Sunday, November 22, 2015

An engaging essay collection about Japanese culture and history by a long-time resident

Michael Hoffman's new book, In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan, is a fascinating and well-written collection of (mainly) essays. Hoffman has lived in Japan since
1982 and all but three of these stories appeared in the Sunday Time Out section of The Japan Times.

First, to translate the title. My dictionary defines "kami" (神 ) as "a god, a goddess a deity, a divinity, a divine being." And of course it may be plural, so in Japan we're in the land of the gods.

As Hoffman says in his Author's Note, the topics are somewhat whimsical. They came not from what he knew about the country and the culture but what he didn't know and wanted to understand. What is Zen? Who was Confucius? How did death come to seem, as it did for many centuries, as much more important to the Japanese than life? What was Japan's Jazz Age?

Hoffman admits up front that he is no scholar, and he relies on literary translators and scholars for his sources. (This means, of course, that a reader who wants to know more about a topic can hunt up Hoffman's citations for a deeper and fuller discussion.) Because he is writing for a non-specialist audience that lives, I assume, mainly in Japan, what the nineteen non-fiction stories may lack in scholarly depth they more than make up for in accessibility and charm. (He includes a brief play and a fable, neither of which I found as engaging as the essays.)

As an example of the kinds of provocative questions he attempts to answer, consider this: "Do the Oriental hermit-sage-poets of old, lonely and rootless, innocent and childish, wise with a wisdom they themselves call foolish, neither listening to reason nor, with any consistency, speaking, have anything to say to us of the wired world?" He thinks they do and suggests why.

The pages are studded with interesting insights sharply expressed: "In place of the Judeo-Christian notion—violated often enough but never lost from sight—that life is a gift, the Japanese have another notion, no less deeply embedded: that of impermanence. Flowers fade, cherry blossoms fall... Blossoms are not beautiful in spite of their transience. They are beautiful because they are transient."

Another example: "Empty space is an acquired taste. Americans aren't bred on it, and some, probably most, see nothing in it. One, writing in an expatriate Yokohama newspaper in 1881, observed, 'The Japanese are a happy race, and being content with little, are unlikely to achieve much.'" In the Land of the Kami has interesting things to say about Japan and Japanese culture and history. i.e., "Shinto defies a direct approach. It is easier to say what it is not than what it is, easier to say what it lacks than what it has."

A large literature of books by Westerners explaining Japan and the Japanese exists. Many of these are written by people who neither speak the language nor lived in the country for a couple years. Hoffman, through long residence and extensive reading, brings a depth and nuance to his essays that those books do not have. This is for anyone who would like to know more about Japan.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Great Wave—and its effect

In Tsunami Reflections: Otsuchi Remembered, Charles Pomeroy has written a fascinating book about the tsunami that hit the northeastern coast of Japan's main island, Honshu, on March 11, 2011. He is an unusually well-qualified foreigner to write the book; he has a degree from Tokyo's Sophia University; is a former reporter/writer, and after 50 years in the county clearly has deep, broad knowledge of Japan.

The book focuses on the small coastal town of Otsuchi where Pomeroy's wife Atsuko grew up; the tsunami erased their retirement home in the town's center; their sister and her husband died
in the disaster. It was not the first tsunami to hit the Tohoku coast; it had been inundated in 869, 1611,1793, 1856, 1893, and 1933. The last two killed around 22,000 and 3,000 people respectively. So when you live on that coast, you live aware that the Pacific is not always pacific.

Because Pomeroy and his wife had family and because they lived in Otsuchi, he is able to describe the town, the life, and his neighbors in convincing detail. "Known for the traditional architecture and folklore . . . the town likes to think of itself as the home of the mythical kappa ("river-child"). . . Kappa tales served to alert children to the perils of deep water, it is said, thus making riverside excursions safer for them." This is what ordinary, daily life was like before the tsunami struck.

As it happened, Pomeroy and his wife were in their Tokyo apartment when the May 11th earthquake struck, one of the five strongest tremblors in recorded history. While buildings shook in Tokyo, the ocean reared back off the coast, gathered strength, and came roaring back as wall of water that smashed virtually everything it met. And when the water receded, fires erupted from a kerosene supplier, from propane gas tanks, from overturned kerosene stoves, and fuel leaking from vehicles. This all "contributed to the incarceration of what remained of the town after the tsunami."

