Of Wych Elms, Shiny Bells and a Star (Thoughts on Tana French’s latest, Henny’s color-along, and Yukio Mishima’s book coming in April)

It took me three weeks to finish Tana French’s The Witch Elm, partly because I’ve been quite distracted this Fall and Winter, and partly because I found it quite long. In between reading chapters about Toby and his cousins, and detective Rafferty’s exploration behind the finding of a body in the wych elm of their uncle’s garden, I have been coloring.

In particular, I have been enjoying Henny’s Christmas color-along of Shiny Bells on YouTube. The template was only $1.75, and she has been putting up daily tutorials here. I figure if more people come to see the origami pages I have published, than the thoughts I have on books, it can do no harm to post a few thoughts on colored pencil. While my drawing only vaguely resembles hers, it is great fun to follow along and learn what she has to say about shading and blending.

I found myself comparing The Witch Elm to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, one of my favorite novels. They are similar in that both authors create such an atmospheric mood, while bringing their characters to life. The Witch Elm was less than a mystery, I think, than an exploration of relationships, as well as the way that Toby had to manage a series of consequences that had deadly results. I liked it until the end, where I must absorb Toby’s new nature. Or, perhaps it was the nature he had within him all along.

In other news, I am ready to begin two new novels by Yukio Mishima.

One is entitled The Frolic of The Beasts. The other was send to me by New Directions Publishing, entitled Star which will be published April 30, 2019. It is described as such: “For the first time in English, a glittering novella about stardom from “one of the greatest avant-garde Japanese writers of the twentieth century” (Judith Thurman, The New Yorker)

My passion for Japanese literature never wans, and I will be sure to post some thoughts on these as soon as I have read them in case you would be interested in picking them up as well.

Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard (It’s just magnificent!)

Here is an indication of the glory within these pages, just in Énard’s ability to write about a notebook alone:

”Michelangelo owns a notebook, a simple notebook he made himself: some leaves of paper folded in half, held together with a string, with a cover made of thick cardboard. It’s not a sketchbook, he doesn’t draw in it; nor does he note down the verses that come to him sometimes, or the drafts of his letters, even less his impressions of the days or the weather outside.

In this stained notebook, he records treasures. Endless accumulations of various objects, accounts, expenses, supplies: clothes, menus, words, simply words.

His notebook is his sea chest.” (p. 14)

Mathias Enard has written exactly how I feel about notebooks, what I have known to be true about them, but unable to articulate, since I was a child.

And then there’s this:

”You conquer people by telling them of battles, kings, elephants and marvelous beings; by speaking to them about the happiness they will find beyond death, the bright light that presided over their birth, the angels wheeling around them, the demons menacing them, and love, love, that promise of oblivion and satiety. Tell them about all of that, and they will love you; they will make you the equal of a god.” (p. 54)

I could keep writing quotes until the novel ends…

The Governesses by Anne Serre (translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson)

They’re irresistible. The noblest of the three is Eleonore. The carriage of her head, her smooth auburn hair, which she wears in a chignon, and her Grecian profile with its pronounced, pale nostrils, conjure up a woman in an Ingres painting..More gentle and tender hearted, Laura is the most sensual in the way she moves around. As for Ines, she’s without question the liveliest of the three, pliant as the stem of a flower and very Spanish with her dark eyes and her ebony-black hair coiled like a snake around the ravishing curves of her skull. (p. 52-53)

One of the most remarkable things about The Governesses, to me, is the atmosphere. I feel that I am observing the governesses through the mist of a forest, as the little boys play with their hoops all around them. It is bizarre and winsome, at the same time.

There is a charge of sexuality underlying all that they do, or at least a very sensual aspect, as they dip their fingers into their food or let the wind whip their skirts over their heads as they lie on the wet grass in the meadow. Strangers come into the garden, and golden gates close behind them. These men are under the enchantment of the governesses, seemingly helpless under the women’s touch.

An elderly gentleman across the way observes them with a telescope through his window. He watches their antics, their cavorting with light in the garden, until one day, he turns away. Then the governesses start to fade.

This is a mystical tale, full of charm and ambiguity. It casts a spell on me as I yearn to decipher every meaning, but in the end, must simply accept it for what it is: a tale of women, a tale of men, a tale of young boys for whom the governesses were hired to watch, and the ephemeral quality of life.

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (for German Lit Month 2018)

The magic comes out of the books themselves, and I have no more idea than you or any of your men how it works. (p. 170)

“Magic comes out of the books themselves…” and I have always known this to be true. Cornelia Funke gives us a world of magic, a world of books, suitable for adults as well as the children for whom it is written. Any good children’s book is worthy of an adult as well.

