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Suggested Books for Pleasure Reading

Have you read a good book in Japanese? Share it with other kanji learners! Send us a short review and it will appear here.
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Submitted by Gary E. Harper (harper@ii-okinawa.ne.jp):

脳を鍛える大人の名作読本
by川島隆太 from くもん出版 (Kumon Shuppan), vols `1-15.¥600per volume 

Mr. Kawashima has produced a number of books designed to increase people's IQ.  Your local bookstore almost certainly has a display.  Someone somewhere has determined that reading aloud is helpful in increasing IQ and in preventing senile dementia in the elderly (like your reviewer).  I can't say about the proposed benefits, but I can attest that I personally-- and by extension-- I assume all foreign Japanese speakers, have difficulty reading Japanese aloud.  I suspect this is due to not having had to read Japanese aloud in elementary school, because I can (usually) read English aloud with little difficulty.  This series of large format books has exerpts from classics of Japanese literature in fairly large print with ふりがなdesigned to be read aloud.  Because the text is designed to be read aloud, every character has ふりがな, easing the "look-up burden" common with foreigners trying to read Japanese.  Of course, you don't have to read the text out loud.  Warning - being classic literature, there may be occasional obscure passages or somewhat archaic wording (nothing as difficult as say, Shakespeare is for today's Americans though).  In such cases, it is easiest to ask an erudite Japanese friend for help.  But the books are an excellent intoduction to Japanese literature and great for reading aloud.  Obviously you don't need to buy the whole set!
 
 
おくのほそ道
by 松尾芭蕉, translated by Donald Keene and 宮田正之, from 講談社,¥2000

This is one of Basho's most famous works. There are hundreds of different editions around, but this one is designed for foreigners and Dr. Keene is a superb translator.  The book includes Basho's diary of the trip and his poetry, all in たいやくformat.  The print is relatively large (for Japanese books) and includes plenty of ふりがな so it's relatively easy going.  Lavishly illustrated with some excellent prints.  A bit pricy, but worth it if you can afford it.
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Submitted by Gary E. Harper (harper@ii-okinawa.ne.jp):

窓ぎわのトットちゃん

by 黒柳徹子 from 講談社文庫 (¥520)  
After she was expelled from the firstgrade (!), the author’s mother enrolled her in a very unusual school, where the classrooms were abandoned railway coaches and education was freestyle compared to the Japanese norm.  Totto-chan loved the school and thrived there. The author gives us a series of unconnected incidents of her young life, some funny, some sad, all fascinating.  The book can be read incident by incident or straight through.  Although illustrated and provided with furigana for the more difficult kanji, this is not a children’s book; it is, rather, a book about children for adults. The illustrations, by the way,  are by the late Chihiro Iwasaki, considered by many to the finest depictor of children Japan has ever produced  (there is a museum devoted entirely to her work.)  The book was a best seller in Japan for some time, with the English translation (Totto-chan, The Little Girl at the Window) alone selling over 400,000 copies in Japan.  The book had sold over seven million copies internationally by 1984 and is still in print.  The English translation is excellent and can be used to dig out the meanings of obscure (to foreigners) phrases.  Incidentally, I just noticed an edition with full furigana from 講談社青鳥文庫 in a local bookstore. This is an extremely pleasant book that leaves the reader smiling. The author is a well-known Japanese television personality, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi.  
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Three reviews submitted by Gary E. Harper (harper@ii-okinawa.ne.jp):

さゆり (English title: Memoirs of a Geisha)
by Arthur Golden, translated by 小川高義, and published by 文藝春秋 in two volumes (上下). List price ¥1524 per volume. English version published by Vintage listed at $7.00.

