Book review: 本好きの下剋上 vol. 1 (Ascendance of a Bookworm)

This review is rather overdue; I finished reading this book a couple of weeks ago. As of today I’m moving on to the next volume, again with the WaniKani bookclub, with the goal of finishing it just before the end of the year.

本好き is my first foray into the genre of 異世界 fiction; specifically the “reincarnation” subgenre. The hallmark of this kind of story is that our hero (typically a sad loner with no apparent future) meets an untimely death at the very beginning, and is then reborn into a new world (medieval fantasy settings seem to be the norm) with all his memories intact, and usually with some unbalanced magical power to boot. It’s a very popular concept, but one which has never much appealed to me due to the power fantasy trappings that seem to be endemic.

本好き is a bit different. For one, the main character (literally named “Main”, though the official English translation renders her name as “Mayne”; rhymes with “mine”), a book lover who had recently graduated from college with a degree in library science, actually seemed to have a pretty good life ahead of her before she was tragically crushed to death by a falling bookshelf. Things only get worse and worse from the moment she opens her eyes in her new home; she finds herself as a sickly little girl in a poor family, with not a single book in the house to help her while away the hours in bed. It’s not long before we find out that it’s not just her family; this is a world where being able to write your own name is remarkable, and where a single sheet of parchment is worth a month’s salary. Books will be hard to come by.

Though ostensibly the goal of the series is for Mayne to become a librarian against all odds, it’s a long climb to the top. Her goal throughout the whole first book is to come up with some way of writing, whether that be a pseudo-papyrus made of grass or clay tablets, but each new attempt comes with unforeseen challenges. Interleaved with the bookmaking are smaller, more achievable goals like figuring out how to make shampoo in a dirty, hard-fantasy world, or trying to adapt local ingredients to suit her Japanese tastes. Throughout it all, the narration is delightful and full of character.

At the time of writing there are 25 books in the series, with a new one coming out about every three months, so who knows when I’ll ever actually catch up (especially at bookclub pace). I do intend to continue for a while though. The recent anime adaptation apparently covers the first three volumes, so if any of this sounds interesting, be sure to check it out!

Japanese reading report

This week I started 秋の牢獄, by 恒川光太郎, the author of 夜市. Back when I was reading that book with the wanikani book club, I actually started on an epub, so when I decided to do the right thing and buy a proper copy I threw in two more books almost as penance. I’m very glad I did; have been enjoying this one a lot. Just like 夜市 it contains a handful of short stories, of which I’ve now finished the first two. 139 pages in six days gives me a daily average of 23 pages, which I’m pretty sure is my fastest so far.

For manga, I read カラーレス vol. 1 and 世話焼き狐の仙狐さん vol. 1, both of which I got for free. カラーレス is a pretty interesting scifi story about a world where some kind of apocalyptic solar flare has all but erased color from the world and caused all kinds of mutations among the human population. The writing and characters are good and I think the concept has potential, even if it’s a bit of a stretch; probably going to pick up at least one more volume to see if I stick with it.

世話焼き狐の仙狐さん is just fluffy 癒やし系 but it’s pretty funny and cute. 仙狐さん herself talks like a typical fox, with わらわ and じゃ and all those good things. One funny coincidence was the fact that she uses でない as a way to give negative orders, which seems totally natural for her, even though when I saw it for the first time (also this week, in 秋の牢獄) I didn’t know why it was being used. The perks of interleaving a variety of types of media!

Japanese reading report

This week began and ended with two chapters each of 本好きの下剋上 vol. 1, which I have just now finished. I enjoyed this book a lot all the way through and I actually have the next two volumes sitting right next to me, freshly delivered from Mandarake. It’s still up in the air whether there will be a spinoff wanikani book club to continue the series, but either way I’ll definitely be continuing. The last few chapters revealed some interesting information about the world which had been left unclear, as well as a hint about what the 下剋上 in the title might actually refer to. Feeling good about having finished this; it makes my fifth novel this year and it was a lot longer than any thing else I’ve read.

For my weekly manga I read さとうとむとう vol. 1. “Two weirdos at school” might be a common premise nowadays but I’ve yet to be disappointed by it; the characters and writing in this were entertaining and I could definitely see myself continuing to read it. It’s a pretty new series, which is always fun.

Since I’m back in the land of highspeed internet for the first time in a good long while, I decided to check out Netflix’s offerings for anime and…there’s not too much. I settled on a movie I’d never heard of, 海獣の子供. It had a pretty strong start with some quite lavish visuals, but I didn’t end up liking it too much. The last half hour of the movie was essentially an extended fever dream sequence and I ended up with no real clue what was actually going on. Oh well.

The 内・外 dichotomy

Over the last couple of years, as I’ve spent a lot of time reading Japanese literature and immersing myself in the language, I’ve become increasingly aware of a particular phenomenon which is endemic to the language at large; which can easily and precisely explain many seemingly unrelated mechanics; and which is so rarely mentioned that I didn’t even realize it had a name until I stumbled across it one day. The 内・外 dichotomy (“uchi/soto”; essentially translated as “inner/outer”) is, with only slight exaggeration, what I might consider in many ways to be a “unified theory of Japanese”. It forms a key component of both the language and the societal practices that define the culture at large, and by understanding it I believe it’s possible to form a deeper, more intuitive grasp of Japanese as a whole.

