Sunday, October 31, 2010

In the Lamplight

Unusual in my often laid back life here at the beach, but this Saturday has been a non-stop day, leaving me little time to muse upon those things I most love. No thought for ocean scenery, for local color or fountain pens; no spare seconds for book browsing or dabbling in ink.

The usual pattern of my days more often than not allows me to read throughout the morning, corral some thoughts, and give most of the afternoon to writing or researching a topic relevant to a story or other writing project on my work table. That wasn’t in the cards today, and too much of the day has been taken up with issues that even now in this quiet solitary corner dominate my thoughts and scare off the quiet contemplation I am used to.

With a minimum of planning and too little to color in the details, here is a list of books that I have enjoyed, books that have not been previously reviewed or commented on at any length in past pages of this blog. In most cases the books listed below are titles I have either read more than once, or would happily do so.

Some exceptional books that have enlivened my love of reading.


1. The Voyage by Philip Caputo

2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

3. The Missing by Tim Gautreaux


1. The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

2. The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill

3. The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White


1. Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

2. Things You Should Know, a Collection by A.M. Homes

3. “All Boy” by Lori Ostlund in Best American Short Stories 2010


1. Bone Palace Ballet: New Poems by Charles Bukowski

2. ten poems to change your life, compilation and commentary by Roger Housden

3. Bashô, The Complete Haiku by Matsuo Bashô, translated by Jane Reichhold


1. Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

2. Burning Angel by James Lee Burke

3. The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you and to hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations—such is a pleasure beyond compare. —Yoshida Kenkô, Essays in Idleness (1340)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Golden Days

Cold this morning, land and seascape all but empty. Wind skates across a flattened beach raising phantoms of sand that shift and swirl in a wind-driven blanket of powdery white. Involved in their secret motives, the birds, unlike last week, this time all face due north. The thought comes to mind that it is the wind that determines their orientation flocked there at the water’s edge. Facing into the wind prevents the ruffling of feathers.

Odd to see so few people on a morning bright with sun. The two men surf fishing in the same spot every morning are today nowhere in sight. Off in the distance two or three small silhouettes are visible, nothing at all to the north. The chill of what is October’s last blow is perhaps the reason for all this sparkling space empty of people. Empty too, of seaweed and the occasional blemish of washed up bottles or stray plastic. This time the sand is flat and clean, clear of all but shells and the restless skitter of Ruddy turnstones digging for breakfast.

For the distance of a mile and a half I walk south, like the gulls, head on into the wind, waiting for the eye of white sun free of clouds to warm my sleeveless arms. I’m grateful that the hard flatness of sand allows a faster pace, a pace that I know will soon enough send a flush of warmth down my arms.

And so it happens. I slip into automatic steps uncounted and beyond awareness, thoughts flying away over the tumbling waves and deep blue water. Almost by accident I look to the right some time later and see the familiar landmark, a weathered brown gazebo set on top of dunes half-shrouded in sea oats. I am warm again and turning back feel the south wind pushing now at my back.

It surprises me that even now the long stretch of hard white is clear of figures for as far as I can see. Friday usually brings a few more people to this paradise of blue and white, but I can only guess that they are still indoors, leaving me to enjoy in solitude this blessing of autumn morning on the outer edge of Florida. I pass a man riding south on a bicycle, not realizing it is my neighbor, Dietrich. Too late now to wave a hello, but then, like me he is focused on other things, wondering perhaps at the absence of pelicans. Just as well, since I am one who lacks the skills of conversation at this early hour on the beach.

Almost unaware of the last hour’s hard walking, I am back at the familiar grouping of palm trees that spell home. I notice how the wind has completely re-drawn in one hour the lines and ripples of sand at my starting point. The peculiar beauty of that earlier sandy design has been blown away, leaving me and my camera to make something of nothing.

The moral, if there is one is this: A morning on the beach in late October is worth a week in August.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Shoe Polish for Beavers

About the recent thread of autumn tinted inks in these pages, today is something like a U-turn, a looking back at the brown I jumped over last Tuesday. That particular brown is NOODLER’S BEAVER, and at this point, after an hour or two of playing with the ink on two different kinds of Clairefontaine paper, in a Sailor Professional Gear fountain pen with medium nib, and with Q-tip, I have to say in all honesty that I am only moderately impressed.

