Reading Books Around the World: Japan

Though traveling is at a minimum these days, traveling through books is still a great way to view and learn of other cultures. This year I’ve been making a conscious effort to read books around the world by jumping into the #readtheworld21 challenge.

January was #JanuaryinJapan. I’ve read three books from Japan and have several more on my TBR. In fact, at this point, I could have just made the whole year “reading in Japan.” However, I have been trying to keep up with the other months as well, which I will discuss in future posts.

For Japan, I’ve read Before the Coffee Gets Cold, The Housekeeper and the Professor, and The Great Passage.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi takes place in a cafe where if you sit in a certain chair, you can go back in time to a certain time of your choosing. You will be poured a cup of coffee before you leave and you must come back before the coffee gets cold. Also, you must understand that you can change nothing. So, why go back? Four different people with four different reasons take the challenge to see someone one more time even if nothing can be changed by it.

“I was so absorbed in the things that I couldn’t change, I forgot the most important thing.”

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa is a small but beautiful book of how a housekeeper and her son care for a mathematics professor whose memory has been impaired by an accident. After eighty minutes, his mind “refreshes,” so every day the housekeeper has to reintroduce herself to the professor who always asked her for her birthday and tells her the importance of that number. Though he keeps sticky notes on his jacket to remind him of important facts (like the name of his housekeeper), it is a constant challenge to both of them. The professor becomes very fond of the housekeeper’s son, calling him “Root” because his flat head reminds him of a square root. They both love baseball, so there’s the added bonus of reading about baseball as well as prime numbers.

“he seemed convinced that children’s questions were much more important than those of an adult. He preferred smart questions to smart answers.”

In The Great Passage, Araki has been working on a new dictionary (not for the faint of heart!) and is about to retire, so when he hears about the odd man in sales who sounds like the perfect man to help him continue his project, he snatches him up. Majime, who never seems to fit in with his love for antiquarian books and his linguistic background, finds that working on a dictionary is exactly where he needs to be.

You will not be bogged down with the details of making a dictionary though there are some interesting insights into what goes into tracking down words and their meanings. And what if you leave out a word? Disaster is always just around the corner. But it’s the characters, their relationships, and how they come together in spite of their differences that make this an enjoyable story.

“Any dictionary, no matter how well made, was destined to go out of date. Words were living things.”

“Reading the dictionary could awaken you to new meanings of commongly used words, meanings of surprising breadth and depth.”

This is just a small slice of Japanese literature. What these three books have in common (besides their Japanese culture) are their quirky and charming characters who are going about every day tasks and learning more about themselves as well as others.

On deck: A Midsummer’s Equation by Keigo Higashino and Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami.

Any suggestions? What parts of the world would you like to travel to?