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Japanese reading report

This week I’m actually putting in my report early (last week I had completely lost track of what day it was).

First priority this week was to stay current with 本好きの下剋上, so I read three more chapters before spending time on anything else. We had one about cooking (it seemed I was the only bookclub member who actually enjoyed this one) and the rest were dedicated to setting up plot developments which will theoretically serve as the hook for the next book. Just one more week until the main story is finished (with a bit of bonus content at the end).

The next thing I read was 阿波連さんははかれない vol. 4. I actually started it as something I could read while falling asleep, and that was an abject failure since I was laughing hysterically throughout the whole thing. Learned some good new words; one standout was 手相, just because I thought it was funny how the meaning was totally different than 相手 despite using the same kanji.

Over the last three days of the week I read one volume of 見える子ちゃん per day, which catches me up with the series. It started off good but has developed into something quite special; vol. 3 in particular had some very good character development and set us off on what seems to be a main trajectory for a while. Excited to see where this goes (of course I have to wait six months for the next one…). I’ve learned a lot of fun JK slang from this one; 既読スルー・いや量・待受・映え are some good ones in particular.

Finally, finished up my Bloodborne playthrough. Not a lot to report here but I did have one fun moment where I recognized 花澤香菜 as the voice actress for a character in the DLC.

Abstract meanings of かける

According to JMDict, かける is a word with around 37 definitions. The idea of memorizing all of these definitions is enough to make anyone think twice about learning Japanese at all, but even taking them one by one can be daunting if it’s not clear which one applies to the given moment.

It’s my belief that all of these “definitions” share a common abstract idea, in the same way that the English words “run” or “get” can be used in a multitude of ways that all make intuitive sense to a native speaker, even when encountering a new collocation for the first time.

Personally I find it especially helpful to split this overarching abstract into three more specific (though still widely applicable) glosses.

かける meaning 1: “set upon

 ・メガネを掛ける set some glasses upon your face
 ・腰をかける set your body down on a chair
 ・負担をかける put a burden on somebody
 ・心配を掛ける lay your worries on someone
 ・金を賭ける set money upon the gambler’s table ★
 ・水をかける to sprinkle water onto something ★
 ・10かける10 ten times ten; ten set upon itself ten times

かける meaning 2: “expend into

 ・スパイスをかける to add spices into a dish
 ・金を賭ける to bet money ★
 ・腕によりをかける to put effort into work
 ・水をかける to sprinkle water onto something ★
 ・時間を掛ける to spend time doing something

かける meaning 3: “engage or activate

 ・かける (standalone): the standard “use” action in video games (“open” the door, “pull” the lever)
 ・アイロンを掛ける to iron clothes
 ・電話をかける to make a phone call; to use the phone
 ・鍵をかける to engage a lock

Each of these three broad meanings fall under one single overarching meaning, which I think of as “raise up“, because to me it evokes the idea of a movement upwards, whether abstract or concrete, towards some end. In the first case, you must “raise up” that which you wish to “set upon” something else. In the second, you figuratively “raise up” that which you wish to spend (a parallel may exist with あげる, where you “raise up” what you wish to give). In the third case, the thing that is being “raised up” is your own hand, to manipulate objects.

(Examples marked with a star are those which I feel work nearly as well in either of the first two groups)

Japanese reading report

Putting in my report a day early this time because I was able to catch up on all my stuff and I’d like to move on without awkwardly splitting my reading across weeks.

For the beginning of the week I was mostly just reading 本好きの下剋上. I was pretty busy with other things so it took me a bit to get through, The last chapter was pretty interesting because I actually predicted what was going to happen — マイン needs to make ink somehow, and my first thought was “just use lampblack!” Turns out that’s exactly what she ended up doing, though we’ve yet to find out how well it works for her.

Once I finished up this week’s bookclub quota, I was able to move on to 鬼滅の刃 vol. 22, which came out in the middle of the week. This volume was really good; we finally got a backstory for 伊黒 (the snake 柱), which was pretty interesting. The final battle seems to have reached a climax and I can only imagine they’ll wrap up the series in vol. 23. I’m very impressed by how so many plot threads are being tied up here; it seems like certain key elements were planned at least all the way back in vol. 2 and it’s very cool to see them paying off.

I also read 見える子ちゃん vol. 1, which I picked up randomly for free on cmoa the other day. I was hooked by literally the second page and it just kept getting better throughout. The gist is that the main character, みこ, is suddenly able to see all these weird monstrosities that everyone else is oblivious to, and she has to act as though everything is normal. The monster art is super detailed and disturbing, but the story is also surprisingly funny and downright wholesome at times. It’s a pretty young series so I’ll probably grab the rest of what’s out pretty soon.

Random bonus: I replayed Bloodborne up to probably the 2/3 point. I could get through this game with my eyes closed, but paying attention to the JP voice track is fun and noticing the changes made in loc is interesting. Also replayed a bit more Persona Q2 now that my sister has progressed with it.