I just finished this book. The English version was a runaway best seller in the U.S. and stayed on the bestseller shelves in bookstores in Japan for quite a while. This is the story of Chiyo, a very poor fisherman's daughter who, in 1929 at age nine, is sold to a geisha house in Gion, Kyoto, and who, more by sheer luck than anything else, succeeds as the geisha Sayuri. This is one of the most enjoyable books I have read in years. The book is a novel written as a memoir - masterfully! Although the heroine, as a geisha, moves in the upper echelons of Japanese pre-war society, she does not associate with the very top figures. (However, a couple of paragraphs are devoted to a description of Admiral Yamamoto, whom she met casually.) The translation from English into Japanese is also compelling, and it is a pleasure to watch Chiyo's rustic village 関西弁 (Kansai dialect) gradually change into the ultra-clutured accents of Gion's geishas. Interestingly the author, a man, uses precise (and exquisite) descriptions of kimono and obi to mark various events in Sayuri's life. A number of reviews have noted this book as "revealing the secret world of the geisha," but I didn't find this to be true. Still, setting aside any question of the "secret world," the reader will be deeply immersed in Sayuri's world. Simutaneously realistic and lyrical, this is a great novel!! Buy it, check it out from the library, borrow it from a friend, whatever it takes - read it!!

You will need the English version to aid in translating the occasional "geisha-ism" if for no other reason. Kanji level - above elementary school, but still not terribly difficult. Most pages will require the electronic dictionary five or six times if you know your 教育漢字 (kyouiku kanji). The only real difficulty in reading this book will be trying to keep yourself from reading ahead in the English version.

Love Songs from the Manyoshu
Illustrated by Miyata Masayuki, Commentary by Oooka Makoto, Translation by Ian Hidoe Levy published by Kodansha. List price $25.00 (U.S.)

This book contains thirty-five 短歌 (tanka) from the Manyoshu, each in Japanese, romaji, and English translation. Each is beautifully illustrated and each comes with explanatory commentary in 対訳 format (Japanese on one page, English on the facing page). The book is rather expensive - you can buy the complete Manyoshu for less than ¥1000 (without translation, commentary or illustration) - so is it worth it? Well, that would depend on the depth of your interest in Japanese poetry. The commentary often includes explanations of difficult passages, which is always a plus and often enhances the meanings of a poem, even a poem you thought you had understood. The poems, as might be expected for literature that has lasted for over 1000 years, are superb, but as the book does not seem to have been designed for sale to the improverished student, you might want to check your local public or school library to peruse a copy before purchasing it.

Little Songs of the Geisha
by Liza Dalby published by Tuttle. List price $12.95 (U.S.)

This little book (only 100 or so pages) contains 25 小唄 (kouta), which are mostly love songs sung by geisha to shamisen accompaniment. Each 小唄 is provided in caligraphy by Kaieda Shumpo, in romaji and in English translation with English (only) explanatory notes for each song. The caligraphy is in 行書 style which approaches 草書 in artistry and unreadability, and studying this caligraphy may be useful for some people who are studying the pecularities of Japanese handwriting or calligraphy. The explanations are great and include lots of references that seem to be in-jokes among the geisha and their customers. I personally enjoyed the book, but I finished it in one reading. For those who are watching their funds, a library copy might be preferable.

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Submitted by Gary E. Harper (harper@ii-okinawa.ne.jp):

Japanese Made Funny
by Tom Dillon (Japan Times columnist, "When East Meets West")
published by The East Publications, Inc. (Gee, I didn't know you could use "Inc." in Japan; I've never seen it before.)
http://www.theeast.co.jp

This book offers "bloopers" made by foreigners trying to speak Japanese. The stories have obviously been embellished by the author, but there remains a kernel of truth. The book is in 対訳 format (Japanese on the left page, English on the right) making it a useful study aid as well as being funny. I found it was best enjoyed reading a few pages at a time; I think a hundred pages of bloopers would be overpowering. The Japanese translation, by Watanabe Minako, is good. Interestingly, the translation uses much more punctuation than you usually see in Japanese (I do that when I write Japanese; initally I wondered if it had been translated by a foreigner.) 950 yen.

県民大図鑑 
from ニッポンジャーナル translated by 堀五郎、扶桑社文庫 publishers.

This book is a direct translation of "The Hilarious Japanese" from the Nippon Journal. It has an accurate and amusing description of each Prefecture, sometimes using bits and pieces of the more famous words from the local dialect. No English, no ふりがな, but it is not far beyond elementary school kanji and, not at all hard with an electronic dictionary (I use Nelson's so much that I have to be one of the world's fastest users; an electronic dictionary is still faster and will also look up those annoying words in kana that you don't know.) 667 yen.