Tsunami Reflections reports Pomeroy's reaction to the news, attempts to reach the town, the cleanup effort, participation in a mass funeral (the authorities had to identify his sister-in-law by her DNA), the humanitarian efforts by volunteers and strangers, and what the local and federal government is doing to help the town recover. The giant funeral tent could hold only 2,000 mourners; "revised casualty figures showed 770 dead and 820 missing." Over 3,000 homes had been destroyed and because the government is raising the ground level eight feet and because it takes time for the landfill to settle, construction in the center of town cannot even begin until 2018. He touches on the Fukushima atomic plant's meltdown only in passing (it would be a whole other book).

Pomeroy has made Tsunami Reflections exceptionally reader-friendly by including maps, dozens of color photographs, and—a modern and helpful element—internet links to videos and photographs from the disaster. While I have no criticism of the text, I would have run fewer pictures and printed them larger. I found two places where earlier text was repeated word for word, and picture captions need not repeat what is in the text. But these are quibbles. It is impossible, I believe, for words or pictures or videos to adequately convey the reality. As Pomeroy says, " . . .no words could fully describe the desolation and . . . photos could only suggest the vast sense of loss. I was struck by the pervading silence. A neighborhood that had once echoed with the sounds of daily life—the excited voices of passing school children and the quiet chatting of neighbors, the clang of the warning bell at the nearby railroad crossing, the buzz of a jigsaw at the next door woodworking shop, the postman's motorbike, the chirping birds. No more. All was strangely silent except for the distant rumble of earth-moving equipment." I'm in awe that, given his losses, Pomeroy was able to write this powerful book at all.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

An interesting perspective on three American classics

Azar Nafisi, born and raised in Iran, wrote the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran. Her new book is The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books. It deserves to be as widely read as Reading Lolita.

Nafisi, born in 1955, has a doctorate in English literature from the University of Oklahoma (Norman), and taught English literature for 18 years in Iran. She and her family left Iran after the revolution, and she is now a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. She became an American citizen in 2008.

Because she is (was?) an outsider, she brings a interesting perspective to American literature and culture. She makes connections/associations that someone born in the culture is liable to miss, but that are obvious once someone like Nafisi points them out. For example, "I have often wondered whether there is a correlation between the growing lack of respect for ideas and the imagination and the growing gap between rich and poor in America, reflected not just in the gulf between the salaries of CEOs and their employees but also in the high cost of education, the incredible divide between private and public schools that makes all fine speeches by our policy makers—most of whom send their children to private schools anyway, just as they enjoy the benefits and perks of their jobs as servants of the people—all the more insidious and insincere."

In The Republic of Imagination, Nafisi discusses three novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and the works of James Baldwin. Throughout, she connects the books to her own life—the best friend who, pregnant, had to escape from Iran by horseback, the art history student who argued for a Southern consciousness, and more. Her comments and insights are thoughtful and thought-provoking. She argues, for example, that Tom Sawyer is the real villain in Huckleberry Finn. She also points out that "In fiction, every treachery and setback appears to serve some end: the characters learn and grow and come into their own. In life, it is not always clear that the hijacking of our plans is quite so provident or benign." She wonders about the effort to sanitize, to make our books (our patrimony) inoffensive . . . and discusses Twain's use of the n-word (which is so toxic I'm not going to risk spelling it out).

In her discussion of Babbitt, she points out that Sinclair Lewis's genius "was in capturing the spirit of modern advertising when it had not yet come to dominate the American landscape and define the soul of the nation." George Babbitt is a prime example of consumerus americanus, one who is "both attracted to the joys of freedom and frightened by its perils, for freedom does have many perils," and the best way to confront these threats "is not to avoid being free but to cultivate independence of thought . . . "

And while it is tempting to continue picking nuggets from this fascinating book, I am going to stop with one more: "Time and again, I have wondered if our current assault on literature, which so many like to think of as useless and irrelevant, is not a reflection of the desire to remove from the equation anything that it painful or distasteful to us, anything that does not fit our norms or make life easy and fall within our sphere of power and control. In one sense, to deny literature is to deny pain and the dilemma that is called life."

If you have never read Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, or James Baldwin, The Republic of Imagination is a useful introduction to the authors and the works. If you have read them, Nafisi's insights and observations are likely to send you back to read them once again—as they did me.

