Pick Up Lines, 4th quarter, 2016

Two things I’m thinking about as I write this final book blog post for the year:

• It might be the cover that makes you pick up the book to hold it; you might scan the blurbs and the names who contributed said blurbs…but it is the first lines, surely, that decide you. What did the writer do with that blank page that invited you in?

• Also: libraries! What a magnificent idea and institution! That a community, a municipality or a town would fund and encourage reading, by allowing its members to borrow books and that this would be so intrinsically valuable that you would honour this civil contract as an unquestionable good. The library is a marvel for which I am perpetually grateful. 


As the fourth quarter of reading began I returned to Stalinist Russia, to Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time. It begins: It happened in the middle of wartime, on a station platform as flat and dusty as the endless plain surrounding it. It was a slim pick, as I was busy with other writing and needing something for those evening times when I wanted to forget the world of work. It was a provocative ‘fictionalised biography’ (so I’ve learned the genre is now called) of Dmitri Shostakovich. (I’ve been trying to work out how or why most biographies are not regarded as fictionalised?) Turns out this ‘fictionalised bio’ was the second such I’d read in the year, the first being Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein. By the end of it, I was ready to steer around stories of suffering artists under crazy, dangerous politics.

Why not something closer to heaven, next? I picked up and, after 100 or so pages, also gave up on, Arcadia by Iain Pears, because it was just not right for the time. It required too much of a kind of attention I then did not have the energy to give it. Have picked it up for the holiday pile and have downloaded the app for it, too. Looking forward to getting back to it.

Next was In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, which begins: I want to cross a small lake. It is a collection of essays detailing the author’s internal journey of learning to fully inhabit a foreign language. Lahiri, in Rome, learns to live (and write; I mean really write!) in Italian. The left page is in her original Italian; the right is in English translated by Ann Goldstein (and, interestingly, not by the author, a choice explained in the foreword). Thoroughly enjoyed this collection. So much rang so true to my own experience living outside my native language environment (though Lahiri’s devotion to her studies & her deep project are incomparable to mine, I confess! ). This is the first of Lahiri’s that I’ve read. Next, of hers I’d like to read is The Lowland. Her writing is elegant, light and beautiful. Just so.

I read A Midsummer’s Equation, by Keigo Higashino (trans. Alexander O Smith) which opens with the central character, a child, on his way out of the city.  Kyohei found the transfer gate from the bullet train to the express line without any difficulty, and by the time he ran up the stairs to the platform, the train was already there. It was quite a quick read and I was gratified by the central theme of resistance to an environmentally destructive project that was about to spoil an old fishing village. Such news seldom makes it to the international (or English medium) papers so I was glad to see this dealt with in (international) fiction. It was set in summer and I liked being there in my imagination. The little fellow, Kyohei, was a great and well-voiced character. I thought the translation was great, too.

God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison, begins: It’s not my fault. If you read this book, and you should, be prepared to carry its resonance. That sounds like a threat, perhaps, but you cannot (shouldn’t?) come to this writer’s work casually and you cannot leave it unchanged. I’ve not read all that much of Morrison’s fiction, I realise as I write this. (I think I may have been carrying resonance from what I have already read!) She is august, almost formidable, and I know, and am reminded reading this one, soul-stretching. Everything I want to write about her capacities veers toward the superlative … I don’t need to convert you, if you know her work. This work is profoundly human (is that the artist’s essential skill? There’s little you don’t recognise in it as, if not reflective of a piece of you, then somehow and amazingly, true to life.) It was utterly wretched in some parts and quietly uplifting in others. Above all, because of its humanity, it is hopeful and it gave me hope.

>>> Post-script insertion. How could I have forgotten?! After the Morrison I read the Australian writer, Gail Jones’ Sixty Lights, which was also a woman-centred story. It opens with an epigraph by Eduardo Cadava, There’s never been a time without the photograph, without the residue and writing of light. It’s an arresting and beautifully written novel of becoming that takes place on three continents and is, on a deeper level, a mediation on seeing, on light, on photography. I copied out many passages from this book and it continues to swim about in my imagination. I remember the word ‘maculate’ from it; something true to life, that seems accidental, but that piques interest and has in it a sort of strange beauty that you don’t expect. <<<

How to choose a book after that? All I could think was to enter another world, entirely! I picked up The Girl of Fire & Thorns, by Rae Carson, with an eye out for new titles to use for my YA literature seminar. Gobbled this up in a few days reading with the same intensity and pleasure I used to as a child when days were unending. It was really well done, I thought, and thoroughly enjoyable. It begins: Prayer candles flicker in my bedroom. This opening line signals what turns out to be a strong spiritual line throughout which I suppose could be risky, but was well done. I really liked the story and the characters and the relationships. I think it’s a great YA book and a delightful princess story for our age.

(As a P.S. on the princesses for our age, I enjoyed watching this short video of Jeanette Winterson at work with children rewriting Cinderella on the wonderful BBC series, 100 women. )


Arcadia, by Iain Pears. Imagine a landscape.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan Lost in the shadow of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thein. In a single year, my father left us twice.

