Sunday, May 17, 2009

Favorite. Book. Ever.

What is your favorite book of all time? Remember, there can be only one. (that's from Highlander, of course.)

Let me be clear on what I mean here. I'm talking the trapped-on-a-desert-island-and-this-is-the-only-book-you-will-have-with-you-
for-the-rest-of-your-life Favorite Book. Your only possession. You are Count de Almasy and this is your Herodotus' Histories. (??---please. The English Patient.)

For me, the answer to that question is easy and has remained constant for at least 15 years: Shogun by James Clavell. Being a bibliophile, I have many loves and a short list of favorites which include:

Shogun (1152)
Pride and Prejudice (368 - the exception to the length rule)
Lord of the Rings (1086)
It (1138) This was my favorite book throughout my teens and has remained a favorite but, to be fair, I haven't read it in at least 5 years, so I'm probably overdue to see if it still qualifies. I'll get back to you.

There's no question, however, that my first love is Clavell's Shogun. If you don't know the story, it's about an English sailing navigator taken captive in Japan in the 1600's who is immersed in their world, learning about their culture first hand. It has all my necessary Great Book attributes: It's epic and extremely character-driven. It's real. (It feels real, that is. It's "the truth inside the lie" as Stephen King so perfectly put it.) Love. Life and death. Humor. Truth. Oh, and death poems! (The Japanese death poems or jisie are just a bonus, not a requirement.)

I have a beautiful, leather, hard-bound 2-book set, one red, one white, that my father found for me in some antique book shop. It is one of my most prized possessions. I've only read it once, when he first gave it to me years ago. Instead, I have an excessively-loved paperback copy that has a taped-on cover (and enough loose pages that I'm starting to wonder if I need to replace it) that I read every year or two. It's dangerous to even write about Shogun as it makes me want to go downstairs and extract my abused copy from the crammed book cases in our small-yet-expertly-packed library and flip through it this very moment. And much like the mouse given the cookie, if I read even one page of Shogun, it's not enough. I need more. And if I read more, I'll be completely sucked in.

Rand can always tell when I've started reading it again as I start referring to my karma and saying things like "kinjiru" [forbidden] to the boys when they want to watch a PG-13 movie and "isogi" [hurry] when they're too slow getting ready for school in the morning. And my favorite, "Shigata ga nai" [There's nothing that can be done.] when Rand laments the lack of rain or our exceedingly busy schedule. And when he invariably questions my knowledge of a give topic or situation? I scowl, saying "honto." [It's the truth.] At those moments, I wish I were samurai so I could brandish my sword to preserve my honor. Okay, well, maybe I'd just wave it around a bit.

A few of my other favorite phrases:

Ah so desu
= Is that so? /agreeing
ima = now
Wakarimasu ka? = Do you understand?
gomen nasai = I'm sorry
Iye = no
hai = yes
mizu = water
ikaga desu ka = how are you?
yoi = good /taihenyoi = very good
nan ja = what did you say?

You could probably plot the precise years I've reread Shogun based on my login names for various websites and the dates I registered. Since Jennifer is such a common name (as are all it's permutations: Jen, Jenny, Jenny Penny, etc.), I have often used favorite book characters instead so for, for example, my user name might be Aviendha, Kahlan, or in this case Mariko. (Granted, I tend to do it more with fantasy books as they have unusual names. Trying to use Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice isn't much better than sticking with my own Jennifer.) I even named my vehicle after one of Shogun's main characters: Toronaga. A Toyota Sienna; It's Japanese after all.

I still cry every time I get to the end of the book. (and I won't say why if you haven't read it because I want you to go and check it out from the library, buy it on, beg, borrow, or steal it. And then I want you to read it reverently. All 1152 pages. Ima!) It's that good; pulls you in that completely.

Clavell's Japanese characters (even the antagonists) display a tangeable value for life, every minute of it. And they appreciate beauty in everything - how a garden is laid, the flight of a hawk, a warrior's skill, a spontaneous haiku reflecting on a given moment. To them, it is all the same. Art. They seem to live wide awake, fully experiencing everything, rather than sleepwalking through life as we tend to do, just going through the motions of our busy yet redundant days. I aspire to have that constant, active awareness for the richness of the world around me all the time.

I stumbled across an intriguing book I'm interested in reading: Learning from Shogun: Japanese History and Western Fantasy, by Henry D Smith. Being the optimist as well as the romantic, I imagine it reaffirming my love for Clavell's epic with only the occasional fantastical Western transgression. Rand the pessimist, however, expects it will be filled with essays slamming the novel. His council is to look no further. (Just because I listen to his counsel doesn't mean I always choose to follow it.)

