Thursday, December 02, 2010

What I've Been Reading

This year has been a bit of a bust in terms of books for me – normally, I’m not exactly a heavy reader, but this year was pretty sad. I started it halfway through R.A. Salvatore’s The Lone Drow and I’m closing in on the end of it much less than halfway through the subsequent The Two Swords. In the mean time, I did read a lot of comics and graphic novels, the highlights of which were probably The Walking Dead, Fables (and Jack of Fables), and a few surprises from Marvel (The Sentry springs to mind, as well as Brian K. Vaughn's run on Runaways - after he left, it's all downhill). I also finally got around to picking up Natsuo Kirino’s Out, which was pretty good. I wasn’t entirely pleased with how it ended, but the rest of the book was great. I continued reading Yakuza, something I’ve been doing on-again/off-again for years, mainly due to leaving the book in places I can’t get at it – and once again, it’s in England and I’m in Japan.

The big news, then, would be that I got a Kindle just before I left the country. I should point out I’m a huge fan of books – the actual physical object, books. E-books just aren’t comparable. On top of that, many of the books (or e-books) I’d actually like to read simply aren’t available on the Kindle, or if they are, they’re expensive enough to make me hesitate about springing for a digital copy. Having said all that, though, I’m really impressed with it, especially the screen. I think it takes actually seeing the E-ink in action to appreciate what actually makes it special, that it really looks like printed text and not at all like a digital screen. But, much like Steam has me impulsively buying PC games, access to the Kindle store – through the oddly magical, free 3G connection it has – has me impulsively purchasing books.

The first – and not so much impulsively bought, as planned – was Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream. I’m a tremendous lover of KSR’s books, and I hadn’t realised Galileo’s was out till I searched for his other stuff on the Kindle. It’s pretty awesome, though for a long time whilst reading it I was actually worried he’d jumped the shark – the initial tone suggests something wildly different to some of his other stuff, which sits much closer to hard sci-fi. I guess it’s like a weird combination of the alternate history and mysticism of Years of Rice and Salt and Blue Mars’ prophetic far-future.

Post-Galileo’s Dream, I picked up Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice. I’d seen it mentioned a few times in a similar vein to the highly-academic Yakuza, but wasn’t sure if it was something I wanted to read. Then I read a piece of his, interviewing some yakuza as they played Yakuza 3 (well, Ryuu ga Gotoku 3, I guess). It was pretty funny, and had me interested in reading more of his stuff. Tokyo Vice turned out to be just as funny – in parts. Other parts make for some pretty hard reading. I don’t want to suggest that any of it is fictional, but it’s all pretty sensational, and if true means that he had one insane career as a journalist working for the Yomiuri in Japan, covering the police beat.

So with that weighty piece behind me, I decided to try out something much lighter and, perhaps, trashier. I’ve been watching Castle, Nathan Fillion’s series where he’s a writer shadowing an NYPD detective to find fodder for his crime novels. It’s not exactly high-brow, but Fillion is always great to watch, and as the series goes on it actually gets pretty good (pretty much from the second episode, actually – the first episode is written very broadly). At some point, they released a tie-in novel supposedly written by his character, Rick Castle, that matches up with the book he releases in the series. They’ve actually released two, now, but I’m only reading the first at the moment. You know what? It’s actually kinda good. It’s pulpy, sure, and it may not appeal to anyone who doesn’t watch the series – but for someone who does, it’s got some fairly humorous in-jokes, from the way the characters are incredibly thinly-veiled clones of the series characters, to the tone that is suggestive of those kind of alternate reality episodes of various series: everything is kind of amped up, and characters and relationships are sort of super-focused or exaggerated versions of the ‘actual’ ones from the series. It’s strange, but enjoyable.

