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.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Times & Travails of Manny

Got out of bed, poured a cup of coffee, added a splash of half & half and looked on unbelievingly as it instantly curdled. Not a good start to my Thursday morning and despite a Christian tongue I did let loose with a few loud “Damn! Titty-Titty, Damn Damns!” Nobody wants to get in the car to drive five miles for more half & half when they’re standing at the kitchen counter in nothing but a pair of ratty shorts at 7:00 A.M. 

Thirty minutes later a fresh cup of coffee with a splash of good-until-next-month half & half erased my sour temper. 

By anyone’s count it has been much too long since I gave some attention to writing in this blog. Not surprising how practice can easily dwindle away, every day aims becoming once a week goals and soon enough something that was once a week diminishes to an infrequent trickle. I have to hope it isn’t the nature of life in these woods around Old Dixie Lane that has turned my head from spending more time in Scriblets. It prompts the question, what is the nature of life in these woods? 

Manny and Jimmy were barbecuing Mexican sausages across the fence late yesterday before sunset. Back at the edge of the woods where Jimmy’s trailer is set up, it’s nasty to imagine what the mosquitos must’ve been like around their picnic table. Jimmy’s sister, Jean threw him outta the house because she had company coming, told him he could buy a trailer to park out in the backyard. And he did. Then she upped his rent from 400 to 500 a month, her own brother. Since he had that quintuple bypass surgery last summer, and with an assumed prognosis of little time left, he’s busy drinking himself to death, trying to spend the 50,000 in savings he’s got left. Jimmy is a Vietnam vet living off his pension, which seems to do him okay. Thin as a rail, somewhere in his early 60s, I guess. Along those jungle paths back in the day he got shot up and came home with a Purple Heart. Now he smokes funny cigarettes and drinks all day long every day. I don’t see much of Jimmy but sometimes hear his 70s rock booming out of the trailer. Manny says he plays it so loud they can’t hear each other talk inside the trailer, have to go outside and sit in the mosquitos.

Speaking of Jean, about a week ago I walked over with Farina to say hello around 4:30 and stayed until 7:00 sipping on Randy’s nasty Canadian whiskey and ginger ale. Jean sat across from us throwing back Southern Comfort on the rocks. At one point Manny came tooling down the road on his lawn mower pulling a baggage cart, come to pick up some laundry Jean had done for him (a bedcover she said later hadn’t been washed in 36 years) and without even the foam off of one beer managed to drive his mower and cart bang into Jean’s car, a broadside to the passenger door. In her state, Jean didn’t give a damn but Manny was discombobulated. Conversation came around to pests in the area and Jean announced she wouldn’t harm a single pink hair on an armadillo’s belly and even enjoyed watching two babies play out in her yard. Two seconds later she told us if she ever got her hands on one of those guys who raise fighting dogs she wouldn’t hesitate to put a bullet through his medulla oblongata and walk away like she’d just swatted a fly. Me and the dawg didn’t get home until after dark, treading carefully along the dirt road, eye out for night vipers.

Hard to understand Randy and Jean getting all over Manny for fattening a wild hog in his pen down the road. Not sure how they did it, but they badgered him into letting the hog free, saying it was cruel to pen it up for fattening and eventual death on the chopping block. Wild hogs are popular with hunters in these parts, a delicious meat for the table which is what it’s all about for Manny and his small government pension, barely enough to live on. Missing the point, Randy and Jean tell him if he wants to eat roast pork to go to the supermarket and buy it. Not the first time they’ve freed his catch, last year they sent Jimmy down to Manny’s place when he was gone and let loose another wild pig he was fattening. Well, Jean is a forceful kind of animal lover, but she’s given up on me and the pesky critters. I told her she better make sure those not so cuddly armadillos stay on the south side of the fence because I’ll blast them to smithereens without blinking an eye and go off hunting more of them.

