Saturday, December 31, 2011

Love Unflinching

Some time back I came across two old volumes of Rudyard Kipling in a used bookstore, a pair of 1956 book club editions of Kipling: A Selection of His Stories and Poems, compiled by John Beecroft. The books include a first-rate selection and offer ideal introduction to a writer Somerset Maugham praised as “…our greatest story writer. I can’t believe he will ever be equalled. I am sure he can never be excelled.” Apart from Kipling scholars, it’s doubtful that very many would settle down to read these collections front to back, but they are just right for passing an hour sampling an exotic flavor rarely found in modern writers.


Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay (Mumbai), India in 1865. Shortly before his sixth birthday, the young Kipling was taken to England and boarded with a family who unexpectedly treated him badly. He stayed there for several unhappy years until his mother enrolled him in a Devonshire boarding school, which turned out to be a joyous span of years for the young Rudyard. At seventeen he returned to India and a newspaper job in Lahore. He had begun writing in school and the newspaper provided a convenient outlet for many of his sketches, tales and poems. After seven years in India, Kipling left for England by way of America.


Kipling’s stories had made his name known in London before his arrival, but it was the story “Without Benefit of Clergy” written while in London that assured his income. Despite his birth in India and the years in London, the writer developed close ties with two or three Americans and many of the influences on his writing came from American authors—Emerson, Poe, Bret Harte and Mark Twain. His marriage to the sister of an American friend was no surprise. The couple went to Vermont where Kipling did some of his finest writing. Returning to England with his wife and two daughters after four years in America, he wrote prolifically until his death at seventy-one.


On Friday I came across a poem in the second volume of the Kipling books titled “The Power of the Dog” and realized it had some connection to a Kipling story I read last year. The Everyman Pocket Classic, Dog Stories includes a Kipling tale first published in the December 23, 1899 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The story is one called “Garm—A Hostage” and was accompanied by the poem “The Power of the Dog.” It is a poignant tale set in colonial India, about a bull terrier of extraordinary intelligence and devotion. The story is fueled by a bond of love and trust that would soften the hardest of hearts. The complete story can be read here. The poem that was originally paired with the story follows.


THE POWER OF THE DOG

There is sorrow enough in the natural way

From men and women to fill our day;

But when we are certain of sorrow in store,

Why do we always arrange for more?

Brothers and sisters I bid you beware

Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.


Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie—
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart for a dog to tear.


When the fourteen years that Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers, or loaded guns,
Then you will find—it’s your own affair—
But…you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.


When the body that lived at your single will,
When the whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!)
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone—wherever it goes—for good,
You still discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.


We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we’ve kept ’em the more do we grieve:


For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short time loan is as bad as a long—
So why in—Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?

Friday, December 30, 2011

Misguided Circus Act

Hollywood grows ever more disappointing. Bombs, shootouts, whiz bang visual effects and computer generated imaging being the common currency in the bulk of filmmaking these days, most of the results are empty of any genuine storytelling. Especially dismaying when writer, director and production company begin with an already proven story, and without all the fake fireworks fail miserably because they’ve forgotten (or never learned) how to use film in telling a story without a truckload of modern iEffects. The shortfall is even greater when the project is based on a story that has all the elements for becoming a rewarding and successful movie. In this case, the villains are Fox 2000 Pictures, along with director Francis Lawrence, writer Richard LaGravenese and producer Kevin Halloran, each having a part in ruining the movie Water for Elephants.


The picture is a complete washout, a puzzling disappointment and a project of irritating inadequacies and wrong choices. Too bad that Sara Gruen, who wrote a beautiful novel, took the money and ran. But where does one start in describing the failure of a picture with so much potential? Is it fair to blame director, screenwriter and producer, along with the film’s production company for such a complete lack of artistic success? The ‘artistic’ distinction is important, because the producers of Water for Elephants would be quick to point out that the film earned a profit, and will continue to earn more on the DVD release. Yeah, but…


Shortly before graduation from Cornell University, Jacob Jankowski’s parents are killed and he is left penniless and basically alone in Depression-era America. In his despair he fails to return for his final exams and jumps a passing train, which just happens to be a circus train carrying the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. A veterinary student with an almost-degree, Jacob is taken on as a veterinarian by the impresario. The man tells him not to worry, that it’s all smoke and mirrors anyway. But he is a cruel man, and his circus is a shoddy business on its last legs. Jacob is captivated by it all, and quickly finds his place among the drunks, misfits, hoochie-coochie girls and a menagerie of wild animals. It all ends happily after two hours, but not without casualties of both man and beast.


