Sunday, March 8, 2009

Happy additions...

It was 60 degrees yesterday! I know it's just a tease, but we opened all the windows and did a massive cleaning of our apartment and then made a really good dinner and watched a really bad movie. When I went to bed - early to try to cushion turning the clocks forward - I perused a few books sent to me by a friendly publicist for review. Two of them caught my interest:

Although it has a clumsy title, Songs My Mother Never Taught Me by Selcuk Altun and translated into English by Ruth Christie, has an almost old fashioned narrative style. The two short chapters that open the book are narrated by a wealthy, listless young man whose overbearing mother has recently died and a hired assassin who is about to retire - two men newly liberated. Undoubtedly they will meet in this short novel set in Turkey and described as a thriller and a metaphysical puzzle.
In the Ottoman mansion where I've lived as its heir, guest, prisoner, and now master, I enjoy the excitement of not knowing how many days or years I'll remain. For Ifkat's sake - the tireless servant of a tired old building who'd swallow a stale prostate pill so it wouldn't be wasted - I haven't taken refuge in my apartment at the top of a skyscraper in central but quiet Sisli. As the shutters' futilie struggle with the south wind ends, the morning ezan begins. I wait patiently in the drawing room, surrounded by bronze statuettes. When the prayer ends the wind will assail again. My left hand enjoys shaking cigar ash onto the silk carpet, and I realize I've forgotten what kind of drink is in my right. At the funeral service attended by the elite of the city I had murmured lines from Kucuk Iskender's Rock Manifesto, and now I can hum that cruel tirade until I pass out in the dim morning hours. Today I am twenty-seven years old. And the only gift I desire is the ecstasy of being liberated from my mother and my fiancee.
This one has me curious, I think I'll give it a try.

Japan Through the Looking Glass isn't necessarily a title I would have taken off the shelf, even though I was reflecting just the other day that I would like to travel to Japan, but Alan Macfarlane's combination of apologetic Westerner and Cambridge don charmed me into reading a couple of chapters. Here an excerpt from his travel diary on lunching with the Judge's of Japan's High Court:
When we asked why it often took many years for quite simple cases to be decided, they said that it was because as judges they found it so difficult to come to a decision. Life was complicated, things were not black and white. Binary decisions of 'guilty' or 'not-guilty' were not easy in a Japanese context.
The strongest impression Macfarlane wishes to communicate in the opening of this book is how unlike Western culture Japan is and how difficult to summarize the differences.
Experienced Victorian travellers did not merely say that Japan was different from other places they had visited... A particularly elegant account was given by W. E. Griffis who spent several years in Japan:

A double pleasure rewards the pioneer who is the first to penetrate into the midst of a new people. Beside the rare exhiliration felt in treading soil virgin to alien feet, it acts like mental oxygen to look upon and breathe in a unique civilisation like that of Japan. To feel that for ages millions of one's own race have lived and loved, enjoyed and suffered and died, living the fullness of life, yet without the religion, laws, customs, food, dress, and culture which seem to us to be the vitals of our social existence, is like walking through a living Pompeii.
That is precisely why I love to travel (whether through reading or actually) to remind myself that millions of people are unlike me and to attempt for a time to crawl inside some part of their experience. Macfarlane seems to have wanted to do the same thing in his four journeys to Japan and this appears to be a fascinating and readable account of his attempt. Two books added to the TBR pile, that must mean that exams are coming up.

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