Books on the Tatami by the Futon

Our far-flung correspondent Takumashii, in Alabama (formerly of Osaka, via Chicago), muses on how, upon arriving at someone’s home, we immediately make a beeline for their bookshelf and “the knicknacks”. Trouserpress, of lesser-flung (from here) Nara, adds “record collection,” to which I immediately nod agreement, and which poignantly dates both him and me (my nephews would think we mean those things that Guinness compiles, and that we had a set of them on our bookshelf, which they would consider pretty cool). My correspondents then both relate what they’ve got on their bedside tables.

Now I don’t have a bedside table, and my bed is a foldaway mattress on the floor with two old futons on top of it (comfort, not style: I am Canadian). Like an Ozu movie, much of my home life is observed from a camera set some 50 centimetres from the tatami floor. For the record, my current reading pile is:

Fowler’s Modern English Usage: you’d think I’d know this stuff by now.

Kodansha’s Compact Kanji Guide – a dictionary of the characters used in Japanese writing (which the Japanese call, confusingly, “Chinese characters,” or kanji: 漢字). You’d think I’d know this stuff by now, too.

The Warrior’s Camera, by Stephen Prince – a book (borrowed) about the films of Akira Kurosawa. The style is a bit textbookish (and this poorly-edited second edition, although put out after Kurosawa’s death, still has several irritating present-tense references about a man who – since 1998 – can only be referred to in the past). Once you get over that, it’s an insightful analysis of Kurosawa’s work, particularly on the influence of Zen on Kurosawa’s world view (for the record, I prefer his postwar contemporary dramas to most of the samurai stuff, but I’ll probably come around eventually).

Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell – This second-hand copy was given to me by a Japanese friend who used to spend a lot of time in New York. I take it off the shelf from time to time, open it virtually at random and read a few pages. These are bits of reportage written for the New Yorker from the 30s to the 60s. Mitchell’s beat was the characters, eccentrics and holy fools of New York City and and the ordinary working folk of its environs. Some people complain that Mitchell’s style is dated and contrived, to which I reply it is completely of its time, like flies in amber, thus timeless. My grandfather and his brother were nearly exact contemporaries of Mitchell, and I recognized the cadences of their storytelling and kibbitzing and reminiscing the minute I opened the book. Of course, they would never have dreamed of picking up The New Yorker (far too highbrow for them, and they lived in Nova Scotia, after all), but I often wish they’d lived long enough to read this compilation, especially the “Old Mr. Flood” section.

– The Yomiuri Shimbun (読売新聞), newspaper for June 16th. Now and then, I get ambitious and buy the evening edition of the paper (such things still exist here), glance at a few short articles, try a longer one, give up until a time which never comes. This explains the kanji dictionary (see above).

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith. It doesn’t carry me along as fast as White Teeth, but I’m working my way through. She’s good on set pieces, like anniversary parties, group dinners at restaurants, where we get to see many characters interact. Sometimes I wonder whether the world really needs another book about an adulterous university prof in disillusioned mid-career. In fairness, though, he’s only one character. Smith’s dialogue doesn’t quite click the way it did in White Teeth, but her descriptive powers and wry observations are still there. I’m about halfway through.

Diary of a Mad Old Man, by Jun’Ichirou Tanizaki – One of those short books which take forever to finish. I’ve been picking this up and putting it down since March. Something about it keeps me going – if nothing else, the memory of the livelier books of his younger days. It’s going to end, like most of his books, with the conclusion that men are masochistic slaves to their hormones and women are cruel, manipulative creatures with beautiful feet, and he loves them for it. Don’t know why I bother. The Tanizaki household must’ve been a real laff-riot.

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