Tuesday, May 04, 2010

If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous

Harper Perennial; 354 pages; $14.99 paperback

This is not a review, just a write-up:

I had never heard of Malena Watrous' "If you Follow Me" when it came to me by mail from Harpers Perennial, but its opening pages which contained a very sweet letter addressed to Malena Watrous by her Japanese minder in his charming Japlish seduced me and I knew I wanted to read more.

"Dear Miss Marina how are you? I'm fine thank you. A reason for this letter is: recently you attempt to throw away battery and jar and some kind of mushroom spaghetti and so forth, all together in one bin. Please don't try "it wasn't me." We Japanese seldom eat Gorgonzola cheese!"

I searched the net for reviews (something I don't usually do before I read a book) and fund them uniformly positive so  decided to give it a whirl and before I knew it I had breezed through 150 pages in a single sitting (almost unheard of for me these days!).

Here's a tiny synopsis so you get a feel for what the book's about:

Hoping to outpace her grief in the wake of her father's suicide, Marina has come to the small, rural Japanese town of Shika to teach English for a year. But in Japan, as she soon discovers, you can never really throw away your past . . . or anything else, for that matter.
"If You Follow Me" is at once a fish-out-of-water tale, a dark comedy of manners, and a strange kind of love story. Alive with vibrant and unforgettable characters--from an ambitious town matchmaker to a high school student-cum-rap artist wannabe with an addiction to self-tanning lotion--it guides readers over cultural bridges even as it celebrates the awkward, unlikely triumph of the human spirit.

The book is everything the publishers say it is and more.  It is semi-autobiographical, a love story, and a story about loss and learning to cope, but it also reads as an expat journal detailing interesting and obscure details about Japan and the Japanese that only someone living there would pick up on.  For instance, the Japanese fascination with rules.  You get the feeling that Japan is a very law-abiding country and they have little or no patience with foreigners who will not follow rules.  It took several epistolary rebukes from Marena's fellow “sensei,” or teacher, Hiroshi, who has been assigned to supervise her presence in Shika, about the "gomi rules" (garbage rules) before she caught on and started following .

What did I like about the book?  The honesty.  I felt like Watrous never tried to cover up her faux-pas or faults.  She was the tall, bumbling foreigner in Japan, who could only speak a smattering of Japanese, and she never tried to be anything else.  She has also has a wacky and dry sense of humor and is game to poke fun at herself as she  stumbles through life in Japan, but it's not a "laugh-a-minute" thing like we are used to seeing with travel writers like Bill Bryson, J. Proost.   Also, she really does want to teach the kids English but her progress is marred by the fact that she doesn't always "get" the culture, or what is or isn't acceptable in Japanese society.  Also, there is a kid (a previous hikikomori or a shut-in) who seems intent on sabotaging her time in Japan, not to mention the boys she teaches in the technical college who, because they don't see their futures improving with English, refuse to cooperate during the lessons.  They sit half-naked in class and their previous teacher left on account of sexual harassment. This brings up quite an interesting point actually....while Japan may be a country of social conformity, there are the exceptions or rebels who truly stick out like sore thumbs.

Also, while all of this is going on, Watrous is trying to cope with personal losses on two fronts:  the suicide of her father and the break up of her relationship with Carolyn, the girl she followed to Japan.   However, the book is not without its warm and funny moments like the gatherings at the "Hottorondo" or hot springs where colleagues gather and chat naked around the hot tubs.  I have heard this is similar in Finland that has a sauna culture, but as a Indo-westerner,  I am not sure I could frolic around naked with my colleagues and then work with them the next day!

Then there is the Japanese wedding she goes to:  unlike most weddings which are noisy, joyous occasions, Japanese weddings are sober and reflective in comparison.  Malena is given a long oral list of rules to follow while she is at the wedding, but, ofcourse, not belonging to the culture she finds it impossible to follow the rules and just has fun instead!

She also touches on a lot of issues currently affecting Japanese society....like the high rate of abortions, the shut-ins and issues that are peculiar to Shika only.  Shika being a small town ......... the city is constantly losing its young people to bigger cities for work, also, Shika is the site of two nuclear power plants

This book has been reviewed by many bloggers before me and I give you some links (below).  As you will see, some have loved the book and others haven't.  Read it and decide for yourself.  I would say it would be an immensely helpful read for anyone interested in learning about Japan and especially for someone who would like to go teach there.