ま・く・ら
by 柳家小三冶 published by 講談社文庫.

This is billed as an introduction to 落語 (rakugo)in the blurb on the back and includes a plethora of the comic dialogues so beloved by Japanese. Here you can read it slowly enough to get a feel of what is really going on, which is sometimes difficult for a foreigner watching a performance, live or on TV. No English, no ふりがな to speak of, but for those who have mastered 教育漢字、only minor work with a dictionary is required. BUT, some of the vocabulary will be strange, so you may be looking up a lot of seemingly simple words. 667 yen.

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From Mary Sisk Noguchi:

Japanese literary classics with furigana

Look for these unabridged classics in the 児童文庫 (jidoubunko, juvenile fiction) section of your local Japanese bookstore or library. Furigana is provided for most kanji in the text.

(1)
講談社 (Kodansha) has an excellent series of Japanese classics, with extra-large print, annotations, and detailed illustrations. These are hardbacks and cost ¥1600 new. Originally, there were 30 volumes in the series, which is called 少年少女日本文学館 (Shonenshojo nihon bungakkan). 17 of the titles are still being published, the others may be found in public libraries and used bookstores in Japan. If you find one, grab it! Titles include:

潮騒 (The Sound of Waves, by Mishima Yukio)
吾輩は猫である (I Am a Cat, by Natsume Soseki)
伊豆の踊り子 (The Izu Dancer, by Kawabata Yasunari)
ごんぎつね (Gon the Fox, by Niimi Nankichi)
サアカスの馬 (Circus Horse, by Yasuoka Shotaro)
しろばんば (Shirobanba, by Inoue Yasushi)

(2)
偕成社文庫 (Kaiseishabunko) offers paperbacks with furigana, a few illustrations, and print somewhat larger than the miniscule print found in regular Japanese paperbacks These are widely available in local Japanese bookstores for ¥500-600.

一ふさのぶどう (A Bunch of Grapes, by Arishima Takeo)
二十四の瞳 (The 24 Eyes, by Tsuboi Sakae)
坊ちゃん  (Botchan, by Natsume Soseki)
銀河鉄道の夜 (Night Train to the Stars, by Miyazawa Kenji)
ビルマの竪琴 (The Harp of Burma, by Takeyama Michio)

(3)
The フォア文庫 (Foa Bunko) series has print (and prices) similar to the 偕成社文庫 (Kaiseishabunko) series, and offers many of the same titles. Many of the short stories of 宮沢賢治 (Miyazawa Kenji, who also wrote "The Makioka Sisters") are available in this series.
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From Gary Harper: (harper@ii-okinawa.ne.jp)

三毛猫ホームスの騎士道 by 赤川次郎 from 角川文庫

三毛猫ホームス (pronounced ミッケネコ)is a lady cat who combines the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes and Cristie's Hecule Pirot and Miss Marple. She is accompanied by 片山義太郎 and his (seemingly smarter and more adverturous) younger sister 晴美 and together the trio solve all sorts of mysteries. (The Japanese seem to love the complex, deductive-type mystery.) This is number eight in the series and is a very typical English-type mystery. It takes place in a foggy, gloomy, stormy German castle, where a fairly large cast of (Japanese) characters gets locked in and then are reduced one-by-one by some rather bizarre activities.

The first book in the series is 三毛猫ホームス の推理 and it probably makes more sense to start the series there, but 騎士道 has a great deal of ふりがな which I found quite helpful. My copy cost about 500 yen, and you can probably find a copy in a used book story for around 100. The author, who is extremely popular and prolific, has at least three different mystery series out-- 三毛猫ホームス, 花嫁 and 三姉妹-- as well as a number of independent books, some mysteries, some not. The kanji level is generally not bad (花嫁 seems the easiest to me) and you will find your vocabulary increasing both through the dialog and the descriptives used.
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From Bianca Jarvis: (biancajarvis@hotmail.com)

