Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Lady Is a Tramp (of the Traveling Variety)

“I had wanted to know how it felt to be a hobo, a radical, a prostitute, a thief, a reformer, a social worker, and a revolutionist.”
--Bertha Thompson

No doubt the most famous book on American wanderlust was written by Jack Kerouac, who might have had a case of dromomania, that is, a psychological need to wander without real purpose or intention, as in (utilizing the lexicon of the times) “just for kicks.” America has always been a huge land, seemingly endless, and there is nothing more American than reinventing oneself in a new town, either legally or dubiously, and starting over. Dromomania is embedded in American DNA, striking the odd native child and setting him or her on a journey-- all Kerouac did was place our cultural pastime in a mythical, romantic context accessible to any sort of dreamer, the young, the penniless, the damned.

Little known today, Boxcar Bertha is the autobiography of one Bertha Thompson, her life story as told to and recorded by Dr. Ben Reitman. Bertha is a plainspoken narrator with immense curiosity, a terrific sense of adventure, and deep roots in the social justice moments in the first half of the 20th century, involving herself mostly in woman's issues and the labor movement. She criss-crossed the country, a la Kerouac, but instead of riding shotgun with a madcap pill-popping drag-racing pothead, did most of her traveling hopping freight cars, sometimes alone, often partnered up with a social agitator beau, or conspiring among other “sisters of the road.” (Last night I watched the Martin Scorsese adaptation of her life's testimony, Boxcar Bertha, from 1972 and starring Barbara Hershey as Bertha-- I was shocked at the fictional liberties the filmmakers pursued, basically ripping off Bonnie and Clyde, turning Bertha into a hayseed moll in a bankrobbing Depression-era gang, ignoring the progressive do-right spirit that marks Bertha as a genuinely selfless champion of workers' and especially women's rights.)

This was in the 1920s and 1930s, a period of labor “agitation,” when workers often martyred themselves against police and a punitive justice system so that future generations might have better contractual rights, fairer pay, insurance benefits, and a decent pension. Bertha participated in these movements firsthand, but her real gift was her engaging, disarming personality, and either with a steeltrap memory or assiduous notetaking, became a reservoir of anecdotal biographies of wandering women from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds. The odd (or dangerous) jobs aside, Bertha worked with researchers, incorporating her firsthand knowledge of the hardships of the road and her encounters there, compiling them into an account of anthropological provenance-- a 35-page appendix presents Bertha's findings on the sociological factors inspiring women to live nomadically, among them the specific differentiation between “hoboes” and “bums” (the former looking for work, the latter all-around ne'er-do-wells).

There is no shortage of characters coming into Bertha's life on her travels-- hopheads, murderers, anarchists, lunatics, punks, and wobblies. She wanders from rustic communes to firebrand union halls, runs with a Midwestern gang of thieves and parties with lesbians, poets, and “spittoon philosophers” in Greenwich Village. In New York City she encounters her father, a middle-aged philanderer running an unsuccessful radical bookshop. It is her first time meeting this wayward man, whom she chastises for failing to take on his parental duties. Defending himself, he identifies two different kinds of men, “'the uterine type'... the good father, home lover, monogamist” and the “phallic type” who “needs women. Any women would do.” He goes on: “there are no solutions to the problems of life. There are no goals. You just go on living and loving and doing the best or the worst you can.”

As much as Baby Boomers like to take credit for the sixties-era sexual revolution, all they'd really done is enjoy mainstream social acceptance of a promiscuous lifestyle. And though Bertha enjoyed numerous partners in “free love” hook-ups, she'd learned early on from her mother that the human body was not a vehicle for sin, but an instrument of pleasure, sharing, in fact, sexual liaisons with men who'd loved her mother. But it is one thing to have an open attitude towards sex, a whole other to be pimped out to “Johns,” which is something Bertha does in order to better understand this underground lifestyle. In a Chicago whorehouse, she turns forty tricks a day, seven days a week, sleeping with several thousand men in six weeks. Nearly all her money is confiscated by her “man,” she contracts syphilis and gonorrhea as well as becomes pregnant! She bears this child of an unknowable father, and her wayfaring instinct stronger than her maternal one, she makes the same choice of freedom over duty that her father had, dropping off her newborn daughter with her mother in a Seattle commune and hitting the road: “There's something constantly itching in my soul that only the road and the box cars can satisfy. Jobs, lovers, a child-- don't seem to be able to curb my wanderlust.” The road is a long one, but eventually for nearly all of us, it has a destination, even for a vagabond as mobile as Boxcar Bertha. But that tired platitude about the journey is true: it really does matter how you get there, and it was the lives of women like Bertha Thompson's that, cumulatively, have made the world a better, freer, more compassionate place.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Beast Within

“We're English, and the English are best at everything.”

There are few novels assigned to schoolchildren so despairing and damning as Lord of the Flies. The story's central thesis, that there is a “Beast” inside our collective soul liable to wreck havoc on the Earth and murder enemies, is a most pessimistic parable to grasp, particularly for the middle-school reader, aged twelve. The author, William Golding, might have been serving the spirit of the times, that of a narrative beyond Auschwitz and Hiroshima, but sixty years on, the story resonates, as even the holocaust and atomic cataclysms have failed to learn us to be better persons, loving and respecting one another. This remains a world where Power corrupts and destroys, whether it be via military, corporate, or even schoolyard shows of force.

Lord of the Flies could be a metaphor for any badly governed state. A group of boys are marooned on a small tropical island paradise. There is the initial euphoria of independence (there are no grownups and therefore an absence of traditional authority figures), followed shortly by an attempt at republican organization, but which quickly collapses into factionalism, later secession, and finally civil war. From this random allotment of children, the main archetypes of society emerge. There is a natural leader, Ralph; an aspiring warrior-autocrat, Jack; an ineffectual intellectual, Piggy; a sensitive, effeminate, artistic clairvoyant, Simon; workers and/or hunters,“biguns;” and a lumpen-proletariat, “the littluns.” With the exception of Ralph, Piggy, Simon, and the twins, “SamnEric,” all of the biguns are from a choir group, and follow Jack's lead first in dissension and later in secession.