What is the best part of this story? Is it the way that each chapter begins with an enticing quote from another book, helping us to predict what that chapter may hold (or luring us to reread the book from which it came)?

Is it the way that she has captured the bibliophile’s love of literature, with homes which are stacked with books in the hallways, stairs, and on every available surface?

Or, perhaps it is the adventure story itself, with such captivating characters as Silvertongue, who is able to read people out of, and into, books; perhaps it is Meggie, who longs for the return of her father who has been captured by Capricorn.

I know that for me, this fantasy novel has far more impact than any Harry Potter book. It’s surrealism hovers on the brink of reality for how well it brings the meaning of literature to life.

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig (German Lit Month 2018)

For four months I had not held a book in my hands, and there was something intoxicating and at the same time stupefying in the mere thought of a book, in which you could see the words one after another, lines, paragraphs, pages, a book in which you could read, follow, take into your mind the new, different, diverting thoughts of another person. (p. 51)

You can see the desperation of the man who has been held in solitary confinement by the Nazis, deprived of any diversion whatsoever. He is held hostage in a hotel room, with no paper, no pencils, no books, nothing but wallpaper, the pattern of which he has begun to memorize.

When he is taken for yet another interrogation, he notices a rectangle in the pocket of a jacket hanging against the wall and supposes it must be a book. Smuggling it into his waistband, he dares not reveal the title until he has successfully kept it hidden and returned to his room.

It is a book on how to play chess. At first, this comes as a terrible disappointment, and then, it is a source of great distraction. He can play game after game, memorizing the moves required to win. Eventually, however, he can only play against himself, never against a thinking, reasoning, opposition.

At the beginning my thinking was calm and considered, I took breaks between one game and the next in order to recover from my agitation. But gradually my frayed nerves refused to let me wait. My white self had no sooner made a move than my black self feverishly pushed forward; a game was no sooner over than I challenged myself to another, for one of the two chess selves was beaten by the other every time and demanded a rematch. (p. 63)

The hold that chess has on him almost makes him mad. In fact, after an affliction of ‘brain fever’, the doctor tells him that it would be better never to go near a chessboard again.

He cannot help himself, however, when on an ocean liner he observes a game between the world champion and other passengers. He inserts himself into this game, giving advice which earns him their utmost interest and respect. A game is set up between him and the champion to see who will emerge the victor.

Suddenly, there was something new between the two of them; a dangerous tension, a passionate hatred. They were no longer opponents testing their abilities in a spirit of play, but enemies resolved to annihilate each other. (p. 79)

It is a remarkably tense book for holding a mere 84 pages. I was caught up in the story of two individuals, each of them damaged in their own way, pit against each other in the very game of which they are both obsessed. It is a story of great tension, deceptively simplistic in its presentation. One wonders, upon its completion, if there truly is such a thing as winning.

 

How I Love Japan (Part Five)

I had read the book The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima, which helped me appreciate this site all the more. Still, my heart leaps at all things natural more than the man-made.

For example, this bamboo forest, along with the cedar forest in Nikko, takes my breath away.

Or, this shot of the Pacific Ocean as we drove south down the Izu Peninsula. (It’s obvious that the same ocean my friend Lesley sees in Oregon is the one I’m looking at in Japan, but that amazes me.)

I learned that there are two kinds of gardens. One is a strolling garden, usually with a water feature, through which one walks to enjoy the view. The other is a dry garden, in which one must use one’s imagination to interpret the rocks. Ryoan-ji Temple has such a garden which is famous.

This is only one end of it, as it is quite large. The garden has 15 rocks, none of which are able to be seen all at the same time. If you could see every one of the 15 rocks, you would have reached the stage of enlightenment. (I assume that is because you would have to be looking down on them from above.) I, myself, could count only 12 as I studied it from one side.

As we wandered through the Japanese gardens, my husband took many pictures as he hopes to duplicate some of their features in ours. This is a rain chain, a beautiful way to keep the rain falling from one’s roof instead of gutters.

I leave you with a smiling monk because he is so happy with his bird. He reminds me of my beloved friend, Jean, who is a bird whisperer.

How I Love Japan (Part Four)

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Let’s talk about bullet trains first.

They are really fast. When I first took the picture above, I wasn’t even trying to capture a photo of a train. I was taking a picture of the track when all of a sudden one popped into view.

They aren’t that hard to navigate, and they are always on time. In fact, we joked that if you were standing in line at 2:31 for a 2:30 train, you’d probably missed it.