I've wanted to choose Shogun for my book club month ever since I joined 4 years ago but I can't. Remember the 1152 pages? (I'm not slamming my fellow BC readers; it just isn't practical when you're reading a book every month and that's in addition to whatever books you read on your own plus living the rest of your day-to-day life. Ok, yes, I could choose it, but more than half the folks wouldn't finish it in time and if people haven't finished your book, you can't very well discuss it, which is the entire point of a book club, after all. (This is what happened when someone picked The Historian, the excellent vampire-pseudo-historical-fiction novel by Elizabeth Kostova. And it was a mere 642 pages. [Btw, I was one of the ones that finished it. Not that anyone is keeping track.])

Okay, so let's assume for a minute, you get past the 1152-page issue (we have, on occasion, either given extra notice beyond the normal one-month time frame or planned a longish -- Gomen nasai, I don't think 500 pages is a long book. -- book for a time when we've skipped the previous month due to busy summers or some such. You still have to deal with the discussion issue. I mean, this isn't The Jane Austen Book Club here, where there are six and only six, dedicated participants all pouring their hearts and souls into and out of and relating to each book in a very real, very personal way. (This, of course, is my dream book club. Yes, I realize it's a fantasy but I have a truly vibrant fantasy life. In it, I'm also a published author, and don't have this lovely furrow between my eyebrows from 37 years of wearing my emotions on my face. Oh, and I have a kick-ass soundtrack playing throughout.) Nan ja? Oh, yeah, Book Club... We average 10-12 attendees each month and very occasionally blitz with 20 or so (but let's be realistic here; you're not going to have 20 folks committed to reading 1152 pages no matter how life-affecting the book is.) Still, trying to talk together with 10-12 women in one discussion is tricky and usually breaks down into individual twos and threes talking as no one can hear more than 2 seats away.

To be completely honest, however, the real reason I can never choose Shogun for book club is simple. It will never live up to my exalted opinion. People won't adore it enough. They won't understand -let alone have- my near-obsessive feelings about it. It won't inspire them. And that would crush me. Wakarimasu ka?

So, instead, I'll just start asking everyone I know what their favorite book is. What's yours and I'll add it to my List.

I realize my trapped-on-a-desert-island qualifier sounds like a 12-year-old-girls'-slumber-party game but I'm hiking the West Coast Trail of Vancouver Island in 4 weeks and currently debating (with myself) what book to take. I, of course, really want to take Shogun but even my paperback copy weighs 17 ounces. My trekking poles weigh less! And trust me, the weight matters. I have to carry everything on my back for 9 days, including my tent, sleeping bag, clothes, mizu, etc. I'm aiming for 35 lbs not 60 here. The problem is, I can't come up with something else appropriate to bring.

(A small, radical part of me wants to rip my already-falling-apart paperback in half and take only one section but most of me is appalled that even a tiny part of me would consider defacing a book like that, let alone that book. The rest of me just worries that I'd end up needing the other half.)

This is a crucial decision. First, this will most likely be the only time I hike the West Coast Trail so I want it to be as perfect as possible. (There's my real problem, right there. That seven letter word. It's a theme I seem to return to regardless of topic, iye?) I don't want to just take the next book teetering at the top of my towering to-be-read stack. I want to take a book that fits the mood, the theme of my trip. It should be nature-related. And yet, I don't think I want to take a book of nature poetry. Shogun is an amazing, epic story and yet it's rooted in nature and the physical world around you. And it's speckled with nature-inspired poems so I'd still get the poetry. Score!

(Incidentally, I know the phrase Japanese Death Poem sounds morbid but they're really not. They're beautiful, usually haikus or small 4-line poems with a nature allusion, that reflect on some truth or realization the person has had looking back on his/her life. An example:

Like dew I was born
Like dew I vanish
Osaka Castle and all that I have ever done
Is but a dream
Within a dream

See? Beautiful, not morbid. Ah so desu?)

I tried trolling around Amazon for ideas but kept coming up with 'inspirational = religious'. That or collections of Wordsworth, Thoreau, Tennyson and Blake poems and quotes. And I've already got my handmade trip journal packed, which I filled with 30 nature-quotes by all those brilliant writers ready to inspire and motivate me. I'm looking for something different, comforting after an exhilarating yet grueling day of hiking on shifting sands and up vertical, slippery wooden ladders. [...take Shooooogun...]

Another small part of me (I think it's related to the radical book-ripping sliver.) questions whether I need the book at all. As I've said, I'll be taking my journal, plus my camera, plus my mother. We're sleeping in the same tent so will we really read all that much or will we just yak all the time? This is treasonous talk as well, however, as I'm one of those people who always has a book with me (and my journal, my water, my ipod...) so the idea of traveling out of the country, for nearly 2 weeks, without a book is insanity. Of course, regardless of what I decide, I won't actually be traveling without a book as I'll have my non-hike bag that will have a couple sets of real clothes, makeup, my carry-on stuff for the plane, etc. Decisions, decisions...

Shigata ga nai, neh?