Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Eye of the Camera


We all have memories of special places. For one it’s a particular spot in the old hometown, and for another it may be the jungles of Borneo or a high school trip to New York. The recollections of places we’ve spent a part of our lives, be it long or short, are not mere static images frozen in the imagination but something often enriched by the passage of years. This happens especially when memories of a place are pleasant and characterized by a happy time of life. Over time the memories become romanticized and take on an aura of specialness that becomes almost holy. At least that’s always how it’s been with me.

Businessmen stop for a bowl of noodles on the way home.

Anyone who has spent some time flipping through the pages of Scriblets will know that once upon a time I lived in the faraway land of Japan. Seeing as how I spent more than a year and a day there, my memories of it are about as tactile as thought can be. But a funny thing happened. It wasn’t long before those aspects of life in Japan that had once bothered me—the packed trains, the crowds and constant dodging of oncoming bicycles, the bureaucracy—all these gradually turned sweet in memory and now I’m thinking, “God, how I miss the loud and constant chatter of five housewives over coffee!” All of it has been embellished and set fondly and romantically aglow by the yearning for a place in memory.

Early morning bicycle

The photographs of Masashi Wakui bring to life the city in my mind. Though they catalog actual places, Wakui’s photographs give Tokyo a surreal, cinematic quality. Photographed at night, mostly among the backstreets and alleyways of Shibuya and Shinjuku, in their neon richness the photos are almost kaleidoscopic in their portrayal of the city. Wakui’s photographs have been called, “big-budget anime come to life.” It is the result of processing his photographs to give them the tinged look of oversaturated colors seen in Japanese anime—it is what some have begun calling the Masashi Wakui Look. Unlike other cities, light illuminates Tokyo at night to give it a dreamlike dystopian atmosphere and it is through this nocturnal city that Wakui’s camera eye wanders.

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Despite the many, many visitors to his Flicker and Tumblr pages and the popularity of his work, information about the photographer is hard to find. He is a self-taught photographer who wanders the streets at night with high-performance compact cameras (Sony RX100 and Ricoh GR) in search of nighttime cityscapes. Perhaps it’s that he prefers to let his cameras do the talking and so remains in the background. Certainly a humble touch that his Tumblr account includes the brief phrase, 本当に馬鹿でした。(“It’s just foolishness really.”) In fact, Wakui’s photographs are anything but and are marveled over by more than a few amateurs and professionals. You can find his work at http://masa-photo.tumblr.com and https://www.flickr.com/photos/megane_wakui/

Have a look. It’s a safe bet to say you will be fascinated by this man’s view of Tokyo.

Alleyway Bar

Shibuya Crossing, one of the most heavily trafficked crossings in the world

Rainy night in the neon jungle

The romance of dimly lit narrow streets colored by neon, streetlights and shadow.

Early morning under the wires


Soul Joint

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Green Stamps & Necker Knobs

For one who enjoys reading, the best times come when stumbling upon a book and writer you never suspected would knock your socks off and realizing he has authored a long list of titles you can look forward to reading your way through. Always late to the party, such was the case with me and Ivan Doig who passed away this past April leaving behind thirteen novels and five books of non-fiction. His last novel, published this month is a combination coming of age and road story titled Last Bus to Wisdom. The protagonist of Doig’s tale is an 11 year-old boy named Donal “Red Chief” Cameron who just might be one of the freshest and most memorable juvenile characters in fiction since Huckleberry Finn.


In the summer of 1951 Donal unwillingly leaves Montana and his beloved Gram when she has some “female trouble” requiring surgery and is unable to look after him during her time of recuperation. Donal boards the dog bus, a Greyhound bound for Manitowoc, Wisconsin and the home of his great-aunt Kate. The trip is a memorable one for him, including a first kiss, a run-in with a thief and a scare from one ornery sheriff. He arrives in Manitowoc and is met by the odd couple of all time, Aunt Kate and Uncle Herman. It isn’t long before Donal catches on that his aunt is none to happy with him around and suddenly she is sending him back to Montana and into an orphanage. Donal boards another Greyhound, head filled with nightmares of life in a state home, but looks up to see the person sitting next to him is none other than a runaway Uncle Herman. Together they head west on the road to fun and adventure.