Ralph and Piggy want to be rescued, so their priority is maintaining a signal fire. Opposed to this longview, Jack and the choir-kids become “hunters,” obsessed with exploiting the island's most important (and limited) resource, pigs' meat. In true fascist tradition, they become obsessed with the pageantry of their lifestyle, abandoning old clothes for facepaint and dressing as “savages,” unifying objectives with song (“Kill the pig. Cut his throat...”), demonstrating heartlessness towards those of limited utility (the littluns are disposable “crybabies” who “don't hunt or build or help”) and ruthlessness towards their enemies (the abduction of Piggy's glasses, the forced conscription of SamnEric, and of course, cold-blooded murder of ideological nemeses.)

Photo still from the 1963 film adaptation

These may be children but they are innately aware of the talismanic power of certain objects. Piggy's glasses, though they define one of his physical shortcomings, are their only means for starting fire, without which, there is no smoke signal nor means to cook their quarry's flesh. Just as important, the conch, a shell of “fragile, shining beauty,” is the symbol of democracy. Ralph, democratically elected “chief” by the boys, calls a congress by blowing it and in meetings, the person holding the conch is the only one allowed to talk. When Jack and his minions speak out of turn or ignore protocol, links to civilization are undermined and when the conch is finally destroyed, so is the last link to Western humanism severed.

Of course the most important symbol on the island is that of the Beast, whose existence is rumored first among the littluns, affirmed by SamnEric, and whose mysterious representation of evil is availed by Jack for his belligerent ends. Essentially the Beast is to the children what the Devil was to medieval Europe, Communism was to 1950s Americans, and how Islamic fundamentalism serves as a Boogyman for contemporary nervousness-- a threat exaggerated by a power structure needed to justify its more extreme actions. Golding's point, of course, is that the Beast is within, and sets out to dramatize it by making his actors civilized British schoolchildren. Youth is usually conflated with innocence, but on this metaphorical island only a very few are good, a few are innately evil, and the majority morally malleable, unable to think intelligently for themselves, following the will of power rather than reason when given both alternatives: “There was the brilliant world of hunting, tactics, fierce exhilaration, skill; and there was the world of longing and baffled common-sense.” As an inkblot, Golding sees a monstrous id colored in blood staining on our collective tabula raza. Youthful innocence is a canard if the Beast is always there, a potential manifestation from within. For a twelve-year-old reading Lord of the Flies for the first time, this is a rotten apple to consume from the Tree of Knowledge, difficult to digest, but an integral view on human nature we do well to learn and understand.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Good Country People

Well, it takes all kinds of people to make the world go 'round.' It's very good we aren't all alike.”
--Mrs. Hopewell from "A Circle in the Fire."

In Flannery O' Connor's story, “The Artificial Nigger,” two bumpkins, a grandfather and his grandchild, take a train from their rural homestead to Atlanta. All his life, the boy has been putting on airs, because even though he was raised in the country by the old man after his mother's untimely death, he had been born in a metropolis. The old man wants to show him that the boy's hubris is unwarranted since the city is no place for good folks. But when they become lost in a negro neighborhood, he too, has his own pride challenged, and he utterly fails in his responsibility as the boy's caretaker and role model, so much so that “now he was wandering into a black strange place where nothing was like it had ever been before, a long old age without respect and an end that would be welcome because it would be the end.” In other words, screwing up has serious life-changing consequences.

Today short fiction has been accused of existential navel-gazing where nothing ever seems to happen. These attacks are not unfair. In our ever-increasing attention deficit disorders, so-called “microfiction” has replaced the classic short story and its meticulous structuring in which setting, mood, character are as elemental as narrative. And what makes good storytelling really? What is compelling about human drama? Same as it ever was: nothing engages a reader like when we have something to lose, whether it be pride, attachments, or love.

In O'Connor's story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find,men and (especially) women deal with loss. In “Good Country People,” a 30-year-old academic gimp living with her mother lets herself be seduced by a hayseed bible salesman for intellectual kicks, only to have the boy doublecross her. The female farmer in “A Circle in the Fire,” has to deal with an ex-employee's adolescent son and his pals arriving uninvited and camping out on her property without politeness or permission. And in “The Displaced Person” a female landowner takes on as tenants a Polish family escaping the Holocaust. The refugee is industrious, the best investment she's ever made, but he wants to marry off a niece to one of the negroes on the farm so he can bring her to America too and Mrs. McIntyre is so outraged at the affront to the South's politics of racial purity she connives to fire him in spite of his diligence. She's willing to lose the best farmhand she ever had because of her ancestral fears of miscegenation.

O'Connor's characters, not always likable, nevertheless represent well our baser human instincts, those of pride and envy, often manifesting themselves in class war or racial violence: “I'm as good as you any day of the week,” the yokel huckster tells the PhD gimp when he triumphantly discovers the source of her vulnerability. Due the thoroughly unequal distribution of wealth in America's feudal south, the haves had much to worry about from the have-nots, who by cunning or duplicity, take what they can get from the other. These characters are flawed, all of them, so much so that there are really no heroes or villains, only fuck-ups. In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” a hobo-cum-huckster named Mr. Shiftlet looking for work on a derelict property, has “a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly.” His is a treacherous wisdom: by the end of the story, he has abandoned a blind woman he'd pretended to marry, driving off with the family car.

Flannery O'Connor with two of her pet peacocks

Stories about loss are rarely known for their happy endings. But perhaps Flannery O'Connor knew something about loss-- she'd lost her father to lupus at an impressionable age and was diagnosed with the disease herself when she was a young woman just starting out on her literary career. The knowledge she would die young (she passed away in 1964 at the age of 39) no doubt trickled down into her work, the painful recognition that nothing in life can be held forever, life itself most importantly. Change is the only constant, and those who fail to take this into account will be the most devastated with this inevitable reckoning.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Requiem for a Father-in-Law

Den (1945-2014)

A little over six months after he was first diagnosed with stomach cancer, my father-in-law, Denzaemon “Den” Inaoka, passed away in the early morning hours of Tuesday, February 25th. He was 68 years old.

