By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER
I’ve always been a reader. It was inescapable, growing up with my parents. When my brothers and I complained about the books we had to read for school, or bragged about the ones we read for fun, our mom liked to remind us that in elementary school she read every single book in the school’s library. (“It was probably a small library,” said my brother, the last time she brought it up.)
“You American kids,” she’d scoff. “In Japan I was reading Tolstoy in the sixth grade.”
Our dad took a different (gentler) approach but we watched him as he read over breakfast every morning before work. A creature of routine, he’d wake up to Morning Edition on NPR (I can still hum the theme), pedal on his stationary bike, and study languages while eating toast with jam. Like me he studied Japanese and French in college, and over the years he picked up little bits of other languages. German flash cards here, Chinese adult school classes there.
The two of them always read to us at night; favorites included The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Beowulf. Before that we had Frog and Toad, George and Martha, and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales illustrated by Chihiro Iwasaki. We each went through phases of obsession, and one for me was a book about a tiger with beautiful illustrations whose title I can’t remember anymore. When we loved a book like this, we’d ask to hear it over and over again and if that didn’t work, we’d sneak around to get our fix. We’d have Mom read the book, tuck us in, turn out the light, and then once enough time had passed, sneak out, cuddle up to Dad, and ask him to read it to us too.
“No, Mom didn’t read to us,” we’d say when he asked.
My mom has been in the U.S. for more than 30 years and she speaks native English without an accent. Though she’s always insisted that she has a Japanese accent, I could never hear it. Then several years ago I watched the one home movie from my early childhood, and there it was, soft but undeniable. At the time of the video we lived in St. Louis; I was a year old and this was the first of the eight years we spent in the Midwest before moving back to California.
In St. Louis in the late eighties, then East Peoria, Illinois, there wasn’t exactly a Japanese community. We could barely buy short grain rice (at the Korean grocery store), let alone find a Japanese school. Instead (to simplify a long story), our parents decided to make our English as good as possible. So they read to us, all the time. That was how it started.
This fall I started grad school at USC in its Masters of Professional Writing program and, though it seems counterintuitive, I completely lost touch with reading for fun. I had required reading for class—by some great writers, like Aimee Bender and Bill Buford, whose work I’m glad to have discovered—but in terms of tearing through pages for sheer pleasure, I hadn’t read so little in years.
So this spring, as soon as classes ended, I looked at my long neglected reading list and started picking titles to request from the L.A. library website. In the past few months, as a result, I’ve read graphic novels, short stories, books by French, Italian, and Japanese writers, and I feel like a kid again, reading Ramona Quimby novels in a fort of sheets.
Don’t get me wrong, I love having the chance to study writing formally in a classroom. But looking at prose (mostly mine) from an agenda of evaluation, I forgot about the joy of storytelling and language. I forgot that I was coming not only from the subjective place of an individual, but also that of an American reading works by other Americans, all contemporary and mostly of the New Yorker set. I forgot that a writer (until they’re selling their work, at least) needs no other permission for experimentation but their own courage and imagination.
In honor of rediscovering my love for reading, here are two of my favorite love stories:
Hunting and Gathering (Ensemble c’est tout) by Anna Gavalda: This novel is a great example of the unlikely events that can bring a reader and a book together. By recommendation from Rafu columnist Sharon Yamato, I picked up another French book called The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery), an absurd, philosophical, sweet thing of a story.
After finishing it, I spent some time with an English-French dictionary and emailed Christophe, my dad’s college friend and former French TA, to ask for other French recommendations. He sent me a list of suggestions too long to wrap my head around, so I picked the one on top and ran with it. Enter Hunting and Gathering (the French title translates to “together, that’s everything”).
I can’t claim to understand anything about contemporary French literature based on the works of just two writers, but I can say that Hedgehog and Hunting and Gathering both deviate refreshingly from my idea of how a book is “supposed to” be written. Truly character-driven (in other words, there’s not much plot), Hunting and Gathering follows four misfits—a lost artist, a stuttering aristocrat, a bitter chef, and an old woman who misses her garden—as they learn how to exist in the world.
Gavalda gives the characters such vivid voices that her strange technical moves—like oddly broken sections within chapters and sudden philosophical monologues, for example—intrigue rather than distract. Light and heartwarming while at the same time thoughtful and psychologically apt, this book is perfect for lovers of smart romantic comedies or Banana Yoshimoto.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: If Hunting and Gathering is like a smart romantic comedy (say Love Actually—not quite Nora Ephron), Never Let Me Go is more like Gattaca: both speculative and poetic, lyrical and restrained, and blue as if shot through a filtered lens.
Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Nagasaki and raised in England, writes in an elegant style similar to fellow British writers Ian McEwan (Atonement) and Julian Barnes (The Sense of an Ending). Though Never Let Me Go’s narrator, Kathy, has a tragic story to tell, through Ishiguro she tells it straightforwardly without melodrama or manipulation, which of course gives it even more emotional force.
When I checked this book out from the library, I wound up with the film still copy, which, for some reason, has only critics’ blurbs and no synopsis on the back cover. As it turns out, I’m glad it happened that way, because this is the sort of story that hits harder the less you know about it. What seems at first like a boarding school coming of age novel a la A Separate Peace gradually reveals itself to be something else, something stranger, and a deeply moving love story at that.
So with that said, I’ll give nothing else away. I think this is a love story to battle the classics.
Mia Nakaji Monnier is online editor of The Rafu Shimpo and can be contacted via email. Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.