Like green, brown is another color I’ve chased after for a long time, always searching for the one that fits my preferences as closely as possible. In that search I’ve found three that fit the bill, three that I’m happy with, but those inks are not on parade here. The spotlight this time is on Noodler’s Beaver.

The color—Let me say right off that all the red in the Beaver works to push the shade toward what I call shoe polish brown. There will be some who like this particular reddish Shinola brown, and for them I would say go for the Beaver. But memory works against me, as I am reminded of the Saturday nights I had to polish my father’s shoes for church on Sunday. While it isn’t my kind of brown, the same is not true for everyone, and Noodler’s Beaver could be the one for you.

I lined Noodler’s up alongside two other browns and found all three to be close. Side by side, Noodler’s Beaver, Waterman Havana and Montblanc Sepia (Toffee Brown) almost look to be from the same ink pot, or the same shoe polish bottle. So close in fact, you might have difficulty in telling them apart. Feel like I would be stumped if you showed me unlabeled samples of the three tomorrow.

Brian Goulet has some good things to say about the Beaver, and I tend to agree with his remarks about the shading of the ink. Yes, it does shade well, and it also flows smoothly. With my Sailor pen at least, it lays down a line of well-balanced wetness, neither too wet nor too dry. In this sense, I found the drying time reasonable, but must caution left-handed writers that drying time could be a problem.

Everyone has this or that little something that draws them to a particular brown, or green or any color ink. Experience has taught that an ink displaying the finest of all qualities is rare. I have to think that getting it all right is a matter of delicate balance. Noodler’s Beaver has some excellent qualities, but the color, be it autumn or otherwise is not what I look for in a brown ink.

In my book the three top brown inks are: Maruzen’s Athena Sepia, Iroshizuku’s Tsukushi and Yama-guri. All the qualities we look for in ink are superior in these three. They are examples of that delicate balance personified by the harmony of color and performance.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Speak, Memory…

Probably a great many readers have, like me, been brought to a halt by a brief passage of poetry in Stephen King’s 2008 novel, Duma Key. King very cleverly constructed the passage as a three-pointed allusion, and if nothing else illustrates that he is anything but an untutored writer, slamming out bestsellers without any thought to literary technique. I refer to a passage in Chapter 13—The Show…

“You read me poems because Wireman couldn’t. Do you remember that?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Of course I remembered. Those had been sweet interludes.

“If I were to say ‘Speak, memory’ to you, you’d think of the man—I can’t recall his name—who wrote Lolita, wouldn’t you?”

I had no idea who she was talking about, but I nodded.

“But there’s a poem, too. I can’t remember who wrote it, but it begins, ‘Speak, memory, that I may not forget the taste of roses, nor the sound of ashes in the wind; That I may once more taste the green cup of the sea.’

This exchange takes place at an art gallery as the two are standing before a painting of a young girl in a boat. The woman is referring first to a 1951 book by Vladimir Nabokov titled, Speak, Memory. Nabokov’s later book, Lolita was about a young girl. The poem quoted, which uses Nabokov’s Speak, Memory title in the opening lines is by Daubmir Nadir. The complete poem is quoted in the passage above from Duma Key.

The allusion as constructed by King adds another layer to his characters, and moves the story into its next stage with true finesse. I got that right off, as I expect most readers also do, but because the author wrote, ‘but it begins…’ I was prompted to follow it up, to see the remaining lines of an impressive poem.