Manny had a roadkill cookout last week but nobody showed up so he was unhappy about that. Walked up here later, grumbling, bringing his insurance guidebook and needing help picking an eye doctor out from the list inside. I looked at the book for ten minutes and told him I couldn’t find any eye doctors, full of dentists, orthodontists and periodontists, without an eye doctor in the bunch. So he took the book on next door to have Jean, a former blood technician study it. Last time Jean drove him to the doctor, the doctor was head down over Manny’s lab report when Jean snatched it out of his hand to get a look at it herself. The doctor told Manny when he was leaving not to bring that woman back again. 

Hallelujah! The county tractor came to mow down the head-high weeds on the verge of our road. Farina had a conniption fit, running up and down the fence line barking her fool head off. We’ve needed those weeds chopped down for a while now. The last time they sent a guy out here who’d never done it before and he drove his ginormous tractor halfway down into the canal and came out of it with a dozen water moccasins coiled around the underside. 

Big mufflers on muscle cars are rumbling hard across the way. Haven't laid eyes on another person today but the air has been seasoned with gunshot and roaring engines, pow! and vroom! all day long. Doesn’t bother me much, all part of the soundscape out here. Distant airplanes, trains, birdcalls, barking, lawnmowers, and who could ignore the goats that at a certain time of day conduct goat talks that sound like recess at the nuthouse.
……………

Life gets serious around here once in a while and there are always a few books to enjoy in the cool of my back porch. A couple of good ones here of late that I’ve given thought to writing about but always falling short in my distraction with dawg, yard or visit from Manny. Here is a list of some recent good reads that have impressed me.

                

                

                                   

The Bone Collector (1997) by Jeffrey Deaver — This first in a long series featuring forensic criminologist Lincoln Rhyme is surely one of the best and most compelling crime novels ever. It offers a fascinating look into the history of New York City as well as introducing a devilish serial killer pitting himself against a bed-ridden detective.
Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983) by Andrew Hodges — A big book of 800 pages about Alan Turing, the man who helped break the Nazi Enigma codes in WW2 and was also the first to conceive of thinking machines (computers). An awful lot of math, logic and physics but nonetheless a satisfying look into the man Turing was and the tragedy of his short life.
The Martian (2014) by Andy Weir — No, not science fiction, but an incredibly convincing tale about a fictional astronaut’s time on Mars. This first novel by a software engineer-space hobbyist is funny, compelling and believable down to the last tiny piece of space hardware. This one went from blog to Kindle to bestseller to movie deal in a matter of months.
All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr — A Pulitzer Prize winner and National Book Award finalist, this one tops my list of books read this year, an exquisitely written story of a young blind girl finding her way through the rubble of WW2. 

Sympathy for the Devil (2015) by Michael Mewshaw — The latest biography of the iconoclastic and prolific writer, Gore Vidal. With such a colorful life to work with, the writer has balanced well both the serious and outlandish sides of his subject. Vidal was a remarkably intelligent man who could turn his words from reason to scandal in the blink of an eye and Mewshaw catches all the colors and shadings.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Gin & Tonic Hitchcock

Take an idea from Alfred Hitchcock—the one about looking in windows—stir in a moderate to heavy mix of paranoia, obsession, loneliness, drunkenness, lying, cheating and self pity, spice it up with a heavy dose of psychological twists, then write it all down. What do you end up with? Well, if you’re an experienced writer and possess a certain skill for plotting, you just might end up with a bestseller that goes through ten printings in three months, selling 1,000,000 copies—and that’s just getting started. 

I live in a very small town with a public library the size of my second bedroom but when I asked to reserve The Girl on the Train, a new book by Paula Hawkins, the librarian said, “Okay. You’re number 338 on the waiting list.” I got lucky though and a week later came across an “express copy” the library circulates without taking reservations. If you can grab it off the shelf before someone beats you to it, it’s yours for two weeks. But I doubt anyone would take that long to read this book.


Readers of The Girl on the Train have been comparing it to Gillian Flynn’s 2012 megahit, Gone Girl. The comparison is understandable but not something that occurred to me at any point in reading the Paula Hawkins book. Gone Girl is a suspense novel and The Girl on the Train is another suspense novel that, like the earlier book uses psychology to build a story. There is a good deal of flashiness in Gone Girl that you will not find in the Hawkins book. And there are a good many things in it that you won’t find in Gone Girl.

