not take up all of my time, and it genuinely is up to me to choose how I spend the rest of it.

For a long while I’ve felt obliged to do things that the world deems ‘useful’, to make the most of the time I have and not waste it on frivolities. But a feeling is growing in me, which I think started with my last entry, Rebecca, and which now seems even stronger. Throughout my life I have done, and continue to do, a lot of work that is useful and helpful to others. I still have a drive to do more – but I also know that I need to give myself a break from time to time. Not only do I need to focus on the solitary activities that I naturally most enjoy, I also need to let myself laze in the sunshine now and then and do nothing.

The life of the idle rich isn’t open to me, and I don’t think it would be particularly satisfying if it was – but I can at least allow myself a few pleasures while the opportunities are available.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

The Book Diaries, Volume 1: A Trip Through TimeIn addition to the more general intention expressed in the above paragraphs, I now have something very specific to make plans for. The Book Diaries, Volume 1: A Trip Through Time (a collection of last year’s posts, with additional material) is scheduled to be published in October, and I need to give some thought to how I’m going to spread the word.

In Brideshead Revisited, Charles returns from South America with a large collection of paintings that he then shows in an exhibition. So I’ve been inspired to look at alternative ways of promoting my book: not just by posting information across the web but by looking at, for example, what events I could put on to create interest and get people involved. An exhibition? A talk? Something interactive? The possibilities are only limited by my imagination.

For the first time since starting this blog and deciding to create a book from it, I feel that the finished work is in sight. I now have something to aim for. I truly believe that the insights I’ve gained over the past year – and the as-yet-unpublished account of how easy (or otherwise) it was to make the promised changes – could help open up new pathways in others’ lives, and I need to go full steam ahead to get this message out there.

Bearing in mind the above lesson in being solitary and doing things my own way, this means that whatever I choose to do is likely to be extremely non-traditional. I’ll be interested to see what I come up with…

A musical interlude

The song I’ve picked for this post is, technically, the opposite sentiment of that experienced by many of the characters in the novel. The Marchmains all, to a greater or lesser degree, respect their Catholic faith, with some of them returning to it even after they appear to have lapsed. It is one of the main themes of the story.

However, there is enough sin and guilt and angst for me to consider Losing My Religion by REM to be not entirely inappropriate as this week’s video choice. Enjoy.

A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms

Title: A Farewell to Arms
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Publication date: 1929
Genre: War drama; romance

What’s it about?A Farewell to Arms

The American Frederic Henry volunteers with the Italian ambulance service during World War I, and falls passionately in love with nurse Catherine Barkley. The story follows his growing discontent with the war, and the couple’s attempt to escape and live a normal life together.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I borrowed this one from a librarian friend, which has reminded me that I still have a couple of other books of his that I ought to return sometime soon…

What did I learn from it?

I learned a lot about the war, specifically a side to it that I previously had no knowledge of. I remember studying this period for O-level History, and covering all the familiar subjects such as how the war started, Gallipoli, no-man’s land and so much more. But the setting of this novel was a complete mystery to me: the Italian-Austrian front rather than the French-German one; the lives of the ambulance and hospital staff rather than the soldiers in the trenches; and the experiences of an American volunteer before the United States had even joined the war – all this was totally fresh ground. And it was absolutely fascinating.

I often say that I’m not keen on descriptive narrative, that I prefer action and dialogue (maybe that’s my long history of amateur dramatics coming out); but reading this novel I found that my perceptions shifted slightly. Possibly because I was learning about a new environment, I saw the descriptions of the countryside, the food, the weather, the people, as inherently part of the unfolding narrative rather than as merely a backdrop. Whilst I realise that this should presumably always be the case, I’m afraid that I do sometimes get impatient with ‘dark and stormy nights’. But here I didn’t. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

How did it make me see the world differently?

As so often happens when I’m reading, it’s not that I suddenly see things in a light I’d never considered before, but that I get a reminder of a vital message. This time it was the shortness of life and the realisation that you never know when everything you hold dear will be ripped away from you. Whether it’s war, interpersonal conflict, sickness or other circumstances beyond your control, on no given day can you tell whether this will be your last chance to appreciate or enjoy something (or someone).

The story illustrates how any situation or event in our life, by default, tears us away from something else; and the importance we attach to each situation will change as we develop and grow. Frederic Henry volunteers for the ambulance service even when his country is not yet in the war; he becomes very attached to his colleagues. He then falls madly in love with a nurse at the hospital, but even this is not enough to cause him to quit active service; it is only when Italian fortunes take a turn for the worse and people on his own side turn on him that he decides ‘enough is enough’. But now that he has a chance to find meaning and purpose elsewhere, does this mean a happy ending is granted to him?

