The Things She Owned by Katherine Tamiko Arguile

I’m not the right person to read or review this, it’s way out of any of the areas in which I read. Superior chick lit might be the most apt description? I bought it because the author owns a little cafe complete with bookshelves in Adelaide CBD: Booknook and Bean. Isn’t that as good a reason as any to buy a book?!

That said, I read the whole thing in next to no time, so it’s eminently readable and will be a good choice for anybody looking for an easy read and/or something with a lot of interesting background on Japan, particularly at the end of WWII and the subsequent years.

I bought it during lockdown and Imprints bookseller, also in the CBD, was kind enough to deliver it and a Nick Cave book, adding some cheer to those strange days.

 

 

 

The Just Bento Cookbook 2 by Makiko Itoh

I calculate at the rate of 12 years x 40 weeks x 5 days, that I ate 2400 lunches at school, every one of them prepared by my mother. My superhuman mother had four children, so she made going on for 10000 of these damn (as she may have thought) lunches, on top of working full time and studying almost full time. Every single one had the same components: a sandwich – if it was cheese it was Kraft, that one wrapped in alfoil in a box – fruit, and for morning tea either a simple cake or biscuits she made herself. Definitely the highlight. On Mondays, lack of fresh bread meant that they were cold toasted sandwiches, an ugh for we children who critiqued our basic lunchtime fare. At some point she started making them in bulk and freezing them. It didn’t seem to make much difference to us, defrosted or fresh. And in the waste not, want not way of the world back then, once she started using gladwrap, we would bring it home, she’d wash it, hang it out on the line and it would get used again. And again.

So for me, the idea of a bento lunch is fantasy world. I love the occasional lunchtime bento restaurant outing as a grownup, but I look at it and think ‘all that trouble’, ‘all that time’. Who can do that? Maybe people like S-L, who makes her own lunch to take to work and introduced me to Makiko Itoh’s blog. But my mother? Surely not.

Having said that, the thing that is most striking about Itoh’s writings is that they are dominated by the pragmatism of saving time, eliminating trouble. She manages to walk some very fine line between this and maintaining the aesthetics of food that are so important to Japanese culture. Each bento box section addresses the following:

  • the things to save time – so much can be cooked and frozen ahead of time, or prepared and kept in the fridge for a few days
  • the things that need to be done in the morning
  • things that need to be done to ensure eating safety.
  • the aesthetics of how to pack the box

She also constantly stresses health considerations, both specific – if you need low salt then….if you need sugar free then…. – and general – variety is the key to healthy eating, the more colours you have on the plate the more balanced and healthy your eating will be.

One of the things that attracted me to the Just Bento blog was that Itoh lives in the French countryside, not so far from me. This lends itself to thinking out of the box (so to speak), being adaptable, using what is available in one’s local area. Itoh’s pragmatism is seen in her flexibility as to what one can put in a bento box. She isn’t constrained by ideas of being true to tradition. She suggests lots of dishes which start off as a dinner dish, with the left-overs becoming part of the bento lunch, and Western dishes find places in her suggested menus. Buy pre-cut and packaged vegetables, tinned fruit – she is not judgemental about these things.

In any case, what is tradition? We see through this book, that the idea of ‘bento’ in Japan is no fixed, timeless thing. Hence her section on ‘Rice Sandwiches’, introduced with the comment that

A  recent bento revolution in Japan is the rice sandwich, known as an onigirazu, meaning ‘not pressed (into a ball),’ a play on words on the traditional onigiri rice ball. The advantage of a rice sandwich over a rice ball is that you can vary the fillings a lot more, and put in a lot more filling too, making a satisfying lunch.

For those overwhelmed by the idea of having to prepare several things, involving lots of ingredients, even if much of it has been done beforehand, there is a section on one-dish bentos, ranging from yakisoba and fried rice, to rather Western ideas like ‘Chicken, Chickpea and Swiss Chard’

I don’t have an excuse as an adult to even consider going bento, as I’ve (almost) never worked away from home. However, I use the recipes and ideas for cooking at home, nothing is beautiful, nothing is bento, but it all tastes good. Not surprising since, as mentioned, she suggests using left-overs as part of the bento box menu.

