Friday, February 24, 2012

…And the Living’s Easy - August 2011

My second year in Japan begins, as did my first, with a month of summer holiday, except that this time there is no orientation, just a holiday.  The heat is oppressive and there’s a steady drone from the cicadas.  Every so often a lone insect will start up a solo nearby.  Though you might not think it, a hundred cicadas going at once are fairly innocuous, but a single one just outside your window will kick up the most ungodly racket – especially if it’s doing it at five in the morning.  The spiders are also busy.  I see way more spiders here in Japan than I do back home.  Not indoors, fortunately, but outside they’re ubiquitous.  They’re much bigger than what I’m used to, and they’re constantly spinning their webs: in trees, against lamp posts, across sidewalks, and over my front door.  I’m always cautious when entering or exiting my flat, in case some spider decides to drop on my head.

I’m really glad I decided to stay.  Now that I’m settled and not suffering culture shock any more, I feel I’m much better able to appreciate summer in Japan.  The trees are green; the rice paddies are yellow; my students wave at me when they see me on the street.  It’s things like that that could make you think life is worth living, and other such delusional notions.

Since it’s the summer holiday now, work is slow and boring, but I’ve been able to break up my weeks with a few excursions.  In the first week of the month, a group from Taiwan came to visit my church.  They consisted of an American missionary who’s been living in Taiwan and a half-dozen American-born Chinese teenagers.  They came to volunteer in Ishinomaki, one of the coastal towns that had been hard-hit by the tsunami.  The group stayed at the church and drove up to the town every day, along with anyone else who wanted to volunteer.  Since I had plenty of free time and hadn’t been volunteering for a while, I figured it was a perfect opportunity for me.  Even better, my school let me take “volunteer leave”, meaning that I didn’t have to use up any of my annual vacation days on the trip.

I actually only went on two days, Wednesday and Thursday.  It made a nice change to get away from my desk and do some physical labour.  It also made a really nice change to be hanging out with other Anglophones, even if they were teenagers.  On both days I helped work in a field that various people had apparently been working on for some weeks!  The field had been right next to a cell phone factory, and the tsunami had washed all sorts of cell phone parts and other débris into it.  Our task was to sift through it and remove all the parts and other garbage we could find.

It was reasonably mindless and straightforward work, though unexpectedly taxing.  On the first day I neglected to warm up before hand, and in the evening discovered that my arm muscles ached quite painfully.  The next day I was much more conscientious about stretching.  Most of the junk we recovered was fairly uninteresting, but we did find a teapot and a couple of cups that may or may not have been salvageable.  On the second day I also hit on a mother-load of sludge (earth mixed with petrol), which all had to be dug up and carted away.  Clearly the person who owned the field needed a lot of help if he was to get it in shape for planting again.

In the afternoon of the first day the person who’d brought me took me for a drive around the neighbourhood.  Although lots of people had been working on it for months, there was still a stunning amount of visible damage.  Some houses clearly hadn’t been touched since the tsunami.  There were still cars and the occasional boat piled up in strange places.  It was a sobering reminder of how many people have been affected by the disaster.

In the middle of the month I took my three days of summer vacation and used them to make a second trip to Tokyo.   This time I decided to save money by taking the bus.  The shinkansen may only take a couple of hours, but it costs a hundred dollars each way, whereas you can get a return bus ticket for about seventy.  I got the bus on Wednesday evening after work.  The trip took five hours, about the same as a bus ride between Ottawa and Toronto, and got me into Tokyo around 11:00 p.m.  I checked into the same hostel I’d stayed at in June, having liked it and seeing no reason to search for a different one.

The next morning I met up with my acquaintance from Tokyo, the one who had come to visit me at Christmas.  He took me to O-Daiba, an island in Tokyo Bay.  First we went to the Museum of Maritime Science.  It was bigger than Osaka’s Maritime Museum, and rather entertainingly shaped like a giant ship, but I wasn’t quite as impressed with it somehow.  My favourite exhibit was the ships in the bay next to the museum, which one could walk around and have a look at.

Next we went to the “Miraikan”, Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.  This was evidently the place to see the latest in Japan’s famed advanced technology.  We arrived just at the end of the robot show, where Honda’s ASIMO was on display.  The rest of the museum dealt largely with science and technology in general, but there was an area specifically devoted to the latest technological advancements, and it was pretty interesting, even if I didn’t fully understand everything in it.