Having studied Japanese for about 4 years now, the authors I've found to have the most interesting stories that are easy to read are Yoshimoto Banana, Murakami Haruki, and Hoshi Shinichi. I am a fan of Hoshi Shinichi in particular, because his stories (collected into a book called "Bokko-chan") are easy to read, short (a few pages) and tend to have a good sense of humor, with an ironic twist at the end. They seem reminiscent of the works of Phillip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, the same style of accessible, intelligent Sci-Fi. My osusume!
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From Gary Harper: (harper@ii-okinawa.ne.jp)

Summer Reading List
School vacation has just started as of this writing, and, this means that most of the paperback publishers have come out with a list of very low-priced books, usually fifty or one hundred, for reading during vacation. These are usually prominently displayed in your local book store, along with the publisher's (free) catalog. I was suprised to find that most of these books have been re-written using the 教育漢字 (kyouiku kanji), sometimes with a few general-use kanji thrown in, almost always with ふりがな for the higher level characters.

Typically, the book list is quite varied, including Japanese Classics, modern novels, and translations of foreign (American and otherwise) books. For example, I am looking at the 新潮文庫 catalog, and find 坊ちゃん (Botchan)、吾輩は猫である (I Am Cat)、and こころ (Kokoro)by 夏目漱石 (Natsume Shusaku)、雪国 (Snow Country) and 伊豆の踊子 by 川端 (Kawabata), Crime and Punishment, Romeo and Juliet, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes and so forth. By the way, anyone studying Japanese seriously should probably read こころ and 坊ちゃん. I've had numerous Japanese friends tell me that, after reading こころ, their impression was "Wow, now that's really Japanese." And most Japanese seem to identify with the hero of 坊ちゃん. After all, 夏目漱石's (Natsume Soseki's) picture is on the 1000 yen bill for a reason.

Reading Japanese with a Three-Colored Pen
As of this writing, there are a number of books on correct Japanese on the bestseller lists of the local bookstores. One of these is 三色ボールペンで読む日本語 (Reading Japanese with a Three-Colored Pen) by 斎藤孝 published by 角川書店, which deals with the author's system for marking paragaphs using a three color ball point to aid in comprehension. You even get a pen with the book (and of course, the bookstores just happen to have other such pens for sale.) The author requests that you not start the system until you finish the book and, since I have not yet finished the book, I don't have an opinion on its usefulness. The book is relatively easy reading, using mostly 教育漢字, but that is not why I mention it.

Human Drama
The same author has two other books usually found in the best seller displays, one called 人間劇場(Human Drama) published by 新潮社.This book, whose title is based on Shakespeare's famous "All the world's a stage and all the people, players", consists of extracts from the writings of various authors and philosophers, both Japanese and foreign, which the author feels may have an impact on human relations in various circumstances, and is divided by subject ("The Weakness of the Heart", "Friends", "Presents", etc.). Every kanji used (except in the preface) has ふりがな attached. Incidentally, the author states in the preface that he really doesn't care if you use his tri-colored pen or not.

Japanese for Reading Aloud
His other book on the best seller display is 声に出し読みたい日本語 (Japanese for Reading Aloud) from 草思者. The book consists of poems and explanations thereof. The poems, some of which are in 漢文, all have ふりがな; the commentaries do not. The commentaries are not restricted to 教育漢字, but are relatively easy going and can be read with a minimum of dictionary time. Poetry is still important in Japan and understanding it and knowing some of the better known poets is a definite social plus when dealing with the more eurudite Japanese.

Interpreting Women: Personal Perspectives on Communication
篠田顕子 and 新崎隆子 have authored an interesting volume on their adventures in simultaneous translation called 英語は女を変える, English title "Interpreting Women: Personal Perspectives on Communication", published by はまの出版. The book is often funny, and illustrates the difficulties involved in being a simultaneous interpreter. (How someone can translate simultaneously FROM Japanese is a complete mystery to me; if the speaker ends his/her sentence with "...masen" instead of the "...masu" you thought was coming, your entire translation is blown.) It also shows the immense amount of knowledge required to be an interpreter and the immense amount of work and stress involved. By the way, take a look at the English title. It is correct English, and means "Women who Interpret," but when I first saw it, I thought it meant "How to Interpret What Women Do and Say", also a correct interpretation and probably the one most Americans would think of upon seeing the title. This, I think, serves to illustrate the difficulties of interpreting and translating.
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From Gary Harper: (harper@ii-okinawa.ne.jp)

