Quakebook, a review.

Out of all the tweets, blog posts, Facebook updates and everything in between, which flew around in the initial couple of weeks following the beginning of the quakes in Japan on March 11th. 2011, something coalesced together – partly intended as a record of note of the event and those affected by it, whether locally or internationally, and partly intended as form of fund-raising effort for those survivors of the tsunami, with the side-effect of raising awareness of what actually happened.

That thing was the #quakebook – “2:46 : Aftershocks : Stories from the Japan Earthquake” brought together by a cadre of essentially Japan based bloggers and Twitter fanatics, led by the most certainly not attention seeking @ourmaninabiko. I say that because even though it’s simple enough to find out who he is, he’s made a keen point with reporters and others not to be named in the media, and largely it seems like they’ve complied.

The book is currently only available as an e-book, for 9.99USD from most versions of Amazon, so I’ve just read mine in a single sitting, taking just a couple of hours.

This has been of interest to me, not just as a form of donation whilst receiving something, but because I myself was in much the same situation as many of the people whose accounts are in there, having been on the 20th floor of an office building in central Tokyo when the quakes began. What @ourmaninabiko and his team has done is capture a cross section of experiences from inside the country and from the outside, looking in. I suspect what I found most interesting were those entries which were not like my experience.

To start off, one of the passages which struck me was that by Andy Heather writing from Kyoto:

“But what hurts is the idea that the earthquakes were like seeing a loved one getting beaten and being unable to stop it.”

One of the topics, certainly in the foreign community, was those who left Japan in the week or two following the M9 quake the – ‘flyjin’ – and one of those was @sandrajapandra / Sandra Barron, who I began to follow on twitter the day after the quake for news and opinion, and who surprised me by announcing she was moving to LA, with obviously mixed emotions. Her account in ‘Aftershocks (’Leaving’) was the first time I realised why she’d left. It’s an interesting and personal debate. (Addendum – I should note she did return to Japan a few weeks later.)

If there’s one thing everyone should know who maybe (fortunately) has not been in that situation where you’re on the fringe of a massive disaster, and with options, is that everyone should do what they feel is right for them. There’s no value in duress or forcing people into a position – things are tense enough as it is.

The book isn’t all Twitter users and bloggers, some of the writers are noted professionals, and it’s worth mentioning their contributions. Truthfully, with Yoko Ono, whilst I appreciate her support, I found her contribution overly self promotional, with little to add.

Jake Adelstein however, a well known true crime writer and reporter in Japan, juxtaposed a case he was reporting on of a (completely not quake related) double suicide in the face of personal debt, against the disaster in Tohoku and the sacrifices people are making there to keep the country safe. For the two debtors, no one in their apartments knew them, no one at work knew them. No one missed them or even claimed their ashes. In Tohoku whole communities sheltering each other in turn. The effect is almost hypnotic, and echoed something I’d wondered about just after the quake – how this would effect Japan’s infamously high suicide rate.That entry, ‘Muenbotoke’ is worth the price of admission.

William Gibson, the cyberpunk freak who probably turned me most on to Tokyo as a brand, contributes something totally Gibson – what is your memory of Tokyo and Japan? A man sitting naked, totally still, on the edge of a table in an open window, as seen by Gibson from a taxi speeding past on a raised expressway. It’s not notably quake related, but perhaps captures the something ‘other’ of Japan.

In all then, it’s a well rounded and a well meaning collection, pulling together many facets of the disaster in one place. In some ways something like this may be worth updating over the years as people look back on the effect the event has had on Japan, and will continue to have.

If there’s a question on the work, it’s that there seems to be few accounts from Japanese in the tsunami hit areas, or from the Fukushima exclusion zone, but given the time frame it was put together, it would’ve been difficult to include these, and still get it out for the world to read I would think. Perhaps in a retrospective in a year or so these will be included.

A paper, and Japanese language version of the book is also in the works.

Overall then, even if you ignore the charitable nature of the work, it’s worth the money and the read to get a feel for what these events do to the people, beyond what the rather dumb and crass mass media has failed to achieve. The brief nature of many accounts actually increases the impact, there’s no time for dwelling, just the basic emotional facts behind an event which took over 20,000 people away in just a few hours, and left a nation digging it’s heels in for years to come.

eBook Recommendations – November 2010

Although I’m loving my Kindle, I’ve been collecting sources for e-books for a while, from reading some on my old Palm III and even my old Windows 95 PC and Mac Powerbook 190cs. I thought then, since e-texts are now more accessible, to recommend a few every now and then, which I’ve found to be worth the time. I’m trying to pull them from different genres, but also sources, so people can look around the sites to see if there’s anything else which interests them.

Of course, everyone should go and check out the awesome resource which is gutenberg.org for their unrivaled collection of public domain and otherwise legally available downloads. If you want to go back and read true classics, that’s the place.

Also, these aren’t reviews, just general recommendations. Maybe I’ll get to write quick reviews in a few months.

Blindsight by Peter Watts

This is hard Sci-Fi novel available for free online, or for purchase, and a former Hugo Award nominee which is impressive in it’s own right. It deals with a near future first alien contact scenario, and like 2001 and other encounter tales, looks to see how much such an experience will tell us about ourselves as well as the aliens.[download]

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

This was Cory Doctorow’s real breakout work, of a fantastical future with no money – only whuffie – no death and the world of the Bitchun Society, woven into which is a murder mystery. It’s a well written tale, and has always been a free download which Doctorow is a big proponent of. It’s also a good introduction to some of Doctorow’s other works, some of which have received several awards, as well as the respect of other contemporary writers. [downloads]

The Hacker Crackdown by Bruce Sterling

This is a true story as such, or rather a documentary in print of some of the hacker exploits of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, not just about the hackers, but also the police and government forces charged with tracking these -often kids, down. It’s fascinating to read after the fact, about the obsession of these kids, the complete lack of coverage under law, and the poor funding and support keen law enforcement agents received. I actually liked this enough to buy a print copy too having read it digitally, in about 1998. I’m also a fan of Bruce Sterling’s other works, especially ‘Global Head’, a collection of short stories, and his journalistic work. [download]

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

A literary classic from 1899,  set in Africa against a background of Imperialism and racism in a dangerous time and place. It follows the story of Marlow, an ivory trading riverboat captain as he seeks to return another trader back to civilization from upriver. The book is probably better known as being the loose basis for the film ‘Apocalypse Now’ and is contentious by today’s standards for racial and religious viewpoints, which is perhaps why it’s still so widely read, reflecting the standards of another not-too-distant time. [download]