JQ Magazine: Inside the JETAA New York Book Club

The JETAA New York Book Club with August’s selection, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” by David Mitchell.

By Greg Anderson, (Fukuoka-ken, 1990-92) for JQ magazine. Greg is part of the fourth class of the JET Program, which began in 1987. He is currently employed as an auditor with the U.S. Treasury Department and is a new member of the JETAA New York Book Club.

Gone are the amazing, fascinating, fast-paced days of life in Japan filled with culture shock. As JET alums, most of us are employed in vocations that have no connection to Nippon at all. Ask yourself this question: After you have successfully completed another week or day at work, what do you have to look forward to? If you’re job hunting, then you have experienced another week of success/failure, but next week holds new opportunities. If you have children, you can look forward to screaming demanding creatures that we all love but sometimes drive us crazy. If you don’t have children, you may have an annoying spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend who has never been to Japan, has no interest in Japan, and wishes that you would get over your preoccupation with it and grow up. Once a JET, always a JET!

The JET experience transforms all who participate in the program; you will never be the same again. What can you do when you miss the connection to Japan? Besides going to Sapporo Ramen (located on 152 West 49th Street), you can attend a JET book club meeting. Every other month, JET alumni and others interested in Japan get together to discuss a Japan-related book over a nice relaxing glass of wine, soda, or water (but feel free to bring your choice of beverage). It does not end there! The hors d’oeuvres provided are smashing, and at a mere two to three dollars are a better bargain than McDonald’s. Participants also have the option of bringing goodies to supplement the menu, and you never know what surprises to expect.

The book club was started about three years ago, by two enterprising JET alums, Jessica Langbein and Michael Glazer, who suggested that JETAANY should have a book club. In fact, when the club first started, the meetings were held at the home of another JET, Katrina Barnas. The group has since relocated and now holds the meetings at the historic Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The building derives the nickname “Flatiron” from its resemblance to a cast-iron clothes iron.  When it was built in 1902, it was one of the tallest buildings in New York City. Today, its image is synonymous with the Big Apple. In fact the building can be seen in the opening credits of Late Show with David Letterman. Also, in the movie Godzilla the building is accidentally destroyed by the U.S. Army while in pursuit of the giant reptile.

The genesis of the book club was neither Japan nor the JET Program, but began as a college major. Jessica was a Japanese literature major in college and as a JET alumna was seeking some literature that would pique her interest. It was suggested to her that she speak to fellow alumnus Michael, and over a cup of coffee the JETAANY Book Club was born. Facebook was used to recruit new members.

The original plan for the book club was to read great literature and discuss it through the use of insightful, thought-provoking questions. At the first meeting, the book club began to take on a life of its own. As Jessica says, “It was wonderful!”  Conversations quickly moved from the book to experiences and recollections of Japan. “Our experiences living in Japan informed our reading and the literature allowed us to reconnect with Japan in new and different ways,” Jessica explains. “It was unexpected and perfect.”

All books that are selected by the book club are in English, so there’s no need to brush up on your kanji. Books that are chosen originate from various sources. Some of the texts have been suggested by New York’s own Japan Society, and in exchange for free copies of the book the club provides a review of the text. In terms of lessons learned or the impact of the book club on members, for Jessica it has allowed her to meet new people as well as introduce her to new literature. Specifically, because Jessica no longer works in a Japan-related field the book club is one of the few opportunities for her and others to connect with people who also understand the beauty and quirks of Japanese culture.

One such book is The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P by Rieko Matsuura, which is the story of a young woman who wakes up and discovers that the big toe on her right foot has been transformed into a penis. The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P was extremely successful in Japan. In fact, it won the Women’s Literature Prize, which is Japan’s most prestigious literary award for women.

Other books become books of the month by way of book club members who have a connection with a book publisher and are able to get free copies of books in exchange for providing the publisher a review. Salvation of a Saint, by Keigo Higashino, is an example where the book club was able to get free advance copies of in order for the club members to read and review it. It is a mystery about a CEO who attempts to end his marriage and the twists and turns his life takes as a result of that decision. Finally, other books are selected by member referrals. In those situations, books are picked that are available in paperback so that book club members can go to discount books store such as the Strand Book Store or eBay to purchase inexpensive copies.

No set membership guidelines exist for the book club. Members come when they can or are able to read the books. Membership changes from meeting to meeting. According to current steward Liz Mathews, the goal of the book club “allows former JETs to reconnect to Japan.” Book club meeting dates are listed on the JETAANY website, Facebook, or you can contact Liz at eimathew [at] gmail [dot] com. See you at the next meeting!

For recent JQ magazine book reviews, click here.