Twenty minutes into the picture I began to wonder if they had run out of lightbulbs while filming and decided to shoot everything in near blackness. With a thirty-eight million dollar budget is it too much to hope that the scenes will be visible, that we won’t have to pick vague shadows out of an all black screen? Or perhaps it was meant as a camouflage for Jack Fisk’s second-rate production design. In all the darkness the magic of the circus was lost. Poor lighting and production design left the film empty of all that is dazzling, colorful, electric or even mildly exciting about the circus, with none of the ‘pathetic grandeur’ described by one reviewer of Ms Gruen’s novel.


Perhaps the biggest mistake by the production team was the decision to take all the scenes in the nursing home out of the film version. The narrator of the novel is an elderly Jacob speaking years after the events being recalled, a method of storytelling skillfully exercised by the writer. In order to understand the power of the circus in the older Jacob’s life, scenes move alternately between his younger circus days and his days in a nursing home. This adds a dimension, a richness absent in the film, which introduces us to an old man (Jacob) hanging around a modern day circus entrance hoping to get inside. A huge part of the Jacob’s later life is neatly excised by screenwriter LaGravenese, and we get a sandwich-thin character hoping to get into the circus after dark. The casting of Hal Holbrook in the small role of the elderly Jacob is also up for question. Like the younger version, played by Robert Pattinson, a less known face would have served the story better.


Reese Witherspoon plays the love interest part of Marlena well enough, though the original casting idea of Scarlett Johansson might have been better. Unfortunate too that Sean Penn dropped out, making way for Christoph Waltz to play the evil circus impresario. Given the writing, his was a difficult role to play. Robert Pattinson as the young Jacob Jankowski is believable throughout and brings a quiet charm to the character. Smaller roles are all lost in the dark. Rosie the elephant is short shrifted and only half the elephant she is in the novel. Another bad choice was leaving out completely the lovable Bobo the chimp, one of the special delights of the novel.


No matter the film or the material given to work with, the director ultimately bears the largest responsibility for the final product. In Francis Lawrence, Water for Elephants was saddled with a director having little experience in feature films, but one more versed in directing music videos and moving people like Britney Spears and her dancers around a soundstage. A different director may have salvaged something of the magic in Sara Gruen’s novel.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Good Luck Soup

Little doubt that many would call me a soup freak. And honestly, there’s not a whole lot to say in denying that—yeah, I like soup and enjoy making soups, especially when a new soup pot sits crying out for a first run on the stovetop. So, the weighty John Folse Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine book came off the shelf Wednesday morning, the idea to search out a tantalizing soup recipe just right for the big twelve-quart Paula Dean pot found in my Christmas stocking. There are a lot of pages and soups to look through in that cookbook, but in the end it came down to a fairly basic and easy-to-prepare soup. Someone else might have opted for another choice, but the okra and black-eyed peas won me over.


In the plantation days, black-eyed pea and okra soup was referred to as “good luck” soup. The name originated from the belief that eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day will bring good luck throughout the year. I sort of jumped the gun there, but maybe it will still work. If not, then let’s hope the last two days of this year will bring me a winning lottery ticket.


BLACK-EYED PEA AND OKRA SOUP

Ingredients:

1 pound dried black-eyed pea

1 (10 ounce) package of okra (I used about 12 ounces of fresh okra.)

1 pound cubed ham

¼ cup butter

2 cups diced onions

1 cup diced celery

½ cup diced red bell pepper

¼ cup minced garlic

1 bay leaf

1 sprig of fresh thyme

2½ quarts chicken stock

1 can of diced tomatoes

¼ cup sliced green onions

¼ cup chopped parsley

salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Louisiana hot sauce to taste


Preparation:

In a heavy bottomed Dutch oven (a big soup pot) melt butter over medium-high heat. Add onions, celery, bell pepper and garlic. Sauté 3-5 minutes or until vegetables are wilted. Stir in ham, bay leaf and thyme and cook an additional 3-5 minutes. Pour in chicken stock and black-eyed peas, bring to a rolling boil then reduce to simmer. Cover and cook approximately 1 hour, stirring occasionally. When peas are soft mash them on side of pot with a cooking spoon to help thicken finished soup. Stir in okra, tomatoes, green onions and parsley. Season to taste with salt, pepper and hot sauce. Allow to cook 20-30 minutes longer or until soup is creamy. Serve with cornbread muffins or regular cornbread.


