Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Year in Reading (2014)

2014 marked another wonderful year in reading. I managed to read nineteen novels or short story collections, eleven books of nonfiction, and one book of poetry. Eight of the books were rereads. Everything I read was on paper and I am yet to read a single book on an e-reader. The best pleasures were William Faulkner's Light in August, Graham Greene's Heart of the Matter, and Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. The only books I struggled to like were Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, JG Ballard's Crash, Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, and Saul Bellow's Ravelstein (I normally love Bellow but of Celine and Ballard I am convinced of incompatibility-- an unpopular view, and many whose tastes I respect adore Ballard and Celine. But then again I rather dislike Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, and Haruki Murakami, so I am rather used to defending my preferences in beer-soaked quarrels.)

I did not manage to read nearly as many books as I did in 2012 or 2013, but then what matters is the quality of the read. And, importantly, I was able to hold true to my resolution of writing about every book read this year. This was not easy, as sometimes it's nice to just finish something and move on. However, the knowledge I would need to make sense of whatever I was reading made me a more critical reader and I would like to continue this process in the coming years.

Rereads are marked with an *. My review to each book is linked in the title if you are curious.

1) Journey to the End of the Night by Louis Celine (1932)
2) Captain James Cook by Richard Hough (1999)
3) Hirohito: The Making of Modern Japan by Herbert Bix (2000)
4) Winesberg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919) *
5) Light in August by William Faulkner (1932)
6) A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor (1955)
7) Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954) *
8) Boxcar Bertha by Bertha Thompson
9) Crash by J.G. Ballard (1973)
10) Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger (1961)

11) Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (1914)
12) Perfume by Patrick Suskind (1985)
13) The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)
14) The Plague by Albert Camus (1947) *
15) Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1566)
16) Waiting for the Barbarians by JM Coetzee (1980)
17) The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992)
18) Ways of Seeing by John Berger (1972) *
19) Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami (1980)
20) Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy MacLean (1949)

21) A Blue Hand by Deborah Baker (2008) *
22) The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948) *
23) Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (2012)
24) Drop City by TC Boyle (2003) *
25) The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler (1903)
26) Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr (1964)
27) Ravelstein by Saul Bellow (2000)
28) Stranger in the Forest by Eric Hanson (1988)
29) Lost Japan by Alex Kerr (1994)
30) Divine Magnetic Lands by Tim O'Grady (2008)
31) Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins (2011)

For the new year, I've started Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, regarding the core years of the 1970s when Richard Nixon fell in disgrace and Ronald Reagan rose to prominence as the right's Chosen One. A great read...

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Tortoise Poet

I don't suppose there is anything in the arts more frivolous than poetry. Epic, abstract, couplets, rhyming, no rhyming, whatever form poetry takes it probably has a smaller audience share than opera or silent films. You really don't meet many poets in cafes these days, and if someone does introduce himself as one you would not be that out of line inquiring what the person's day job might be. Even the very best of them would only make a pauper's living with verse (though they might teach at a university of notable name recognition). I suppose that poetry's inability to engage any contemporary zeitgeist, especially in the United States has twofold reasons: 1) its disavowal of puritanical values: poetry is about thrilling in the small moments, introspecting everyday matters so that the banal might be beautiful-- its daintiness antithetical to a strong work ethic. And 2) Lacking kinetics, verve, vigor, muscle or obvious razzle-dazzle poetry struggles to transcend youth culture-- forever a niche for romantics and the old-fashioned. These days poets are never worshipped by the young, so there are few celebrities in today's world.

While not exactly a household name, anyone who dabbles in poetry has heard of Billy Collins. His ninth collection, Horoscopes for the Dead, reaffirms his reputation as poet's poet, that is, a maker of mountains out of molehills. Collins, a genuine savant in the arts of boketto (staring into space while seeming to think of nothing), writes variously about sitting on rocks in the sunshine, smelling the flowers, floating in kayaks, sinking into chairs, bicycling through cemeteries. He imagines his birth in one poem, death in another. He lingers over passing light and see colors where there is none.  In the titular poem, he reflects on the fortune of a dead friend, who sounds as if he were in something of a similar trade to Collins:

"No more goals for you, no more romance,
no more money or children, jobs or important tasks,
but then again, you were never thus encumbered."

My own favorite in the collection was the first one, titled "Grave" in which Collins visits his parents tombstones donning a new pair of shades. He asks them, "What do you think of my new glasses:"

"and what followed was a long silence
that descended on the rows of the dead
and on the fields and the woods beyond,

one of the one hundred kinds of silence
according to the Chinese belief,
each one distinct from the others,

but the differences being so faint
that only a few special monks
were able to tell them apart."

No poet fails to contemplate love and in the poem, "Genesis," over a "second bottle of wine" his loved one speculates maybe Eve came first and "Adam began as a rib." But Collins, clearly neither a biblical literalist nor a misogynist, wonders,

"what life would be like as one of your ribs--
to be with you all the time,
riding under your blouse and skin,
caged under the soft weight of your breasts."