We ended up at Decks Tokyo Beach, where we had dinner and window shopped a bit.  We bought ramune, a classic Japanese soft drink that I’d never tried before, and sat outside drinking it and looking out at Tokyo bay.  From where we were we could see the Rainbow Bridge leading back to the mainland and a replica Statue of Liberty adorning the shoreline.  That’s the second replica Statue of Liberty I’ve seen here in Japan; the other was the one in Ishinomaki.  I wonder what the fascination is.

On Friday we went to the Science Museum, where I annoyed my companion by looking at everything and being fascinated by it.  The first section we visited was about the history of Japan and Japanese science, and from there we moved on to prehistoric mammals and hominids.  I could probably have stayed there all day, but we decided to take a break for lunch, after which we went to the Edo-Tokyo Museum.  This museum deals with Tokyo history.  Unlike the Tokyo National Museum, which consists mostly of artefacts in glass cases, this museum included reconstructed houses and neighbourhoods, allowing one to walk through historical Tokyo and see its evolution up to the present day.

My Tokyo buddy left me on my own the next day, but I had unexpected company.  The ALT I know from Fukushima happened to be in the city, along with her uncle, who was visiting her from Canada.  She invited me to come along, so I spent the day hanging out with the two of them.  We walked around the Imperial Palace grounds, then went to Ikebukuro for dinner and some shopping.  We went up to the top of the Sunshine 60 building, and I saw Tokyo by night for only the second time since coming to Japan.  It’s quite a sight.  Admittedly, I don’t have many other night time city views to compare it to, but I found it breathtaking on both occasions.  It felt like looking down on a galaxy, the lights spread out in all directions like a sea of stars.  If you ever go to Tokyo, make a point of seeing it like that at least once.

We got together again the next day for some browsing in the Senso-ji market, then lunch at the okonomiyaki place my sister and I had gone to.  I left them in the afternoon to meet my Japanese acquaintance.  He took me to see a temple and a church, then we wandered around west Shinjuku, where I took pictures of all the buildings that had fascinated me on my arrival in Japan.  Then he helped me fulfil one of my chief shopping goals: to purchase a Japanese copy of The Hobbit.  I collect the book in different languages, my sister and I buying copies when we visit foreign countries.  The Japanese edition brings the number of translations I own to five, the others being French, German, Italian, and traditional Chinese.  The book is far to difficult for me to read and understand, but being so familiar with it I can still pick out passages I like and see how they appear in translation.

Though the heat was brutal, I enjoyed my second trip to Tokyo.  There’s a lot to see there, and much of it I still haven’t gotten to yet.  The subway system continued to frustrate me, but I’m beginning to understand it at least a bit better.  One complicating factor, I’ve realised, and the thing that gave me such a headache early on, is that there are very few hub stations.  Tokyo Metro alone has over a dozen lines, but even at the bigger stations no more than three of four will converge.  The one exception is Shinjuku, where everything converges, making it so huge it’s really best avoided if possible.  The city makes up for this by being quite thoroughly – even redundantly – interconnected.  No matter where you’re starting from, you can get to pretty much any place in downtown in just two train rides – though remarkably few in just one.  And in place of one big station, the busier areas are often serviced by multiple small station.  Case in point: if you want to go to Ginza, there are about five subway lines that will take you straight there.  These lines go to three different stations that, at their most proximate exits, are barely two blocks from each other.  As I mentioned in my last Tokyo post, I’ve had to do more walking than that within a station!  The prices are reasonable, as long as you stay within the Tokyo Metro system.  Unfortunately the most convenient line in the city, the Yamanote Line, is part of the JR system, which one pays separately for.

Back at school, I’ve kept myself from going crazy by making a lot of work for myself.  One thing I’ve been working on is a project I started last summer but never completed.  I went around and interviewed each of the teachers with the intention of posting mini-profiles of them on my English board.  Unfortunately once the school year started most of the teachers were busy, and I never got around to finishing the interviews.  Since everyone has a lot of free time these days, I’ve started them up again.  The interviews are really simple, partly because my Japanese is so limited, and partly because I want the results to be easy enough for the students to understand.  I’ll try to start posting them next month.

I got some sad news about one of my students.  Apparently a fifth-year girl at one of my elementary schools was killed in a car accident.  I know the class she was in; I’ve visited it many times.  I even saw a picture of her, but I still couldn’t place her or recall any memory attached to her.  It’s sad though, for her family and her classmates.  Oddly, I didn’t get the news from my school, but from the pastor’s wife at my church.  I don’t know why the school wouldn’t tell me something like that.  Maybe they thought I wouldn’t know how to react – to be fair, they’d be right.  I feel as though I should say something to the class when I see them next.  But then, what would I say?  It would be awkward enough trying to express condolences in English; in Japanese I think I’d just fumble the whole thing hopelessly.  So maybe it’s better that I not say anything.