Easy to prepare, low in cost, feeds a crowd and everyone will call it delicious.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Autumn Grasshopper

Japanese woodblock printing in its early days required three people: an artist to draw the design, a woodcarver to cut the blocks, and a printer to color the blocks and make the finished prints. Over the years techniques and styles evolved and by the beginning of the twentieth century artists had begun to view the genre as stale and lacking vitality. A group of print artists debated the problem and decided the artist must do the work of designing, carving and printing, carrying the design through singly from concept to completion. A new term was devised to describe this kind of art—sôsaku hanga or creative print.


The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation is a 1968 reprint of an earlier limited edition book published in 1962. James Michener wrote the book’s accompanying text which explains how ten prints were selected by a panel of judges from the work of 275 artists. Each of the ten artists selected received payment for their work and were required to submit 510 copies of the chosen piece, keeping ten copies for their own files and finally destroying the original woodblocks. A copy of the original 475 folio limited editions of The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation released in 1962 would today be a valuable addition to any collector’s library.


An example from the 1968 first popular edition of the book was featured in Scriblets last July. That post featured the work of Maki Haku in a print titled Ushi (Ox). The prints of three other artists included in the book appear below.



Maekawa Sempan (1888-1960)

Son of a shopkeeper in Kyoto, Maekawa Sempan went to Tokyo as a young man to study art. His first job was drawing cartoons and illustrations for a satirical magazine named Pakku (Puck). Maekawa exhibited his first print in the sôsaku hanga style at the age of 31. He said of his own problems, “It took ten years to learn technique. Later, when I got acquainted with other artisans I found out they could have taught me the same things in a few hours.”


At the close of World War II things got better for sôsaku hanga artists and Maekawa was able to make a living on his prints. A favorite subject was scenes from Japanese hot springs and he published several series titled Hot Spring Notes. His popularity increased with colorful designs of ordinary people at festivals, as well as scenes depicting local customs and observations from life in the countryside. With the exception of a few linocuts, Maekawa worked exclusively with woodcuts, never displaying interest in Western techniques. His style, especially after the war was decorative, cheerful and colorful.


Rampu (Lamp) by Maekawa Sempan, 1960-61


The artist’s comment: “Autumn is my favorite season, particularly early autumn when the first cool days come around. In this print I fetched from my childhood memories of autumn days one of the lamps that we used to use and then perched an autumn insect on it.”


Mori Yoshitoshi (1896-1992)

For most of his life Mori Yoshitoshi worked as a textile designer and only began creating art prints at the age of 57. Born in Tokyo and trained at the Kawabata School of Fine Arts, after graduation he became a textile designer and dyer of kimono fabrics. Mori preferred earth colors as well as idealistic subjects taken from folk art, kabuki theater or characters in Japanese mythology, designs often humorous and expressing dynamic movement.


The artist enjoyed incredible energy in his later years. From the late 50s until the end of his life he exhibited regularly in Japan as well as abroad. Prints by Mori hang in major museums worldwide, including the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Barcelona Museum of Arts and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. His works are today rather rare and high priced.


Kagura no doke (Kagura Buffoonery) by Mori Yoshitoshi, 1960


The artist’s comment: “This work was inspired by the comic kagura dances given at Shinto shrine festivals throughout Japan. The dancers come onto the stage, generally a roofed outdoor platform in the shrine precincts, and to the accompaniment of the traditional drum and flute give hilarious pantomimes, which are also known as fools’ dances. The idea for this print came from my fond childhood memories of such fools’ dances.”


Kinoshita Tomio (1923- )

Inspired by the work of Un’ichi Hiratsuka and self-taught, Kinoshita began making prints at the age of 32. He startled the Tokyo art world in 1957 with a series of large prints done in a striking new style. The prints were of stylized human heads in only black and one other color. Both critics and buyers were impressed and a new artist was launched. Kinoshita cut many of his blocks entirely with a single cutting tool, either a flat chisel or a U-shaped gouge. He used the gouge to cut jagged parallel lines to define shapes such as the faces and bodies of partly abstracted human figures and to resemble the grain of wood.