Rachel Watson, a thirty-ish woman living in a small village an hour outside of London rides a commuter train every morning at the same time, and at the end of the workday takes the train back to her suburban village. She likes to look out the train windows and observe the doings of people living in the houses along the train’s route. The problem is, she shapes what she sees into romantic imaginings that ultimately become her undoing. Those fantasies aren’t helped by the fact that Rachel is half-drunk most of the time, commuting to a non-existent job, and seriously pining for her ex-husband. Oh, and she also has trouble remembering things, has blackouts and often staggers home mysteriously bloodied. Five pages into the book you already know that Rachel Watson is a mess and heading for worse.

With multiple narrators, non-linear time jumps and the writer juggling so many moving parts, getting into the story was slow for me but as it reached midpoint the suspense took hold. We follow Rachel’s progression, turn the page and are suddenly seeing it through the eyes of the woman she’s watching from the train. Five pages later it’s back to Rachel, and in a sudden switch the story is being told through a third narrator, Rachel’s ex-husband’s current wife, Anna. Who is to be believed? Who can we trust? Again I am reminded of the Hitchcock technique. 

In Rachel’s fantasy the woman she sees from the train is named Jess and her handsome and loving husband is Jason. Rachel imagines them living the life of a happy couple, the very life she herself always dreamed until that dream was shattered. One day, Rachel sees from the train the woman kissing someone other than her husband and a part of her fantasy is badly rattled. It appears that Jess, who is really a troubled wife named Megan, is not who she appears to be. This is the first clue that no one in The Girl on the Train is who they appear to be. Jess-Megan disappears and Rachel becomes obsessed with what happened to her. A day or two later the tabloids announce that Megan Hipwell is missing and Rachel realizes it’s “Jess” the woman of her half-drunk fantasies. She becomes desperate to help, to inject herself into the investigation. Meanwhile, she has been late night drunk dialing her ex-husband and sending nasty emails to him. The big complication is that her ex-husband and his wife live just three doors down from the missing woman, in the same house that Rachel lived in when she was married to Tom, her ex. And believe it or not, it gets even more complicated. She goes to the police to tell them what she saw but they dismiss her as an unreliable drunk who can’t stay away.


It is hard sometimes to like or find sympathy with such a flawed character as Rachel Watson, but that can be of no concern to the book’s author for whom Rachel’s discomposure serves to heighten suspense. In Ms Hawkins’ story, preconceptions of who people are and the sense of identity are built upon shifting sands. No one is who they seem to be in this novel. By the end of the book Rachel has become a sympathetic character, someone unimaginable in the book’s first half. It is growth and development like this that earmark the writer.

But don’t take just my word for it. Have a look at what Stephen King tweeted after reading The Girl on the Train… The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: Really great suspense novel. Kept me up most of the night. The alcoholic narrator is dead perfect. —January 26, 2015.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Brushstrokes

From the early 1880s, as Japanese painters began finding their way to Europe and beyond, they brought back to Japan on their return the Western influences that in many ways modernized the Japanese tradition. The practice of careful observation and sketching from nature was ultimately combined with contemporary Western painting practices and led to an innovation in the nihonga style of painting.

One of those who returned from Europe with new ideas was Takeuchi Seihô, considered by many to be a leading modern nihonga painter.


Takeuchi Seihô (1864-1942) was born in Kyoto and even as a boy loved drawing, leaving little doubt he would become an artist. At the age of sixteen he began studying traditional painting with Kôno Bairei, a well-known master of paintings depicting birds and flowers. Two years later, in 1882, two of Takeuchi’s works received awards at a prestigious painting competition and that was enough to launch the young artist’s career. He made a European tour in 1900 where saw the Paris Exposition, visited art schools and made the acquaintance of Western painters. The young man’s greatest impressions came with the work of British painter, J.M.W. Turner and the French, Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot. After his return to Japan Takeuchi developed a style combining the realism of traditional Japanese painting with Western realism as he saw it in the techniques of Turner and Corot. Takeuchi’s new style became one of the principal principal influences in modern nihonga. Though noted for his landscapes, the artist more often turned to drawing animals in amusing poses and it is in those drawings that we see his commitment to capturing sometimes in only a few brushstrokes the essence of his subject.