There seem to be a lot of festivals in Sendai during the summer, all of them involving fireworks.  I actually went out with my tea lady on three separate occasions to see them, which gave me an excuse to get some more use out of my new yukata.  There was also a big fireworks show in downtown Sendai that I’d missed last year but that I got to see this time around.  I’ve seen a lot of fireworks shows: in Hong Kong, in Vancouver, and in Ottawa.  But Japan can definitely hold its own in the fireworks department.

One of the other ALTs is trying to start up a prayer/fellowship group for some of the Christians here.  She held the first meeting at the end of the month.  It was nice to hang out with some of the ALTs in a different kind of context and to share fellowship with English-speaking Christians for a change.  I don’t know when the next meeting will be, but I hope it becomes a regular thing.

In the news this month, London has exploded in riots.  The United States is in a state of financial crisis and President Obama’s not having an easy time dealing with it.  Japan has a new prime minister.  His name is… hang on a second… Noda Yoshihiko.  I know I should take more of an interest, but given that Japan changes prime ministers as often as it changes calendars, it’s kind of a pain to keep up with them all.  The last P.M., Kan Naoto, was actually in office for over a year – since before I came to Japan.  I wonder if this one will still be in power when I leave, or if I’ll have to learn another name before I’m done here.

Finally, Jack Layton, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, is dead.  It’s official: I hate 2011.  I was never exactly a fan of Jack Layton.  I’ve always found him a bit smug and obnoxious.  And I wouldn’t consider myself an N.D.P. supporter, any more than I’d align myself with any of Canada’s major parties.  But it’s still a sad loss.  The timing seems especially cruel.  He died less than four months after leading his party to its biggest victory ever, never getting a chance to assume his role as leader of the opposition, and leaving the party leaderless as it faces a whole set of new challenges.  Interestingly the other two major opposition parties are also going through leadership crises.  I guess the silver lining is that since our current government will probably be around for a while, they all have plenty of time to sort themselves out before the next election.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Up – This movie has a fun premise (a grumpy old man uses helium balloons to turn his house into his own private zeppelin) and a heart-warming story (the relationship between said old man and a lonely young boy).  I liked the main characters and most of the supporting cast too.  But man alive does Disney need better villains!  (Three stars)

Books I’ve read this month:

A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson – My second Bill Bryson book, this one is set in his native U.S.A. and is about hiking the Appalachian trail.   It was nice to read a hiking book by someone who wasn’t an expert hiker – in other words, someone whose hiking experience would probably be similar to my own.  And I enjoyed the anecdotes with which Bryson supplements his story and the combination of awe, wonder, and horror with which he approaches the natural world.  As Dana Scully once said: “Respect Nature, ‘cause it has no respect for you.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling – It’s hard to say where the story is going for most of this book.  Most of it deals with a competition called the Triwizard Tournament – a frankly goofy-sounding event that Harry gets sucked into.  It all feels pretty inconsequential – until near the end when the plot suddenly takes a dramatic left-hand turn into Darker and Edgier territory.  Over all, I think Rowling handles this very well, even if it is necessary to follow it up with about a hundred pages of dénouement.   I do, however, wonder if the bad guys couldn’t have come up with simpler plan to achieve their evil ends.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Atsui desu ne!* - July 2011

Summer’s back and so is the heat.  I already discussed it in last summer’s post; suffice it to say it’s really hot here, as my teachers are fond of pointing out repeatedly.  One of them asked me if Canada gets this hot.  I told her that yes, on occasion, we get some pretty hot summer days, but that’s why July is summer vacation.  Here the teachers and students are forced to sweat it out till the end of the month.

At the end of June I agreed to go to another ALT’s school to help at his culture day.  Since it was so close to the beginning of July, I teamed up with another Canadian and we taught a lesson on Canada Day.  Our topic was food.  We taught the students the names of popular dishes and asked them to guess their countries of origin – because as everyone knows, we don’t have food in Canada; we just borrow everyone else’s.  I also talked a bit about Canada Day with my elementary school students, and handed out the Canadian flag stickers I’d gotten from my sister.  I realised it was my first ever Canada Day spent outside of the country, and I’m glad I got a chance to commemorate it even a little bit.  At church I was invited to talk about my favourite part of the summer and ended up going off into a long description of Canada Day and how I usually celebrate it.  One of the members said he’d never seen me get so animated about anything before!