His last few years had found him in and out of hospitals. In early summer of 2012, Den suffered a critical neck injury from a bad fall. Rehabilitation entailed wearing a metal halo to stabilize his cervical spine. Then, on May 11th, the day my wife and I were married in a traditional Buddhist ceremony at Kurama-dera in the hills north of Kyoto, Den passed out while taking a bath and was taken to the emergency room. Shortly thereafter the infection from his pneumonia became sepsis and he was induced into a coma for nearly a month. We were all very happy when he survived this ordeal, only to be utterly devastated when a cancer diagnosis shortly followed during his convalescence. Due his previous sickness, he was too frail for chemotherapy or surgery, and his condition slowly deteriorated until he could no longer even hold in water without vomiting. Through it all, he never complained, and we were grateful that at the very least his passing meant an end to his suffering.

Some years before this, in March, 2005, by chance or perhaps by fate, I met my future wife, Ariko, in Tokyo. She had just returned to Japan after a decade in New York City. We liked each other immediately, and after just one weekend together she invited me to come visit her in Kyoto, where she was staying temporarily with her parents. I made the trip down and was treated with perfect Japanese hospitality. I was charmed meeting Ariko's father, Den, this dapper gentleman with a crown of handsome white hair, elegantly modern in jeans and collared shirt, the Colorado state flag affixed to his sport coat lapel. We all went out for dinner and drinks and afterwards ended up dancing in the family living room to Al Green. Den loved American soul music and romantic crooners, with a special soft spot for Nina Simone and Frank Sinatra. When we sang karaoke, he did Sinatra's “My Way,” which is how he liked to tell us was his philosophy for living.

Den loved the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where he skied whenever possible. He also loved Lake Biwa in nearby Shiga, where he often waterskied. Into his sixties he was still competing in his age bracket and until he got sick he had been an effortless athlete on the water, gliding free and strong, forever young. He truly loved waterskiing, mentoring young competitors and investing his own money in endeavors to help those in whom he saw both potential and his shared love of the sport. Indeed, Den wanted his legacy to be one in which he was remembered for shaping and sponsoring this community.

My father-in-law was also Denzaemon, head of a soba restaurant/ cake patisserie business dating back to 1465, when his ancestors first arrived in Kyoto. Even with a culinary pedigree going back to the middle fifteenth century, running a family business is challenging and when you're in a position of power, enemies often pose as friends and take advantage of a man's generosity (he could never say no to someone's request for help and inevitably then some people took advantage of his kindness). No matter how fortunate one man's life might seem, there is tremendous pressure in living, in handling one's regrets and mistakes. Perhaps Den internalized more pressure than he knew how to bear. In later years, we worried over signs of alcoholism. Yet while Den drank a bit much for his own good, he was only ever his worst enemy. He was as gentle as any man I'd ever met.

Though we dined together often through the years, we didn't converse all that much. For a man born into distinct privileges, he was quite soft-spoken. Neither did we have a lot in common (I don't ski or play golf and our politics diverged). He often preferred television to conversation, especially action movies (particularly James Bond). However, from the very beginning, my father-in-law never begrudged his daughter's choice in love, in spite of my foreignness, my slipshod Japanese, and my financially insecure career avocations of writing and photography. In fact, he welcomed all of our friends, Ariko's, mine, friends of friends, so that through the years, dozens, if not hundreds of visitors, most of them foreigners, shared a cigarette, coffee, or tumbler of Suntory whiskey in his company, breaking bread with all of us, regardless of origins, shared interests, or the human need for privacy. His door, always open.

His last night before getting sick was the day before our wedding ceremony. I had about fifteen friends who'd flown in from overseas for our moment. Den took all us guys to one of my favorite restaurants for dinner and afterwards we headed out to Gion where another fifteen people, Ariko's girlfriends, joined us for two hours drinking with geisha and enjoying a traditional dance performance. It must have cost him a fortune, but if it did, he never let on. Den had even checked into the Kyoto Hotel so that all my friends visiting could stay at his place. It was a five-day wedding party that lasted until the dawn every morning. We did not yet know how precipitous his condition was going to deteriorate-- mostly we'd been sad that he'd missed out on a hell of a party and, moreover, wouldn't be able to perform at our wedding reception. He'd recently taken up tap dancing and the plan had been for him to tap dance to Sinatra's classic, “Come Fly With Me.” Such stage ambition was part and parcel of his cavalier charm, the old gentleman athlete challenging his physical limits, doffing his quiet spot in the corner for a brief shining spotlit moment.

His last days he grew very thin, eventually confined to bed. It was difficult for us to witness this man, once so physical and agile, laid low with illness. Sixty-eight years is not that young, but it is not that old either. He had managed to live a full life, with all the triumphs and tragedy that goes into such living. He takes into the next world some secrets, some regrets, much fondness and his generosity. But like so many with exceptional presence of character it is difficult to feel he is truly gone, as if his spirit remains here among us, someone felt, more than seen, wandering these familiar streets that he lived and walked on for nearly seven decades. As a son-in-law who entered his Big Picture late in life, I am grateful for the small co-starring role I had, especially the good memories-- there were many-- that he has bequeathed in passing. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

On William Faulkner's Light in August

“And so is it any wonder that this world is peopled principally by the dead?”

“Man performs, engenders, so much more than he can or should have to bear. That's how he finds that he can bear anything.”

Perhaps the only literary task more difficult than reading William Faulkner's novels is writing about William Faulkner's novels. Somehow, in spite of a liberal arts education, I'd managed to avoid him in school only getting to read The Sound and the Fury in my late twenties. This was an overwhelming experience. So much so that I immediately reread it. I then internalized Faulkner's prose and paid homage to him the worst possible way, co-opting his style and riddling my own novel with cryptic stream-of-conscious self-indulgent preciousness. Writers should really never attempt to plagiarize another's signature method, but most of us learn that the hard way (via significant revisions and clarifications). His 1932 novel, Light in August, is not as complex or revolutionary as his more famous work, but it is hallmark Faulkner in its structural intricacy, multiple point-of-view narrative, racial violence, and Southern Gothic atmosphere.

