(English Language) Review of a Disappointing Book: 独学大全 by 読書猿

The Self-Study Encyclopedia by Dokushozaru

This book is designed to snare curious browsers at the bookstore in every way. From a distance we can see it’s massive – the 750+ pages are a solid 5 cm/2 in thick. Come a little closer and the distinguished cover design and jacket copy appeal, and is that a textured jacket? Oo. We must pick this up and ooph, it’s heavy. A look at the edge reveals thumb indexing and paper in no fewer than three colors.

Opening the book is an experience as well, revealing a beautiful title page in a fourth color of paper, followed by the requite sales pitch of a forward. (In Japanese popular nonfiction the forward comes before the table of contents, all the better to draw readers in.) On a flip we see that there are footnotes, tables, graphs, flow charts, pictures of famous people who apparently have this self-study thing down. And, like the cover says, we want to get back on the study train, right? The tome obediently follows us to the cash register.

Once we get home and settle in, though, it’s easier to see the true nature of the book. Yes, it’s an “encyclopedia” of self-study, outlining how to get motivated, how to choose a topic, how to find the time, and finally (finally) techniques for actually getting the information into your brain and have it stick there. The layout has generous white space at the bottom, which sometimes holds supplemental info but more than often does not. The footnotes (on the left side of a two page spread in Japanese) are copious and most often skippable. And each section is introduced with a dialogue between a wizened learner and a youngin’ which, while cute, only barely sets up the forthcoming topic.

We forgive a bunch of this – marketing, visual appeal, we get it – but the text itself proves to be the most disappointing. The first chapter makes a show of using rarer, hard to read kanji, but I wanted to yell at my dictionary with every look up. Why is もちろん (of course) written 勿論?Another pet word, 咀嚼、is akin to using “masticate” instead of “chew”. They feel like hard words thrown in to make you feel smart if you know them, feel like you’re getting smarter if you don’t, but they don’t serve the text.

And the padding, my god the padding. つまり (in other words), まとめると (to put it all together), and 例えば (for example) get extensive play. Long katakana words are repeated often, usually accompanied by a similarly lengthy English gloss. We get the life story of historical smart dudes, even though it doesn’t apply to the study tip at hand. And they’re all guys. The only woman I remember discussed Kató Lamb which, deserving, but that’s it?

Several of the techniques are variations on an idea and should have been presented as such, not whole chapters unto themselves. The case studies at the end may be interesting if you’re in a similar situation, maybe, but otherwise are skimmable.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting “how to study” books to reinvent the genre. A lot of the information is stuff I already know, and that’s fine. I’m looking for new tricks, for ways to reframe my thinking, and an engaging read. I found a few examples of each, but not enough to justify 750 pages, 3000+ yen (~$30 US), and eight weeks of my time.

It’s hard to recommend buying 独学大全 when there are other, more interesting and fulfilling self-study books out there. Worth a borrow from the library, but if you’re looking for content over hype steel up your reserve and leave this self-study encyclopedia on the shelf in the bookstore.

Butabuta’s Bookstore by Arimi Yazaki (Butabuta #19)

40647997While I was in the middle of Doctor Butabuta I bought this book, #19 in the long-running series.  Here our stuffed pig of a protagonist is the owner of a bookshop – huzzah for bookish stuff in novels!  He’s even surrounded by previous installments of his own series on the cover.

There is some publishing talk and handselling to customers but most of the action revolves around a community radio show.  Every week a listener writes in with their real life worries and Butabuta recommends a book to help them through their problems, a la The Novel Cure.

Overall I found the four short stories that make up this volume to be quite uneven.  While it has my favorite Butabuta story so far, about a student who is having difficulty transitioning to university life, it also has two stories I struggled to get through.  One follows an angsty teenager (ugh) and the other is an oversimplified look at the hikikomori phenomenon.  The ending makes light of what can be a symptom of a serious psychiatric disorder – not cool.

Getting back to the series as a whole, in each book Butabuta leads a different life so I expected massive changes, but I’m still surprised that he’s married in this installment.  Both his wife and daughter are human even though he’s a living stuffed pig… I don’t get it, either.  One character shared my confusion but frustratingly the question was left to lie.

Enough negatives – there are props to be given, too.  I love that the radio show recommends and reads excerpts from actual books.  One is even an English book in translation, much appreciated, and Yazaki touches on the reasons for her selections in the afterward.

With a bookish theme I had high hopes but Butabuta’s Bookstore fell a bit flat for me.  I’ll continue on with the series, but maybe not right away – an entire world of Japanese language literature awaits!

Doctor Butabuta by Arimi Yazaki (Butabuta #23)

39681913Time for another review courtesy of my neighborhood used book store!  Inhae at Inside That Japanese Book got me interested in the Butabuta series (her review here) so when I saw this volume I just had to pick it up.