On my first trip to Japan I discovered the most foreign place I’d ever visited. Not least that applied to the cookbooks I’d buy to bring back home. Although they had the comfort of being in English, there any sense of familiarity ended. They were organised in ways I didn’t understand. The ingredients were often completely unintelligible and unobtainable, with no idea what one might do as a substitute. I’d come back from my trips to Japan full of enthusiasm, buy a bunch of mysterious things at a Japanese grocer, and before long none of them would have any meaning at all for me.

The Just Bento Cookbook 2, like its predecessor, is quite the opposite of these sometimes challenging experiences. Itoh uses basic ingredients which are obtainable anywhere. As luck would have it I have a couple of excellent Japanese grocery shops close to hand, but most supermarkets these days stock the basics called for here – miso, soy, sesame, mirin, sake, Japanese rice, a couple of vinegars, oyster sauce. There are a few more esoteric ingredients, but nothing that the ideas stand and fall by. It is worth pointing out that she uses the microwave a lot, but as far as I can see, not having one doesn’t matter, most things are straightforward to make without.

There is a vast amount packed into the pages of this nicely laid out and organised book, covering a lot of ground. To end with an example, I love the sound of this, ‘Miso Soup Balls’.

Miso Soup Balls – makes 30 balls, one per serve

Ingredients

  • 300g miso (she doesn’t specify a type of miso for this)
  • 1 tablespoon dashi stock granules
  • added ingredients of your choice such as:
  • chopped green onion, frozen mixed vegetables (she suggests 1 tablespoon), a pinch of wakame seaweed, pinch of kiriboshi daikon, toasted sesame seeds, abura-age fried tofu (a tablespoon), chopped chicken (a tablespoon)

Method

Thoroughly mix all these together. She doesn’t mention this, but one could obviously vary the 30 balls by dividing the miso and dashi into several groups. She suggests a spoonful, shaped into a ball after wrapping in plastic wrap. Many won’t like that idea these days. When I’m making gyoza/wontons, I lay them all on a tray in the freezer until frozen and then pop them in a container, they don’t seem to stick. I imagine you could try doing this here too.

She adds the idea of making the miso soup balls plain and taking along small quantities of other ingredients, rather than freezing it all. Mushrooms, baby spinach, as well as the ones she lists above.

The idea is to take one of these as part of lunch, assuming that you have access to hot water. Add to a cup of water, stir to dissolve and you have lovely home made miso soup with bits in it. I’m tempted to make this for using at home. I make miso soup, but I get out of the habit. This is a way of ensuring a regular supply without going through all the preparation whenever one wants it. Small stroke of genius!

This book is great value at $19.95US cover price. Foyles has it at £16.99.

 

The Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

I couldn’t have been more disappointed with this. Of course I did that soul-searching where one’s own inadequacies are put forward as the reason for a failure to like something that Should Be Liked. New shelf idea. Should Have Been Liked But Wasn’t.

This is a very very VERY Japanese book and anything I say about it is merely the opinion of one who is ignorant of the culture which imbues it. Needless to say, the whole idea of the male-female relations, the ways in which the women have to live is repugnant. And the man with whom girls keep falling in love is short and fat, which is obviously supposed to be neither comical or offputting in the cultural context, though for the average Westerner reading, it is both of these. But beyond that, I found the ways in which things were expressed and described overly repetitive and the character of the main girl intolerable. Most unsympathetic of me, but there it is. I couldn’t sympathise and I most certainly couldn’t empathise. Tedious descriptions of the Snow Country did anything but make me visualise the gloriousness of the countryside, and yet I know from having been there that we are talking about stunning scenery such as I’ve never seen elsewhere.

I’m not prepared to blame the translator who is a genius.

I liked the other Kawabata I read very much – The Master of Go – but the balance is now firmly in favour of not trying him again.