On the road together the two encounter a good sampling of both delight and disaster. Uncle Herman is a great fan of the wild west and anything related to cowboys and Indians and Donal assures him of finding a lot of both. Soon enough they are thick in the middle of it, decked out in Stetson hats purchased with the H&S Green Stamps Donal got for all his Greyhound miles—the 1950s answer to frequent flyer miles. They meet plenty of Indians and a rodeo full of cowboys where Uncle Herman discovers the thrill of wild bronc riding. With their money lifted by a pickpocket on one of the bus rides, the only choice left to them is signing on for ranch work cutting and baling hay along with a family of hoboes. The two are living the life of their wildest dreams until the sheriff turns up looking for an absconded husband and runaway boy.

There are more than a few things to praise about Doig’s novel but at the top of the list is the very particular and colorful idiom of all the characters. Donal has a way with words that never fail to surprise and the German Uncle Herman speaks a language all his own that few outside of Donal can follow. But language and style are only two of Doig’s big guns. The characters in this novel—and there are many—are each wonderfully drawn, men and women who walk off the page to sit beside you. There is as well, the character of place and location that revives mid-twentieth century towns and locales so tangibly. 


One of the most enjoyable reads of the year. Easily among this reader’s Top Three.

I never knew before reading Last Bus to Wisdom that the knobs often seen attached to steering wheels in the 1950s were known as “necker knobs.” It made one-handed steering easier so the right arm could go snugly around your girlfriend’s shoulder.


Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Act of Survival

This past Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. How pale those words seem in describing an event that in its first moment incinerated 80,000 people and left thousands more to die in the coming days and weeks. For many of us the reality of that iconic Monday morning is far removed and almost impossible to imagine. Details about the annihilated city and its population were for a long time sketchy at best to everyone but the few officials who visited the aftermath. It wasn’t until a year later that a full picture of the tragedy in human dimensions was offered by John Hersey, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who published his account in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946. 

William Shawn, managing editor of The New Yorker, discussed with Hersey his astonishment that in the millions of words written about the bomb there was nothing that told the story of what happened through the eyes of who it happened to. Hersey spent three weeks in Japan doing research and interviewing bomb survivors in Hiroshima. His goal was, “…to write about what happened not to buildings but to human beings.” The result was Hiroshima, a 31,000 word story published first in The New Yorker and later by Alfred A. Knopf as a book. Hersey chose a dry, calm style free of emotion, allowing the survivors’ stories to speak for themselves. He said in a letter, “The flat style was deliberate, and I still think I was right to adopt it. A high literary manner, or a show of passion, would have brought me into the story as a mediator; I wanted to avoid such mediation, so the reader's experience would be as direct as possible.”


The book begins:
1 A Noiseless Flash
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.

The story continues to follow these six survivors as they make their way through the aftermath of a broken and scorched city. Though the writer’s aim was to keep his own emotions at bay, this new style of journalism nevertheless tips the reader headfirst into the heart and mind of his subjects. The bravery of these six people in the face of such utter loss and defeat makes for a remarkable story.

                 
                            Toshiko Sasaki                       Masakazu Fujii

                    
                   Hatsuyo Nakamura                   Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge

                   
                          Terufumi Sasaki                     Kiyoshi Tanimoto

Realizing this past August 6 was the Hiroshima anniversary, I pulled from a bookshelf my old and carefully preserved first Knopf edition and stood for several minutes rereading the first pages. Hardly raising my eyes, I settled into a chair for the next hour and read the book’s 118 pages with the same fervor of my first reading years ago. This small but powerful book is not one to miss.
John Hersey’s Hiroshima at Amazon