Cobra, by Deon Meyer. The rain drummed down on the corrugated iron roof. 

Silence & Beauty, by Makoto Fujimura.


Riches Restored

I went to the convenience store around the corner from the university to pay a bill a few days ago. It was busy: customers milling about waiting in line, stock being shelved and one woman at the cash register working heroically to pick out exactly the pieces of oden (kind of steeped veggies, a winter favourite of many) desired by the woman whose turn it was. Within moments the cashier realised there was a back up and summoned help. I was next in line. Sorry, so sorry, said the woman helping me. It had only been a few minutes and, cold outside, so it was kinda nice to be in a warm spot. Paid the bill and in deference to the busyness of the store, skedaddled as soon as I had, mutual thanks shared.

The following day, a colleague popped by my office and asked if I had gone to the convenience store the previous day. Odd question, but yes, I had, I told her. Oh, good, said she. It is you! She explained that she, too, had dropped in after work & had been accosted by one of the cashiers in a terrible twist who had served ‘a foreigner’ and forgotten to give her the change she was owed! Well, said Kaya, what was she like? Friendly. Nice woman. Comes in every once in a while. Is she a teacher at your campus? There are only two of us (friendly & non-Japanese women) on our campus, so that did narrow the possibilities, and I was found!

I went around yesterday afternoon to finish the business and got the “Full Monty Japanese Apology” which consisted of sincere apology and the deepest, most polite bowing. I confess I tried to get in on the apology a little, since I had been in a bit of a hurry, too, and truth be told, was none the wiser about not having received my change – but soon realised that this was not the way to relieve the tension that had built up over the error, as the bows deepened & the voice tightened; ownership of the mistake seemed precious and fragile territory. Well, alright, I thought, we’re not going to share this. It’s no problem, I said. Thank you. Please accept, she added, handing over a large box of cookies, this token of our remorse for the mistake.

I left the store with the twenty bucks we’d failed to exchange, a big box of treats (fortune cookies, img_0618perhaps, for they were labelled with an inscrutable verse-like proclamation) but also, and most priceless of all, a heart warmed and filled with joy.



It turned out that manifold riches had been restored.

Now, that’s what I call customer service!


Light *is* the signal in transition

Her autumnal splendour has been let go. The tapestry is unravelling. The oranges deepen, the now-rare reds shock, the golds look threadbare but the browns emerge all the richer in this warm late autumn sunlight. Underfoot, on my walking paths, there are carpets of multicoloured leaves, star-lit by the ten thousand fallen momiji [Japanese maple] leaves.*

Fluffy, nodding paintbrush heads, white and luminous in the afternoon sun, was it you who painted the sky and the river-mirror so flawlessly blue today?


I’m sitting on a boulder, my eyes resting on the river, admiring the reflections of the Goddess Tatsuta** as she lounges voluptuously looking for all the world just like the hills. I’m listening in my earbuds to a lecture given a month or so ago in London by an intellectual, a global (or as he might prefer, ’cosmopolitan’) soul. I like his work, but this lecture is nothing to write home about. I enjoy the Q & A. I have to listen in different ways living in a non-native language environment, so I find myself especially admiring of the listening and interpretive skills of the audience, and also the warmth and humour evinced in Prof. Appiah’s responses.

The scrubby shore opposite does not engage my attention until out of the stillness and quiet the watery mirror at my feet briefly shatters – then mends, in a trice, -and a kingfisher flies fish-laden and free. I watch it with pleasure lunching in the dense undergrowth. Oh, little messenger, amphibious winged jewel, my heart always thrills when you break through into my awareness!

Looking downstream I see a fly-fisherman, his silvery web-like line flicks in the air, folding momentarily before falling lightly to rest on the surface of water, which, at a distance blackens, bronzes and flashes golden in the changing angle of light.

Later, walking back from an errand to the post office in my neighbouimg_1532rhood, hemmed by the buildings on the street, my eyes are drawn up again to the sky. To the north, hillward, clouds in shades of mauve and pink and softest grey station above and I cannot help but think with awe and gratitude: what an elegant planet we inhabit! What a universe! Arriving home, there is cause for rejoicing to the west. What had seemed a rather flat and mundane sunset as I departed had transformed into a blazing glory. Whoever knows what ignites the world of beauty and my response to it? My heart was opened, ready and grateful for it.

All this imagery, consoling and beautiful, I am recalling in my first thoughts of the morning after I hear, across the valley, and through the leaf-shorn trees, on a clear brisk morning, the 6 o’clock clang of  temple bells. I have been in a state of reverie, contemplating Initial Conditions since December started and I have found that this attention is bearing sweet fruit. I don’t know where things begin exactly, but I often imagine the dark as divine incubator of the new, and in this season, this year, I am drawn to contemplating what it means to be, in the words of Donna Haraway, in this essay, a ‘compost-ist.’


*Heads up for the coming Geminid showers!

** The goddess, or princess, Tatsuta, is the Japanese personification of Autumn.