As it happens, King quoted the poem in its entirety. It is one called “Cups” by the somewhat mysterious French poet, Daubmir Nadir. Interesting name. ‘Daubmir’ is ‘Rimbaud’ spelled backwards, as in French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud. ‘Nadir’ of course carries the meaning, ‘the lowest point.’ Like I said, an interesting name. Because I liked the Daubmir poem in Duma Key, I looked through his other poems, most of which are easily accessible here, but unfortunately came away from it not too terribly impressed. I read quite a few of Daubmir’s poems, but in the end felt slightly cheated. I saw too much pretense, too much clumsy juggling of big words attempting to describe inner or metaphysical tremblings, but leaving me instead in confusion as to meaning. Among the three dozen poems I read, only one reached beyond my eyes. It’s another short poem (there are many) titled “Basic Needs.”


for my soul

I cannot

find its shadow


for my love

I cannot

find salvation


for my life

I cannot

find solution

Apart from this brief work, I was left with inelegant and clouded lines like: ‘…the clogged stomata of my agitated addiction’; ‘Spiced with pomegranate between the larvae of my arillate genius’ and ‘the suppurating cavities of unrealized adventures.’

From the preview of Daubmir Nadir offered by Stephen King in Duma Key, I thought I might have found another poet to read and enjoy. It didn’t work out that way. Still, I won’t dispute that the poem “Cups” is a fine piece, well-written and rich in meaning.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Succotash for Eighteen

Finally coaxed out of my small town retreat, I crossed over to the mainland today, back to the wider world of traffic jams and huge stores. Sounds trivial, but I needed some coffee and wanted another of those big two pound bags of Starbuck’s Cafe Verona. I can buy that particular coffee here at the beach, but only in twelve ounce bags, and at what I call a criminal price. A few weeks back my sister brought me one of the big bags which come from Sam’s. She offered to take me there today for coffee or anything else I might want. It was a first experience for me. I don’t have a member’s card for the store, so wasn’t familiar with the Sam’s experience.

Interesting. Is there another country in the world where this kind of giant scale buying goes on? I wonder. Oh, I suppose you could shop at Sam’s and buy nothing more than a small engagement ring, or a cell phone, but from what I saw, most shoppers had carts filled with ten pounds of meat, six pounds of cheese, twelve pounds of Halloween candy, and six of those giant cans of succotash, the ones that serve eighteen people and could give an elephant a concussion if you bounced it off his head.

I’d better not point fingers, though. I had no giant cans or trick or treat chocolate, but my own cart was not exactly empty. I found the coffee, but then got all looky-feely about a lot more. If I’d had my friend’s pick up truck and a forklift, I would have made a small dent in those shelves rising twelve feet from the floor. I had neither, so satisfied myself with less—LESS being in this case definitely a relative word.

As I waddled out to the car with my purchases, my sister suggested we get gasoline, at the Sam’s station set off on one edge of the Rhode Island sized parking lot. I was planning on buying gas later, because it’s always cheaper inland. The past two weeks have seen gas prices at the beach heading for the moon. The price at Sam’s was twenty cents a gallon cheaper than anywhere in my area.

I was feeling kind of buoyant with all the bargain buying at Sam’s, and we topped it off with lunch at my new in-town favorite, Habanero’s. Tacos, enchiladas, guacamole and their homemade chips and salsa. I like Mexican food so much it’s a wonder I don’t move to Mexico.

But at the end of it all, I gotta say, the time spent with my sister was the best.

Photo note: The four pounds of Seckel pears I bought at Sam’s looked pretty in the Japanese bowl.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An Oddly Named Beauty

Got a feeling that I’m moving backward on the autumn colors with today’s look at a GREEN ink. Anyone might have guessed that after pumpkin, orange crush and red would come brown, or something close, and I did actually consider writing about a brown ink. But I got blindsided by a green ink new to my eyes, and as chance would have it, I have sort of a thing for green inks.

I still think of Diamine as an ink new to my fountain pens. It is not marketed in Japan—or at least it wasn’t when I was last there several months ago—and my Diamine experiences before today were limited to Sapphire Blue, Syrah and Pumpkin. One quick look at Diamine Umber was enough to send a bottle to my Brian Goulet shopping cart. Like I said, I have a passion for green inks, and Diamine Umber is pretty much a green unto itself. I lined it up beside six or seven other related greens and none of them are a close match. I would say the closest match is Conway Stewart Green, but where the Diamine Umber employs a touch of gray to tweak the green, Conway Stewart shows a hint of blue.