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Thoughts on a Famous Book

Chances are high that every writer likes to see his or her book singled out by the press for pre-publication notice. But on occasion the coming of a new book can be marred by too much attention from the press. Take the case of Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, published on July 14 by HarperCollins. Obviously because of the author’s previous and until then only book, the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, excitement and expectations were high when the new book was announced. To say that excitement was high is probably the grandest of understatements considering that the press went wild and the hype began building to ridiculous levels. Credit (or blame) a lot of that on the lawyers and agents involved in bringing to light a book written by Ms Lee even before her iconic To Kill a Mockingbird


As someone who considers To Kill a Mockingbird one of the more important books in American literature, and also a person who tries to keep up with what’s new and upcoming in books, the pre-publication hype for Go Set a Watchman was overwhelming. And to that phenomenon I attach a negative result. Naturally, as was always intended by the lawyers and agents, the bombardment of press releases created a sure-fire money earning bestseller weeks before printing of the first copy. Little surprise that HarperCollins announced the book set a pre-sale record for the publishing house. It isn’t big news that controversy tends to make money and the controversy regarding this second (or first) book by Harper Lee has been bubbling. The state of Alabama launched an investigation into whether or not the 87 year-old author was being coerced into publishing her “lost” manuscript, concluding that there was no coercion. Following a stroke in 2007 Harper Lee is considered by those close to her as mentally and physically unable to participate in business transactions.


Other ingredients in the press release gumbo were articles arguing that the book was an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, rejected with the recommendation for a complete rewrite. Add to that the opinion of critics who wondered how the same person could write such a turnaround story, that the wise father in To Kill a Mockingbird is a racist in the new book. By the time July 14 rolled around I was full and tired of reading about Go Set a Watchman.

And then this past Monday while browsing in my local library, the friendly librarian mentioned that a copy of Go Set a Watchman was on the new books shelf. It’s a very small library but I was still surprised that such an eagerly awaited book had not been snatched up immediately. Still, in no hurry to read the book, my head too full of hype and conflicting reports, I told the librarian that I would wait a while. She said, “It’s a wonderful book, when you do get around to it.” We chatted about the book for a minute, me explaining that the reviews and such had discouraged me. In the end, I did bring the book home.

I finished reading it on Tuesday. After all the off-putting hullabaloo that went before, I am happy to say that Go Set a Watchman is a fine read, a worthy book and a very creditable piece of writing, thank you Harper Lee. Her prose is delightful, her sentences crystal and economic, the characters and setting well-shaped and vivid and her dialogue delightful, full of those colorful old southernisms. Something I should have known but didn't, despite several front to back readings of the Bible in different versions—The title of the book comes from the King James version, chapter 21, verse 6 of Isaiah. An excellent and very fitting title. 

A few things about the book bothered me, but only slightly and not enough to take away from the whole. The ending is what I would almost call a Hollywood ending contrived to leave the reader with a sigh of happy relief. Here and there in the book’s 278 pages are scattered several long immersions into the childhood antics of Scout, Jem and Dill, passages that felt too much like deleted pages from To Kill a Mockingbird. It is important to grasp or sense from the beginning that a good bit of the young Scout from Mockingbird still holds sway in the 26 year-old Scout of Go Set a Watchman. She is by design immature and naive in many ways, a young woman who wears a thin veneer of New York sophistication, but as her uncle describes at one point, something of a bigot. 

Most importantly, forget everything you've read recently about the discovery of the manuscript, the embattled lawyers and agents and the stories of long ago first drafts turned down then reappearing as a book similar to To Kill a Mockingbird set 25 years later. Put all the articles, essays and reviews aside; this book is not what they describe. To be very clear about it, Atticus Finch is not a racist in the second book, he is not a vile reverse side of the father (and man) his daughter thought he was. It’s hard to imagine how a critic from whatever illustrious publication could get that so wrong, like missing the boat completely. If anyone tells you that the character of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman is a racist, then tell them, "You'd better go back and read it again."


