Gretel Ehrlich’s Facing the Wave (Book Acquired, Some Time Earlier This Month)

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Got into this a bit the other day. Last year, a reader sent me a copy of Ehrlich’s The Future of Ice, which was nice, but I could never really get into it. Anyway, like the cover on this one. Blurb from publisher Pantheon (you can also read an excerpt here):

From one of the preeminent and most admired observers of the natural world, a heartrending and inspirational portrait of Japan after the 2011 tsunami, when survivors found their world utterly transformed by loss, grief, destruction, and the urgent need to reconstruct their homes, their towns, and their lives.

A passionate student of Japanese poetry, theater, and art for much of her life, Gretel Ehrlich felt compelled to return to the earthquake-and-tsunami-devastated Tohoku coast to bear witness, listen to survivors, and experience their terror and exhilaration in villages and towns where all shelter and hope seemed lost. In an eloquent narrative that blends strong reportage, poetic observation, and deeply felt reflection, she takes us into the upside-down world of northeastern Japan, where nothing is certain and where the boundaries between living and dying have been erased by water.

The stories of rice farmers, monks, and wanderers; of fishermen who drove their boats up the steep wall of the wave; and of an eighty-four-year-old geisha who survived the tsunami to hand down a song that only she still remembered are both harrowing and inspirational. Facing death, facing life, and coming to terms with impermanence are equally compelling in a landscape of surreal desolation, as the ghostly specter of Fukushima Daiichi, the nuclear power complex, spews radiation into the ocean and air. Facing the Wave is a testament to the buoyancy, spirit, humor, and strong-mindedness of those who must find their way in a suddenly shattered world.

Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale (Book Acquired, 8.06.2012)

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I haven’t read any of Nagai Kafu’s 1917 novel Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale (new in paperback from Columbia University Press in translation from Stephen Snyder) because my wife immediately took it and started reading it. I think she’s almost finished with it. I can only assume it involves some kind of rivalry, probably between geisha. I’ll ask her (the following is a more or less an accurate transcription of wife’s comments to me from the kitchen as she prepared some kind of corn salad):

Um, it’s about this geisha, who, when she was like 17, 18 became a geisha, then got married and moved out to the country, this is like in her early 20s, and after a couple of years her husband died, so she went back to Tokyo back to her old geisha house and ran into one of her former, um, clients, and he fell in love with her like immediately so they started a relationship but she fell in love with an actor, but then, I’m not finished with it, but the client found out about the affair, so he’s going to patronize this rival geisha. Which I guess is why, Rivalry.

Do you like it?

I mean, it’s what you’d expect from a geisha book, I mean it’s about a geisha. It’s a good geisha story.

My wife reports she’s about half way through it and wants to find out how it will end.

Book Shelves #20, 5.13.2012

1.4.  Things which aren’t books but are often met with in libraries

Photographs in gilded brass frames, small engravings, pen and ink drawings, dried flowers in stemmed glasses, matchbox-holders containing, or not, chemical matches (dangerous), lead soldiers, a photograph of Ernest Renan in his study at the College de France, postcards, dolls’ eyes, tins, packets of salt, pepper and mustard from Lufthansa, letter-scales, picture hooks, marbles, pipe-cleaners, scale models of vintage cars, multicoloured pebbles and gravel, ex-votos, springs.

 —From Georges Perec’s essay “The Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books”

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Book shelves series #20, twentieth Sunday of 2012: In Which I Try to Prove I Am Not Just Phoning It In

Last week I was accused of “going through the motions” with this project, which accusation may or may not be true. I was out of town on vacation, and last week’s post was composed a few days ahead of time in a harried rush of end-of-the-semester grading + summer semester planning + packing + bad bad writer’s block.

The shelf featured last week is the top shelf in the shot above.

Here is a detail of the shelf below, which clearly features things which are not books:

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My wife and I—not actually married at the time, kids really—bought these kokeshi dolls when we were living in Japan. We lived in Tokyo, but I’m almost positive we bought these on a vacation in Kyoto. (Or maybe it was in Kamakura. Or I suppose it could have been in Tokyo).