How does one even begin to summarize Light in August? No other American writer is so adept at putting together such a multi-layered story composed of minute jigsaw pieces, assembled, seemingly willy-nilly across decades and perspectives, but always with Faulkner there is method in apparent madness. Lena Grove, heavy with child, is in Jefferson, Mississippi, looking for Lucas Burch a wildcat good-for-nothing who ran out on her in Alabama. Instead she finds Byron Bunch, working at the local planing mill. Byron doesn't tell her about an ex-coworker named Joe Brown, which is where Burch is hiding under an assumed name. This "Joe Brown" is living in the woods with a “foreigner” named Joe Christmas, only Joe is not an immigrant but a troubled drifter handling his mixed heritage racial identity with decidedly indelicate emotions. Brown and Christmas share a shack adjunct to a plantation house owned by a New England “carpetbagger” spinster named Joanna Burden. The crux of the story is her murder and the torching of her mansion the day Lena arrives in Jefferson. The main suspect in the crime is Joe Christmas, especially when it is learned by the townfolk Christmas has “nigger blood.”

If the novel has a central figure it is Christmas, whose biographical provenance has the shadow of peculiarly Southern violence cast over his life from its very conception, predestining the bloodletting to come: his white grandfather murdering his black father; the death of his mother due to childbirth complications; the murder of his adopted white father; and before Joanna Burden's own demise, the numerous victims of sexual violence and barroom brawls. Joe Christmas abandoned the chance for a normal life when he slammed a chair over his adopted father's skull. On the run, a handsome tramp, he makes a life out of starting over, following a road that “ran through yellow wheat fields waving beneath the fierce yellow days of labor and hard sleep in haystacks beneath the cold mad moon of September, and the brittle stars: he was in turn laborer, miner, prospector, gambling tout; he enlisted in the army, served four months and deserted and was never caught... He owned nothing but the razor; when he had put that into his pocket he was ready to travel one mile or a thousand, wherever the street of the imperceptible corners should choose to run again.”

Joe Christmas's running takes him to Jefferson where he works a low-wage job at the local planing mill. He operates a small, careful bootlegging business in the woods and has a tumultuous sexual affair with his benefactress, Joanna Burden. An older woman, nearly menopausal, their talk is mostly perfunctory, but Joanna opens up to Christmas one night, telling him about her origins, an abolitionist heritage, tough, moralizing New England stock, and her family's almost spiritual calling to help blacks (as if the cause entwined itself with the family's namesake): “I thought of all the children coming forever and ever into the world, white, with the black shadow already falling upon them before they drew breath. And I seemed to see the black shadow in the shape of the cross.” Before she was born, Joanna's brother and grandfather were murdered in the town square in an argument with Sartoris, an ex-slaveowner. Christmas cannot comprehend why Joanna's father never struck back, eye-for-an-eye. But Joanna feels her father understood well enough to “respect anybody's love for the land where he and his people were born and to understand that a man would have to act as the land where he was born had trained him to act.” Thus one man's self-restraint is as natural as another's resort to violence-- Faulkner seems to be describing us as products of purlieu, which makes for inevitability in both peacefulness and destructiveness. In Joe Christmas, we have post Civil-War black-white racial relations boiling over in a single man, whose entire history is composed of sexual exoticism and senseless violence. And Joe isn't even positive regarding his black lineage. "If I'm not, damned if I haven't wasted a lot of time."  In a good novel, good people make bad decisions-- it's a lot more complicated with an anti-hero.

The reader is never entirely clear whether Joe Christmas was responsible for the murder and mutilation of Joanna Burden, as Joe Brown is as slippery, mendacious, avaricious and irresponsible as any two-bit shyster one is likely to encounter in Faulkner's invented Yoknapatawpha County. But if he is flawed, he is in bad company, as the men and women in 1930s Deep South led hard, wasted lives, spiritual dissipations manifesting themselves physically. The local sheriff is “a tub of a man, with the complete and rocklike inertia of a tub.” Gail Hightower, a disgraced ex-preacher and confidant to good-hearted Byron Bunch, has “that odor of unfastidious sedentation, of static overflesh not often enough bathed.” The crisis occurring in the town of Jefferson is a confluence of catastrophic decision-making, people acting against their best interests, incapable of clarity. In such circumstances, tragedy begets tragedy, and so it goes when men, not only members of communities but descendants of historical hatreds, follow through on their prejudices to the bitter end.

Bill in his younger days

Reading Faulkner is an intense experience. It also requires anachronistic levels of concentration-- it is impossible to grasp the complexity of his storytelling in short bursts of one- or two-pages read. You don't read Faulkner with music on or between tweets. His convoluted syntax, multiple narrative perspectives, and time-tooling can intimidate even the most experienced readers, and occasionally even fans like myself feel like shouting, “WTF, Bill?” when he goes really far out. (I've even wondered how much whiskey was in the tumbler for certain passages only to be humbled when a seemingly random flight-of-fancy is revealed as an integral clue to the puzzle of a man-- someone once connected the work of the novelist to that of the architect, and it is a good metaphor, for good writing, no matter how complex, finds a way to utilize every brick in its structure.) But for all the confusion and mystery, the effort is rewarded to us with not a glimpse but a long linger in the darkest areas of the human heart. Our inner life is somewhat wiser than we were when we started, and maybe tougher too.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Man Named Hirohito & His Legacy

"He is a little man, about five feet two inches in height, in a badly cut gray striped suit, with trousers a couple of inches too short. He has a pronounced facial tic and his right shoulder twitches constantly. When he walks, he throws his right leg a little sideways as if he has no control over it. He was obviously excited and ill at ease, and uncertain of what to do with his arms and hands."
--journalist Mark Gayn describing Emperor Hirohito 
on one of his postwar goodwill tours, March 26th, 1946

The American novelist, William Faulkner, famously said, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” His subject matter was black-white race relations and the legacy of slavery in the American South, but his words serve the Japanese experiment in twentieth century imperialism, the scars of its militarism yet unhealed, and the descendants of the rulers and the oppressed nursing respective grievances. World War II ended nearly seventy years ago, the blood spilled long since washed away, but a new nationalism in East Asia is drawing up a stale and divisive rhetoric, taking arrogant postures, and pretending history is malleable and can be recast according to one's manufactured political persuasions.