At my own school, the students had their “Chorus Contest”, in which each class sings a set of songs and a prize is awarded to the best class in each grade.  The students spent the better part of the last couple of months rehearsing and preparing for the competition, though from my perspective it was just a chance to get out of school for a day and enjoy some music.  The highlight of the competition was actually a half-time show where the new English teacher played his guitar for us.  He’s really good!  It was unlike any guitar playing I’d ever seen before, and I sat mesmerised through the whole thing.

I’ve had some success recently introducing new ideas for activities into my classes.  I convinced the third-year teacher to let me do rebuses with the students, and despite the lack of language arts practice they usually get they handled them quite well.  I also filled up some of my free time making pronunciation trees for some of the minimal pairs Japanese speakers usually find difficult.  “R” vs “L”, “B” vs “V”, “A” vs “U”, “S” vs “Th”… the list is quite long, actually.  I’ve started using them in both my second- and third-year classes, and I think I’ve hit on the perfect activity to make me, the students, and the local teachers happy.  Pronunciation is something we can all agree is important; it’s practical in a really concrete way that’s easy for the teachers to understand; and it’s one of the elements of English that I, as a native speaker, am genuinely an expert on.  I’m probably going to make this activity a regular one throughout the rest of the year; we’ll see how many pairs I’m able to get through.

Another activity came about when my second-year teacher asked me to do a special lesson with one of her classes.  I was as thrilled as I always am to be suddenly tasked with doing an entire lesson on my own (which is to say, not at all), but upon checking out my favourite websites I came upon the brilliant idea of doing a MASH game with my students.  Do you remember MASH?  It’s a game I remember playing as a pre-adolescent, the point of which is to try and predict what kind of a future you will have: whom you will marry, where you will live, what kind of job you will have, etc.  I quickly realised the game would be a great opportunity to give the students a lot of speaking practice while hopefully having fun.  The demonstration took a long time, but once the students understood the activity, they basically just ran it themselves.  For the most part they looked like they enjoyed it, and the teacher decided to do it with her other three classes as well.

There’s one new activity idea that recently came to me all the way from Canada.  Back at the beginning of June I got an e-mail from someone in the JET Programme about a bunch of letters the Japanese Embassy in Canada had received.  The letters were from Canadian elementary school students expressing their condolences in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.  The Embassy had apparently passed the letters on to the JET Programme, who in turn wondered if I would be interested in having some of them.  I was a bit hesitant to take them, given that few of my students had been seriously affected by the disaster, but I talked to my head teacher about it, and she seemed supportive of the idea, so eventually I accepted.

The letters didn’t arrive until the end of July, just before the start of summer vacation, so I haven’t had a chance to do anything with them yet.  I have, however, read them and shown them to my teachers.  They’re quite touching.  There are twelve in all, written by grade three and four students from a small town in eastern Ontario.  The language is simpler than an adult would use, but still much more natural – and therefore challenging – than most of the reading material my students work with, besides being full of spelling and grammatical errors.  I don’t know how optimistic I should be about getting my students to read and understand them, but the teachers seem to agree that I should at least try to share them.  That’ll be something to work on in the fall.

At the end of the month, my head teacher, who also teaches second-year English, came to me with the news that she was going to be giving a presentation on teaching practices.  As part of her brainstorming, she asked me what I thought of English education in Japan.

I was like, seriously?!

I stalled for a couple of minutes as I desperately tried to think of something diplomatic to say.  I mean, I doubted that, “I think English education in Japan is a joke, why do you ask?” would go over too well.  Eventually I hit on the idea of framing everything as a comparison between the Japanese method of teaching English and the Canadian method of teaching French.  I stressed repeatedly that second language education in Japan was very… different from what I had grown up with.  Not wrong… just… different.  I tried to avoid giving the impression that I thought everything about French education in Canada was perfect – I don’t!  Indeed, I might have enjoyed French a lot more if it had been more like English in Japan.  But the comparison gave me a chance to air a lot of my pet peeves: the use of Japanese by English teachers; the emphasis on rote memorisation; the lack of authentic speaking practice.  More than once I touched on the fact that the focus in Japan is mostly on passing exams, with very little emphasis placed on practical English skills.  She seemed to agree with me on the last point, and asked me for suggestions on how this could be improved.

