A Single Rose

In a rare interview, French author Muriel Barbery explained her love of Kyoto – a love beautifully revealed in her latest book – A Single Rose. Barbery noted:

“…we have long been lovers of Japanese culture and since we moved to Kyoto, a town that we are head over heels in love with, our feelings for this country have been confirmed. Our fascination began mostly as an aesthetic one, and has remained so: we are fascinated by the ability to create pure beauty, at the same time refined and pure; the kind of thing you see in the slow, sweet sumptuousness of Ozu’s films, in the splendor of the Japanese gardens, in the discreet sophistication of ikebana … It has had us under its spell for over ten years. And we are still at the dawn of our discoveries … But what we also love about Japan, without negating its somber and terrible face, is its repertoire of behaviors: the subtle politesse, the sense of security that results from social solidarity, a very special form of candor, as well. We don’t know how long these things can resist the infernal spirals of the contemporary world, but for now they make life here incredibly sweet and civil.”

A Single Rose tells the story of forty- year old Rose, who travels from France to Kyoto for the reading of her estranged Japanese father’s will. The story reads like a meditation with descriptions of gardens and temples, interspersed with notes on culture and folklore. The plot is simple snd predictable, but Barbery’s strength is transporting each reader to his or her own reflective inner world.

A short but worthwhile read, the book offers some quiet solace in these times of turmoil and uncertainty.

A Tale for the Time Being

9780670026630_p0_v1_s260x420In the aftermath of Japan’s devastating 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, debris has been floating by my home on the Hawaiian shores recently – “… housing insulation, storage bins, soda bottles, toys, fishing nets, plastic trash cans and even Japanese net boats have all washed up on Hawaiian sands…” Speculation about some of the personal items had me wondering, and In A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki fed my curiosity with a story about a Japanese teenager’s diary, written in purple ink between the covers of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” washed up on the shores of Vancouver Island.

Two “time beings” connect through Ozeki’s tale: Nao, the sixteen year old girl who spent her last dozen years in America, before returning to Japan after her father lost his Silicon Valley job, and Ruth, a Japanese-American novelist who finds the journal on the Vancouver shore, protected by layers of plastic bags inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. Both “beings” are struggling with finding their “time” in a new environment. Ruth decided to leave Manhattan to move to an isolated rural area in Canada to be closer to her mother in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, and Nao is the “transfer student,” bullied, savagely tortured, and ridiculed by her fellow students – Japanese by birth but too American to fit in.

Since Nao has decided to dedicate her book to documenting her 104 year old Japanese great-grandmother’s life as a Buddhist priest (coincidentally, Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest – though much younger), Ozeki has the perfect vehicle for inserting gems of philosophical wisdom from the grandmother, along with irreverent yet worldly observations from a teenager. Almost every page has a few footnotes, translating and extending Nao’s references; she writes in English but has a hard time not thinking in Japanese. Nao has decided to commit suicide, but not before finishing her great-grandmother’s memoir.

The chapters alternate between Nao’s diary entries, and Ruth’s anxiety as she tries to research the family she is reading about.  Along with the diary/memoir, Ruth finds letters and a notebook written in French from Nao’s great-uncle, a World War II kamikaze pilot, and eventually an article written by Jiko, the ancient grandmother, verifying the family’s existence.  Their fate, however, is frustratingly elusive, and it’s not clear if Nao has survived the earthquake or ended her own life.

When Nao climbs the monastery hill with her suicidal father to spend the summer alone with her grandmother, a flavor of Zen enlightenment mixes with the mystery.  The story offers a glimpse of Japanese culture from the baths to the celebration of Obon, as well as gems of wisdom, sometimes humorous –

“…105… That’s how old she says you have to be before your mind really grows up, but since she’s a hundred and four, I’m pretty sure she was joking.”

The story moves so slowly, at times it feels like meditation; just as it seems Nao’s fate will be revealed, Ozeki erases the remaining words in the diary – words that did appear when Ruth started to read, words that had promised a resolution.  Don’t worry – they reappear, with a hint of the supernatural.