The American historian, Herbert Bix's biography of Japan's most notorious emperor, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Harper Collins, 2000), is an 800-page tome indicting Hirohito in no uncertain terms for the war crimes for which he was never prosecuted. Like an attorney who will leave no doubt in the reader's mind, Bix carefully assembles a narrative, beginning with Hirohito's grandfather, Meiji, and how his constitution allocated tremendous authority to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Nearly a hundred pages of the book are citations of evidence reflecting Japanese militarism and a racist philosophy propagated by Japanese intellectuals and historians that led to the colonization of Manchuria, sexual bondage in the Korean peninsula, and an irrational war of conquest that nearly caused Japan's total obliteration. Every step of the way, Hirohito authorized or failed to punish the inhumane crimes of his military establishment. Moreover, Bix argues it was Hirohito's self-centered maneuvers to preserve his throne and avoid just punishment that prolonged the war unnecessarily long after Japan's cause was lost, and that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians is the emperor's burden, as much as it is that of the Americans who authorized the atomic apocalypses.

Modern Japanese militarism has its origins when policy leaders began debating the kokutai, an archaic rarely-used concept nowadays. Kokutai are the best possible principles of Japanese state and society. Alas, it was inevitable that conservative ideologues would win the interpretation to ensure a status quo of the nearly feudal hierarchy that defined the structure of Japanese society for most of its history. Kokutai was then coupled with kodo, the “imperial way,” a political theology that declared the divine right of the emperor, who embodied moral goodness. The court, the military, and conservative political operatives could then utilize their reactionary agenda via imperial decree, as the emperor could make palatable even the most ruthless policies.

Hirohito was an amateur marine biologist. Small in stature, shy, and awkward, he was not a strongman. His personality was easily overshadowed by his arrogant generals and court advisers. Nevertheless, he was intelligent, detail-oriented and had been inculcated by court tutors to take divine right seriously, and that it was his responsibility to take part in political affairs, legitimizing Japanese militarism to the poor farmer sons who would have to leave their homeland and their families for dubious acts of violence in China, Korea, and Taiwan in service of the Emperor.

Because of WWII's total destruction, it's easy to overlook the trauma of the first world war. After Versailles, the US and Britain, via the League of Nations, put together a number of international treaties outlawing wars of aggression, most famously the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928. Japanese leaders interpreted that as an Anglo-American initiative to consolidate their vast colonial holdings (a fair argument-- they also called Europe on its hypocrisy, declaring peace overtures while resorting to violence to keep its multitudes in Africa and Asia in line). The Japanese imperialist philosophy, Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, wanted to rid Asia of European colonialists (as well as their pernicious cultural influence). The war in Asia-- beginning in China, and spreading to Britain's and France's holdings in Southeast Asia, as well as the United States' colony in the Philippines-- was justified as Asia for Asians, though the new hierarchy would indubitably place Japan at the top.

Every step of the way, Hirohito rubber-stamped his generals' advances. As emperor he could have cautioned or refuted militarism, and initially he sometimes did feel outrage at aggression, but overwhelmed by other, stronger personalities, he admitted “it can't be helped,” whether it was the political assassinations, repression of radicals, the Nanking Massacre, Pearl Harbor, or allied bombing of Japanese civilians, Hirohito decided to continue an unwinnable war waged with morally dubious values.

There is no question that Hirohito had absolute power. There is also no doubt that by summer of 1944, Japan would lose the war. Their ally, Nazi Germany, had been invaded at Normandy, and it was certain that the Soviets would turn their attention to Japan once Berlin fell. Moreover, after a spectacular blitzkrieg in late 1941, early 1942, Japan lost every single battle against the United States beginning with Midway, sustaining heavy casualties (to surrender to the enemy was seen as an act of ultimate shame-- better to die for the emperor). The US had closed Japanese sea lanes, in the process removing access to vital natural resources, as they slowly moved the Pacific war towards the home islands. In fact, the army and navy were in such dire shape, the only major losses the Americans were incurring by 1945 were kamikaze attacks and suicide charges. Thus, thousands of young men were being asked to die needlessly in the emperor's name. Why did Hirohito permit this? Why didn't he stop the war after Tokyo was firebombed on the night of March 9th, 1945 (in which 100,000 civilians were killed)? Instead they passed out bamboo spears to women, children, and old men in the event of an amphibious American invasion. They sent thousands of balloons charged with explosive across the Pacific (almost none of them reaching the U.S. and none detonating over population centers) Meanwhile, dozens of Japanese urban industrialized areas would be bombed in the five months between Tokyo's firestorming and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why did Hirohito persist, causing so much unnecessary death?

Self-preservation, of course. The Americans wanted unconditional surrender, like they'd had with Germany. The atomic bombs and the Soviet declaration of war (happening the same week, a very bad one for Japan) spelled the futility in no uncertain terms. On August 15th, 1945, Hirohito gave his famous radio address announcing Japan's surrender. But the emperor needn't have worried. Though he had to give up his divinity status, US leadership (under the guidance of General Douglas MacArthur) was more concerned with total destabilization brought on by his abdication (they were quite concerned about communism and radicalism). During the Tokyo Trials, Hirohito was not brought up as a war criminal and the infamous, Hideki Tojo, became the fall guy, the villain, taking the rap for the emperor (supposedly the emperor wept the morning Tojo was executed). Hirohito received all the credit for surrendering and none of the blame for the catastrophe. He kept his throne, collaborated with the Americans for the reconstruction of Japan, and approved of the famous peace constitution written by the Americans “forever” renouncing war. Hirohito would reign for another 44 years, in what would be one of the greatest economic booms of any society on earth, creating a middle class, a strong safety net, and progressive values, where once there had been almost none.

