It’s been a fucking long-ass week.
It seems strange to say that we’ve only been in quarantine mode for a week, because it already feels like we’ve been doing this forever. The office is closed, the entire creative team has been teleworking since Monday, and I’ve started a new thing, which I’m naming Book Bites. The world may be falling apart and we may all be in the middle of a story that was probably written by a ten-year-old with a cynical imagination, but at least I can still blog about books. Book Bites can be literally translated as “short little half-assed reviews of books that I meant to review in great detail on my honor I did but I’m really fucking tired so this is what you’re getting instead.” If you really wanna go for my underbelly, you could probably translate it even more literally as “tiny rants cobbled together from my goodreads forum posts,” though I really hope you don’t.
Obvious obligatory warning: There are spoilers.
Theme of the week: Books That Made Me Want To Eat. This was actually a coincidence rather than a formal theme.
The Great Passage
I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH. I don’t usually use the word “charming” to describe books. That’s changing today. This book is charming.
To summarize, Kohei Araki is a lexicographer who has spent his entire life pursuing words and found a career compiling, editing, and publishing dictionaries. (Also, sign me tf up.) He is currently embroiled in his struggle to publish The Great Passage, a dictionary dreamed up by himself and Professor Matsumoto, an elderly linguistics scholar. To this end he recruits Mitsuya Majime, an exceedingly awkward 27-year-old word geek, and trains him as his successor. The book has two stages: it introduces Araki and goes through Majime’s first months as a lexicographer, then jumps ahead 13 years to the final two years of publishing The Great Passage. In the 15 years that it takes them to finally publish The Great Passage, they are joined by extra staff swiped from elsewhere in their publishing company; Majime meets and marries the girl of his dreams, who is as single-mindedly focused on her career as he is on his; and Professor Matsumoto struggles with old age and esophageal cancer.
One of the things I love the most about this book is its complete lack of internal drama. There are issues that have to be resolved, but everything is very civilized and there’s no fighting or even angry shouting. The characters are genuinely invested in their work and go out of their way to help each other. There are three very gentle romances that don’t involve screaming accusations, name-calling, or any of the other unpleasant quirks romances tend to accrue. Even after a critical error is discovered in the final stages of the publishing process, everyone pitches in to meet the deadline and nobody gets thrown under the bus. It’s lovely. This may be my Japanese genes talking, because this book is very Japanese. I can’t even articulate why it feels so Japanese. It just does. It also feels very anime in places, particularly the part where Majime checks out for five minutes after his dream girl asks him out, and actually there is an anime version and with any luck I’ll be able to hunt it down and watch it.
And, though this usually doesn’t happen, I love all the characters. They’re not described in the depth you might find in, say, A Song of Ice and Fire. They’re more like sketches than paintings, but those sketches are all you need. I don’t know how Miura does it, but by the end I even liked Nishioka and I never thought I’d like Nishioka. I especially love Majime, who even in his forties is still awkwardly, childishly cute. I love that he writes his future wife a rambling 15-page love letter with lots of Chinese poems and classical references and it works. I love that that letter is included in its entirety at the back of the book, with commentary from Nishioka and Kishibe. I love that his wife, Kaguya, is a professional chef holding her own in a male-dominated field and that after the time jump she’s running her own restaurant. There are so many elements in this book that are just so cool, from the characters to the word analyses to the obligatory Pokémon reference. This is, as has been stated, a thoroughly Japanese book.
“It’s a nice day. You want to go somewhere?”
“How about Korakuen?”
His heart started pounding hard enough to knock his soul right out of his body. This must be what was meant by the phrase ten ni mo noboru kimochi, “being on cloud nine,” literally “rising to heaven” with joy.
In that moment, the difference between agaru and noboru became clear. Words that had been floating in chaos swiftly grouped themselves into interlocking sets.
There’s a long passage after this in which Majime rhapsodizes about the difference between agaru and noboru, which I for hopefully obvious reasons will not be transcribing here. Go get the book yourself. It was really cute.
Second Favorite Scene:
He was the genuine article. Araki looked on with admiration. It had only taken seconds for Majime to work out the underlying meaning of shima. Back when he’d put the same question to Nishioka, the results had been dismal. Nishioka had never considered any possible meaning but “island,” and his answer had been “something sticking up from the sea.” Appalled, Araki had yelled, “Idiot! Then the back of a whale and a drowned man are shima, are they?” Nishioka had looked flustered and then laughed foolishly. “Oops. You’re right. Gee, that’s a tough one. What should I say, then?”
Things This Book Made Me Want To Eat: Soba. I really want soba. Somebody please give me magic powers so I can summon a bowl of soba. Don’t quote Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration at me, idgaf.
The Girl in Red
Official rating: 3.75 stars. I was wavering between 3.5 and 4 and finally settled in the middle.