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

I bought this the other day. Nice copy, hard cover, dust-jacket in good nick, a few Swiss francs, no more – everything to make the bookseller in me happy, not to mention the book collector, one being much the same as the other. I had to argue a bit along the way. You’ve read that. Have not. Have too. Have NOT!!! And I was right. Got home, checked shelves, have not read this. NOT NOT NOT. I’m right and you’re wrong, NYAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

Last night I opened it, thinking I’d take it to bed. Page one and it was already looking familiar. Suspiciously familiar. So, I wondered to myself, as I had to deal with the feeling, unknown in my family for many generations, of being wrong: I can cope with the fact that I haven’t kept it, but why didn’t I record it on goodreads? Why didn’t I review it?

Got up this morning. Checked goodreads. Oh. Whoops. Here, ahem, is what I wrote straight after finishing this book.

I’ve never read a book before that starts off with a threat to sue the reviewer, in capital letters, no less:

THESE ARE UNCORRECTED PROOFS, ALL QUOTATIONS OR ATTRIBUTIONS SHOULD BE CHECKED AGAINST THE BOUND COPY OF THE BOOK. WE URGE THIS FOR THE SAKE OF EDITORIAL ACURACY AS WELL AS FOR YOUR LEGAL PROTECTION.

Well. I wasn’t going to quote anything from this book, there isn’t anything that is zippily quotable. On the other hand, it just has to be done, doesn’t it? Now. In the context of that threatening start. The setting of the quote is two Swiss people talking to the owner of a little café in England:

‘Your countryside here is so wonderful! We have many fine mountains in Switzerland. But what you have here is different. They are hills. You call them hills. They have a charm all their own because they are gentle and friendly.’

I’m from an area that has hills, and living in Geneva now being surrounded by spectacular snow-capped mountains would have made me laugh at this as being ridiculous…but for the fact that I recently had to sit through a local’s pictures from her holiday in the UK. She and another local were admiring these cruddy little hills and when I questioned their wisdom on this matter, pointing out that they themselves came from spectacular Alpine scenery, they started explaining in great detail the many things about these meagre bumps in the ground that made them superior. You live and learn. It isn’t only grass that is greener, then.

So sue me, Faber.

PS: No, please, please please don’t sue me…………….The acuracy thing? It was a joke. I just couldn’t resist.

(This is a very nice collection of short stories, by the way, if I might say something on-topic for a moment.)

The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata

With no such intention in mind, I rather fell out of the frying pan on this one. I had to get away from Yourcenar and a glance at the shelves made me think nothing could be further from Hadrian than a book about Go.

My very first Go move, and it’s a mistake. There I was, reading yet another book where the author has taken a true story and turned it into a novel. Yet another book where admiring fans talk of how real the novel is. I’m a historian, so the whole idea of the biopic, or bionovel, or novel based on, turns my stomach. You end up with a society which gets its history from Fox or Walt Disney or French women who wanted to be an Emperor. Much more interesting than reading a history book, I dare say. Scowls and shakes fist at the very idea.

But, of course there is much to distinguish between the two books. It is the endeavour of Yourcenar to write about a period of which we know very little except at a political level. Kawabata, on the other hand, is writing of something that he witnessed, something that over the short period of time between reporting on it for newspapers and turning it into a novel, became more than it was. Kawabata thus writes at the most domestic and intimate level, the very stuff of which the classical Roman period has left virtually nought. Here, then, we have a novel that is as warm as Memoirs of Hadrian is cold.

Kawabata is writing of something he knows in the most familiar of ways and don’t we feel that as the reader. I imagine Yourcenar would have paid dearly to be able to do that. Her story, however, is a purely intellectual exercise. Yourcenar writes with intellectual rigour, Kawabata with love. The cold and the warm.

The result of these different approaches is that for me Kawabata reads true – and it doesn’t matter whether the precise details are fabricated – while Yourcenar, who might have more strongly struggled to be accurate, reads less true. One might argue this is because Kawabata WAS there, Yourcenar wasn’t, and of course what he writes is going to feel more believable. But I don’t think that is the real answer as to the different reactions I find myself left with to these books.

