Tuesday, 23 December 2014

On reading: Top 5 books Our Man read in 2014

To be a good writer you need to be able to quote Orwell's On Writing liberally. All Our Man can remember from it is you are supposed to not write more words than you need and something about requiring ego. Our Man has a bit of that, because why else would he keep an extensive record of what he's read this year and want to tell the world about it? And he likes short blog posts. But this one is a bit longer than usual.

Goodreads emailed Our Man that he had read 44 books in 2014. He'd aimed to read one a week this year, but with just a week to go he's going to throw in the towel and settle for just 44. That may seem like a big number, but he read somewhere (Stephen King's On Writing?) that if you have any pretentions of taking writing seriously, you have to read seriously. And not sure if "seriously" accurately describes how Our Man read in 2014, given the number of graphic novels and kids books he squeezed in, but he learnt a lot and has a few recommendations. All the reviews are here. But here are the best books (with Our Man's reviews) in his, er, humble opinion.

Number 5: The City and The City by China Mieville

If it were just the brilliant, warped sci-fi world in which two cities live on one shared space, with its citizens unseeing and unhearing their neighbours as foreigners, that would be enough to make it a great book. But more than that, it's a nuts and bolts whodunnit page-turner complete with good cops, bad cops, buddy cops and a conspiracy afoot that kept me turning pages. Oh, and it's got symbolics coming out the wazoo, if you are so inclined, but that's never overplayed.

The book's all about building a believable alternative world, and this it does brilliantly.

Apologies if I'm gushing (sure, all the cool kids already knew China Mieville was great...) so in the interests of finding some false balance, let me find a few faults. Tough, but if it were me, I'd have pushed the inspector's relationship with his female constable to see where that might go, and I'da thrown in a bit more humour, but hey, I'm just looking for nits to pick. This is great stuff. Loved it.

Number 4: Tokyo On Foot: Travels in the city's most colourful neighbourhoods by Florent Chavouet

Spend six months bumming around Tokyo and draw everything that you see. Then release it as a book. Simple, yet brilliant. The ideas, the drawings, the attitude. Who knew you could do so much with just a drawing pad and some coloured pencils? Inspirational. You read a book like this and think "why doesn't everyone learn to draw and do one for their own neighbourhood?" And, you know what, I think I will.

Number 3: Urban Sketching: The Complete Guide to Techniques by Thomas Thorspecken

This is not just a how-to-sketch book, it's a manifesto for the sketch artist as citizen journalist. It's packed with practical advice and examples of great sketches. After reading this, I shelved notions of buying a fancy camera to capture the world around me. I just need some pencils, paper and a spot of water colours (and a fold-up chair) and I'm good to go. This is inspiring stuff, the best of the three how-to art books I've read this year.

Number 2: The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad

I gave myself an evening off and read this short story. What Conrad can pack into a couple of dozen pages would take a lesser writer a lifetime. And we're all lesser writers. Here we have a conflicted hero, an exploration of morality, individual rights, a doppelgänger, a murder hunt, a love story all set aboard a ship and served as a gripping tale of suspense. Now, I want more Conrad. Read this for free from the Gutenburg folks.

Number 1: Invisible Colored White: Being White in a Black World by Richard Rizzo

Received wisdom is that you shouldn't write an autobiography unless you have led an extraordinary life. Richard Rizzo has arguably led such a life. But what makes his autobiography so extraordinary is that it is not so much about him as about the people around him.

We are fortunate to have a narrator with so little ego that he is able to see the good in bad situations and vice versa. And what's around him is nothing less than the story of post-war America. Rizzo is perfectly placed to observe the changes that ripped through the country: he is the son of a white Italian war veteran and the (at first) unwilling stepson of a black Communist Party leader, only to come of age in time for Vietnam.

Each chapter is a detailed vignette, a slice of his life, but the details he shapes into anecdotes reveal a grander story of the struggles of a nation. And by the way, this is excellently written and edited. In fact, it's the best self-published book I've read. I'm in awe. This is what writing is all about. Do Rizzo and yourself a favour and read it.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Here’s your mandate

Our Man reckons his latest is a pretty good likeness of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s highest up bar one, except the colours are far too warm. Back to the drawing board. Carry on.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Shrine a light

It's nearly time to enter into the season of top 10 lists of the year when journos the world over get to re-run a year's worth of yesterday's news as insightful analysis. Our Man doesn't begrudge them their fun. Our Man has had a good year a all things considered. As shitty as the news has been for many this year, and there has been a heavy load for a good deal of folks this year, a little perspective is in order. A century ago our higher-ups embarked on a little blood-letting through Europe that they have still to remove the stains from their consciences. So?
What I'm saying is: it could be worse. But here's hoping 2015 is a lot better.

Link via agent provocateur Dan Ryan.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Japan Decides, 2014: The view from Abiko

Japan decides today. Well, just over 50 percent of the nation decides today, given expected voter turnout. Actually, just over half of eligible voters decide. Probably. Well, the ruling party cannot lose tomorrow as there aren't enough opposition candidates running to beat the ruling party. But this state of affairs, where around 17 percent of the population actively chooses the leaders it gets will be hailed as a decisive mandate by the victors who can then do whatever chaps do when they have a mandate. Mandate by the way is the name of a gay dating magazine from the 70s. Google it, Our Man doesn't want that in his NSA file.

Anyway, thought he'd show you the view from Abiko. Sakurada, the ruling party pol, will win. Ota, the former Ozawa gal, will come a distant second and Onozato of the Japan Communist Party, will get the wooden spoon. Sigh.

Here's a good piece by bunker favourite Richard Smart on why folks should care about the election. Here's a good piece in the Guardian about issues and such, arranged in blog- and Moses-friendly Top 10 format, but here's Our Man's take:

If predominant political trends in Europe and the US can be explained as socially left wing, financially right (well, kinda), in Japan it's largely the opposite: the LDP is socially right wing but financially left. Kinda. But that's a characterisation with as sloppy brushstrokes and inaccurate detailing as Our Man's caricatures. Viewer discretion advised.

Want proper Japan political analysis? Go to Shisaku.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Say it with flowers

Our Man was going to post something incisive or at least just "about" the election on Sunday, but really, what needs to be said? Japan has reverted to the one-party rule that's been operating since the war and the outcome is not in any doubt. So just thought Our Man would say it with flowers, but the florists on Route 356 (opposite the ryokan that he painted the last time) was shut. Possibly symbolic, but mostly just true. 

So he sketched it instead. Here it is. Carry on.