The chief characteristic in the print shown here is the jagged lines which the artist used to convey the sense of woodgrain, an artistic invention that turns out to be better than realism. It was carved on two Judas tree boards and printed on natural color torinoko paper, a permanent type made from natural fiber; printed with carmine and vermilion watercolors to achieve the orange, and sumi ink for the black. Kinoshita made three impressions of the orange, and two for the black.


Kao 3 (Faces No. 3) by Kinoshita Tomio, 1959-61


The artist’s comment: “A full title for this print would be ‘Faces of the Weak Courageously Attempting to Move Forward in a World of Darkness.’ This is one in a series of prints I have been working on for four or five years, all having the common motif of faces or masks. In combinations of faces such as the present I am trying to express the sufferings of society, of man, of mankind, of all living beings. I am not too certain of my results: perhaps in the end I have produced mere ‘prints.’”

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Corn Dogs & Dentures

Alphabet building blocks have no place in my memories of childhood. Can’t recall ever playing with them and certainly no one ever sat on the floor showing me how to spell out words with blocks. Though never a plaything in my home, they were around in other places and a vague scratch of recollection tells me a set of them rested on a table in the children’s section of the local library down on Laurel Street in long ago Baton Rouge.


Sometime around 1690 the English philosopher John Locke made the statement that dice and other playthings with letters on them teach children numbers and alphabet through play, making the business of learning to read a more enjoyable experience. You have to wonder if that’s what illustrator Christian Northeast had in mind when he created his XYZ Blocks for Fred & Friends. As the package insert says, here is a “different perspective on the ABCs of modern life.” A look through the full set of Fred & Friends XYZ Blocks leads one to think they were created with the children of Lady Gaga or Adam Lambert in mind. Apart from the letters of the alphabet and numbers, the Christian Northeast blocks include moods and illustrated words. To take just one example, the block illustrating the letter M also has U, meatloaf, underpants, mustache and uvula.


It’s the kind of Christmas gift you could expect from someone who understands your sense of humor. Word got out somehow that I would be thrilled with a set of the Christian Northeast XYZ Blocks, and I am; thrilled to the tips of my fingers. For sure there are youngsters who would enjoy the puzzle of figuring out labeled images of such as Afro, werewolf, vinyl and outhouse. For my part, the pleasure comes from admiring a modern and cleverly done twist on something that has been around for over a hundred years. After looking at each of the sixteen blocks I put them in a bowl on the coffee table for visitors to puzzle over—if nothing else, a heap of dazzling color in a combination of letters, numbers, words and images.


The photo below shows one side of the full set of sixteen. Going way beyond simple letters of the alphabet, the designer has included emotions, as well as words that at least lead to a degree of cultural literacy. Yard Sale? Graffiti? Corn Dog? Hats off to the designer, Christian Northeast.


Package insert that comes with the XYZ Blocks…


Monday, December 26, 2011

Transylvanian Lemons

For a long time my sister has been badgering me about the lemons on her backyard tree. “Look at all the lemons! Take some home.” I’ve heard this three or four times and on her last visit she brought a bag of them and left them in my kitchen. Now, I like lemons very much and I use at least a couple of them each week in this or that recipe or drink. But there’s something about these backyard lemons that raise an eyebrow or two. Granted, lemons in the supermarket have gone through a beautification program before making it to the produce bins, and probably a crate or more get tossed on appearance alone. As for the backyard lemons from Maitland, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that they are a strain of lemons cultivated in Transylvania, maybe even in Dracula’s own backyard.


Determined to get others to appreciate her lemons, my sister decided to make a backyard lemon pie to add to the dessert table for Christmas dinner. After the twelve gathered around the table finished with turkey, dressing, sweet potato casserole, corn soufflé, broccoli, cauliflower, red pears, congealed salad and hot rolls, thoughts came around to a taste of something sweet. Passing on the pecan pie and carrot cake, I went for the lemon pie. Five minutes later, sitting on the back porch enjoying my king sized slice of lemon meringue pie I heard my sister’s high pitched warning bouncing off the walls: “Don’t eat the lemon pie! Stop! Throw it away and cast the devil out of my kitchen!” I swallowed another bite wondering what the hell she was going on about.