Malena’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS

Tuesday, March 9th: Dolce Bellezza
Wednesday, March 10th: Take Me Away (and interview)
Thursday, March 11th: Life in the Thumb
Monday, March 15th: Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, March 17th: Stephanie’s Written Word
Thursday, March 18th: nomadreader
Monday, March 22nd: Books and Movies
Wednesday, March 24th: Book Chatter
Tuesday, March 30th: BookNAround
Wednesday, March 31st: Bookstack


Laura said...

This looks like one of those "I have to go get this book right now!" type of reads!!!!! Thanks!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

This looks interesting. I've taught in Japan for four years myself. Maybe I should check it out.

BTW, it's "hikikomori" ;) I had a few at my schools...

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Laura!!!

I surprised myself by liking this book so much, I think you will too! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Kanmuri!

You really should try to get your hands on this book! It would be most enjoyable to see how many of Malena's experiences you share. Thanks for correcting my spelling of "hikikomori" (I will go correct it on the main page after I push the send button on this comment).

So you had "hikikomoris" in some of your classes? I'm so curious to know why they are so common in Japan...and isn't it against the law to not go to school? So how do they manage to stay shutin for months together at a time?

Japan has always been such an inscrutable country for me and that is partly I gravitate to books/novels with Japan as a theme.

Where in Japan did you teach Kanmuri? And did you ever get up to the Noto Peninsula?

Thanks so much for leaving me a comment!

david mcmahon said...

Hi Lotus,

Here's my question: when are YOU going to write that first novel?

You know, as well as I do, that you have the talent, both structurally and stylistically.

Yes, I know your rejoinder will be: ``I am a parent and I do not have the time''.

Let me just say this: I am a hands-on parent as well, but I did it with simple aims. I did not command my Muse to produce 3000 words each day of the week. No, I had simple, humble goals - only 300 words a day.

You know, too, that I will (when asked) offer you every ounce of guidance.

If I can be of any help at all, you have my email address (both of them, in fact).

Alas, I have lost yours, which is why I have to try and stoke your own Muse with this comment ....

Best wishes, as always


Lotus Reads said...

Hey David!

How totally wonderful to see you here!!! I gather you aren't on FB yet? :))) Nuh-uh, you won't be seeing a novel from me anytime soon, I cannot write like you and Leela can. I can barely write reviews some days! :) Is your new book out? And when are you planning another trip this side?

My e-mail addy again for your files:


Hope you will continue to visit my blog as and when you can.

Katherine Jenkins said...

So nice to find you here. This book looks like an excellent read. I lived in Sendai Japan for two years and can totally relate. I am writing a book called Lessons from the Monk I Married, about my 14-year journey with a Korean Buddhist Monk, which just received representation. I have a blog by the same title but am writing 365 Lessons there, quite different that than the book. Anyway, nice to find you here. I'll check out the book!

J said...

I'm thinking I'll see if my library has this...sounds fascinating. Thanks for a wonderful review. :)

Booklover said...

It does sound really interesting. I already have 5 books on my reading list and I'm wondering which one to pick up first :)

Book Reviews

Unknown said...

Oh now I really want to read it!

monideepa sahu said...

Hey, thanks for introducing such wonderful new books to us in your special inimitable style

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Katherine!

Do forgive me for getting back to your wonderful comment so late but I've been bogged down with home renovations, houses guests and what not! Your book sounds sooooo exciting, please let me have more information...oh wait, I will just check your blog!

Thanks so much for stopping by and the best of luck with your book!

Lotus Reads said...

@Julie ~ No problem! I wasn't expecting this book to be so much fun! :)

@Booklover ~ Oooh, which 5 are you trying to choose from? Maybe I can help? :)

@Ang ~ It will speak to you (the teaching part atleast)

@Moni ~ You're so welcome! And thank YOU for stopping by to read all that I have to say!

Piers Moore Ede said...

This is a fantastic blog - you write very well. If you'd be interested in writing anything for my site www.theindiaphile.com do let me know. very best, piers

starry said...

Thanks for the review Lotus.I think it is one of those books I am going to read.

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Piers!

How nice of you to stop by! I am familiar with your most recent book as a friend of mine recently purchased it in Dublin. I will be reading it too. Thank you for the invitation to write for theindiaphile, I am taking a look at it now and enjoying it immensely. If you want to use any of my reviews please let me know...I'd be glad to polish it up and lend it to you for your site.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Starry!

Let me know if you do!

karmic said...

Thank you for this review. It made for fascinating reading.
Sorry if I sound clueless but who is a "Indo-westerner". I haven't come across the term before.
I am glad that the honest portrait stood out for you.Having read quite a few books about Japan by foreigners who live/work there, do you think you are closer to understanding this complex, inscrutable society?
Did the author get any closer to this? Does she talk about it?
It sounds like a wonderful book, thank you!