The main character in all the books is Butabuta Yamazaki, whose first name literally translates as “Pigpig”.  That’s him on the cover – a stuffed animal that is, well, alive.  He’s about the size of a volleyball and has the voice of a middle aged man, and almost everyone he meets is first overcome with shock.  How does he move?  Is he really drinking that coffee?  Am I the only one that sees he’s a stuffed animal?

Yazaki started writing about Butabuta in 1998 and has continued at a steady clip, with 27 books in the series as I write this.  Others include Butabuta Cafe, Butabuta Library, and Butabuta on a Summer’s Day.  The Japanese level is less taxing than more literary novels, making them easy reads.  (For those more interested in the Japanese side of things check out Inhae’s review above.)

So, what kind of doctor can a stuffed pig be, anyway?  It turns out he’s an endoscopic and laparoscopic surgeon specialized in gastroenterology. Basically he uses remote controls to move robots and cameras to operate on stomach cancer or diagnose ulcers.  Yazaki put a lot of thought into the limitations of a small (if strong) doctor and forged an interesting path for him.

The book is four linked short stories as well as a “short-short”.  Each shows us a different facet of Butabuta’s practice as we watch him interact with operative patients in the hospital, coworkers, and elderly home-bound patients in the countryside.

I like Butabuta as a character.  He has a sense of mystery about him – why is he alive?  Why don’t we meet anyone else like him?  He’s pretty much perfect personality and work-wise but it doesn’t get grating or weird, as it’s balanced out with the whole, “but he’s a stuffed pig” thing.

The scenes can be touching and charming.  He knows the right thing to say to reassure patients, and when he pats their hand the softness of the fabric on his hoof comforts them.  He goes to a batting cage with a coworker, holding a bat twice his size and jumping high in the air to swing at the ball.  He volunteers in a rural area on the weekend where he makes balloon animals for children and adults alike.

Each story can be read on its own which is good in a way, but leads to more repetition than I would like.  Every person is shocked when they first meet Butabuta and wonder the same things.  He’s described as being the size of a volleyball without fail.  Maybe as I read more books these will be endearing details but it annoyed me a little bit here.

It doesn’t look like any of these books have been translated into English but if you’re JLPT N2 level or better or in Japanese I think you’ll enjoy the adventures of a certain Butabuta-san.  I’ll be continuing the series for sure, with Butabuta’s Bookstore already in  my possession and ready to go. Huzzah for finding a new series to love!

Kokoro Button (Love Button) #1 by Maki Usami

9533185I finally stopped in a used bookstore I pass on my commute and, oh my.  Every hardcover is less than four dollars US, some paperbacks are less than a buck, and the manga.  My goodness, the manga – full sets impeccably shelved, calling to me.  And it was 10% off day.


I browsed for an hour and settled on a nonfiction book by a 911-esque dispatcher (old habits die hard) and the first volume of Kokoro Button (ココロボタン).  In it a guy (Koga) and a girl (Kasuga) meet at high school orientation – she is smitten, but he is not looking for a relationship with anyone.  She says how about a trial period to see if we could like each other?  His reply:

You don’t know much about me yet… are you sure?

It turns out Koga-kun is a “little bit S”, or a little bit sadistic, so she doesn’t realize how loaded the question is.  She says she’s sure, and the series is off and running.

Fear not, there is no BDSM in this high school manga; in fact, it’s purely PG.  This “little bit S” is the reason I picked up the book – what does that look like?

Well, it’s basically teasing in the form of misdirection.  He’d tell her one thing, she’d get worried or upset, and he’d enjoy that reaction (there’s the S).  Then he’d say no, actually it’s this other thing, and turn into a sweet boyfriend until it was time to tease her again.  It’s hurt/comfort, but with both parts from the same person.

I can see this working if Kasuga-san a) realizes what’s going on or b) gives as good as she gets, but she worries and laments about every little thing.  For example, one night Koga-kun doesn’t call and she’s reduced to a sobbing catatonic mess.  I’m okay with not-strong heroines (huzzah variety!) but this is a little much for me.

20171124_080951.jpgEven so it was a quick read.  The style is typical shojo with lots of white space and wispy lines, and while the art is average some frames stick out as particularly well framed or comical.  I love Kasuga’s reaction when Koga sees a beetle in her hair:

When I freak out I shout in squiggles, too.

All in all I’m not a fan, and can only recommend Kokoro Button if a “little bit S” is your sort of thing.

This is my first manga review on Always Doing, yea!  If you’d like to see more reviews like this let me know in the comments, and if you’d rather I didn’t review books I read in Japanese let me know that, too.  I feel bad that this series isn’t available in English (at least officially…) but my thoughts were overflowing and I couldn’t resist.