Seems that everyone but me thought the lemon pie was bitter and inedible. Huh? To my taste the pie was perfectly delicious and about as close to bitter as a cup of sugar. Could it be that everyone got a look at the lemons from that backyard tree, deciding that nothing good could come from such ugly specimens? I finished my slice to the last crumb and went straight to the kitchen and wrapped that pie to take home. The others stood around me brandishing bulbs of garlic and threatening to bring in holy water. My sister, the cook (with three Michelin stars) determined it was a bitter aftertaste that ruined the pie. I can’t wait to have another piece with coffee later tonight.


Questionable desserts aside, Christmas Day turned out to be an occasion to catch up with family members usually not around my neck of the Florida sands, and also to meet a few others outside the family. In addition to being a gourmet cook who could impress Gordon Ramsey, sister Beverly is the queen of making people feel welcome and at home. She did it again on Christmas day.


Pears simmered in water with cinnamon red hots and then marinated to get the color.


Came home with a huge rosemary plant (one-time neighbor of the ugly backyard lemon tree) and a 12 quart enamel soup pot, the perfect vessel for my ongoing attempts at soup, gumbo and chili. I will have to research John Folse and his south Louisiana Creole-Cajun soup & gumbo recipes for the proper christening.


No indication of a bitter lemon influence in this healthy rosemary plant.


Soup pot for a table of fifteen hungry eaters


Congealed salad with chopped walnuts, chopped pineapple, cranberries and dark bing cherries

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Cheer

Thomas Tusser was an English poet and farmer. “Christmas Cheer” is his sixteenth-century version of a wonderful Christmas feast.


CHRISTMAS CHEER


Good husband and huswife, now chiefly be glad,
Things handsome to have, as they ought to be had.
They both do provide, against Christmas do come,
To welcome their neighbors, good cheer to have some.

Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall,
Brawn, pudding, and souse, and good mustard withal.
Beef, mutton, and pork, and good pies of the best,
Pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well drest,
Cheese, apples and nuts, and good carols to hear,
As then in the country is counted good cheer.


What cost to good husband, is any of this?
Good household provision only it is:
Of other the like, I do leave out a many,
That costeth the husband never a penny.


Let our prayers be that all throughout the world will enjoy the blessing of a full stomach on this special day.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Visions of Sugar-Plums

Tradition dictates that tonight, if not the eyes then the dreams of many children will be focused upon a jolly and portly old whitebeard traveling the skies with reindeer and sacks of toys. Santa Claus above all others is a character made up of the qualities that bring smiles to young faces. The figure who is today familiar all over the world is a synthesis of several types that have evolved since the early fourth century, beginning in the southwest of Turkey with a church bishop who eventually came to be called Saint Nicholas, a man renown for his generosity and his fondness for children. But this was at a time long before Christmas began to be associated with a man named Santa Claus.


Roman accounts tell us of St Nick, a bishop who made his rounds in red and white robes, including a twin-peaked miter and hooked staff, but instead of reindeer the humble churchman made his way on the back of a donkey. The day of his arrival was December 6, a Christian feast day and his gifts were meager portions of fruit, nuts, hard candies and small wooden figurines.


The scenario becomes a little more familiar in sixteenth century Holland, where children placed wooden shoes by the hearth the night of St Nicholas’s arrival. The shoes were filled with straw intended as food for the saint’s tired donkey. In place of the straw Nicholas left a small treat inside each shoe. The Dutch brought the tradition with them to America, where over time the wooden shoe was replaced by an expandable stocking hung by the chimney, minus the straw. Somewhere along the way the gift for St Nick’s donkey got left behind while a big stocking good for holding more treats took its place.


The Dutch spelling of St Nicholas was Sint Nikolass, which in America became “Sinterklass.” The name was anglicized into Santa Claus by the English when they took control of New York from the Dutch in the seventeenth century. The lore surrounding our modern-day Santa Claus originated in America, almost completely from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “The Night before Christmas.” The poem was meant for Moore’s children and not anything he wanted credit for. As a classical scholar, Dr Moore was concerned the poem might damage his reputation. But a newspaper got hold of a copy and the poem spread like wildfire. (Moore’s authorship has been disputed, some giving credit to poet Henry Livingston Jr.)


