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I Can READ That ! : A Traveler's Introduction to Chinese Characters
by Julie Mazel Sussman
China Books & Periodicals, Inc., 1994
ISBN 0-8351-2533-5

Reviewed by Laurence M. "Lonnie" Wiig

How would you like to take a "kanji roller coaster ride" that whirls you up to the Great Wall of China, past a Chinese restaurant in Norway, into a Beijing subway station, through Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces, and finally drops you off in front of an m&m's billboard announcing, in kanji, that the popular candies "melt in your mouth, not in your hand (‘ό—nyour Œϋ,•s—n your Žθ)?"

Like "Read Japanese Today" by Len Walsh, (also reviewed on this site), "I Can READ That!" is beginner-friendly. A few hours spent with Ms. Sussman's book (ideally on a flight bound for Shanghai or Hong Kong) can easily help you avoid the embarrassment of stumbling into a restroom for the other sex, or the frustration of being unable to identify the correct train/plane/bus or taxi to your next destination.

What makes this book so good? Sussman-- a student of French, Russian, German, Chinese, Japanese, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Hebrew, Serbian and Croatian-- knows how to make an introductory foreign language book interesting, practical and valuable. An M.I.T. graduate who writes software, she takes a non-traditional, clearheaded approach to foreign language instruction. Sussman wants her students to succeed.

This sensei has a perceptive eye for realistic kanji learning situations. Her ready camera takes you-- the learner-- right up close to kanji notices on busses, cabs, billboards, stamps, currency, restrooms, factories and merchandise. She even snaps the characters on what looks like a sidewalk personhole cover (–k‹žŽ©—ˆŒφŽi’n‰ΊΑ‰Ξπ), on someone's T-shirt (’†‘’·ι,‰δ“oγ—Ή’·ι "I climbed the Great Wall of China"), a Coca-cola (‰ΒŒϋ‰Βle) container and so forth.

Rather than overwhelm (or for that matter, underwhelm) a kanji novice, Sussman Sensei zooms in on a manageable 71 characters, 60 of which are written exactly as in Japanese, helping you to see them in a wide variety of contexts and combinations. For instance, she shows learners how ‹ž, meaning "capital city" (you've probably seen it in “Œ‹ž, Tokyo, "Eastern Capital") can be found in –k‹ž (Beijing, "Northern Capital"), “μ‹ž (Nanjing, "Southern Capital"), –k‹ž‘εŠw (Beijing University), and even in –k‹ž‰€ (from a chopstick wrapper at the "Peking Garden" restaurant in Massachusetts, USA).

Author Sussman presents simple quizzes for kanji reinforcement, beginners' kanji crossword puzzles, frequent Chinese cultural notes, and three particularly user-friendly indexes.

Please don't be duped into the notion that Chinese characters are "too difficult" for people coming from non-kanji using countries to learn. Julie Sussman knocks this debilitating cliche off its daunting pedestal.

If you are about to buy your first book on kanji, or if you are just starting to become curious about how the Chinese use kanji-- those timeless symbols linking human beings in the 21st Century to people in the China of 35 centuries ago-- get your hands on a copy of this book. Or, better yet, take off on a cross-cultural "kanji roller coaster ride" that is even more fun by diving into both "I Can READ That!" and "Read Japanese Today" at the same time.

April 2002