‘Umber’ has to be called an odd choice for the name of a color that, simply put is not umber, and not even close. True umber is an earthy brown showing no trace of green. On the other hand, Diamine Umber ink is an earthy green showing no trace of brown. Go figure. But let me be clear on this point; forget about the name and feast your eyes on this remarkable mix of green. I don’t really care for the word, so rarely use it, but the Diamine Umber is gorgeous. I ordered a bottle from Goulet Pens on Saturday, and Brian got it to my mailbox on Monday morning. How’s that for service? —and including still the handwritten note of thanks for my order.

Filled one of my favorite pens with the new Umber, a Sailor 1911 Large, medium nib re-crafted by John Mottishaw of Classic Fountain Pens. Putting the pen to a sheet of Clairefontaine 90g paper I was impressed from the first line. The Sailor 1911 is a wet pen and handles the Diamine ink very well, with a beautiful shading. I wouldn’t describe it as a very saturated ink, and it certainly produced no show through on my sample. The result was not so good on the few lines I tried using cheap copy paper. The shading was still good, but the bleed through was nasty. I’m thinking that Diamine Umber is an ink to save for better grades of paper.

The review of this Umber by John Gill on Ink Nouveau offered an interesting waterproof test I wanted to try myself because the set up was one familiar to us all. You’re writing in your journal or otherwise in a coffee shop or café and a drop of water spatters your page… What happens? Grab a napkin and blot the already dry Diamine Umber and the result is a word, or words still legible, small mess, no problem.

In looking at definitions of the word ‘umber’ as it applies to this ink, I found one description that bordered on what I see in this earth tone green. Somewhere in the world lives an Umber Moth brownish gray in color, a coloring that resembles tree bark. Reading that I thought, forget the moth and imagine instead the moss or lichen that we sometimes see growing on tree bark. In that lichen I can see the beginnings of Diamine Umber.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Birds & Burger Beans

Walking on the beach this morning, I thought for a minute I had stumbled into a Hollywood remake of the old Alfred Hitchcock picture, The Birds. No sign of Tippi Hedren, but the birds were gathered in the thousands. Pelicans, gulls and egrets made up the largest part, with willets and plovers not far behind. The front edge of the surf, as well as the shallows was seething with more birds than I have ever seen at one time, stretching for a mile or more down the beach.

Obviously, such numbers of birds could only mean that a vast shoal of fish was there in the shallows just off the beach. Not being very knowledgeable about the local fish, I’m unable to put a name to them, but walking a few steps into the surf, the birds scattered and I could make out what looked like small pinkish baitfish. Didn’t much like the loud hungry squawks and hard eyes of the hovering birds, so I retreated quickly from their feeding ground.

The photo at the top doesn’t quite capture the squalling confusion of birds, but look closely and you will see that all of them, without exception are facing outward in what is a southeasterly direction. The total alignment of so many birds on both land and water intrigued me, but then it occurred to me that they were all facing away from the wind, a natural almost instinctive alignment.

The birds occupied a large part of my time walking, but something else was halving my attention. I have a great liking for a large, dark brown tropical seed that washes up on Florida beaches, and this is the best time of year to find them. Always hoping to find one, maybe two more of these treasures, I often poke through the occasional clump of washed-up seaweed looking for their familiar shape. Today, among all the birds and seaweed I found two more burger bean seahearts to enhance my collection. 

Seahearts are seeds carried to the ocean by freshwater streams and rivers, drifting on ocean currents, with many of them later washing up on faraway shores. These large round, slightly heart-shaped seeds are often called sea-beans and come from trees and vines that grow along tropical shores and rainforests all over the world. The seeds fall from their parent plant into waterways, such as the Amazon River, then drift through inlets to reach the ocean. They travel with ocean currents until they wash up on a beach perhaps thousands of miles from their origin. Seahearts are quite hard and buoyant, which helps them survive their long-distance voyage. They float because they have an internal air pocket trapped by a hard outer covering on the bean.