The famous photograph of MacArthur and Hirohito

Bix has presented irrefutable evidence from various court sources and testimony regarding Hirohito's war guilt. American leadership made a calculated choice not to prosecute him for these crimes. Bix's immense and laboriously composed book is not necessarily a judgment on either the emperor nor Truman and MacArthur. It is not saying that Hirohito was a "bad" man. History is too complex for such trite conclusions. But it is conclusive that the emperor was complicit in giving his imperial seal on some of the worst excesses of Japanese war crimes. And moreover, his failure to act decisively in the certainty of defeat inexorably led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. This is not up for debate or revision. This is what happened. But how to imagine a Japan had Hirohito been tried and punished like his beloved general and prime minister, Tojo, is one of those pathways history turned away from. 

So we return to Faulkner and the presence of the past, our contemporary time and a new nationalism ascendant in Japan's far right government. The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is playing a risky game of brinksmanship with South Korea and especially China, quarreling territorially over a few rocks near Taiwan and revising history, absolving Japan of its criminal past. It is terrifying to consider how clumsy Abe is diplomatically, moreover, how poorly he is mistaking his agenda as that of a populist's. Japan's far-right is a vocal community, but they are a distinct minority, and the vast population of Japan does not seem very politically inclined, and would certainly be outraged by any sacrifice induced by (yet another unwinnable) war with China. Perhaps he is thinking his security treaty with the United States means U.S. armed forces would do his dirty work? I don't think any US president would commit American boys to China for a few uninhabitable rocks and Japan's reactionary misguided historical viewpoint. And certainly, almost no Japanese today will be willing to die for their emperor. That ideological cult is in the dustbin of history. He is no longer a god, he is just a man, a flawed one, like all of us.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Two Thousand Eleanor Rigbys in Small Town Ohio

It seemed to her that between herself and all the other people in the world, a wall had been built up and that she was living just on the edge of some warm inner circle of life that must be quite open and understandable to others.”
--Sherwood Anderson

In Sherwood Anderson's novel, Winesburg, Ohio, Alice Hindman, an unmarried 27-year-old living with her widowed mother and working at a dry goods store, is leading a lonely life. It has been ten years since she “gave” herself to Ned Currie, who'd gone to the “city” for work, promising to return for her one day. He never came back and his letters had tapered off a long time before. She knows he's not returning for her, but does not know how to move on, to get along with others: “If I am not careful I will grow unaccustomed to being with people.” She dwells on her alienation until one night she can't take it anymore and rushes into the yard during a thunderstorm. She is naked and in a “wild, desperate mood,” she yells to a passing farmhand. When he stops she hides in the bushes and then flees into her room. Weeping at her careless mistaking of foolhardiness for courage, she begins to “force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.”

Alice is not the protagonist of Winesburg, Ohio-- she is just one of its lonely citizens. The book is and is not a novel, closer to a collection of short stories, each “concerning” a different character, all more or less unified around the poignancy of distinct alienation. Nearly all these troubled persons are tangentially connected to George Willard, whose parents run the town's inn. George is a nineteen year old reporter for the Winesburg Eagle, the local gazette. The townsfolk confide in him, though some loathe George, since he has some get-up-and-go, that he does not seem so disconnected as they are, and might even emigrate from Winesburg to the city.

George dreams of being a writer. A schoolteacher, Kate Swift, more moll than marm and the object of local gossip, a woman who once lived in New York and had even traveled to Europe, tells George not to dwell on “mere words,” that if he is to write well, “the thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say.” In Winesburg, almost no one says exactly what they mean. They live quiet lives, punctured by a significant, usually detrimental outburst catalyzed by a breaking point when loneliness has become too unbearable. Alice, the character mentioned earlier, is physically unremarkable, her “shoulders were a little stooped and her hair and eyes brown,” but this belies her swarming emotions: “She was very quiet but beneath a placid exterior a continual ferment went on.”

“Death,” George mutters, out for a walk, “night, the sea, fear, loveliness.” George is finally grasping Kate Swift's admonition-- that these aren't mere words, but poignant feelings everyone endures, the words themselves just sounds signifying a much bigger picture. He has this epiphany on a clear night in a destitute neighborhood of ramshackle claptraps. George needs to share this euphoria with a woman, Belle Carpenter, but his sense of glorious inevitability is ruined when he is humiliated by her beau. Passing the same neighborhood on his way home the laborers' houses now appeared “utterly squalid and commonplace.”

Sherwood Anderson

In spite of the unpretentious, utterly Midwestern prose style, Winesburg, Ohio is not light reading. It's a sad book about sad souls and though it concerns a rural small town published nearly a hundred years ago (in 1919), the book feels extraordinarily relevant; it seems then that the old folks are right, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The reader is reminded of his own coming of age experiences, how it seemed no one understood him, how he never imagined he would be able to break through his adolescent rut into something more profound and occasionally meaningful. In George, I saw a bit of myself, as I was, compensating for an inarticulate nature, when George tells Helen White, the best girl in town, “I'm going to be a big man, the biggest that ever lived here in Winesburg.”

George's cocky disclosure comes in the penultimate story, “Sophistication.” His “big man” speech is remembered by George on the evening of the town fair. Helen is visiting from college and is being escorted by a pompous university instructor whom she finds exasperating. At this point, George has decided to leave Winesburg, and wants a moment with Helen. His mother has recently died, partially from an unfulfilled life, and he no longer feels so entitled with destiny; he has become “sophisticated,” learning that “he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun.” Helen does manage to escape her date and when she and George find each other they share a nearly wordless, magically compatible night at the top of the fairgrounds after the blithe villagers have gone home to their farms, the hum of parties on Main Street drifting to them from town. Going downhill, they have a childish moment where breaking into a trot, George slips and Helen laughs at his fall. Their comfort in each other's presence fortifies the both of them for the divergent roads they will both take upon leaving Winesburg: “Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible.”

