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Two books during this week.
1) ぼくは坊さん – 白川密成
    I'm a Priest – Shirakawa Missei

I bought this book on sight, on the strength of its author's comparison to assembling the necessary robes and tools of the Shingon Buddhist priest to running around collecting items in an RPG. There are a few other gems in the volume; for instance, when Shirakawa describes an inter-temple baseball tournament or the unveiling one of the hidden Buddha statues at his home temple. I was hoping he'd offer some insight into Shingon practice and/or theology; unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly) he sticks to generalities in this regard. The majority of the book has previously been published on his blog and, as is usually the case with such things, this makes for a rather disjointed and superficial read. So, although I'm a Priest made for good bedtime reading, I'd have been happier with it had I got it used at BookOff.

Sophomore Switch – Abby MacDonald
Sophomore Switch is at heart a typical yarn about odd-couple teenage protagonists learning who they are and what they want while negotiating college life. It opens with straight-laced overachieving Brit Emily and “totes popular” California party girl Tasha deciding to spend sophomore year abroad in one another's countries, in order to escape a bad breakup and TMZ Internet infamy, respectively. Let the life lessons ensue!

The narrative is an unusual mix of fantasy and reality. That both characters are not only forced to sit advanced courses for each other's (entirely unrelated) majors, but to live in the other's apartment/dormitory room (and can modify or destroy each other's possessions with impunity) stretches the disbelief of even the most credulous reader, although it does expedite the plot considerably. And MacDonald certainly seems to believe that looking “just like all the popular girls” when it comes to clothing and makeup (regardless of whether said fashion reflects one's own personality or comfort level) is the most important aspect of making friends--an odd assertion in a purportedly feminist novel.

On the other hand, Sophomore Switch is certainly far more feminist than the majority of similar fare out there: both characters learn not only to stand up for their own beliefs, but do so in ways that avoid toeing the line of either enlightened sexism or radical feminist ideologies. Neither are all the narrative conflicts neatly tied up with pat resolutions (if they’re tied up at all). MacDonald has an unusually good ear for American slang: there were very few places where the dialogue left me groaning You are very obviously a British author, although she does go a little overboard with the chatspeak. The shoutouts to Tsebelis and the Thermals were a nice touch too. Final verdict: yes, this book is adolescent fantasy, but definitely in the top 10 percent of the genre.

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January 2012

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