September and October are typically the most favorable times to find seahearts in Florida, where they are more commonly known as ‘hamburger beans.’ Along the eastern coast their presence on the beach is affected by a variety of conditions. Prevailing wind is important, with an east wind naturally blowing them westward toward Florida’s coast, where tides leave behind the drifting seeds tangled in seaweed. More often than not, seahearts are not the only thing caught up in the seaweed, but wash up along with driftwood, plastic bottles and caps, lumps of tar, and the occasional waterlogged sandal from Timbuktu. I didn’t know until recently, but this line of seaweed (and debris) at the tide line is called ‘wrack.’

The middle photo shows my small collection of seahearts, with a dime in the middle to give a sense of scale. The bottom photo is a cross section of the seaheart showing the air pocket that gives it buoyancy.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Raymond Carver: Poems

This is writing stripped of pretense. It is ultimately a meditation on the things which shape all of our lives: loneliness, fear, hope, loss, love. More than anything, love.”Independent (London)

American short story writer and poet, Raymond Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon in 1938. His first collection of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was published in 1976 and shortlisted for the National Book Award. After the third collection (Cathedral) appeared in 1984, he was nominated for the National Book Award a second time. Cathedral is usually thought to be Carver’s finest work. In addition to his five collections of short stories, Carver also wrote six collections of poetry. He died in 1988 from lung cancer at the age of 50. That same year, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Raymond Carver’s short stories have had a tremendous influence on that genre, and are all a classic example of refined minimalism. From his earliest days, Carver was attracted to the short form, testimony of that seen in a body of work that includes short stories and poetry, but no novels. His reputation is built solidly upon his stories, but like the English writer Thomas Hardy, readers often turn to the poetry after gaining familiarity with his stories. According to the writer, it was the brevity, as well as the intensity that attracted him to poetry.

In 1996, Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher—herself a poet—published the collected poems of Raymond Carver. The collection is titled All of Us and includes over 300 of Carver’s poems. The three selected below are, apart from any other characteristics, poems that appeal to me personally. Possibly others are also impressed by the artlessness and easy access afforded by Carver’s particularly American word choice and arrangement.


We press our lips to the enameled rim of the cups

and know the grease that floats

over the coffee will one day stop our hearts.

Eyes and fingers drop onto silverware

that is not silverware. Outside the window, waves

beat against the chipped walls of the old city.

Your hands rise from the rough tablecloth

as if to prophesy. Your lips tremble…

I want to say to hell with the future.

Our future lies deep in the afternoon.

It is a narrow street with a cart and driver,

a driver who looks at us and hesitates,

then shakes his head. Meanwhile,

I coolly crack the egg of a fine Leghorn chicken.

Your eyes film. You turn from me and look across

the rooftops at the sea. Even the flies are still.

I crack the other egg.

Surely we have diminished one another.


So early it’s still almost dark out.

I’m near the window with coffee,

and the usual early morning stuff

that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend

walking up the road

to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,

and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.

They are so happy

they aren’t saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take

each other’s arm.

It’s early in the morning,

and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.

The sky is taking on light,

though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute

death and ambition, even love,

doesn’t enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on

unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,

any early morning talk about it.


He said it doesn’t look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them

I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know

about any more being there than that

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

I said not yet but I intend to start today

He said I’m real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at him

for a minute and he looked back it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with his man who’d just given me

something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may even have thanked him habit being so strong

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Noodler’s Nod to Autumn

Apart from a change in the air, the crispness and the transition to a gentler time of year, color has always been a trademark of autumn. Leaving aside the fun of Halloween and the family warmth of Thanksgiving, most of us have associations that link color to the season in a strong way. During my years in Japan, a country almost as famous for its autumn foliage as the springtime pink of flowering cherry trees, for me the strongest and most enduring color image of autumn was the persimmon, the bowls of vibrant orange fruit, the persimmon trees bowed with globes of ember. But that orange is as transitional as everything else, and soon slips into darker shades. We see it as a cycle slipping from green to yellow, orange to red, and finally red to brown.

In the past week my thoughts have centered on orange, on two autumn-tinted inks, Pumpkin (from Diamine) and the slightly darker, more shaded Orange Crush (Private Reserve). As the passing days affect the autumn palette, so my thoughts turn to another signpost of autumn—RED.