Such a sentiment richly deserving to all of us, so obvious and yet so elusive, has rarely been so gorgeously put down in words. Here is literature in its truest, most fundamental form, an indispensable reminder that we are not alone. And George does leave Winesburg. In the last story, “Departure,” he is off to a big city, worrying about being taken for a greenhorn by cityslickers. He imagines he should be contemplating big ideas on such a momentous occasion. Instead he ruminates over little things, everyday moments in Winesburg life, "Butch Wheeler the lamp lighter, hurrying through the streets on a summer evening... Helen White standing by a window in the Winesburg post office and putting a stamp on an envelop." George drifts into sleep running through these sundry details. When he stirs, his hometown “had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.” Such is the journey that so many of us have to make. Hopefully, we can make something out of the adventure, or at the very least, find a storytelling language that gilts our best efforts.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Story of a Captain Called Cook

In the year 2014 we take geography for granted. For the right amount of money, Mt. Everest can be attempted, kayaking around the collapsing icebergs of Anartctica is a possibility, and any place in the world, no matter how remote, is a few hundred miles away from the nearest airport. Hard to appreciate then the courage of explorers who risked their lives to map out the unknown reaches of our planet. When you left port on a ship, farewelling land, you were truly saying goodbye to life as you knew it, conveniences, friends, your loved ones, for perhaps years on end. The world was put together in piecemeal-- kingdoms hoarding resources and knowledge of shoals and beneficial winds often published false maps to deter foreign explorers from safely accessing these “discovered” lands. Thus proper understanding of the earth's dimensions was a slipshod process that took centuries. For context, it wasn't another 250 years after Magellan's crew first circumnavigated the globe that Australia's existence was confirmed.

A by-his-bootstraps lad from rural Yorkshire didn't discover the Australian continent (that was a Dutchman named Abel Tasman), but he was the first one to visit and map its eastern coast, one of many achievements in a legendary career. Before reading Richard Hough's biography Captain James Cook, I long imagined the famed explorer as an intrepid British pirate in the vein of Sir Walter Raleigh. But his life story is one of sobriety, competence, steadfastness, loyalty, ingenuity, leadership and, most especially, level-headedness.

Born into a family of impoverished laborers, Cook did not even see the ocean until he was seventeen years old (a bit of a late bloomer). By sheer hard work, good sense, and careful ambition, Cook rose from a sailor on local shipping lanes to working with the Royal Navy surveying the St. Lawrence River, distinguishing himself as a cartographer in the Seven Years War. He knew the right contacts in the government and they trusted him enough on a major voyage to the southern seas.

Cook sailed more nautical miles than any man in history-- visiting nearly every far-off fairy tale tropical port you've ever heard of and many you haen't, spending considerable time in Tahiti, New Zealand, as well as being the first explorer in the Antarctic Sea. His greatest contribution to cartography was proving conclusively what did not exist, that is a great southern landmass (beyond Australia in tropical or sub-tropical latitudes) and a Northwest Passage between the Bering Sea and the Atlantic Ocean (which entailed much fruitless sailing in bad weather in very cold climates).

These were long trips where it was unlikely to replenish food and water resources. The greatest threat to sailors in the explorations prior to Cook was scurvy, a lack of Vitamin C caused by a restricted diet. Cook was the first explorer to discover corollaries between nutritional habits and good health. As much as his surveying added to human knowledge, it was his advocation of sensible dieting for sailors that was just as strong as a legacy to the annals of exploration (but it wasn't easy getting sailors to put down their daily dose of saurkraut).

Unlike so many explorers who had an us-and-them attitude to indigenous tribes, Cook did not refer to the native peoples he encountered as savages but as human beings. From the Inuits in Alaska to the Polynesians of Tahiti to the naked Fuegians in the Magellan Strait, Cook showed restraint, when so many in his line of work slaughtered, captured, and indentured natives under some ludicrous proselytizing aegis.

In spite of all his years at sea, beyond a few minor islands in the remote Pacific, his only famous discovery was the Hawaiian Islands, which is where Cook met his end. This was his third voyage and he was evidently exhausted and possibly ailing with some stomach virus that affected his judgment, as well as his temper. Like the Aztec mythology predicting the arrival of a white-skinned god, so did a legend in Hawaii's Kealakekua Bay predict a deity coming in a great ship to the shores of the local tribe. Cook's visit was propitious at first, but evolved into chaos, leading to violent skirmishes between Cook's men and the islanders. Cook himself was torn to pieces and it was only through careful negotiations with the local priests were they able to recover most of his bodily remnants.

The last moments of Captain Cook

The catastrophe and Cook's demise in Hawaii is gripping narrative, especially as I was coming into the story for the first time knowing little of Cook's heroics. The writing comes to life, whereas in most of the biography, Hough's prose is as sober as his subject. (Cook mostly abstained from excess, and while his men took native paramours, Cook took on a moralizing posture to these dalliances-- sailors going AWOL to lead a Gaughinian existence in Tropical Paradise were flogged ten times for their improprieties.) Nevertheless one likes and cares about Cook and sees the tragedy in his premature passing in ways the vicarious explorer could never sympathize with Columbus and Magellan, who are more famous, when they should be just infamous. But this is hardly an exception; the prism through which popular history reflects deeds done doesn't have a sensible filtering system. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Journey to the End of the Night

“Reader, fuck you!”
--William T. Vollman,
in the afterword to the novel

I'd high hopes for Celine's Journey to the End of the Night. All the cool cats had read Celine long ago (the coolest of them in the original French) and Henry Miller had it on his list of personal faves. And for the first two-hundred pages I was right there with Celine's misanthropic misadventures-- in fact, reading the novel I could not help but think that Henry Miller would not have existed without Celine-- here was an anti-hero, Ferdinand Bardamu, who was as funny, horny, and charismatic as Miller's starving artists. The free-flowing prose, the dirty old man vibe, the profane nuance, this was proto-Miller, which does not diminish Tropic of Cancer in my eye-- in fact, it elevates his work, as if Miller stole a page from Celine's dirty canvas and made it actually likable. If your protagonist is going to be an absolute dick, then it's best if he is at least someone worth breaking bread with. To be honest, I am too much of an optimist and I don't quite hate myself enough to love Celine's most famous novel.