Here’s another thing you may not know. When the conductor, or whatever he is called in Japanese, comes through the train and reaches the end of the car, he turns and bows before entering the next car. And no one in the train is even watching! (Except me.) He bows, and turns, and goes on his way, while passengers read their papers, or eat their crustless sandwiches, or look out the window. They aren’t talking. They aren’t disrupting everyone around them with a phone conversation no one wants to hear. But, they are taking the conductor’s behavior for granted.

Another thing that seems to be taken for granted, (but maybe not) is the beauty. Everywhere I looked, there was something beautiful. It could be a tiny garden, or more often than not a floral arrangement. I leave you with a few of my favorites:

How I Love Japan (Part Three)

After we left Nikko, we went down the coast of the Izu Peninsula next to the Atlantic Ocean. I picked up a few pinecones to put in my pocket, a reminder that even halfway across the world, much remains the same.

We had the opportunity to stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel complete with tatami mat rooms, futons, and hot springs. One baths first, then submerges oneself into the naturally hot spring which is about 120 degrees Fahrenheit. I could only stay in about ten minutes, but it was so lovely to sit in the hot water surrounded by woods.

But, the second night was the most difficult one for me of all the trip. We were served another traditional Japanese dinner in eight courses, each dish more exquisite than the next. There were garnishes of chrysanthemum leaves vinaigrette, and other assorted plants and animals of which I could not be sure. I was told something was a scallop, but when I put it in my mouth, and with mounting nausea swallowed it, I discovered it was a raw Anglerfish liver.

I do not like my food uncooked. I am embarrassingly American at times.

There was a stop at Banjo Falls…

and the Black Ships museum, reminding us of Commodore Matthew Perry who brought his nine black ships to Shimoda to “request” that Japan leave her isolationist position and open the ports to the U. S. Fortunately, this is now seen as a good thing. What impressed me the most is that these documents were written in the 1850s. (Other museums had documents dating to the 1500’s. What Microsoft Word document is going to have that kind of lasting significance?)

Finally, we took the shinkansen (bullet train). I have never been on a ride as smooth or efficient as this. We absolutely glided to Kyoto in less than two hours. It wasn’t scary in the least.

How I Love Japan (Part Two)

20181016_000323We only saw the briefest glimpse of Tokyo, considering how big it is, before it was time to move on to Nikko. The first thing to delight me was the origami hanging in the train station. As I said on Instagram, what train station doesn’t need origami?!

20181015_2103342But, Nikko! Oh, my! I tired of the shrines (which we went to see) before I did the trees. Never have I been surrounded by such a majestic forest, not even in the Redwoods of California.

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There was the Shinkyo Bridge:

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and a shrine which made me cry, as it was for all the babies who had been lost to their mothers. The mothers knit little red hats, and put bibs on these stones, and the rows went on and on as far as my eye could see in any direction.

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I loved Nikko, which is where we spent day 2.

How I Love Japan (Part One)

We left for Japan, my husband and I, on October 11. I looked at this plane, JAL, and I could hardly imagine the next 13 and a half hours in which we would be inside, flying to Tokyo. (Fortunately, I had Haruki Murakami’s latest book, Killing Commendatore, with me.)

When we arrived in Tokyo, we were taken 60 kilometers from Narita Airport to Tokyo, where we were staying at the Asakusa View Hotel. The above picture is the view outside of our room’s window, giving us the skyline of the east side of Tokyo. The needle-like structure is the Tokyo Skytree, which is the tallest tower in the world.

We immediately went out to discover our surroundings. I had to snap a picture of a convenience store, especially after reading Convenience Store Woman last month. We were told that there are approximately 60,000 convenience stores in Japan; people need them to be close by with their small refrigerators at home.

I photographed drink machines, as I have constantly read of characters in modern Japanese literature buying a can of coffee from one. Indeed, there is a myriad of beverages from which to choose.

One of Japan’s most popular beers is Asahi, and this building is the headquarters. Can you see how the tall golden building was meant to represent a tall glass of beer with the foam on top? But, the golden tadpole puzzled me, until I learned it is the Flame of Passion (for beer) which was meant to stand upright. Sadly, it blocked the residents’ view of the apartment building behind it, and was consequently forced to lay on its side. Now it has become more famous than it would have been if it had kept its original position because it looks so…odd.

The top photo is the Senso-ji Temple, guarded by a thunder god to keep the evil spirits away. Which the vermillion color is also supposed to do.

Before leaving Tokyo, we visited the Hamarikyu gardens where we took a stroll through “the playgrounds of Japan’s old shoguns”. The contrast between the skyscrapers of today, and the teahouse of the Edo period, amazes me.

Tomorrow, I will share pictures of day 2.