But no poem in the collection suggests Collins' whimsy like the short piece "My Hero" does.

"Just as the hare is zipping across the finish line,
the tortoise has stopped once again
by the roadside,
this time to stick out his neck
and nibble a bit of sweet grass,
unlike the previous time
when he was distracted
by a bee humming in the heart of a wildflower."

Here is Collins himself distracted by anything and everything, recognizing with childlike wonder the mystery of life, losing the race to bankers, politicians, and professional athletes no less. For all their riches and accolades, have they ever noticed the bees doing their business among the wildflowers? While the tortoise might be the best zoological metaphor for Collins' dilatory nature, he is anything but a slacker. For a laid-back poet-scribbling slouch he's done well for himself. Among the many publications for the poems in this collection are The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and many other notable rags. Moreover, he was United States Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, so his was the responsibility to write an elegy for the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks. His poem for this tragedy, "The Names" is neither frivolous nor whimsical, but touches gently and melancholically on the tremendous loss:

"Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart."

Not bad for a daydreamer lying recumbent on the grass staring up at the sky, dreaming of the lumbering tortoise.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

See the USA in Your Chevrolet

"The answer is never the answer. What's really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you'll always be seeking."
-Ken Kesey

"There is nothing wrong with Americans except their ideals. The real American is all right; it is the ideal American who is all wrong."
-G K Chesterson

Poetically, nothing is perhaps more synonymous with America than the open road. Not counting the great Alaskan frontier, the contiguous 48 States is rather huge. That it was settled coast to coast within a century of the nation's founding is a testament to our collective restlessness. America is big: big people, portions, guns, budgets, ideas, lies, estates, dreams.  An easy glance at the political-economic spectrum reveals America as an Hegemonic Bully, making it tempting, if not convenient to write all of us off as big-ass dolts, and so toast good riddance to the passage of the American century. But even the most virulent anti-American propagandists would be disheartened to know that if they were to actually visit America, going deep by way of highway and byway, they might find Americans more complex than they thought possible and perhaps undeserving of our cruel stereotypes-- in fact, some visitors might find Americans rather likable and perhaps not so big in everything.

A baby boomer born into America's Golden Years, Timothy O'Grady, left for Ireland in 1973 at the age of 22 and never moved back. In 2003 and 2004 he does two cross country road trips in a rental pale beige Chevrolet. "But there's nothing between here and California but gas stations" some dude in a New York city bar exclaims to O'Grady at the outset of his journey. But as O'Grady describes his travels in his travelogue Divine Magnetic Lands, while homogenization has made America an uglier, less interesting place, geographical quirks persist still. This is one of those zen trips where it's all journey, destination an afterthought. Thus to enjoy the ride, he avoids interstate highways for country roads. Wherever he arrives, he goes drinking at bars, usually beer, with a game of billiards if there is a table. The bar does seem a good place for interviews, though surprisingly O' Grady learns "that in in the little bars in the little towns on the American road, particularly those where the grooming is haphazard, the language coarse, the prospects bleak and where it is believed that disputes both international and personal are best solved by violence, you are unlikely to get from the door to your chair without being engaged in conversation... but in cities and university towns, no matter how politically or spiritually open the prevailing ideology, you are likely to pass your evening in silence."

The wonderful thing about a road trip is that no two are exactly alike. Where you choose to stop is personal-- friends in propinquity, lingering nostalgia, or local cultural interests all play a part.  O'Grady's first trip takes him along the northern half, visiting a number of small towns including Ogden Dunes, Hibbing, Eagle Butts, Deadwood, Wallace, Medford, and Sausalito, then Big Sur, Monument Valley, Taos, Wichita Falls, Greenwood, Oxford, Sarasota, Edenton, among the many smaller towns during the second leg. Along the way he references other famous trippers on the American Road including Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Simone de Bouvier, William Least Moon, Woody Guthrie, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Wherever he goes, he breaks down a bit of history: famous native sons, inventions, and often parables of civic decline. Most American towns have been dying since the 1970s, the main cause being de-industrialization, factories shuttering. Most ruminations lead inexorably to a discussion of American decline, and nearly everyone O'Grady meets on the road is feeling this some way or another. In New York City the author meets a researcher who has written a study on Americans' fascination with the apocalypse.  Here's O'Grady summing up the mess:

"This is the age, it would seem, through which America is passing, an Endtime of Empire-- a lack of belief in state structures, a decline in voting, an unreality in the unit of currency, enemies without and within, false accounting, vast numbers of servers accumulating around the rich, the ingratiation of the press to the powerful, the ascendancy of marketing over product, a retreat into privacy, reduced intellectual activity, a lack of public forums, a clouded future, religion based on salvation rather than good works, the infantilizing of adulthood, high anxiety, falling wages, casinos, crystals, angels, lotteries, private armies, seers, fanaticism."