源氏物語
For whatever reason, the Tale of Genji is currently quite popular, although the original is well-known for being extremely difficult to read for the modern Japanese. However, abridgements currently abound. I recently ran across a very brief abridgement titled 源氏物語、published by 尭教育図書 in what the publisher calls コミグラフィク format. While profusely illustrated with well-executed drawings, with an occasional dialogue balloon, it is not quite a 漫画 (manga,"comic book"), as it also contains blocks of print on most pages. All kanji have furigana and explanatory notes abound. It is quite suitable for the foreigner learning Japanese (although written for native speakers) and gives a brief outline of the story, sometimes considered the world's first novel. Cost - 1,000 yen.

ハリーポッター
If you enjoy fantasy, you will probably enjoy the Harry Potter series. Yes, they are books for children, but they are extremely well written and have excellent characterization and complex plots - most adults in the U.S. and U.K. who have read them, and this includes some literary critics, say they have enjoyed them. In any case, the Japanese translations are well done and designed for the primary school student insofar as the difficulty level of the kanji used. Furigana is used not only for difficult characters but for phrases which may not yet be part of an elementary student's vocabulary. Also, English versions are available to let you check you're understanding (this is a commercial translation, so don't expect to be able to find the meaning of an individual word.) Easy and enjoyable to read. If you don't like fantasy, you're missing a good read. Published by 静山社 - paperbacks now out, so the price is bound to be reasonable.

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From Mary Sisk Noguchi:

Power Japanese Series (Kodansha International)
For intermediate learners, the three books in this series offer unabridged modern essays with highly detailed notes on vocabulary, grammar, and cultural backround. The vocabulary notes incorporate readings for all kanji:

1) Strange But True: A True-Life Japanese Reader (ISBN 4770020570) by Tom Gally
8 true stories of modern Japanese life from the Dekigotology feature in the magazine Shuukan Asahi
2) Living Japanese-A Modern Reader (ISBN 477002035-X) by Marc Bookman
essays on business and economics from the Nihon Keizai Shinbun, and short stories by Takashi Atoda
3) Read Real Japanese (ISBN 4770017545) by Janet Ashby
8 essays from contemporary writers, including Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana.
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From Mary Sisk Noguchi:

Several site visitors have asked for the names of publishers of juvenile fiction. This reading option is suggested in column #19, which discusses extensive reading for pleasure.

Each of the publishers below offers a number of different titles. All include furigana for most or all of the kanji in their pages. Some titles are translations of well-known Western classics, such as Tom Sawyer, The Time Machine, Little Women, etc.; others are stories set in contemporary Japan or other periods in Japanese history.

If you live in Japan, you have the luxury of perusing the titles at your neighborhood bookstore. Choosing an appropriate book on amazon.co.jp is more challenging, but may be well worth the effort--search using the publisher's name. Most books are priced at 500-800 yen.

Publishers:
青鳥文庫 (Aoitori Bunko)
ポプラ社 (Popurasha) These titles are conveniently divided into 3,4,5, and 6-grade levels.
偕成社文庫 (Kaiseishabunko)
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From Gary Harper: (harper@ii-okinawa.ne.jp)

Just read your article (April 26) on extensive reading in Japanese. Right on!! Couldn't agree more!! It inspired me to write some reviews of books, so here goes:

対訳本
There is a type of book which used to be quite common in Japan, called 対訳本. These books have English on one side and Japanese on the other. Being designed primarily for Japanese students of English, they do not usually have ふりがな, but most are not written with a lot of difficult kanji. Looking at my bookshelf now, I have short stories from O'Henry, Saroyan, Thomas Hardy, Agatha Cristie, Tales from Shakespeare, Treasure Island, the Kawaidan, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and many more.

Bilingual Books (logo is two B's superimposed) from Kodansha also has a series of 対訳 books, mostly non-fiction, with subjects likely to be of interest to students of Japanese. While there is no ふりがな、the kanji is pretty much limited to the 教育漢字 (kyouiku kanji, approximately 1000 characters). Modern and up-to-date, the books run 1200-1500 yen each and there are currently at least 60 in the set (You don't need them all!)

