BOOK REVIEW: Narrow Road to the Interior: And Other Writings by Matsuo Bashō

Narrow Road to the Interior: And Other WritingsNarrow Road to the Interior: And Other Writings by Bashō Matsuo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Bashō was a traveler, and much of his poetry came from what he witnessed and experienced on the road. This volume contains four travelogues (each containing interspersed haiku); the most famous of these being the title piece, but also including: “Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones,” “The Knapsack Notebook,” and “Sarashima Travelogue.” In addition to the travel writings, there is a section of select Bashō poems. The word “travelogue” may create a misapprehension. These weren’t diaries of the minutiae of his travels. They offer a poet’s eye view of highlights and insights, and—of course—interspersed poems. [There is a term for this genre of prose mixed with poetry, haibun.]

Matsuo Bashō was born in Iga-Ueno (famously a center of ninja warriors during the Warring States Period), and traveled extensively within Japan. He lived from 1644 to 1694, during the time between the end of the Warring States Period and the Meiji Restoration that brought Japan into modernity. It was a period of relative peace ruled by a military dictatorship, lying in the long shadow of war. Zen touches are prevalent throughout Bashō’s writings, but so are references to Chinese philosophy and history, Shinto, not to mention the Japanese poets who preceded him.

In addition to the aforementioned content, the book includes some nice ancillary features. First, there is a Translator’s Introduction that helps provide necessary context about Bashō’s life and times, as well as offering insight into what was valued in Japanese poetry of this time–including influences of systems like Zen, Taoism, and Confucianism. There is an Afterword describing the last years of Bashō’s life, as well as end-notes and a bibliography. Notes are useful for this type of book because most readers face both cultural and historical barriers to understanding (myself included.) As for graphics, there is a map to help readers grasp the extent of the poet’s travels. There is also a chronology to help keep the events of Bashō’s life—most notably the timeline of his travels—straight.

I’m not sure how the translator’s (Sam Hamill) version compares to an ideal, but I enjoyed it. For example, Bashō refers to an innkeeper called Hotoke Gozaemon, which Hamill translates as “Joe Buddha.” I suspect that is an example of veering away from literal translation to communicate an essence in a way that is readily grasped by the English-language reader. Some of the haiku translations seem clunky, but it’s extremely hard to put haiku into English, so I can’t say it could be avoided. English syllables and words can be chunky and our grammar doesn’t lend itself to being sparse. I will say that a nice feature of the “Selected Haiku” section is that it includes the Romanized Japanese poem under the translation. This isn’t done throughout the haibun “travelogues,” but it’s done in that last section. The main benefit of this is allowing the reader to hear the sound of the poem, but it can also allow one to compare different translations of the same poem.

There are several translations of these same writings available (often gathered together into a single volume like this because it makes for an acceptable length book–rather than the pamphlets that the individual haibun would be.) This is the only version that I’ve read to date, and so I can’t compare it to others. However, I was quite pleased with this version and found it to be both readable and evocative.

I’d recommend this book for haiku lovers, travelers, and those who want to see what awesome travel writing can look like.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Taiheiki trans. / ed. by Helen Craig McCullough

TaiheikiTaiheiki by Helen Craig McCullough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Let me be blunt, “The Taiheiki” isn’t a book you pick up to read a gripping story. While it’s considered a work of fiction, it reads like a history. In some sense, it is a history. It does follow the broad brush strokes of the events in Japan in the early 14th century. However, there are way too many characters to keep track of, or to remember who is on the side of whom, or even to know whether a given individual is worth remembering or whether they’ll soon die an ignominious death. If you don’t believe me, here are the words of the book’s translator and editor, “In short, the ‘gunki monogatari’ [the war tales of which ‘The Taiheiki’ is one] are not great literature. But the best of them are worth reading.”