Wonderful book. Harper Lee has added a late in life crown to her collection.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Arigatô, Mr. Nagahara

Nagahara Nobuyoshi 1932-2015
In 1947 a 15 year-old boy went to work at the Sailor Pen Company in Hiroshima, Japan. He continued to work there for 64 years building a worldwide reputation as one of the finest fountain pen nib designers anywhere in the world. Nobuyoshi Nagahara, known as the “God of Fountain Pens” in Japan, passed away on March 11 of this year. This sad news came to me today with the arrival of Stationery Hobby Box (Shumi no bungu bako), issue 34. Following in the footsteps of his uncle and starting work as a boy in the Sailor factory, over the years he became a master craftsman of unparalleled genius, his reputation familiar to fountain pen aficionados all over the world. 


During my years of living in Japan I had several opportunities of meeting Mr. Nagahara at pen clinics and receiving advice about or adjustments to one or another of my several Sailor fountain pens. One might think it out of the question that such a respected craftsman would give ten or fifteen minutes of advice and help to lines of strangers, but that was Mr. Nagahara’s way at all of his clinics. I once asked if he would sign a page in the notebook I carried and with a laugh he took up my newly adjusted Sailor 1911, full of violet ink and dashed off his signature in the notebook.


Mr. Nagahara retired in 2011, leaving his son, Nagahara Yukio to take over his work at Sailor. In the true sense of traditional Japanese apprenticeship, there is little doubt that his 14 years of side-by-side work with his father guarantees that the Nagahara legacy is in good hands.


One of my favorite pens of Nagahara Nobuyoshi’s design is the susudake naginata in which the barrel and nib are encased in smoked bamboo. The process of smoking the bamboo over an open hearth is lengthy, sometimes carried over years at a time. The long absorption of smoke serves to harden the bamboo even more and to add elegant coloration to the grain. The result is called susudake, or smoked-stained bamboo. From this hard and beautifully colored bamboo, Mr. Nagahara made what is called the Susudake Naginata. The nib design is of 21k gold, long in body and slightly reminiscent of the old Japanese halberd or naginata.



Another Sailor favorite is the Sailor Profit 21 with its Naginata nib. What first caught my eye was the striking red and black body with gold trim, though it is not truly a red, more of an orangish red similar to persimmon—eyecatchingly beautiful in its elegant jet black, orangy-red and shiny gold trim. About the nib…One evening in Tokyo I was cleaning the pen and as will happen horribly on occasion, the pen slipped out of my hands and dropped like a missile, nib first to the hardwood floor. Any sharper and it would have stuck up quivering in the floor. I stood frozen in shock for half a minute imagining the newly blunted nib. No question it was badly damaged by the fall, and in a condition that required professional help. Three weeks later Mr. Nagahara was making an appearance at a pen clinic in Tokyo and I took the pen to him for repair. Apparently it was a simple fix for him, and within fifteen minutes he had the pen back to mint condition—and of course, no charge.

The article on Mr. Nagahara’s passing in Stationery Hobby Box suggests that for many, March 11, 2015 marked the end of an era.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Unwelcome Visitors

My time here at the edge of the woods on Old Dixie Lane has been full of chasing down squirrels in the house, removing at least a dozen frogs that squeezed inside and shooing away a hundred dirt daubers, lizards and beetles from the kitchen. Almost as if the walls between inside and out temporarily vanish to provide new hunting grounds that beckon scores of crawling, flying and slithering things, free access to sample the domestic life in my living room. Last Sunday brought a new and disturbingly more heart whomping visitor.


Repainting was underway in the spare bedroom and leaving painter Jim with his brushes and buckets of paint, with Farina dawg in the backseat I went off to the market for some groceries. Ordinarily on my return from shopping, groceries get carried in through the front door but since Jim had the entrance hall stacked with his supplies I headed with the bags of groceries to the back screen door. Farina was at my heels and five feet inside the porch she froze, suddenly erupting into snarls and growls, eyes focused on the floor below her long, screen-level perch, a couple of giant plastic bins weighted and piled with dog cushions. Eight feet away a 4-foot snake lay coiled on the floor, head raised in a threatening pose. Knowing the dawg’s tendencies, first thing I did was force her outside and shut the dog door.


