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.

About Me

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