I agree with McCullough’s point about these books (and this one in particular) being worth reading, but I would add an “if.” “The Taiheiki” is worth reading, if you have an interest in medieval Japan, samurai, or civil war life. The time period in question was fascinating, and it was characterized by war and intrigue. The Hōjō clan was ousted. (They were the military clan that administered the government.) A compromise had been in effect in which the mantle of Emperor was to be alternated between two opposing lines. However, an ambitious Emperor Go-Daigo refused to relinquish the title, and this led to a war between the courts. It’s a story of both warriors of legendary loyalty (most famously, Kusunoki Masashige) and those of shifting loyalties.

While the book is too fractured to form a clear and interesting story overall, that doesn’t mean it isn’t filled with intriguing episodes of battles, espionage, siege warfare, and even the occasional ghost or goblin story. There are many interesting individuals that are dealt with in sufficient detail to make them intriguing—the aforementioned Kusunoki Masashige stands out among them. The book offers insight into the medieval Japanese mind and to some degree the modern mind as well. There are discussions of philosophy and strategy worked into the narrative that help one to understand from whence the individuals were coming.

The book has a few features that help non-expert readers. The first is an extensive introduction written by Dr. McCullough that serves to provide background for the book and the era in which it took place. The second is frequent footnoting. There are also several plates of artworks and photos interspersed throughout the book. These help the reader visualize the environs and how these individuals would have looked.

If you have an interest in medieval Japan, in samurai, in ninja, or even in pre-modern war generally, I’d recommend this book. (If you’re looking for a gripping tale of intrigue set in 14th century Japan, not so much.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Ninja: A History by John Man

Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow WarriorNinja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior by John Man
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The author, John Man, isn’t the first historian to fall for the siren call of ninja history only to plummet into a catch-22, but he’s the one I’m reviewing right now. So, while his book isn’t exceptionally bad, it’s tremendously flawed in a manner common across ninja histories. What is said catch-22? On the one hand, ninja excite the imagination and a half-way decent book on them is sure to sell. On the other hand, there’s very little known about the ninja. If the myth of the ninja is an elephant, the ninja as we truly know him is a grasshopper. [So much so that the first Westerner to write such a history, Stephen Turnbull, has now spun 180, proposing that the ninja never existed but were purely a post-Warring States construct.] While it would seem that Turnbull goes too far given the existence of manuals and vague mentions, what we don’t know about are the nitty-gritty details of ninja missions and those are the stories that the reader desires but which time and the ninja’s legendary secrecy have put forever beyond our reach.

What is in the book? If not tales of ninja stealing into castles to abscond with information or to assassinate an enemy General, and the effect of those actions on the outcome of wars? First, there’s a lot of information that is already widely available in other English language books, such as the influence of Sun Tzu’s chapter on espionage on the birth of the ninja (probably spurious given the centuries in between) and description of the seven types of disguises. Second, there’s a lot of general Japanese history that is necessary to some degree as background, but at some point one realizes the author has ventured beyond background into padding. Finally, speaking of padding, about a third of the book by page count (cleverly disguised as only three chapters) occurs long after the end of the ninja. Don’t get me wrong; some of the World War II material is fascinating, but it’s as if one were reading a biography of Blackbeard and—all of a sudden—one finds oneself reading about a Somali hijacking of container ships in 2011. (Even while you are fascinated, you can’t help but feel that you’ve been the victim of bait-and-switch.) In short, the book has a lot of repetition and padding, and not much that’s both new and on topic. (One of the reasons that I didn’t give the book too low a rating is that if it’s the first book you are reading on the subject, it’s readable and interesting.)

There’s one more flaw that comes from the dearth of information. The author cites everyone and anyone who has said something interesting on the subject, but we don’t really know how reputable said sources are. Some may be sterling and others full-of-shit. It’s easy to say something fascinating about the ninja; it’s much more difficult to say something that’s true and fascinating.