Eyeing the evil serpent closely I eased the bags of groceries to the floor and inch by inch reached for a broom and the long-handled litter grabber I keep by the door. Not sure if my eyes were playing tricks on me, I could have sworn I saw venom dripping from the snake’s open mouth. I called Jim to drop his paintbrush and come out to the back porch pronto. He took the squeeze handle litter grabber and moved to one end of the porch while I circled the dawg perch to flush the snake from behind with the broom. Jim was moments away from wetting his painter pants but with maybe the longest lifetime stretch of his right arm somehow snagged the snake with the grabber. Before I could take the grabber from him the snake wiggled loose, snapping furiously at the air. Trying to avoid my lunges with the grabber, it slithered toward the door end of the porch with me snatching at it with the picker-upper and dodging strikes from what I hoped was a non-venomous head. I caught it; it got away. I lunged, it lunged back and then began squeezing itself into a wide crack between the floor and the wall paneling. On the verge of a heart attack I managed to work the hysterical serpent out of the floor crack. It began to snap at my arm furiously before I was able to get its head in a solid rubber grip. Painter Jim had finally just let go and peed his pants while Farina outside the screen door was leaping two feet into the air and barking 911. The head secure inside the rubber grips, I held the writhing snake with outstretched arm and took it across the road. By then I knew it was a harmless black snake, the kind we are encouraged to leave alone because they are “good” snakes. I flung the good snake into the woods opposite my house. Venomous or not, good notwithstanding, my heart was beating like I’d just witnessed a serial killing. Jim went off to dig a change of clothes out of his truck and Farina went off looking for another snake.



My guess is the snake wiggled into the house under the somewhat ineffective door sweep at the bottom of the back porch screen door.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Hiking the Appalachian Trail

I don’t hike. Off the top of my head, best guess would be the longest distance walked at one time is four miles, and that on a pristine beach, flat, soft and easy on bare feet. For one reason or another hiking has never seemed like an activity well suited to my style of physical activity. Walking down the block or strolling city streets has never given me a moment’s pause and I can also last a good while on a treadmill, but heavy boots and heavy backpack on a wooded mountain path never caught my fancy. 

Until I read Bill Bryson’s 1998 book, A Walk in the Woods.


The Appalachian Trail running 2,100 miles from northern Georgia to northern Maine is a series of connected hiking trails traversing fourteen states and half a dozen mountain ranges that was completed in 1937. The elevation gain in hiking the entire trail is equal to climbing Mt Everest sixteen times and every year something like 2,000 people attempt a thru-hike of the trail. It is also popular with day-hikers and between 2 and 3 million walk a portion of the trail every year.


Along with a friend, writer Bill Bryson hiked 500 miles of the trail and wrote a book about his experiences. He wrote about living on instant ramen noodles and Snickers bars for days at a time, about walking an incline in the pouring rain for hours on end with 45 pounds perched on his back and about some of the people they met along the way. His pages are brimming with historical anecdotes about both the trail and the people who helped develop it to what it is today. He writes of a Pennsylvania coal mining town along the route that is home to an underground coal fire that has been burning for decades. One chapter tells of the numbers of birds that at one time filled the trail with song but are now no more. Another describes the geological formation that created this particular stretch of eastern America. Each successive chapter, whether it be about blight, wildlife, characters along the trail, fatigue, odd little towns or staring contests with a moose is a surprise, each is an essential part of the experience told with humor and insight.

On every other page of the book I kept telling myself that this was a hike I wanted to take. Of course, that thought also came with the knowledge that the boots, backpack and ramen noodles would defeat me a half mile down the trail. The thing about the really good travel writers is that they make you feel as if you’re walking right beside them. Bryson never once falls down in that respect.

Like so many good books, this was another gem a long time coming to my attention. For years I’ve been familiar with Bill Bryson and have even read one or two others of his books, but A Walk in the Woods found a special place among my list of books not to be missed. Grab up a bowl of trail mix, a canteen of water and go for an armchair hike with Bryson and his friend Katz.


We can also look forward to a movie version of the book coming out in September starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America