Hiragana Times publishes a series of 対訳 books, designed primarily for young adults. Unlike most other 対訳本, these include ふりがな on all kanji. Topics are appropriate for young adults living in Japan (Japanese or foreign) and each volume costs about 1200 yen. Typical titles: 日本経済の秘密、日本女性の実態.

There is also a series of more serious non-fiction books from 洋販出版 (Yohan Publishers), called 英和対照 or the "English Japanese Library", with the logo "Eg" in yellow script on a black background. The titles seem intended for the serious, business or academically oriented Japanese student of English. Kanji usage is somewhat more intense in these books. Typical titles: 英語に見る言葉の宇宙、TIMEでみる日本の素顔. (About 1500 yen per title).

These 対訳本 are inexpensive and quite useful, BUT - there is a tendency to get interested in the story and start reading just the English with the intention of coming back for the Japanese. That almost never happens! A certain amount of discipline is required to use this type of book. Check your local bookstore for 対訳 and don't be too surprised if the first clerk you ask does not understand what you want. Undoubtedly there are a lot of these books in used bookstores, but it may require a certain amount of perserverance to locate them.

岩波少年文庫(Iwanami Children's Library) also has put out a large number of foreign books for Japanese children - some are children's stories, some are adult stories popular with children (e.g., Sherlock Holmes, Lupin, etc.) These books are currently in print, some have ふりがな and some do not. Each story seems to be designed for a specific level, so it's best to check and see if you can easily read most of the kanji. Disney also has a similar series featuring the Disney Films, also well written and including ふりがな. Very reasonably priced.

I also recommend Naganuma readers, (長沼標準日本語読本、長沼直兄著、発売元株式会社開拓社), Volumes 1 through 8 with their associated word books, kanji books for volumes 1 though 3, and workbooks for volumes 1 and 2. This set, first published in 1950 and periodically updated, starts at "giddayup" (kana) and proceeds to "whoa" (some Chinese classics in very difficult kanji). The pace is relatively slow, the subject matter interesting (obviously different people will find different selections interesting, but a great deal of thought has been put into each reading passage.) Problems: (1) the prose used is a bit old-fashioned; not archaic, just a little different from what would be written today. (2) THE SET HAS BEEN ALLOWED TO GO OUT OF PRINT!!!!! If you can find a set, or even one or two volumes at your level, get it/them. Be forewarned, the 読本 (reader) is not much use without the wordbook and vice versa, but the kanji books and work books alone are nice to have.

A Japanese Reader, by Roy Andrew Miller, Charles E. Tuttle Co.
This is kind of a one-volume version of 長沼標準日本語読本 (Naganuma readers). I certainly don't wish to disparage the book (It is excellent!), but because it is in one volume, and proceeds all the way from kana to a piece entitled "An Outline of the Liberalization Plans in Foreign Trade and Exchange" which includes a considerable amount of technical chemical vocabulary, the pace is extreme and, once a specific word is learned, it is unlikely to be seen again in this book. The book has been in and out of print and I saw a paperback edition within the last couple of years. I believe the book would be truly superior as a supplement to other reading, but difficult to use as a primary learning source for the student of written Japanese. Not cheap.

The Japanese Written Word, by Glenn Melchinger and Helene Kasha, 講談社 (Kodansha).
This book consists of excerpts from modern Japanese short stories, novels, essays, and dialogues, with vocabulary lists, romaji transcription and English translation on different pages. One story alone, titled 解決主婦仮面, by 高橋源一郎, alone makes the book worth it's 2900 yen list price. (A housewife in one of the huge housing projects that surround Tokyo has a part-time job as a super-heroine who fights evil from three to five every afternoon. Tokyo has reserved a portion of the airspace for super-heros (and heroines), but it's in the smoggiest part of the air; the author goes into great detail concerning her costuming, etc.) Each story does have a lot of vocabulary, and it's extremely doubtful if anyone without an eidetic memory is going to have it down in one reading (and most people find more than one reading boring.) However, I have certainly enjoyed the book; the authors have carefully selected the subject matter and I believe it can be very valuable as a supplement.
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