I won’t spoil the end of the book by revealing the answer; but I will say that just because I may not live in a front-line war situation does not mean that I can take what I have for granted.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Although this year I was determined to make my ‘changes’ definite and measurable, rather than merely attempts to alter my attitude, it’s perhaps not a bad thing to have the odd mental shift thrown in amongst all the practical actions. And so I will learn from what I have written above, and do my best to ensure I ‘seize the day’ and live life as fully as I can, just in case the unexpected happens and I end my days full of regrets and ‘what ifs’.

I’ve made a lot of promises over the past year to just get on with my various creative projects, and time and time again I fail to deliver. So this year I will take on board another message that I’ve received from this book, which is to care significantly less about the opinions of anyone who (a) does not care about me or (b) I do not care about. I have spent a lot of time fretting whether the work I do will be unappreciated or, even worse, criticised by complete strangers, and whether that means I am a bad, worthless person. And, frankly, I am exhausted.

In the novel, when Frederic hears that he is going to be arrested, he and Catherine do not sit meekly by and let the police dictate the course of their lives. They escape to another country, because they have decided that no-one but they themselves and those close to them have the right to decide how their lives should be lived. And so I am going to take a leaf out of their book.

I will be interested to see if this makes a difference…

A musical interlude

Harking back to the 1980s this week, with this rather appropriate classic from Dire Straits…

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Lady Chatterley's Lover

Title: Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Author: DH Lawrence
Publication date: 1928
Genre: Romance

What’s it about?Lady Chatterley's Lover

The wealthy Lady Chatterley conducts an extramarital affair with her husband’s gamekeeper, and discovers true love in the process.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was from the university library. At the time of writing I’ve just realised that it’s due back today, so I’ve had to make an emergency call to renew it!

What did I learn from it?

The book is set in industrial Nottinghamshire, which is not too far away from where I grew up in Lincolnshire (although my home village is a fairly picturesque rural setting rather than grimy mining country). It was therefore fascinating to read about the landscape and social history of this region, as I’d never really paid much attention to it before. It’s often the case that we ignore what’s on our doorstep and reserve our explorations for more distant destinations, so it was good to learn a bit more about this neighbouring county: specifically, the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the personal and working lives of its inhabitants.

The setting for the Chatterley’s stately home is the fictional Wragby Hall. There is actually a village in Lincolnshire with the name Wragby, so I did have to look it up to check whether this wasn’t in fact the basis for the hall in the novel – but no, the real-life Wragby is much further to the east, closer to the beaches of Skegness than the pits of the Midlands. Still, on a recent trip home to see my parents, I did pay somewhat more attention than usual to the placenames leaping out at me on the road signs as I barrelled along the A50 from Stoke to Nottingham.

How did it make me see the world differently?

It was slightly depressing to read about the social concerns of Constance Chatterley and Mellors, the gamekeeper, and wonder whether anything has really changed in the 90 or so years since the novel was published. The lovers are drawn together not just by the thrill of romance, but also because they share a perspective on life. Both characters mourn the passing of beauty and creativity, and regret the growing encroachment of money as a driving force throughout society. Those in poverty fixate on earning money because they have to; those with wealth fixate on getting more and more of it because they can.

I read their exchanges on this subject and could easily be reading a description of the world we are in now. I am fortunate, however, in that I have a number of people in my life who share my views and to whom I can talk without fear of being misunderstood. Lady Chatterley and Mellors, in their environment, seem to be two lost souls who have found each other – and it is this more than anything, more than the sex, I think, that leads them to develop such love for each other. Despite the class difference, he is more of a soulmate to her than any man of her own class she has known.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Reading about the creeping industrialisation of the landscape made me feel grateful for the countryside we have left to us. Again, I am very lucky in that I have an expanse of National Trust parkland within 5 minutes’ walk from my front door. I regularly go out for a morning constitutional around this beautiful woodland and meadow – but I find that I often use this time for processing thoughts, ideas and problems in my head, clearing my brain so that it’s ready to start the day.

While this is a very valuable exercise, I’ve realised that I don’t pay anywhere near enough attention to the scenery around me, and that is a crying shame. So I will make an effort to notice it more: not give up my thought processing entirely, but ensure that at certain points on my walks I will stop and take in the wonderful display of nature around me, and actively feel gratitude that I have this in my life.