Easy enough to count the brushstrokes in a drawing that perfectly captures horse and movement.

One in a series of twelve animals from the Zodiac; done sometime in the 1920s, this painting is good example of the artist’s whimsey.


Striking in this large work covering two six-panel screens is the precise anatomy and musculature of the immense animals. Note the monkey perched on the back of one, reaching for the birds in the top left; notice too the eyes of the elephants. Painted in 1904, the work is in black ink on gold paper.

A very different example is the oil painting Suez Landscape painted in 1901 after the artist’s return from Europe. The work is based on a postcard from the collection he gathered while abroad. The influence of Turner and Corot is obvious in this landscape, especially in the palette and the painting of the water.


Most striking in this undated ink and color painting is the use of space. The artist has placed the focus in the lower right, leaving a broad and largely blank space. The red and black in that large space is Takeuchi’s seal and signature. Once more the touch of humor is there with the inquisitive rat.

Simple but impressive watermelon; undated

                     
                                     
Seals and signature used by the artist

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Piñata Store & Gardenias

Texans recently looted a demolished piñata store and a woman in Boise, Idaho, was arrested for attempting to convert a Jewish acquaintance by pulling her hair and stepping on her neck, screaming that she accept Jesus. The victim had no alternative but to comply, temporarily.

In a small town north of New Delhi, a 32 year-old Indian woman described as 95 percent genetically male gave birth to twins last week, and in Hong Kong doctors reported the case of an infant diagnosed with fetus-in-fetu after discovering two siblings gestating in her abdomen.

A 1965 poem by Elizabeth Bishop…“Filling Station”

Oh, but it is dirty!
—this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color—
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
ESSO—SO—SO—SO
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

English Crime novelist Ruth Rendell once said, “Some say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.”

Rain for most of Tuesday night in Oak Hill. Wednesday came around dry and sunny but chilly until the afternoon. The new gardenia freshly planted on the east end of the carport is flourishing and heavy with buds the size of peanut M&Ms. This past Saturday a longtime Tokyo friend and I passed an hour wandering the aisles at the weekend flea market up the road. She wanted to buy something for the yard and found a gardenia bush she decided would be just right in a spot behind the carport. Home later, we planted it, admiring the number of buds not too far from opening. Gardenias most commonly bloom in spring but I’m not sure we’ve crossed that line yet here in central coastal Florida. Makes me think the gardenia was coaxed along by greenhouse conditions before landing in my yard. I noticed today one bud among the many just starting to show a bit of unfurling white.


Didn’t know until now that gardenias are in the Rubiaceae family, the same as a coffee plant.


K from Tokyo is now recently departed—I pause over the words ‘recently departed’ thinking it might imply death…but then I’m certain it doesn’t always have to carry that meaning. She’s back now at her life and routines in the city I continue to miss particularly. I knew it would happen; when I got home from taking K to the airport, Farina was her usual excited self but seeing only me at the door she ran to the car trying to see inside, to see if K was there. She turned in circles whining, looking back at me, then back to the car and finally barking, as if to say, "Where is K?" I think it took about an hour for her to realize her new friend had gone away. (K gave me the gardenia plant but she gave Farina a whole pumpkin pie.)

I haven’t seen my down the road neighbor, Manny in several days. He called a few days back wanting a ride to the store but K and I were just leaving for a drive into Orlando. I felt bad about not being able to help him out, called him the next day seeing if he still needed a ride but got no answer. Last time we spoke out at the gate I said whenever he was ready I would take him to the social security office for some business he has there. The folks who live across the road from him want to charge him $50 for a ride there but I got the impression he told them to go straight to hell. Where do they come off anyway asking a near penniless and seriously ill old man for $50 to drive him twenty miles up the road? In my opinion, someone needs to pull their hair while stepping on their collective necks and ask them in threatening tones, “What would Jesus do?” Hallelujah Lord, I’m converted! Go get in the car.