The original St Nicholas was a tall, slender and very elegant bishop, an image carried forward for centuries, and it was only in America that he became the roly-poly Santa with rosy cheeks. We have a nineteenth century cartoonist to thank for that image. From 1863 until 1886 Thomas Nast created a series of Christmas drawings for Harper’s Weekly. Looking at the Nast drawings done over a twenty year span, a gradual evolution in Santa can be seen. He began with a pudgy elf-like man resembling the St Nick of “The Night Before Christmas”


A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…


From this he became the life-size pot belly we now see on street corners and Hallmark cards. It was also from Thomas Nast that we built a life for Santa that covered his North Pole home and daily work of making toys for children, as well as hours spent reading their letters with requests for special gifts and checking up on whether they are naughty or nice.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Stationery Hobby Box No. 21

A Christmas present from Japan arrived yesterday, a compact and glossy 152 pages in the delightful shape of Stationery Hobby Box (Shumi no bungu bako), Volume 21. There’s a good and a bad side to sitting in Florida reading each issue of this magazine three times a year. Compare it to a thirsty man looking at photos of a gurgling stream or rivers of clear water. There are probably few cities in the world as rich in stationery goods as Tokyo, and a good part of that wealth is lavishly displayed in the pages of Stationery Hobby Box. Wise to keep a handkerchief handy when I’m reading, something to catch the drool that threatens to fall from my open mouth.


Each issue of the magazine is comprehensive in its coverage of stationery goods, designers, specialists and stores devoted to the hobby, always including two or three special articles that focus on a particular pen company or penmeister, ink, or as in No. 21, an article on the history of Tonbow pencils. The cover of the latest issue shows a photo of the fountain pen favored by fashion designer Karl Lagerfield, a new design from S.T. Dupont dubbed Mon Dupont. One feature article unrelated to the Dupont is, in loose translation “Pen and Ink, Never Enough.” Ink samples, ink catalogs, discussions and essays on the same are terrific, but in most cases my interest recently has leaned toward coverage of people who spend their days writing with either pen, brush or pencil, and those articles with a focus on the history of certain stationery items.


Hikozô Akamatsu spends his days designing titles for movies and other media. A few of the movie titles designed by Mr Akamatsu are Shall We Dance, Waterboys, Hanabi, No Longer Human and Unagi. The first title may be familiar from the Hollywood adaptation starring Richard Gere, but these titles are naturally all for Japanese films. The photo on the right above shows the artist in his studio, and the top left a series of studies for his work on No Longer Human—reading from top to bottom Ningen shikaku. Once again, this title is perhaps familiar from Dazai Osamu’s classic 1948 novel. The work done by Mr Akamatsu was for a 2010 film version. One part of the Hobby Box article tells us that his favorite fountain pen is a Montblanc Meisterstück 149.


Another article in the new issue that caught my eye is one on the history of Tonbow pencil manufacture in Japan. The Japanese take their pencils very seriously and even young elementary school students study the types and varieties available in their neighborhood stationery stores. The photo above shows eight different one-dozen boxes of pencils made by Tonbow (founded by Mitsubishi in 1913). Mitsubishi continued making pencils during the war years from 1933 to 1935, selling them domestically, but production was later crippled by American bombing. The 8900 (top left) was introduced in 1945. Today Tonbow is a thriving enterprise.


The photo above shows a collection of early Montblanc fountain pens. Even though Japan boasts three premier fountain pen makers, Montblanc continues to be a longtime favorite among Japanese aficionados. The photo here shows examples of Montblanc’s early models. The third from the top, the one with the red star on its cap is the 1914 Rouge et Noir, priced at $11,500.


These photos show the stationery departments in two Tokyo stores, one located in the Yûrakucho area, the other in Ginza. The top picture was taken inside Loft, a large almost-department store, selling everything from toothpicks to mountain climbing gear. The pictures are small but do convey an image of Loft’s extensive stationery department. The pictures at the bottom of the page were taken in the Ginza Tokyu Hands store, one similar to Loft. Row after row, aisle after aisle of nothing but pens, pencils, paper, ink, tape, clips, erasers, sharpeners and on and on.


Closing the final page of Stationery Hobby Box I ‘wake up’ to remember I’m 10,000 miles away from it all. Sigh…


Posts on earlier issues of Stationery Hobby Box: 20, 19, 18, 17, 16, 15 and 13

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Winter Flights

Walks on the beach have been rare these past weeks for a number of reasons. Though it doesn’t appear to bother too many others, recent tides washing in heavy loads of seaweed day after day have left the beach splotchy brown and saturated with a strong odor. Some days have also brought high tides that flood the beach so completely, it becomes a case of picking a path through ankle deep water, mushy sand and slimy seaweed. We still have the smelly seaweed and a beach less than pretty, but this week brought temperatures in the upper seventies and when the sun is bright a walk on the beach doesn’t seem like a bad idea.