A musical interlude

This time it couldn’t really be anything other than Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, could it?!

Tarzan of the Apes

Tarzan of the Apes

Title: Tarzan of the Apes24-book challenge
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Publication date: 1914
Genre: Pulp fiction/adventure/romance

What’s it about?Tarzan of the Apes

Lord Greystoke and his wife, the Lady Alice, are marooned on the West African coast, where they manage to survive long enough to have a son. Within a day of the boy’s first birthday, both his parents are dead and the infant has been taken by a female ape to replace her own lost baby.

Named Tarzan (‘White Skin’), the boy grows up amongst the apes, learning their way of life and behaving as they do. However, when he chances upon the cabin formerly inhabited by his parents, he discovers books and pictures that suggest his ancestry is not what he has grown up to believe. Through the books, he teaches himself to read and gradually learns a little about the world of men.

His world is turned upside down when another group of humans is marooned on the same stretch of coast. Through meeting Jane Porter, Tarzan discovers what it is to love; and his attempts to help the newcomers survive result in his being taught to speak French by one of them.

By this time, Jane and the others have departed, and so Tarzan sets out on a dual mission: to discover his true identity and to reclaim the woman he loves. To find out whether he succeeds in both these aims, you will have to keep reading right up to the very last sentence of the novel.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

The university library didn’t stock it, and the public library catalogue was down when I tried to access it. As I’d left it a little bit late, I didn’t really want to spend time going to the library only to find it wasn’t there, so I was very pleased to find a ebook version available on Kindle for only 59p.

What did I learn from it?

I learned that the attitudes of less enlightened times can affect my enjoyment of what is otherwise a rollicking adventure story. As much as I tried to tell myself that Burroughs was merely a writer of his age (and, for all I know, more forward thinking than his peers), his perspectives on racial issues and gender roles still grated.

I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy the novel: it is possible to appreciate the romance, be carried away by the swashbuckling and the derring do, and gasp in awe at Tarzan’s physical prowess, without slamming the book shut in disgust. But I could never quite lose myself in it, as Jane’s subservience and the portrayal of the African natives as savages kept leaving an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

On a more positive note, I learned a little about the art of tracking beasts in the jungle (Burroughs gives quite a detailed description of the techniques Tarzan uses); and I learned that the science of fingerprinting was already being used by the police at this time.

How did it make me see the world differently?

The story brought up the whole issue of nature versus nurture: what aspects of Tarzan’s behaviour are intrinsic, and what has he merely been taught? Of course, this touches upon the abovementioned problem of Tarzan’s supposed racial superiority: he is portrayed as having a natural inclination towards honourable behaviour, and we are told that this is because of his high-born ancestry.

But even if we don’t subscribe to this view, the balance between nature and nurture is still fiercely debated to this day. How can any of us really tell which aspects of our personality are determined by genetic inheritance, and which by habit and environment? It is impossible to recollect the time before our behaviours became ingrained, and so we can never really know the true origin of our inclinations.

In the end, we all have the ability to make a choice about how we interact with the world. Even if certain traits are naturally present in us, we are not obliged to express them; and, even if our upbringing does not involve swinging from branch to branch through tropical forests, we can still make decisions on which elements of our life we wish to keep hold of and which we need to let go.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Oddly, when I finished this book, I was rather stuck for ways I could use it to move forward. My reading this time had come at the end of a very busy couple of weeks, and I felt totally out of sync with my own life: I’d lost all sense of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do.

So it felt quite ironic to realise that what I’d lost was my own intuition: the sense of knowing instinctively what was right for me. And I realised that one lesson I could learn from Tarzan was to get back in touch with it! Despite the above point about choosing how we behave in civilised company, we still need to know what drives us underneath, so that we may tell what we can afford to sacrifice for the sake of social niceties and what we can never afford to abandon if we wish to remain true to ourselves.

The other thing I found myself hankering for was the ability to swing through the trees to freedom! And I realised that, even if I had the technical ability, I am seriously lacking in fitness. So I’ve decided to start looking out for some sporting activities I can do to increase my strength and stamina.

I’m not a gym bunny or an aerobics fiend: if I’m going to get active, it needs to be something in the open air, that feels like fun rather than hard work. And I remember I’ve always fancied trying something like rock climbing or hang gliding. They may not quite replicate the experience of jungle life, but it’ll sure beat sweating on a treadmill day in day out!

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!