Books at my elbow these days are Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, one I’m rereading after seeing the slightly unsatisfying movie version and Michael Connelly’s The Gods of Guilt. I’m also reading a big thing from poet, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) called One Art: Letters. I read somewhere recently that she was an exuberant and delightfully articulate letter writer who once wrote forty letters in one day. A collection of her lifelong letters was selected and edited by Robert Giroux and published in 1994. It sounded like something for my book collection and I got lucky, hitting upon a first edition hardback for a paltry $7.50 from a bookseller in Texas. Less than halfway through now and never a hesitation over the 668 pages ahead.


Friday, January 30, 2015

The Library with a Big Mouth

First, due homage to the guys at the source of this post: One of my favorite websites is put together by Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras who produce something called Atlas Obscura. Always fascinating, their latest offering includes a page on the secret libraries of Rome. Among those “secrets” The Bibliotheca Hertziana instantly grabbed my attention.


Palazzo Zuccari is a 16th-century building in Rome located near the Spanish Steps at the crossroads of via Sistina and via Gregoriana. The house once belonged baroque painters, Taddeo and Frederico Zuccari who started work on the house in 1590. Two years into construction of the palazzo they decided that both door and windows would be designed as huge gaping mouths, and the ground floor of the house painted in frescoes.


In the early years of the twentieth century a German woman with a love of art arrived in Rome with the idea of establishing a library to encourage research and study of the city’s ancient and modern treasures. Her name was Henrietta Hertz and she came with the support of a wealthy German industrialist who helped to acquire the Palazzo Zuccari situated in the heart of Rome. Hertz began putting together a collection of books on Italian art as a private library. The Bibliotheca Hertziana welcomed its first art historians and research scholars in 1912.


Still owned by the German government, today the library’s collection includes 300,000 books and 800,000 photos on the history of Italian art and architecture. In addition, researchers have access to computers at eighty work stations with a view out over the rooftops of Rome.

The Bibliotheca Hertziana is probably the only library in the world with a front door shaped like a giant mouth, where inside the Bibliotheca Hertziana, visitors step into a modern glass-walled atrium with white marble floors displaying three floors of open-stack shelves. Upon entering the library, the sharp contrast with its entrance and the surrounding architecture is quite the surprise.


Monday, January 26, 2015

Onboard the HMS Beagle

Conrad Martens, self portrait, 1833

Conrad Martens sketchbooks from his voyage with Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle have recently been added to the Cambridge Digital Library. The drawings were done between 1833 and the summer months of 1834. It was on this voyage that the first seeds of Darwin’s book, Origin of Species, were planted.


Conrad Martens (1801–1878) was a London born painter, best known for his landscapes. He trained under prominent watercolorist and teacher, Copley Fielding. In 1832, at the age of 32 Martens joined the ship Hyacinth as a topographical artist. On that voyage while at a stop in Montevideo near the end of 1833 he met Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle and obtained the position of draughtsman, replacing the ship’s artist who was leaving the ship for reasons of illness. One member of the ship’s company was Charles Darwin. The young Darwin was serving as a naturalist and companion to the ship’s captain and during their time together aboard ship he and Martens became lifelong friends. Some critics suggest that it was aboard the Beagle that Martens developed his particular style of artistically imagined but geographically accurate landscape painting. But his time on the Beagle was not long and he left the ship at Valparaiso in the summer months of 1834. His eye has been drawn farther west and he booked passage on a ship sailing to Sydney via Tahiti.


His ship arrived in Sydney in 1835 and the artist remained there for the rest of his life. Captivated by the sea and landscape of Sydney Harbour, he began sketching even as his ship approached the wide harbor. He was fortunate to gain an introduction to members of the gentry in New South Wales and quickly built up a clientele of the social elite. He painted watercolors and oils of their estates as well as landscape views. One of his more famous works is the 1866 watercolor below.

 North Head from above Balmoral, Sydney Harbour; watercolor 1866


A Patagonian Indian, 1834 sketch

About Me

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