Somewhat appropriately, the last book I read before the office shut down was about a plague. The Girl in Red is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, only Red is a twenty-year-old sci-fi geek walking 300 miles through an apocalyptic plague-ridden world to get to her grandmother’s cabin. I kept waiting for a wolf character to show up, but none did, unless you count the toothy creatures that are never actually explained. In retrospect, I suppose Sirois qualifies as the hunter character, though he doesn’t actually do anything and Red is the one who kills the maybe-wolf.
This was my first Book of the Month read, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I LOVE IT. On the other hand, the writing drives me bananas because Henry writes like an engineer. For context, I’ve spent a good chunk of my professional life translating giant engineering reports into a form of English that most English speakers can understand, and one thing I’ve noticed is that engineers like to throw in as much information as they can to make sure that their readers really get what they’re saying. There are (so) (many) (parentheticals). The unnecessary title casing is really irritating too. I feel like Henry could have made her point without Title Casing Everything She Could Think Of.
It’s a real pity about the writing, because otherwise this book is so good. I really really really love Red. She is intelligent, iron-willed, and tough as hell. I love that she’s a walking encyclopedia and isn’t shy about sharing what she knows. It is so refreshing to see a heroine who (1) speaks her mind, (2) doesn’t hesitate to defend herself, and (3) isn’t pushed around by an overbearing supernatural boyfriend. No offense to YA fans, of course.
My biggest frustration, apart from the writing, was exactly the same as Red’s frustration, because I spent most of the book wanting to give Adam a good kick. I could really feel her frustration with her family’s apparent inability to understand the scope of the problem, and with their refusal to take her warnings seriously. I wanted to scream when mom took off her mask and started breathing in the infected air, and then again when they heard a truck pulling into the yard and Adam’s first impulse was to go to the window to see who it was are you fucking kidding me how can they see a pile of burning bodies in the middle of the street and still not understand 🤬 I actually was honestly hoping he would end up in one of those quarantine camps he really wanted to go to, because he was seriously cramping Red’s style. The whole thing with the chest-bursting-parasite-that-might-be-a-Xenomorph was so creepy that I stayed up watching YouTube videos till three in the morning for two nights in a row because I couldn’t go to sleep. At the same time, I was grateful that the book wasn’t just a rip-off of Alien because that’s really been-there-done-that and it would’ve been beyond lame if the book had spent all its time gently parodying sci-fi movies and then ended up exactly the same way.
Then I actually finished the book and I was livid because you can’t just dangle a toothy monster in front of me and then not tell me why somebody thought it would be a good idea to breed it in their lab. Don’t get me wrong: I’m really glad that Red, Sam, and Riley made it safely to Grandma’s house. I’m really glad that there actually was a Grandma who was demonstrably alive and still inhabiting her house. On the other hand, what the f*cking f*ck is the deal with those monsters?! I get that the book is skewering sci-fi/Chosen One conventions and that, realistically speaking, there is no real reason for Red to learn about the origins of the parasite and the Cough, but COME ON! Why was the parasite created? Was it supposed to be a weapon? How is it getting into people in the first place if it’s able to come bursting out of their chests? Is it related to the Cough at all, or is it just unhappy timing? How many of it are there? I would suspect that the government was injecting it into people with their little tranq gun thingies, but they seemed pretty bent on rounding up and destroying as many parasites as they could find, so that seems unlikely. Either way, this book needed to be at least 100 pages longer because somebody’s got some splainin’ to do. At the very least I feel like Red is owed an explanation for the thing that killed her brother, but I also suspect that that’s one of those things the author intentionally left unanswered because she doesn’t know it herself.
On the plus side, I liked the story. The writing may have dampened my enjoyment of it somewhat, but it was still a good read. I love the part where they stumble across D.J. and he feeds them bibimbap. I love how chill he is even when he’s the only one left in town, carrying on with his life while the kidnapping militia is running riot. I kept waiting for something bad to happen after Red separated from her group and abandoned her pack, but I was glad that nothing did. It was good that not all of her suspicions turned out to be true. I wasn’t really a fan of the 2x-Sirois-deus-ex-machina thing, but, since this is kind of a parody, I’m okay with it.
And, although I’m disappointed that Red gave up on finding out about the parasite, I can understand why the author went in that direction. Red is not, as she says herself, a hero or a Chosen One. She’s a young woman who’s trying to reach her grandmother’s house. From that perspective, I’m okay with her not learning absolutely everything. I’m maybe being too forgiving, because I love Red so much. I loved the total slaughter of Toothpick and his band, (1) because they deserved it and (2) because I am unspeakably sick of wimpy, self-righteous characters who find themselves in mortal peril but somehow still suffer a crisis of conscience along the lines of “Oh no! Who am I to try to kill these people who are trying to kill me/my loved one(s)???” and end up getting themselves and/or others killed or injured. Red knows what needs to be done and she does it, and I really respect the hell out of that. She may not enjoy it, but she’s not stupid enough to let her conscience get her killed.
On a completely unrelated note, now I really want bibimbap. 😬