Official Review: Motions and Moments by Michael Pronko
14 Jan 2016, 10:37
4 out of 4 stars
Sometimes the planets are all aligned and a book pops up that seems like a perfect fit for my reading preferences. Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo by Michael Pronko is a non-fiction book of essays about the intricacies of living in Tokyo. The essays are mainly drawn from monthly columns the author wrote for Newsweek Japan. He wrote for this magazine for ten years and his earlier essays were published in a few previous books. The author has a unique Westerner’s perspective as an American living abroad.
Although Mr. Pronko has lived in Tokyo for many years, he will never be truly “of Tokyo.” He remains an outsider who has the keen eye of someone living in a foreign land. In Japan, normal, enjoyable activities contain an extra connotation of the culture of being Japanese. By contrast, Westerners tend to enjoy activities because they just happen to enjoy them – for example, an American eating a delicious dessert. There is also a formality about the Japanese language, as well as Japanese body language. Their posture is Zen-like and there is even a proper way of sitting.
This book sparkles and succeeds as a love letter of sorts to Tokyo. The author’s writing is a joy to read, with wonderful phrasing and vivid descriptions. I have no doubt he could write the great American novel, if he so chooses; a book of essays about his adopted country is still a fine choice. His wise and thoughtful take on Tokyo shines through the pages. The essays are informative, sometimes providing contrasts to the American way of life. I felt like I received a crash course in the intricacies of this city’s culture. Space is a particular problem in Tokyo and its residents have mastered the art of “fitting things in.” It’s a necessity to have things well organized and be able to maneuver in tight spaces.
There are many interesting observations in this book. Tokyoites are obsessed with English slogan T-shirts and the author likes to jot down some of the quirky T-shirt sayings he sees. With the heavy reliance on finding restaurants and places to see through the internet, the author laments that people might miss the gems that are off the radar – a great jazz bar, a coffee shop with coffee drinkers’ names carved on the walls, etc.
“Staying” is very compelling with good imagery of a city that is built vertically. People often come out of a train or building straight into an upper-level walkway, a multi-level store or a maze of tunnels five levels down. Other standouts include “Ugliest City in the World” and a passage about the ritual of futon care, as well as a thoughtful section about the aftereffects of the 2011 earthquake.
Japanese words are sprinkled throughout the book. Some of the words are briefly explained in the text, but most are not in order to avoid interrupting the flow of the text. The author explains this in the introduction and provides a helpful glossary at the end of the book. I was able to figure out a few of the words from the context, and it was quick and easy to use the glossary for the words that weren’t so easy to decipher.
Halfway through the book I got a slight case of Tokyo overload and had to take a short break from reading. This is not really a criticism; it’s merely a comment about the overflow of valuable information about this vibrant city. I would compare it to binge-watching a TV series on DVD or Netflix. The show might be fabulous, but you still want to take a time-out after watching several episodes in a row.
I noticed approximately six technical errors in the book which surprised me, given the overall high quality of the writing. The rating system doesn’t allow for a reduction of less than a star. In any event, I was so impressed with the book that I doubt I would take away a half-star even if I could.
This book has earned 4 out of 4 stars. I would recommend it to readers who enjoy essays about foreign culture. As someone who knows very little about Tokyo, I loved this book. As someone who appreciates good writing, I loved this book. As someone who loves non-fiction books about experiencing a particular place and culture, I loved this book. As the author writes, “Tokyo is a workout.” This book about Tokyo is a reading workout in the best sense of the word.