Although I like to read a book from start to finish – sometimes nonstop, A Tale for the Time Being took much longer – with many stops and starts and slow digestion of the intricate connections.  Ruth’s reflection on her reading of the diary mirrored my own:

“I was trying to pace myself…I felt I owed it…to {the author}…

One of my favorite television reruns is Quantum Leap, with the hero jumping back in time to fix a wrong that changes history.  Ozeki taps into this time continuum in the end, yet leaves enough room for speculation and the promise that Ruth and Nao’s lives will always be linked.  The possibilities that Ozeki proposes still has me wondering.   It’s no surprise that the book has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The 47 Ronin Story

When a samurai’s lord was disgraced and executed, those fearless and loyal Japanese knights lost all honor and privilege; these displaced warriors became known as “ronin.” In John Allyn’s novel based on real events – The 47 Ronin Story – a band of men defy the Shogun’s order to disband, and decide to seek their dead master’s revenge.

The Shogun and Samurai have long fascinated me; from James Clavell’s novel to Whitney Houston’s labeling of Kevin Costner in “Bodyguard.” Allyn’s book has all the expected intrigue and action – as well as a good dose of early eighteenth century politics, Confucian and Buddhist philosophy, and descriptions of the feudal lifestyle and landscape.

As Oishi, the samurai/ronin leader carefully plans his master’s revenge, his focus stays on target…

“…once you know what you want, you must be prepared to sacrifice everything to get it.”

With lots of sword-wielding and treacherous spies, this historical fiction is a fast read with an ending that includes unexpected reprisals. Consider immersing yourself in this Japanese tale of chivalry before the movie with Keanu Reeves appears in December.

Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?

Having observed Japanese manners first hand in Hawaii, I was still surprised by some of the revelations in Henry Alford’s first chapter of Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? Using a trip to Japan, the “Fort Knox of the World Manners Reserve,” as his baseline for creating his modern guide to manners, he stumbles through his own cultural gaffes but finds a few that would be nice to transfer when he returns to the United States, and some he would not (soup slurping). Mixing humor with common sense, Alford offers a universal source book on good manners, which he defines as no more than “treating one another well.”

Alford does not pretend to be Emily Post or Judith Martin (Miss Manners), and suggests you refer to their well-versed publications for information on the proper fork to use, or the appropriate response to your mother-in-law’s views on rearing your children. Alford does have a list of 22 “commonly overlooked unpleasantries that we commit each day, without even knowing it.” Among my favorites:

  • Department Store Restraint: do not assume that person in the navy blazer with the vacant stare is a salesperson; better to ask that person – “have you seen a salesperson?”
  • The Drop-Off: wait until your friend is safely in his/her car, or has unlocked the front door, before squealing your tires to get away.
  • Pregnant or Well-Fed?: Never assume anyone is pregnant; wait for the person to tell you so.
  • Elder Pestering: “Most older folks do not like to be repeatedly asked, ‘Are you OK?’…Similarly, people with a terminal illness don’t want to hear ‘You look great.’ “

Emails can be landmines, and Alford devotes chapters on electronic communication, including Facebook. It might be better to reach out and call (I recently did when I realized my lengthy response required overediting and too many emoticons).

Noting that no one can demand better manners of others, Alford offers a few not so mannerly suggestions for bringing uncouth behavior to the attention of the less civil. One I may try:

Shine a flashlight on that person behind you in the audience who is unceremoniously chatting through the performance (verbally berating them would only add to the noise).

But he also offers his “lovely G’s” – lovely gestures, a list of ways to endear yourself to others with your good manners, for example, sending a picture of what you bought with that gift certificate with your thanks.

Alford ends with his new-found determination to transfer good manners to his home turf – New York City. He now volunteers as a tour guide, and shares the local etiquette, including how to steal a cab and how to ask intrusive questions.

A light and funny treatise on civility in the vein of an Oscar Wilde or Calvin Trillin, Alford’s Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? also had some memorable lines that could be used to politely start party conversation. A few I will remember:

  • Old age is very, very taxing. The memory banks start to cloud, or to be covered with a caramel-colored, resinous sludge that is the mother of earwax.
  • A compliment to a woman “should be a single sunflower set on a windowsill for her to walk up to and admire, not three dozen roses delivered by an exhausted-looking bike messenger in an angel costume.”