The solution to nearly all these problems begins and ends with politics. O'Grady is a progressive and recognizes that deregulation and inequality are the primary causes of poverty, pessimism, and the decline of the middle class. He offers some advice for reform, all good and all to fall on deaf ears so long as our government continues to be bribed with graft and corrupted by K Street lobbying groups. O'Grady writes, "There is no people more easy to govern than the fearful, the debt-ridden and the demoralized. " Indeed, our current power structure thrives on the burdens of the many.

(c) Stephen Shore

The timing of the author's journey is important: 2003-2004 was the heart of the Bush era, an extraordinarily paranoid period wherein Bush, ostensibly, still had much of the country's support in spite of the developing catastrophes of the Iraq invasion (as a personal sidenote, 2003 is when I left the USA myself and eleven years later, have yet to move back). Traveling the US against this backdrop of fear and loathing will inevitably lead most seekers to dark conclusions. Nevertheless, for all his protestations, O'Grady is at heart, American, and thus optimistic. Interestingly, he connects the whiny victimization complex to conservatives and their "appeal to the sense of being abused, fed up, being ever on the losing side, in this country so focused on and celebratory of winning." Certainly if America ever hopes to be winning again, it will necessitate its reactionary minority to look beyond gay marriage, abortion rights, school prayer, and immigration fears to a politics that is more in tune with their livelihood. Like O'Grady I'm at heart an optimist and believe this is possible. But one day I might have to drive myself cross country and back just to make sure. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Japan Lost?

"To put it bluntly, these places have become cities of illusion, historical theme parks... Kyoto, Beijing, and Bangkok have been turned into concrete jungles. Meanwhile, the countryside has been filled to overflowing with billboards, power lines and aluminum houses."

A collection of essays concerning personal history and cultural critique, upon publication Lost Japan made Alex Kerr a legend in expat circles in Tokyo and elsewhere on the archipelago. A bit of a controversial figure for his harsh assessments of Japan, it is difficult to question his authority, as there are few foreign residents who have gone deeper into the culture than Kerr. He variously describes his interests delving into traditional Japanese architecture, kabuki theater, calligraphy, and art collecting. He seems to have experienced Japan at every level including a stint working for the Trammell Crow developing firm during the Bubble Era. Fluent in the language, Kerr originally wrote the book in Japanese.

Japan really is one of the most mythologized nations of which nearly everyone has an opinion. Many romanticize it, and it is easy to fall in love after a brief vacation. The streets are safe, the people polite, the shopkeepers honest, the service impeccable, the eccentricities charming. But any longterm residents- no matter the quality of their expatriate life- can enumerate various frustrations with the Japanese way of doing things. Kerr is an aesthete and his main point of contention is the Japanese willful destruction of their beautiful landscapes (pylons, power lines, concrete covering nature) atmosphere (interiors of plastic and florescent light), and the abandonment of the traditional arts (philistinism best typified by the rise of pachinko). Kerr might be a snob, but he is an agreeable and knowledgable one and his points are well thought out and colorfully made. His derision of pachinko, a mind-numbing electronic gambling game and its parlors for playing, is spot on: "When you look at the cultural remains of a historical period, you are able to perceive its dominant ideology. In the Nara and Heian periods there were Esoteric temples; from Kamakura to Edo there were Zen temples and teahouses... What about the present?... In the Japanese countryside the tallest and most ostentatious building is invariably a pachinko parlor." 

Hitchhiking across Japan in the early 1970s, he discovered the Iya Valley in rural Shikoku, where in a little village suffering depopulation he purchases an abandoned 17th century wooden house. The most expensive and complicated renovation is replacing the kaya, or thatched roof. It takes years for him to do so but in the end the structure is beautifully restored. He calls it Chiiori and it becomes a success story for restorative village tourism. Nevertheless, in spite of a longterm recession and a history of failure, a corrupt national government continues to spend massively on pork barrel projects that despoil the environment.  

Kerr comments wearily, "This destruction has continued at an ever-increasing rate, and now Japan has achieved a position as one of the world's ugliest countries." However brusque Kerr's criticism is, the fury derives from a profound love for his adopted country. Wherever we choose to live, we will have a complex relationship to our environment, most especially if we import our values into a distinct culture. For all of Kerr's criticism, he is lavish when describing his fondness for calligraphy and kabuki not to mention, his gratitude for the genuine friendships he's maintained with certain Japanese people.

But for all Kerr's lamentations of a bygone Japan, I couldn't help noticing there was a tinge of the traveler's boast-- what I'm talking about is the one-upmanship people have when comparing their life experiences. No doubt Kerr has had an extraordinarily unique go at it, but the underlying message here for those coming to the party late seems to be "forget it!" as he was the last foreigner to experience the "real" Japan. Kerr is far too delicate to come out and say this explicitly-- however, over and over, he brings up cultural topics that have changed irreparably, from art collecting to kabuki to the rural village experience. Even something as culturally vulgar as Japan's economic Bubble is burst and the gold rush is over. Kerr's not exactly rubbing it in, but this memoir is an elegy for a "lost Japan," and let's not forget who wrote it.