Monday, August 31, 2015

What libraries have meant, and will mean (perhaps)

The library, like the symphony orchestra, has always seemed to me to be one of the towering accomplishments of civilization. The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, a collection of essays edited by Alice Crawford, is a marvelous survey of Western libraries and books from Greek and Roman times to today. Crawford is digital humanities research librarian at the King James Library at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and the essays were commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of the library.

It is a lovely book, handsomely designed with endnotes, author bios, bibliography, index, and an eight-page, four-color insert—illustrations of ancient and medieval book cabinets. The essays consider the social roles libraries have played across the age, as centers for scholarship, mazes, sanctuaries, archives, and repositories for hidden wisdom. As Crawford writes in her introduction, "Although they are arranged to follow the library's development through history, the essays aim to offer simply glimpses of what libraries were like at these times rather than a comprehensive history. They focus on what libraries were used for, why they were needed, why they were meaningful to the various communities from which they emerged, and provide impressions rather than analyses of their value in the changing chronological contexts."

Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at Kings College London, opens the book by noting that our first certain literary response to a library is in a raucous comedy by Aristophanes, first performed in 425 B.C. The book closes with an essay by James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, who argues that "librarians are becoming more rather than less important in this new age of instant electronic communication; and libraries as places have a key role to play in building and sustaining participatory and accountable democratic societies—the kind that have historically not fought one another." In between these two essays, we read about the growth of community libraries in England and Scotland, the library in fiction from Gilgamesh to Borges, the library in film (think "Ghostbusters"), the library in poetry, and more.

At least two profound shifts have affected the library in history. The first was the invention of printing and movable type. With the spread of printed books—inexpensive compared to hand-copied codexes—a library was no longer a way for Europe's richest to flaunt their wealth and culture.

We're in the middle of the second shift: the rise of the internet and digital copies. This means that something like the HathiTrust, founded only in October 2008 as a consortium of research libraries, now has more than 11 million volumes and is one of the 10 largest research library collections in North America.

As a novelist, I was particularly interested in rise of community libraries in 19th century England. The worthies in charge saw the institution as a tool of edification and moral enlightenment. Novels were a problem. Narrative fiction "seemed to be so constructed by manipulative and morally bankrupt authors as to sensationalize or whitewash bad behavior and encourage emotional incontinence among readers through blatant titillation. The other worry, closely related to the first, was that such literature was also simultaneously much more likely to appeal to and therefore to lead astray those vulnerable readers with the weakest constitutions, specifically women, the young, and—a fascinating Georgian perception—servants, as a consequence threatening not just public morality but also the social and political order." Shades of Seduction of the Innocent.

Clearly The Meaning of the Library is not a book for everyone. But for those of us who love books and have long loved libraries it is a stimulating and fascinating survey of "the library" in Western culture.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Science fiction that reads like science

Biogenesis by Tatsuaki Ishiguro is difficult to discuss. I thoroughly enjoyed the book's four stories and am writing this to introduce other people to Ishiguro's work, but I'm afraid I'm not skillful enough convey what makes the book so special.

Because, on the one hand, three of the four stories follow the form of a scientific report, not the most engaging short story format. (And I thought the last story in a more traditional form was not up to the level of the first three.) These could be accounts of research into actual plants and animals. There is very little action and the drama comes almost entirely from scientific discovery, investigations into a winged mouse that weeps blood tears and whose tiny "wings" vibrate and emit a faint glow in the dark...into a woman with pure white hair, no memory, and a body temperature of 75.2 F...into a plant
that seems to need both radioactivity and human blood to thrive...and into a marine creature with miraculous cancer-healing powers. This is science fiction with a focus on science.

What makes the stories so powerful are the very human actions and conflicts of the scientists and others—army officers, doctors, professors, assistants, and observers—as they struggle to understand the mouse, woman, weed, and sea squirt that do not fit into standard categories. But not only to understand, to have consequences from the research. Why, Ishiguro is asking, do some species survive while others become extinct?

He observes, "In and of itself, the natural world admits of no laws or consistent narratives based on hypotheses. Attaching meaning to the natural world's various phenomena and aligning them into convincing narratives merely serves human interests. No matter how quantitatively a law is expressed, it is a human application and nothing more."

