Winter reading: elephants, JET hell and a spy in the house of love

4 12 2007

As the grey, gloomy season kicks in,  my reading habits go into first gear. Autumn and early Winter have always been a time for reading for me in Tokyo. After all, who wants to go out when its so dreary outside? I have read more in Tokyo, in Wintertime, than anytime since I was a teenager.

And one of the pleasures of reading here is that you often walk into a second hand book store, with a small, utterly random selection of English books, and walk out with something you would never have bothered to read otherwise. Thats how I ended up with a history of the African elephant, for example,  and learned that in 1255 Henry III kept his first elephant in the Tower of London, feeding it beef and red wine (until it died, soon after).

 Another quite random, but fascinating find was this book:

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It is about the wild sex and drug-fuelled lives of expats in Asia’s boom years, told (autobiographically)by Karl Taro Greenfeld, TIME Asia’s Deputy Editor and – get this! – a former JET participant in Kanagawa. The dude lived in Kugenuma!!! The first chapter, for me, was fascinating – to read about someone who was in a situation so similar to myself and went on to such glamorous heights…although if you read the book, you realise its not really “all that”. Greenfeld is a curious narrator. You can’t help admiring his candor (how did he land the TIME job after admitting in print to getting high off cough syrup, heroin addiction, alcoholism, and going into some rather nasty detail about his encounters with third world hookers?) In the end he really comes across as not a very nice person – desperately insecure and driven by a raging need to compete – for stories, for status, for women…

Nonetheless, he comes through with the goods in his surprisingly detailed description of JET life – classes fullof dead-eyed, vaguely malignant kids and how the teachers at his school hate him for playing Pacman at his desk, and about his own attitudes to teaching (this sucks! how did I end up here!). He talks about living in his little apartment and hanging out with other teachers he doesnt really like for the sake of company, and feeling that his life was “small” and nothing would ever happen to him here. He blasts Japan-know-it-alls who become absurdly enthusiastic about everything Japanese and “hags” who are “all about lesson sharing and TOEFL videos”. He goes to a JET Midyear Conference (delicious to read that in print!) and scores with a hot Australian teacher, but overall his view of JET in Kanagawa is of a bleak, ridiculous wasteland and the lowpoint of his life (and bear in mind, he later became a heroin addict!) My favorite line in the book: “Dan Quayle is so stupid, he could have been an English teacher in Kanagawa”.

But after the first sneering, gloriously bitter hatchet job on JET, the book loses momentum for me. I just want to read about him, his path after and through JET, not second hand reportage on a bunch of vapid, hard~drinking, beach hopping finance proffesionals, partying and plundering their way through Thailand and Indonesia. And the revelation that it was all -the drugs and nomadic partying – kinda, well… pointless is a bit of a no-brainer. I think everyone but him had already figured that out….

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Anais Nin was a writer who also enjoyed a nomadic, hard-partying existence but one with a lot more depth. She is best remembered as an exotic name to drop in conversation (Madonna once mispronounced her name in an interview…although I admit I have no idea how to say it) and as a muse who flitted between brilliant men, hanging out with some of the brightest artistic lights between the Wars and discovering Henry Miller. But this view of her – as some kind of hedonistic party girl - seems rather shallow after reading “Spy in the House of Love”. The no-doubt-deeply-autobiographical account of a restless woman who drifts from man to man and crucifies herself with guilt, is a startlingly insightful psychological novel. In fact, I have never read anything like it. All the action, the turmoil, is internal – in the thoughts and feelings of Sabina, an unfaithful wife, as expressed by her to the nameless man (part-psychiatrist, part private detective) known only as the “lie detector”. And her eye for telling detail, her perceptiveness, her keen understanding of the human condition are remarkable… Daisuke recommended this book and I can see why – quite eye opening….

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2 responses

4 12 2007
Emarrific

Great little article you wrote about these writers/books. I especially like the quote about Dan Quayle and teaching English in Kanagawa! Haha. It’s funny how people get so bitter about JET- it’s often a cushy and easy job, but somehow it gets to you after a while- it’s frustrating not being able to do anything well. But then again, that’s not isolated to jobs on JET. It’s all about fit.

Anyway, sorry to get off on a limb. Hope all is well with you at the Ed Center. I miss working with ya and your smart witty humor and stories. I’ll keep checking in.

4 12 2007
Iain

Have to agree with Emarrific, fantastic article! I’m going to have to add these books to my expanding piles of books that I mean to read.

Speaking of which, your previous review of “Jasmine Nights” made such an impression on me that I went looking for it and was pleasantly surprised to find a copy in the first secondhand bookshop I walked into. I snapped it up for a couple of quid and am now looking forward to reading it. Cheers!

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