I’m not very good at hedging, and I’m afraid that despite my best efforts I may have offended her.  I’m also afraid that I may have dug myself into a bit of a hole, because she probably thinks it’s my job to fix the problems I mentioned.  I kept trying to remind her that I’m not actually a trained teacher, and not in a position to say what would be best for the students.  After all, it’s very easy to find fault with someone else’s teaching style; it’s a lot harder to improve upon it.  And if the teachers here suffer from the disease of underestimating their students, I know I have the opposite problem.  I tend to make activities that are too challenging, forgetting what a struggle learning a foreign language can be.

She listened very politely and seemed to take most of my points well.  An idea I stressed a few times was that the students would learn more if the English teachers spoke English in class.  Interestingly, she suggested that her poor English skills were a barrier to doing this, and I found myself contradicting her.  Her English is pretty poor, but it’s adequate for the class she’s teaching.  The problem is that she doesn’t use it enough.  She has the same lack of self-confidence that plagues her students and prevents them from improving their speaking skills.

She latched onto the idea that students need more speaking practice, and actually made one suggestion I think has a lot of potential: every class, one student has to give a short speech about some topic.  I made the point that it could be a very short speech, as long as it got the students into the habit of talking about themselves in English.  We won’t be able to try out the idea till the resumption of classes in the fall, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes.

One other interesting thing happened at school.  My tea lady has adopted a baby sparrow.  Apparently it fell out of its nest and she brought it inside and put it in a box of paper shreds.  It’s currently living in a cage in our school office and I visit it sometimes to help feed it worms.  She’s named it Piko-chan.

It’s the end of the JET contract year, and we had a “Leavers Party” to see off the departing ALTs.  Most of the ALTs I know are coming back next year, including the one from Singapore, but the Australian one’s going home.  I’ll miss her.  I guess I’ll have to go to Australia some time to visit her!

The Singaporean ALT and I went to the park one evening to see the fireflies, which are supposed to be a famous summer attraction in Japan.  It was in fact my first time to see fireflies in action, and I have to admit they were very pretty to watch.

Although the aftershocks have gotten pretty infrequent and mild now, we actually had a big one at the beginning of the month.  It measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, making it our biggest event since I was shaken out of bed at the beginning of April.  Fortunately it didn’t do much damage or even disrupt life in Sendai significantly.  But here’s the amazing thing: I completely failed to notice it!  When people mentioned it to me afterwards, I had no idea what they were talking about.  Turns out I was walking to church when it struck, and I guess I was so focused on getting there in a hurry that I didn’t feel the earth move under my feet.  To be fair, earthquakes are less noticeable when you’re outside, but I still find that remarkable.

I got to celebrate my birthday a few different ways.  I went over to my tea lady’s house on Saturday and she had a little party for me and one of her nieces, whose birthday was around the same time.  I also went out to dinner with the Singaporean ALT, and got birthday cards and e-mails of well-wishes from my friends.  So over all it was a cheerful celebration away from home.

I also received one really nice gift, though not a birthday present exactly.  As an anniversary present to celebrate the fact that we’d both been in Japan for a year, my church gave me and the English teacher each our very own yukata!  A yukata is a light summer kimono.  I’d been wanting one for a while, and thinking that it would make a very good souvenir of my time in Japan.  And now I have one!  I was surprised and thrilled by my church’s generosity.  I mean, I can understand that they’d want to give a thank-you gift to the teacher who works there, but to give one to me too seems extravagant.  It’s quite nice, too, and fits me fairly well despite my uncommonly tall stature.

I got to wear the yukata that very day to a festival that was happening downtown.  It was actually a combination of several festivals; as part of the effort to improve post-earthquake morale, Sendai decided to host six festivals at the same time, one from each of the prefectures in Tohoku (north-eastern Japan).  I’ve had other opportunities to wear the yukata, too.  A lot of festivals take place over the summer, and my tea lady has taken me to see them with her family.

One other thing happened this month to mark the passage of my time in Japan: my watch battery died.  Which meant that I had to go and get it replaced.  And when I did, I found that, naturally enough, the people at the watch counter had set my watch to the correct local time.  Up to then, it had been fixed on Eastern Daylight Time, regardless of my location or the time of year.  I thought of setting it back, but since it had been set for me, and since I intended to stay in Japan for at least another year, I figured I might as well leave it there.  So now, after almost a year in Japan, I am at last functioning on Japanese time.