With the tide at its lowest point, the sun warm enough for shorts and a T-shirt (and a few bikini-clad young ladies), I wandered down for a walk. For the first quarter mile the smell of seaweed was inescapable, but soon enough the ocean air cleared all that from my nose and there again was the sense (almost taste) of pure oxygen-like air blowing into my face. Still, it must be a slack period in the ever-churning cycle that brings a calendar of new faces to Florida’s east coast beaches. Yes, the air is tumbled about by gusts of wind and the blue-green water splashes onto the sand in a spill of foam and seashells, but little of that now is refreshing. On most occasions a walk on the beach here is paused frequently to stop and observe a curious bird, fish or crab, to examine an interesting shell or other tidbit washed up onto the sand. Not much out there now to catch the eye other than washed up Clorox bottles and waterlogged shoes.


A new sign a mile down the beach has appeared. It relates to the concrete fire ring that turned up one day last year. Perhaps people were building their fires in ways that broke certain rules and the Beach Patrol decided a sign was needed. Maybe some didn’t have the proper permit, or possibly the county is looking to gather extra revenue from permit fees. My thought is that during the daylight hours when there is no fire, the fire ring is almost invisible until you are right up on it. Children running on the beach could easily slam right into the concrete. It makes one wonder why they haven’t painted the outer rim a bright easy-to-see color, but it might be because fire, water and salt air would quickly erode the paint.


Though not an especially memorable walk on the beach, my belief still holds that every walk, no matter the season, somewhere along the way yields a tiny impression that makes the walk worthwhile. As it happens, today’s tiny impressions were nothing more than a waterlogged white feather and a single exquisite shell. I backtracked twice to see closely these two things glimpsed out of the corner of my eye the first time.


The first, a feather soaked into the sand in perfect detail and outline, a filmy white inkling of flight trapped in the sand like a temporary fossil of this wet environment. Fortunate that it found space in a corner of sand away from the browning seaweed.


With all the seashells at my feet this past year rare finds are few and far. Just the same, there are times a beautiful shell rolls to your feet out of the surf. This one went straight into my pocket, and when cleaned later got its own private beach inside a round box. The reddish speckles against a spectrum of gray—perfection.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shopping for Nuts

Last minute shopping is on everyone’s mind during these days leading up to Christmas, and chances are good lots of people are still puzzling over the right gift for the right person. And like others, the race is on around here too. It’s usually a case of something being either too expensive or unsuited to the person in mind, or maybe an idea for a gift that’s unfortunately not really needed by that person. Finding a memorable and useful gift can be a big headache.


Christmas is a season when I miss Japan and especially Tokyo terribly. Let no one tell you that the Japanese have no idea of how to do Christmas right. True, their Christmas may not be inspired by Christian thoughts, but it is nonetheless a season when Tokyo turns magical in all its decoration and lighthearted spirit. From my earliest days there it was always a favorite time of year personally and one always looked forward to. And Christmas shopping was always easier in that city of everything, one particularly well-stocked during December. Whatever for whomever, somewhere among the lighted and artfully decorated streets and shops you will find that perfect gift. Thinking about Tokyo and the limitless array of possible Christmas gifts there, my mind turned again to the nutty-crazy-wacky angle of possibilities that are to be found nowhere else in the world. Let’s take a look.


PUPEKO ANTI-AGING MOUTHPIECE

Expensive surgery and dangerous therapies begone! For that youthful look Pupeko has an answer that is as simple as it is offbeat. Pop the stylishly designed Pupeko into your mouth and the training begins. By clenching your jaw and breathing in and out, cheeks and jaw muscles will be strengthened and tightened, helping to offset those telltale signs of aging and returning the youth and freshness to your cheeks once more.


An ordinary housewife concerned about her age and looking for an easy way to combat those revealing lines developed the revolutionary Pupeko. Try either the yellow or pink design using the simple technique of puffing out your cheeks or sucking them in while breathing through the mouthpiece. Using it with the head upright will exercise the neck and surrounding muscles further. Choose either pink or yellow—a ‘fountain of youth’ steal at $40.00!


Take a walk on the wide side in these USB-powered warm and comfortable monster-foot slippers, perfect for those icy winter mornings and nights. They are also ideal as hand and finger warmers. Whether it’s cold feet or cold hands, just slip either into these furry Jurassic babies and feel that winter cold drain away!