So what does the book do right? It’s well written in terms of being readable and offering frequent mind candy. The author does challenge a few statements as he reports them. My last paragraph may have led one to believe that Man just shot-gunned information out there, but he actually takes a suitably skeptical view for addressing such a murky topic. The problem is that we don’t know how serious to take claims he refutes or those he appears to endorse because he’s not an expert in the field. He is an Asianist historian with a list of books that is all over the map. [I did see just one factual error in which he refers to the companion sword of a samurai as a tanto. A tanto is a dagger, the companion to the katana is the wakizashi. But I don’t know how big of a deal to make out of that sin as I can’t say that I noticed any others (not that I necessarily would as I’m no expert either.) On the other hand, a little fact checking…]

If you’ve never read a history of the ninja before, you’ll probably find this one interesting. If you’ve read the other books out there, it’s less clear that you will. However, I did find the discussion of Iga no Ran (the battle of Iga, a campaign meant to crush the ninja of Iga) to be intriguing. At any rate, as long as you realize the last one-third of the book is off-theme and are alright with that, you should find it palatable.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A struggling novelist named Ruth finds a watertight package containing a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed ashore on an island off the coast of British Columbia. Ruth’s initial assumption is that it’s debris from the March 11, 2011 tsunami that scoured a large swath of coastal eastern Japan out to sea. However, her husband, Oliver, who has more expertise in these matters, tells her that it’s unlikely that the box could cross the Pacific so quickly and that it would be jettisoned out of the currents that consolidate plastic rubbish into large debris fields like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. When the lunch box’s contents turn out to include a teenage girl’s journal and a number of letters, it seems as though the mystery might be solvable.

The journal is written by a Japanese girl in turmoil named Nao. Nao grew up in American, her father working for a Silicon Valley computer firm until he lost his job. A major factor in Nao’s depression is that she has to return to her ethnic homeland of Japan as a stranger. Her formative years were spent in America, and she is out-of-place in Japan and—as a result—she falls victim to vicious bullying. Furthermore, her father is unable to find a job in Japan and becomes suicidal. The household has to tighten its proverbial belt because Nao’s father, Haruki #2, isn’t working and Nao’s mother has limited earning potential. (FYI: the “#2” refers to the fact that Nao’s father had an uncle for whom he was named who’d been a scholar forced to serve in a kami kaze squad during the war.)

Nao also becomes suicidal, but she is firm in her conviction that she will not fail like her father has done on two occasions. There’s one thing that she must do first and that’s to pen the story of her great-grandmother Jiko. Jiko is a centenarian Buddhist nun and the family matriarch on Nao’s father’s side of the family. Nao stays a summer with Jiko, and the old nun in all her wisdom becomes an anchor in the girl’s tumultuous life. With a level of narcissism appropriate to a teenager, Nao ends up telling us a story that’s more autobiographical than an account of Old Jiko.

A Tale for the Time Being interweaves two storylines. One line is Nao’s journal entries and letters from the lunchbox. The other line is Ruth’s journey as she reads the journal and becomes obsessed with discovering more about Nao and her family members. Eventually, Ruth’s investigation turns up information about Haruki #1 and Haruki #2 that Nao apparently didn’t know, and that both Ruth and the reader hope the girl will learn. Nao comes to idolize Haruki #1 in part because he was committed to his fate as a kami kaze. It’s not that she believed in the kami kaze objective (she identifies more as American than Japanese), but she sees Haruki #1’s commitment in contrast to her father’s behavior. Nao’s myth about her great-uncle turns him into a counterpoint to the father that she loves but thinks a pathetic loser. In a way, this novel is a cautionary tale about drawing conclusions about the virtues and vices of others without knowing their whole story.

Ozeki does a great job of creating characters multi-dimensional enough for us to become intrigued by. Just as Ozeki has her same-named secondary protagonist, Ruth, sitting on the edge of the seat wanting to find out what happened to Nao and her family, we—too–are pulled into that mystery. The challenging approach of weaving Ruth’s story into the journal’s contents works well.

Ozeki hints that there may be something supernatural about the world in which her characters inhabit. There’s a member of a species of crow that shouldn’t be on the American side of the Pacific who shows up at about the same time as the lunch box. Also, we can’t tell whether some of Nao’s stories are the wishful delusions of a tormented girl or whether they reflect some kind of subtle magic. It’s a similar approach to that of other literary fiction authors such as Haruki Murakami.

I’d recommend this novel. It’s gripping and readable.

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