There is no shortage of red ink in the neighborhood of my four walls. As I write this, the number of bottles—red this and red that—number around fifteen. But then, most of us ink junkies have too much ink to ever use in a lifetime. Ask Julie at Whatever and she might tell you the same.

Today’s featured color is Noodler’s Red, a shade that I think of as less than bright red, with no hint of the orange seen in the very reputable Sheaffer Skrip Red, yet none of the darkness in Noodler’s Rattler Red. The best quality of the Noodler’s Red is the absence of vibrancy, the look of an almost dull red that is moving toward, but not yet a dark red—one step in the turning cycle from red to brown.

Not a whole lot of shading in this autumny red, but enough to keep it from blandness. It flows smoothly from the Pelikan 200 I used for testing, and I wasn’t bothered by the time it took to dry. Left-handed writers will have trouble with the drying time, I suspect. My test was on 90g Clairefontaine paper, so feathering or bleed through were not an issue. Even for the very wet Q-tip swab, the show through was minimal. This is a fine ink, and should get some notice from those with a fondness for reds.

For a more detailed review of Noodler’s Red, once again I will point you to Brian Goulet at Ink Nouveau.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Another Wolfgang Fabian Design

At first look, it appears to be a desk pen, one of those that fits into a holder on a round or rectangular base, and something we once saw on every banker’s desk. Were it not for the cap with its large and familiar pocket clip, you might not guess you were looking at a Lamy fountain pen—one that despite its shape and length is not a desk pen at all. This is the Lamy Joy Calligraphy Fountain Pen L15, designed by Wolfgang Fabian of Safari and AL-Star fame.

Lamy describes the Joy as, ‘a fountain pen that inspires beautiful, creative writing.’ Mmm…Wouldn’t that be nice? The implication is that it is designed for calligraphy, ‘…for those times when you want to convey an especially personal touch.’ I tend to think a letter or note derives its ‘personal’ feel from the fact of its individual and inky, non-digital, unprinted handwriting, whether it’s beautiful or not, but then, Lamy didn’t ask me to write their copy.

The Lamy Joy is a long quill-like pen measuring 7 inches capped, and 6.7 inches without the cap. It is surprisingly lightweight, made of shiny black plastic. The pocket clip is the same spring brass wire as that on the Safari and the AL-Star, but this time bright red. For visual balance, there is a small red accent on the top of the pen. The ink window is also a repeat of the Safari and AL-Star design. The nib is polished stainless steel with a chisel point, available in three sizes: 1.1, 1.5 and 1.9mm. The pen comes with a converter and one blue cartridge.

I have the 1.1 millimeter nib, and am quite pleased with the way it writes. It definitely writes a line that looks and feels like calligraphy. My guess is that a little experience with this pen will improve the look of the ‘handwriting’ or even calligraphy, if you want to call it that. My own experience has been with another kind of calligraphy using brushes, and fountain pen calligraphy is pretty ragged in these hands. Still, the Lamy Joy does give a sense of encouragement, and makes you think that with some practice a beautiful flow of inked words is just around the corner.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Thousand Autumns…

Irish Writer David Mitchell is well-known for the narrative and stylistic gymnastics of his first four novels. His recently published book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet breaks that mold, and in what may be a surprise to many of his readers, dives headfirst into historical fiction, with a moderate helping of romance thrown in. Unlike the earlier books, particularly the Man Booker Prize finalist, Cloud Atlas, the new book unrolls its story in a linear and chronological framework bristling with fascinating history and little known cultural oddities of Shogunate Japan during the late 18th, early 19th centuries. This new book bypasses all the earlier symbolism and coincidence for straightforward narrative and strong storytelling.

The setting of Mitchell’s book is the small fan-shaped island of Dejima artificially built in the bay of Nagasaki in 1634. For 212 years, between 1641 and 1853, the island was a Dutch trading post, the doorway through which all foreign trade and exchange entered Japan. Foreigners were not allowed off the island by government decree.