Be warned! Cuddly and cozy, they are also great for ‘others’ to snuggle into. Your cat or puppy will love the Dinosaur slippers so much you may lose your claim to them! Special Christmas bargain $52.00.


These inventive and strikingly novel stress balls relieve tension as their rubbery faces run the gamut of hilarious expressions. Perfect for office or home Caomaru will sit easily on desk or table waiting for you to squeeze its emotion-filled little face into a hundred shapes!


A choice of four faces in either chocolate brown or white is available. The four faces are named for mouth shapes in pronouncing Ho, Ge, Ni and Pu. Closeout price of $70.00 for a choice of one face; $215 for a set of four. Don’t dillydally! Get them while they last.


Eating your words may sound like a tempting alternative when you’re writing on the Kudamemo. These whimsically designed memo pads are cleverly named after the Japanese word for fruit, kudamono. From the outside the pads look like tasty apples and pears, but a closer look tells you they are made of 150 sheets of premium notepaper, each printed to look like a cross-section of the fruit.


Attention to detail is amazing; stems are made from actual tree branches, and the detached sheets include a seed. Requests are rarely refused when written on one of these unconventional memo slices. Apple or pear in a single pack is $51.00; six-pack of either $215.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Uncle Remus

Homage once more to my Jane Mansfield lookalike junior high speech teacher, Miss Brumfield. Another of our many activities in her always fun classes was preparing a short story that had to be read aloud in front of the class. From this initial assignment a handful of students were chosen to attend a speech rally and read the well-practiced story in front of a large audience and a panel of judges. At the end of the day the judges awarded scores and those getting a top score received certificates of excellence.


Hard to say if the teacher assigned specific stories to specific students, or allowed them to choose their own, but in my case she handed over a Joel Chandler Harris story, saying, “That’s your story.” It was my introduction to Brer Rabbit and the tales of Uncle Remus. I loved the assigned story, and all the others in the book as well. The Uncle Remus collection on my bookshelf today is there because of that unforgettable and sultry speech teacher in seventh grade.


Joel Chandler Harris left home at thirteen and by the age of sixteen, with a love of books, a fair writing skill and mischievous sense of humor had become an apprentice to a Georgia newspaper publisher and plantation owner. Turnwold was a 1,000 acre plantation and was where Harris first heard the black folktales that were to become the Uncle Remus stories. Harris spent hundreds of hours in the slave quarters during his off hours, where his self-conscious stammer and illegitimate birth faded into the background and where he was able to foster a close relationship with the plantation slaves. During his four years at Turnwold he absorbed the stories, language, and inflections of the people in the slave quarters. Their African-American animal tales became the foundation and inspiration for the numerous volumes of his later work.


Between 1896 and 1918 Harris published eight volumes of black folktales told by an old man named Uncle Remus. The eight volumes included 263 tales in which Brer Rabbit is a central character. A major concern for Harris was language. From his many hours of listening to the tales told around the slave quarters at Turnwold, he developed a remarkable ear and realized that the tales could not be divorced from the language of the people telling them. Harris himself admitted that the character and voice of Uncle Remus was a composite of three slaves who had told him many of the tales. Reading the original Uncle Remus tales today, it is very easy for the contemporary reader to be offended by the dialect, providing he is even able to decipher it. Many are also uncomfortable with the figure of Uncle Remus, his attitudes, his sycophancy and his use of the word “nigger.” The uneasiness prompted by this character—in the minds of readers both black and white—has in some way tainted the Uncle Remus stories for many people.


In the 1999 retelling of Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales, Julius Lester has settled on what he calls a ‘mean point’ that gives the stories a comfortable easiness, whether read silently or aloud. In Lester’s retelling they are written in a modified contemporary southern black English, a combination of standard English and Black English. But for a storyteller—and above all the tales are meant to be told—voice, vocal inflections and gestures cannot be printed, but are as important ‘in the telling’ as the printed words themselves. If in no other ways, Lester’s adaptation of Chandler’s original and difficult tales is a paean to Harris and to the voice of those slaves who first told him the stories. This contemporary telling of nineteenth century African-American folktales from the slave quarters reinforces the power of voice and cadence in storytelling. Easy to discern in the Uncle Remus tales a glimpse of the origin of literature in all cultures, the gathering of the group around a fire to listen to stories of the elders.

About Me

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