Three of the stories are set in Hokkaido and in the recent past when the northernmost Japanese island was even more wild and uncivilized than it is today. Ishiguro was born in Hokkaido in 1961, has served as a lecturer at Tokyo University and as an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, so he is writing from inside knowledge. For example: "Adjusting the type and length of the primer as I went, I repeated the same steps nearly thirty times until finally, through trial and error, a single instance of synthetic reaction occurred. Using the automated DNA analyzer, I fed the resultant base strand into the computer. The results showed a perfect match for human (Homo sapiens) DNA."

The translations by Brian Watson and James Balzer, as the quotes above suggest, are fluent and clear. And Ishiguro studs the stories with interesting observations: "A progressive endeavor is rarely understood and when it comes to reporting on a rare illness, it is basically impossible if the messenger is not trusted. Were Yuki [the woman with abnormally low body temperature] to be transferred to some research facility, it is clear that she would be treated like a lab animal." In another story, the military allows the research to continue only because the army believes it will help the war effort.

Had an acquaintance recommended Biogenesis to me, I'm not sure I would have bothered. Now that I've read these unusual and powerful stories, all I can do is say I'm glad I have read them and to recommend them to others.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Hot and trending again! What fun!

This morning I posted another request that people nominate Death in a Family Business for the Kindle Press program on LinkedIn where, to my surprise, I am linked to something like 270 people. Some of the must have responded because a minute ago, I was "Hot and Trending," and the book's cover was one of the first site visitors see.
If somehow you haven't been to the site or been able to nominate my book, here's a link to the site:

Kindle Scout asks people who nominate a book to sign in to Amazon, a way I suspect to keep authors from stuffing the ballot box.

For those who have nominated my book, many thanks. For those who haven't (and have an Amazon account), I will be eternally grateful if you do.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

How two young New Yorkers find themselves on a Norwegian island

Rebecca Dinerstein has an MFA in fiction from New York University. The Sunlit Night is her first novel. I tend to approach first novels by MFA graduates with a certain amount of mistrust. The writing may be stunning—such descriptions! such metaphors! such similes!—while the characters and stories are juvenile and banal. Unhappy first love. College angst. Dysfunctional family. Each of these subjects of course can be literature, but a 24-year-old MFA graduate usually does not have enough life experience, skillfully expressed as it may be, to bring interesting depths to her work. That apparently is not Dinerstein's problem.

The Sunlit Night has two protagonists, Frances and Yasha. Frances is 21, a recent art school graduate, at loose ends when in the first pages of the book she breaks up with her wealthy boyfriend. She narrates her own story.

Yasha is 17, the son of a Russian immigrant baker with a shop in Brighton Beach, and a mother who apparently remained in Russia ten years earlier. Dinerstein tells Yasha's side of the story in third person. The shift from first to third person point of view is seamless and gives the novel a depth and richness it would not have otherwise had.

While the story begins in New York City—Frances, her sister Sarah, and her parents share a two-room Manhattan apartment; Yasha and his father live above the bakery in Brooklyn—the action shifts to Lofoten, an archipelego of six tiny islands in the Norwegian Sea, 95 miles north of the Arctic Circle and warmed by the Gulf Stream. The scene is both exotic and convincing; Dinerstein is the author of a bilingual English-Norwegian collection of poems, so she sounds as if she is writing from lived experience. For example, picked almost at random:

"The world was perpetually visible, so I looked at it... I saw the landscape in colorblock. The midnight sun came in shades of pink. The fjords rushed up onto white-sand beaches and the sand made the water Bermuda-green. The houses were always red. They appeared in clusters, villages, wherever there lay flat land. Mountains rose steeply behind each village—menaces and guardians. Each red house was a lighthouse, marking the boundary between one terrain and another, preventing crashes, somehow, providing solace."

How and why the American girl and the Russian-American boy end up on the same small island in northernmost Norway is both moving and plausible. Neither are characters dropped from Mars (individuals with no parents, siblings, or friends). Both have parents and lives beyond the island; both have challenges with which they must cope. Frances's parents, disapproving of Sarah's fiancee, refuse to go to her wedding and decide themselves to separate. Yasha's father dies and his mother shows up on the island with her lover.

Because there is no evil to overcome, no malevolent menace to be defeated, the thread running through The Sunlit Night is a profound question: How can one live in this world of other people? I thoroughly enjoyed and was rewarded by living in Rebecca Dinerstein's world, a world in which during a certain time of the year the sun never sets.