I read both these books in translation. I imagine Hadrian being easy to translate, not only because it has no specialist nature to it, but because the translator worked in intimate proximity to the writer. For Edward Seidensticker quite the opposite was the case. When asked ‘When translating, do you put the emphasis on getting everything right word for word, or conveying sense?’ he replied:

I stay as close to the original as I can, but for me it is very important for the translation to read smoothly – in other words, to have a certain literary quality and that means very frequently in matters of small detail departing from the original. A literal translation cannot be a very literary translation. But I stay as close to the original as I can. My theory of translation is that it is imitation; it is counterfeiting. And the counterfeiter who makes George Washington on the dollar bill look handsomer than he was is not a good counterfeiter. There has to be a spiritual bond between the translation and the original work, which means the translator must like the original work. But if someone tells you your translation is better than the original, you should consider it an insult because that is not what you’re supposed to be doing. You are not supposed to be improving.

and to the question ‘Do you check with the authors when you depart from their original?’: ‘It’s useless because authors don’t like to talk about their work. At least the ones I have known best don’t like to talk about their work. I never asked Tanizaki about anything, but it was very clear: Tanizaki is a very lucid writer; there are almost no problems of comprehension. I did ask Kawabata, but he was never any help, so I stopped.’

Not only was the author further removed from the translation process, but on top of that, we have the issue of the specialist nature of the object to be translated. Did Seidensticker have any experience of Go? Not that I have been able to discover. Still, I guess a good counterfeiter can get away with this, and if I’ve made that a theory, I think it holds for this book. I never felt like the move from one language to another mattered. Is it possible that Japanese translates especially well into English? Ignorantly, but intuitively, I want to say yes, it does. I feel like I am reading something quintessentially Japanese despite it’s being translated.

I noticed this, James Cowley, writing in the New Stateman:

He understands, too, the value of silence – of the precise nuance, the interval, the pause.

Naturally, much of the subtlety of his prose-poetry – the short, intricately compressed sentences and paragraphs, the tension created by juxtaposing contrasting images – is lost in translation, especially what Roy Starrs, the author of Soundings in Time: the fictive art of Kawabata Yasunari, calls his “aesthetics of ma”. “Ma”, in broad translation, means interval or pause, and Kawabata’s best sentences in Japanese are distinguished by suspensions in the action and by pauses between clauses, the equivalent of the use of white space in Japanese ink painting, or the long pause in haiku. Perhaps it is this sense of something missing that gives his work its presiding ambiguity and vagueness.

I don’t feel this for one moment, that this sense of silence, pause and vagueness is missing in English. Well, I gather it is often said that Seidensticker is as good as translators get. He learned Japanese in a way which will be of interest to the linguists out there:

It was a revolutionary way in those days and hasn’t changed much since. The service language school assumed that it was possible for us to learn Japanese. Before the war, it had been assumed that only the Japanese could learn Japanese – a ridiculous assumption. But the Navy language school said we could, providing we had a reasonable amount of ability and intelligence. They taught what was called the natural method. We didn’t learn grammar, but learned from speaking and listening, the way a child does. I’m not sure it’s a very valid theory, but it was a good school, probably the best I’ve ever been in. By the end of 14 months, we were able to read a newspaper. Before the war, that would have been thought impossible. The Army required its language students to be soldiers, but the Navy didn’t require anything of us. Except that we study Japanese. It was complete concentration on one subject, which is not how most universities work. And we worked on it steadily without relief.

I observe that this book is typically discussed in terms of its relationship, real or imagined, to the decay of the Meiji period and the destruction of Japanese tradition taking place in this period. It isn’t that I mind the idea of this and certainly the author was deeply regretful that these changes were taking place. Nonetheless, it is a book about Go. It is a book about the nature of game-playing at the rareified level of being the best in the world. It is a book about the moral and aesthetic changes that were taking place in Go at that time, changes to be noted and mourned whatever else was also happening to mirror this in society at large. It’s a book about sportsmanship, neuroses and mistakes. The changes it observes, the struggle between the amateur ideal and the professional ethic, the pain suffered by the protagonists, the hapless hangers-on, all this rings true to anybody who has played games in an ambitious manner.

I confess, then, this is how I read this book: as a person who can’t tell the black squares from the white on a Go board or what to do with the doubling cube, but who has all too intimate a knowledge of how games at that level work. And I’m left harrowed, depleted – and enriched, of course – by this exquisitely sad tale.