In 1799, Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company arrives in Dejima to take up a post that is to last five years and earn him his fortune. He is saddled with the job of unraveling accounts in a company riddled with corruption. Unfortunately for him, his unbending honesty is at once challenged from all sides. Adding to these challenges is his infatuation with a young Japanese woman, a midwife who is studying with the famous Dutch doctor, Lucas Marinus. The young Dutchman learns quickly enough that his love for this woman is forbidden by not only law, but by tradition, culture and politics as well.

Mitchell’s main character is modeled upon Dutchman Hendrik Doeff who worked for the Dutch East Indies Company on Dejima from 1803 to 1818. But there might also be small measure of autobiography in the character, as Mitchell himself spent eight years in Japan, and has a Japanese wife.

The story shifts from one character to another in its unfolding, a method that opens windows for both reader and author to enter the particular world and mind of its Dutch, Japanese and English characters. Language is a doorway into the culture and thought of these characters, and to each speaker the writer applies an identifying flow, or non-flow of speech. You would almost have to say that language is huge in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. In large part characters are built upon the language they speak. Comprehension and incomprehension are always at issue, whether it be about trade, medicine, laws, or the procedure of battle. A book that has been very deeply researched, it is crammed with detail and description of court intrigue, medical procedures, sailing ships, herbal remedies, and historical facts, as well as arcane tidbits about life in 18th century Japan.

Like Japan of the period from 1600 to 1867, Mitchell’s story is also wrapped inside the walls and concerns of a small corner of the world. There is nothing in its 479 pages that speaks of a wider world, nothing particularly symbolic of bigger issues, unless we put the honesty and bravery of its main character into that realm. In this light, the book might be described as narrow in an allegorical sense. But don’t let that deficiency put you off of reading a story of history, romance, betrayal, samurai raids, medicine, sailing ships, and every page exquisitely written.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ink or Drink: It’s Good

In my childhood, along with the bottles of Coca Cola we all swigged through peanuts poured into the bottle neck, there were the dark brown bottles of Orange Crush. Of the two, the latter was always my favorite, but the growing popularity of Coke had already begun to nudge Orange Crush from the cold drink machines. Fact was, the Coca Cola company had already taken over those machines, all painted red with the white Coca Cola lettering. Still, the old Orange Crush soda pop in the dark brown ridged bottles was No. 1 with me.

Back in March of 2006, while browsing in Tokyo’s pen boutique Shosaikan, I came upon an ink from Private Reserve named Orange Crush. It had been years since those words had come to mind, and before even picking up the bottle of ink, I experienced a flood of Orange Crush memories that momentarily overrode any thoughts of ink and fountain pens. My head was quickly filled with images of a time before soft drinks thunked out of change-making vending machines, of the days when you reached an arm down into the icy water of a big, boxy, red cooler full of things like RC Cola, Nehi Strawberry and Orange Crush.

But back to the ink, I’m sure I would have bought it for the name alone, even if the color had not been to my liking. Stores in Japan allow customers to sample inks and fountain pens, and pretty soon I had a page filled with Orange Crush squiggles, doodles and lines of gibberish. True enough, the color did ring true to the old Orange Crush memories, and I bought a bottle.

It turned out to be a disappointing experience for me, and very likely for many other customers as well. The Private Reserve ink held true for about one month, and then the color became corrupted through some quirk in the chemistry. I returned to Shosaikan and learned that the store’s entire stock of Orange Crush had suffered the same horrible fate of alchemy. The ink turned an ugly, dirty yellow, and was consigned to a back corner of the ink cupboard.

Fast forward four and a half years and a package of autumn Inkdrop samples arrive in the mail. Among the six sample inks is that old, and hopefully improved Orange Crush from Private Reserve.

That same nostalgic thrill was missing this time around, and it’s only a couple of weeks later that I’ve gotten around to giving the ‘new’ ink a look-see.

Best thing about this ink, apart from the evocative name and richness of burnt orange color, is the shading. I just might have a hard time finding another ink that shades as BEAUTIFULLY as this Private Reserve Orange Crush. A similar color is available from Noodler’s called Cayenne, but the shading of that ink doesn't even approach this Private Reserve orange.

For those who want a more detailed description and comparison, I recommend the recent review of Orange Crush at Ink Nouveau.

About Me

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