I think after this I’m going to read Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space. One of the managers at work saw my Kindle, and noticed I had Galileo’s Dream on it when I was showing him how it worked, and suggested it. I downloaded a sample (a very welcome feature of the Kindle, I might add), and liked it, though the formatting is very off for an e-book – a worthwhile point to bring up, actually: there definitely needs to be some more vetting of e-books, I think. I’ve encountered a lot of errors and weird formatting already, and I haven’t even read that much on it. It’s never made anything unreadable, but Revelation Space has perhaps the most annoying screw-up: every paragraph is separated by a space… much like this blog. But in a book, it makes for peculiarly-paced reading, feeling as if every paragraph is the end of a section, and struggling to pick out when a new scene does start. I guess I’ll see how it goes.

Of Being a Working Stiff

It’s now my fourth week in Japan. Assuming I stay the full twelve months of my visa, that’s… ok, that’s maths I can’t do in my head. It’s a certain percentage. Nearly one-twelfth, in fact.

I started work last Monday, after a pretty intensive few days doing a training course I certainly wasn’t expecting to take – a training course a couple of the other applicants failed, raising the ugly spectre of the possibility that I could have moved overseas for a job I wasn’t even guaranteed to get. Not exactly the greatest communicators during the application phase, it seems. Having said that, I did get the job, in the end, and I’ve now been working for a little over a week. In that time I’ve taught about twenty-four lessons, I think, though I’ve had a few ‘slots’ where I booked myself in as available but didn’t have any clients – if I’d had those slots filled, the numbers would be more like thirty, thirty-six lessons taught, I believe. As you can see, I’ve had a fair few empty slots, during which I’ve mostly been reading from my Kindle, or wandering around the west entrance of Ikebukuro station looking for places to eat or get a coffee. Not that there’s any shortage of places – Ikebukuro is a big place, and there are any number of coffee shops, fast food joints, restaurants, and bars around the station – but it’s finding that combination of things that I like, and proximity to the place I’m teaching at.

The work itself isn’t bad. I wouldn’t say it’s fun, exactly, since it’s so highly variable – if I don’t get a booking, I’m just sitting there waiting around for forty-five minutes without a great deal to do; when I do have a booking, I’ve often got no idea what the client will be like. Will they be high level, or low? Will they be strictly business or basically just want to chat? I’m learning that often the information I have on them before they come in isn’t entirely helpful – they might be listed as a pretty high level client, only for them to come in and prove incredibly weak listeners, or extremely reluctant to string together anything more than the simplest of sentences. Presumably they’ve hit certain marks that are indicative of being a higher level, but still, those massive weak spots make me wonder who was teaching them before, and why they judged them to be of the level they did. Other times a client will come in and it’s actually a real blast to talk to them, either because it’s some lucky combination of an interesting lesson topic and an enthusiastic person, or they’re more freeform and want to talk about something engaging. I had one guy come in and debate Christianity’s influence of Nietzsche’s thinking with me, apparently having spotted that I was a Philosophy grad.

So, the work isn’t all bad, or all good – but I’m finding there is quite a lot of it. I’m actually not even working very many hours, but I’m still finding that spending five nights a week waiting for and meeting clients is a big time-sink. One thing I don’t want this year to be is another where I look back on it, and wonder what the hell I was doing – why didn’t I visit this place, why didn’t I do that thing? I think from January onwards, I’m going to rearrange my schedule a little. Spend fewer days (if not necessarily less time) at work, and try to get more things done. Plus, towards the end of January and the beginning of February, I’m planning on visiting Hokkaido, so I need to free up some space for that. I’m also going to start looking for other work – not necessarily to replace what I’m doing now, but to supplement it. This company has a good system, but it seems geared to two kinds of people: one person is willing to spend a lot of time teaching, booking in huge swathes of lesson slots. The other maybe doesn’t come in so often, perhaps teaching around another job or school. I’m in the middle, unwilling to simply be in Japan to work (I am, after all, meant to be on a working holiday), but lacking a steadier job or university classes to spend the rest of my time at. Food for thought.