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The screen in the background was a gift from a student, as was the screen in the shot below, a shelf that twins this one (if anyone cares at all, the shelf would be sequenced between shelves 10 and 11).

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David Mitchell Discusses The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell talks about the inspiration behind his novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. (Read our review).

“Diplomacy” — Lafcadio Hearn

“Diplomacy” by Lafcadio Hearn

IHAD BEEN ORDERED that the execution should take place in the garden of the yashiki. So the man was taken there, and made to kneel down in a wide sanded space crossed by a line of tobi-ishi, or stepping stones, such as you may still see in Japanese landscape-gardens. His arms were bound behind him. Retainers brought water in buckets, and rice-bags filled with pebbles; and they packed the rice-bags round the kneeling man–so wedging him in that he could not move. The master came, and observed the arrangements. He found them satisfactory, and made no remarks.

Suddenly the condemned man cried out to him:

“Honored sir, the fault for which I have been doomed I did not wittingly commit. It was only my very great stupidity which caused the fault. Having been born stupid, by reason of my karma, I could not always help making mistakes. But to kill a man for being stupid is wrong–and that wrong will be repaid. So surely as you kill me, so surely shall I be avenged;–out of the resentment that you provoke will come the vengeance; and evil will be rendered for evil.”

If any person be killed while feeling strong resentment, the ghost of that person will be able to take vengeance upon the killer. This the samurai knew. He replied very gently–almost caressingly:

“We shall allow you to frighten us as much as you please–after you are dead. But it is difficult to believe that you mean what you say. Will you try to give us some sign of your great resentment–after your head has been cut off?”

“Assuredly I will,” answered the man.

“Very well,” said the samurai, drawing his long sword;–“I am now going to cut off your head. Directly in front of you there is a stepping-stone. After your head has been cut off, try to bite the stepping-stone. If your angry ghost can help you to do that, some of us may be frightened. . . . Will you try to bite the stone?”

“I will bite it!” cried the man, in great anger–“I will bite it!–I will bite–”

There was a flash, a swish, a crunching thud: the bound body bowed over the rice sacks–two long blood-jets pumping from the shorn neck;–and the head rolled upon the sand. Heavily toward the stepping-stone it rolled: then, suddenly bounding, it caught the upper edge of the stone between its teeth, clung desperately for a moment, and dropped inert.

None spoke; but the retainers stared in horror at their master. He seemed to be quite unconcerned. He merely held out his sword to the nearest attendant, who, with a wooden dipper, poured water over the blade from haft to point, and then carefully wiped the steel several times with sheets of soft paper. .. . And thus ended the ceremonial part of the incident.

For months thereafter, the retainers and the domestics lived in ceaseless fear of ghostly visitation. None of them doubted that the promised vengeance would come; and their constant terror caused them to hear and to see much that did not exist. They became afraid of the sound of the wind in the bamboos–afraid even of the stirring of shadows in the garden. At last, after taking counsel together, they decided to petition their master to have a Ségaki-service performed on behalf of the vengeful spirit.

“Quite unnecessary,” the samurai said, when his chief retainer had uttered the general wish. . . . “I understand that the desire of a dying man for revenge may be a cause for fear. But in this case there is nothing to fear.”

The retainer looked at his master beseechingly, but hesitated to ask the reason of this alarming confidence.

“Oh, the reason is simple enough,” declared the samurai, divining the unspoken doubt. “Only the very last intention of that fellow could have been dangerous; and when I challenged him to give me the sign, I diverted his mind from the desire of revenge. He died with the set purpose of biting the stepping-stone; and that purpose he was able to accomplish, but nothing else. All the rest he must have forgotten. . . So you need not feel any further anxiety about the matter.”

And indeed the dead man gave no more trouble. Nothing at all happened.

David Peace on Occupied City

We’re currently reading–and really enjoying–David Peace’s Occupied City, a dark and bewildering account of the 1948 Teikoku Bank Massacre in Tokyo. Peace’s book gets its American debut later this week from Knopf. We’ll run a proper review then. For now, here’s Peace discussing the project, his difficulty in writing it, the crime’s contemporary resonance in modern Japan, and how he stole from Rashomon: