Monday, 10 August 2015

Book Appreciation/Review - "A Japanese Mirror" by Ian Buruma and "Collected Stories" by Richard Kennedy

This book was kindly sent me by artist Charlotte Rodgers.




The author points out in his preface that this is not a new work nor is it a revision. The book was first published in 1984. This reprint is 2012. Ian Buruma then goes on to say how our perception, certainly thirty years ago if not the same today, of what it is to be Japanese, to fully understand the pop culture of that nation, differs to what being Japanese is. How we tend to think of Japan as a land of conflicts; a land so diverse in its cultures that it some times seems at odds with itself.

This book does not alter that perception. If anything it emphasises it. Japan in 1984 as Japan in 2012 is a land of strange beauties, of indescribable cruelties; a land of high technology  and long traditions, where the God's of modernity sit at co-opposite corners to those of heritage.

It was from this perspective, jaundiced perhaps, that I began reading this book.

From chapter one Buruma ensures we understand why Japan is how she is, why their views are so singularly different to those of the West. From its unbelievably  ancient  past, its incredibly long, sometimes dark history, we learn of how they had no Adam and Eve, no sense of Abrahamic guilt, no great creator who fashioned heaven and hell. There is no God. There is no heaven and hell. There is nature. Nor were they demur as those in the West were/are in respect of sex - they idolised it taking it to grotesque heights of eroticism.

Buruma's strength lies not only in his depth of research, his range and detailed approach to the subject matter but in the manner in which he trawls that nations past cross referencing multiple sources so that each unearthed piece of evidence makes a jigsaw, a mosaic of Japan's historical and contemporary national psyche until a concrete, detailed picture is formed. He does it in a way that not so much hammers home the undeniable but leaves simply no room for counter argument. What he achieves is a solid base of evidential proofs.
History and the now, the then in this case, are cemented together flawlessly.

And what a history he reveals. So very different in every way to our own and yet, by the very nature of its people, Japan is a country able to harness other influences then warp them with its own until what you have is a virtual smorgasbord of cultures, a mish-mash made whole.

Men unashamedly read porn on the subway, read bondage books with little or no concern of what others may think. Why? The Japanese see nothing wrong with such books even when the content displayed shows explicit scenes of torture, abuse and untold violent horrors. This is because they, the Japanese, compartmentalize such literature as pure fiction, of fantasy and not of real life. The sole purpose of such grotesqueness's is to titillate.

We see how the Japanese male, same as in Western society, has long been given pole position over females but, unlike his western counterparts, worships the female as a mother figure and a goddess. To such a degree is this veneration held that it strikes almost as perverse. The female vagina holds supreme favour in the male eyes and they pay/paid great sums just to gaze upon it.

This lust for the female, her genitals being the alter of Godhead, is a perceived destructive force. From this almost worshipful desire comes the Geisha, the painted doll, that epitome of art given female form or is the female form seen as art? Whatever.

To achieve his ultimate goal, that of convincing the readers of his theories, Buruma use not just the historical past, not just the art artifacts from an arcane past but those also of TV, of film and of course manga.

However, it is when Western art, Western values meet with those hallowed ways of the Japanese past that the fun really starts.

Fascinating work.
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This book was kindly sent me by Jewellery Designer Teresa Martin


Teresa was kind enough to send me two books to read. Richard Kennedy's "Collected Stories" and Brooks Hansen's "The Chess Garden." My first inclination was to read Hansen's 1995 novel but as I had started to read then review Kate Atkinson's "God In Ruins" for the New London Writers site, I selected to read Kennedy's first. My thinking was that as I was part way into full bloodied work of fiction, a novel, starting another one seemed daft so instead plumped for the book of  short's.

There are fourteen short stories but also two poems. The first poem, "The Wreck of the Linda Dear" left me cold. I didn't like it. Didn't think it scanned well nor when read aloud sounded good to my ears. The second, "Stinky Pete" was everything the first wasn't. It was funny, ripped along at a dash whilst displaying a rare ability with rhyme. 

The first story and the one that comes first in the book, "Porcelain Man" was thoroughly enjoyable if a little baffling. Many of these tales are fables and as such carry hidden meanings. If this one has a meaning then the author has buried it too deep for me to discern what that might be. Of course a story, especially one of the magical variety, doesn't have to contain a message. All it has to be is well told.

I found myself reading these after having spent the evening reading Atkinson. "Collected Stories" were my bedtime read or, if Atkinson's novel was my main meal then Richard Kennedy's was desert.

Hard to say which one I liked best as there at least four vying for that place. I did like "The Contests at Cowlick" largely because I love westerns but also  "Song of the Horse." The prose runs like poetry, lyrical and swift matching perfectly the narrative.

All the stories have a sprinkle of wit mixed with playfulness about them. They all radiate that age old fire side story ambiance which is both intimate and charmingly deceptive. They lead you down paths you wouldn't necessarily visit before leaving you a little mesmerized.   

Kennedy had, he seems to have stopped publishing somewhere around the nineties but is still very much alive, a tremendous understanding of the fantasy genre. In many ways he was, is, the modern version of the Grimm's even though not grim enough. His opening lines are distinct and memorable a prerequisite gift when writing in this style. His stories remain with you long after having read them. I defy anyone to read "Inside My Feet" and not be a little unnerved. Of all the stories collected here this one, longer than all but one, is by far the best. When Jacob and Joshua, my unborn grandchildren are old enough to listen to stories then this is one I would love to read. It has every element that a well written tale should have.

Richard Kennedy's "Collected Stories" is not one I would have chosen. It would not have caught my attention had it been sitting on the charity shop shelf. That said, it is a damn fine read so maybe in future I should be less circumspect. 

Loved it.


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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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