But what a start. Celine's surrogate “hero,” Bardamu, a ne'er-do-well with no career prospects or money is swept along early 20th century France in a tide of social upheaval. An infantryman in World War I and horrified by the idea of being cannon fodder, Bardamu attempts desertion, then fakes lunacy to escape the trenches. Released from the asylum, he winds up on a boat to the Congo in colonial Africa, where everyone is drunk and disorderly and where he is stationed alone in the bush with nearly nothing to live on. He escapes this scenario as well and winds up on a ship to America where he is hungry in New York and later, after a brief tenure on Ford Motor Car's assembly lines, finds the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold to sugar mommy his habits until the need to move on seizes him again. The changing scenery, often capricious and episodic, is nevertheless exciting, and Bardamu reminds the reader of a latter-day Job or Candide, though Bardamu is never under the Panglossian impression this is the best of all possible worlds. All he wants to do is get laid and have a little food in his belly and a place to sleep. Self-preservation is the priority. Fraternal brotherhood or such utopian “flapdoodle” never enters his febrile mind: “Each man for himself, the earth for us all.”

Though this is not necessarily a most sympathetic sentiment, Bardamu is just likable enough, and Celine's portrayal of mankind's hypocritical foolishness compensates for the narrative leaps, until we skip five years ahead and Bardamu is a penurious doctor. The remainder of the novel takes place in France, and lacks the propulsion of the first half-- what was a philosophical adventure has evolved into a bitter misanthropic tirade against life itself and it goes on for at least a hundred pages too long. Bardamu is an unrelenting head case of negativity. There are no “genuine realizations of our deepest character except war and illness, those two infinities of nightmare.” No one can nail one-liners about the futility of living quite like Celine.

The titular “end of the night” is death (and I don't need to tell you there is any sort of glorious afterlife to be expected in Celine/Bardamu's world view), and everything before that is suffering. As William T. Vollman paraphrases Celine in the novel's afterword, this void might be a relief for creatures that are “no more than decaying, flatulent assemblages of phlegm and fecal matter, animated by lechery and self-delusion to commit acts of increasingly futile denial of the grisly fact that existence is spoiled.” This adequately summarizes the characters's motives and world views. If you're not cool passing a long novel reminded of the meaninglessness of your existence and your indignation only exemplifies what a presumptuous asshole you really are, Celine might not be the right author for you at the moment. Myself, I've flirted with nihilism, but never courted her. I'm only glad that I managed to finish the book with most of my idealism intact.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Year in Reading (2013)

"Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them."
--Lemony Snickett

Reading!” those busy zip-zipping multi-taskers cry superciliously, “who has the time these days anyway?” And to be fair, I find the pleasure of reading more often a luxury than a responsibility. But it is not just in a human being's prerogative to challenge himself with reading, it is in our collective social interest. Through reading not only do we acquire smarts but we also become a better, more compassionate, empathetic species. There is a historical argument gaining momentum which suggests that the rise of the novel and the belief in the universal rights of man could very well be interconnected.

Here are the books I read in 2013 in sequential order. They are marked with their year of publication. Those with a * details a second (or multiple read) and those with a <> designate a book read while traveling.
  1. High-Rise by J.G. Ballard (1975)
  2. East West by Salmon Rushdie (1994)
  3. The Birdman and the Lap Dancer by Eric Hansen (2004)
  4. Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara (1934) *
  5. Karma Cola by Gita Mehta (1979) * <>
  6. Maximum City by Suketu Mehta (2004) <>
  7. Delhi: a Novel by Khushwant Singh (1990) <>
  8. Kubla Khan: The Mongol King Who Remade China by John Man (2006) <>
  9. A River Sutra by Gita Mehta (1993) <>
  10. Bill Contino's Blues by James Ellroy (1994) <>
  11. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen (1938)
  12. The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski (1965)
  13. The Boy with the Thorn in His Side by Keith Fleming (2000)
  14. The Road to Wellville by TC Boyle (1993)
  15. Quiet Days in Clichy by Henry Miller (1956) *
  16. The White Nile by Alan Moorehead *(1960)
  17. Howard's End by E. M. Forster (1910)
  18. Loving by Henry Green (1945)
  19. 1984 by George Orwell (1948) *
  20. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) *
  21. Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain (2007) *
  22. Welcome to the Monkeyhouse by Kurt Vonnegut (1970)
  23. Hip: a History by John Leland (2004) <>
  24. In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami (1997) * <>
  25. The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander (2007) <>
  26. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1912) * <>
  27. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1988) <>
  28. What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (2012) <>
  29. Double Indemnity by James Cain (1935) <>
  30. Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis (2010) <>
  31. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007) <>
  32. The Reader by Bernard Schlink (1995) <>
  33. The Art of Travel by Alain de Bottom (2002) <>
  34. Motoring with Mohammed by Eric Hanson (1991)
  35. Cultural Amnesia by Clive James (2007)
  36. The Assault by Harry Mulisch (1982)
  37. The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever (1957)
  38. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1949) * <>
  39. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch (1954) <>
  40. Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy (1887)
  41. The Spice Trade by John Keay (2005) *
  42. The Magic of Blood by Dagoberto Gilb (1993)
  43. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928)

All in all I managed to read 43 books this year (last year I'd read 42-- it seems that thus my pace is one book every nine days or so). 25 of the books were novels, 7 were short story collections, and 11 were books of nonfiction, including memoir, history or travel narrative. Also 11 of the books were rereads, and 19 were read "traveling," which included a stint at my mother's for three weeks with all the time in the world. The oldest book read was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1887) and the most recent Nathan Englander's What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank (2012). 18 of the books were published before I was born. 21 of the books were written by Americans. Of the others, only three were translations. All books were hard- or softcover-- I am yet to read anything on the tablet. 

It was wonderful to discover Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, Harry Mulisch's The Assault, and Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I revisited some of my favorite books this year including Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, Ben Fountains Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, and the historical narratives of John Keay's The Spice Trade and Alan Moorehead's wonderful The White Nile. There were no absolutely bad reads, though I found myself slightly exasperated at times with Khushwant Singh's Delhi, Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, and John Leland's trying too hard on the prose vernacular of Hip: a History.

As this blog has been slightly moribund of late, I will make some attempt to summarize the books I'm reading-- I say that now but following through on resolutions-- especially those related to writing-- is not one of my strong suits. Nevertheless, it's important to try. The first book I'm reading in 2014 is Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, and after a promising start I rather loathe it.

How was your year in reading?