In the news this month, Japan won the Women’s World Cup in Germany.  Considering the rough times that Japan has been through recently, the victory has been something of a national morale-booster and a source of national pride.  In the United States, New York has legalised same-sex marriage.  And the world has a new country: South Sudan has seceded from the north to become its own sovereign state.

In grimmer news, the normally peaceful country of Norway suffered two coordinated terrorist attacks, one a car bombing, the other a shooting at a youth camp, that have left over seventy people dead.  Have I mentioned how much the news this year sucks?

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Super 8 – A sci-fi action-adventure told through the eyes of a group of adolescent filmmakers.  The film is almost worth watching for the kids, who are funny and engaging in a way that took me back to an early Spielberg movie.  Plus, it’s nice for a change to have teenaged characters actually played by teenaged actors.  The downside is that nothing else about the movie really works.  The story is confused, the ending doesn’t make sense, and the special effects threaten to overwhelm the film.  Oh, and cool though they may look on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, lens flares do not automatically make everything better.  (Two and a half stars)

Inception – I was really impressed with this movie, which is well worth all the hype it’s been getting.  I was expecting an action-packed special effects show, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s actually much more of an idea movie, as reminiscent of Solaris as it is of The Matrix.  The premise is fascinating, to a degree where I almost wish that there could be sequels or even a T.V. show based on it.  The story is basically that of a heist film, and is as fun as any other movie in that genre, with the twist that the fortress is someone’s mind, and the goal is to put something in rather than take it out.  Any ethical issues this presents are completely ignored by the characters, which is just as well, as there would be no way to justify them.  I’m not sure it all makes perfect sense; I have a suspicion that once I go back and re-watch it a few times I’ll start finding all sorts of plot holes.  But on first viewing it worked really well.  (Four stars)

Lilo & Stitch – A troubled orphan girl adopts a belligerent alien and teaches him the true meaning of family.  Quite unlike any other Disney movie, it’s set in the present, has protagonists with genuine flaws, and lacks a clear villain.  While these departures from the traditional formula could have made the movie weak, they actually create a fresh and interesting story that’s just a little bit gritty but still heart-warming.  I even liked the soundtrack, which might just turn me into an Elvis fan yet!  (Four stars)

Ratatouille – This Disney film was more disappointing.  The premise of the rat who becomes a master chef is cute, but the main characters were a little too annoying, and the plot took a few too many twists.  (Three stars)

Grave of the Fireflies – Tragic story of two young children struggling to survive in the decline of World War II.  It pulls on the heartstrings fairly unsubtly, and I couldn’t help wondering if it wasn’t over-doing it at times, but I’ve never had to live through wartime deprivation, so I probably shouldn’t judge.  (Three stars)

Books I’ve read this month:

The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis – Still slowly re-working my way through the Narnia books.  This one has a tighter story than its predecessor.  It also contains some of the more blatantly didactic passages of the series.  As a child I think I liked the book less for that, though as an adult I find the religious allegories interesting.  I do have to say that I’m uncomfortable with the ending, which has always struck me as strange and I still don’t understand.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling – Why did I ever think this book was badly written?  I guess it depends on what one’s comparing it to.  It’s not The Lord of the Rings, to be sure, but it’s not exactly Eragon either.  Reading it as an adult, obviously, I find the characters a little flat and the plot a little over-determined, but I’m sure it would make a perfectly enjoyable read for a child in the target demographic.  My only two major complaints are that the magic isn’t well explained, and the humour feels a trifle mean-spirited in places.

Shame by Salman Rushdie – Yet another abstract and satirical tale about the Indian subcontinent, this one focusing on Pakistan.  Unfortunately I don’t know much Pakistani history, and I think a lot of the allegory was lost on me for that reason.  It’s the kind of book that makes me wish I was back in school, because I’m sure it would be fascinating to deconstruct and discuss in a classroom context, but I found it a little hard to interpret on my own.  Vaguest of all for me was the title; the book is explicitly and self-referentially supposed to be about the damaging effects of shame, but I couldn’t see how that theme played out in the actual story.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling – The second book in the Harry Potter series, and probably one of the weaker ones.  One point against it is the introduction of Dobby, a character whose sole function is to annoy.  Another is its reliance on the adults being useless.  One sort of gets the impression that the story could have been wrapped up within the first six months if the kids had only discussed what they knew with one of the teachers.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling – My favourite of the Harry Potter books so far.  It’s considerably longer than its predecessors, with some interesting twists and a likeable new character in the person of Prof. Lupin.

* “Atsui desu ne!”: Japanese for “It’s hot, eh?”