Thursday, August 19, 2010


I have to say, for all of my admittedly left-of-center, countercultural/yuppie inclinations, I don't have much sympathy for the Cult of the Independent Bookstore. Do I find the selection at your average Waldenbooks or Borders stifling? Sure, but I think that's as much a function of size as corporateness: I generally find the selection at comparably-sized indie bookstores just as stifling. Stifling in a different way, certainly - you can find titles at the indie that you can't at the Borders - but I've never thought the selection at indies was any broader a slice of the publishing spectrum - just centered at a different point on the spectrum.

Let me put it another way. Nine times out of ten when I'm searching for a specific title, as opposed to just browsing, it's either a translation from a Japanese author or it's something old and unfashionable. Or, it's an academic book. Either way, I'm unlikely to find it in a bricks-and-mortar store, and that's true whether the stocking decisions are being made by a corporate suit who doesn't even read books or by a conscientious hipster who still, chances are, hasn't heard of Wahei Tatematsu and doesn't care to invest in keeping a copy of Guy Mannering on the shelf.

Case in point: when we went to San Francisco, I stumbled across City Lights. I don't know why I'd forgotten to put it on my must-see list, sometime Beat enthusiast as I am (hey, I read The Portable Jack Kerouac cover to cover! I read every word of Naked Lunch!), but I did, so I was happy to literally discover it on a walk to see Chinatown. And of course I spent an hour or so browsing, looking for the right book to buy. A beat author, even one of City Lights' own, would have been too obvious, and I've been reading more haikai in translation lately, so I thought I'd try to replace the Issa book that I lost on the bus last fall... No dice. For all of San Francisco's East Asian orientation, for all of the Beat movement's Japan fixation, they had almost no haiku. Some of Rexroth's translations, and that was about it. Well, what did I expect? It's a storied bookstore, but not that large.

I'm neither bragging nor, really, complaining. I recognize that I have somewhat specialized needs in books, and that nobody could make a living satisfying them, at least not and pay rent on a shop.

This is why I've been right at home in the internet-commerce era: I can actually get a copy of Cecilia Seigle's Yoshiwara if I want to. I know that Amazon is killing bricks-and-mortar bookstores, but I can't mourn the loss, because, really, they never did much for me...

Same goes, mutatis mutandem, for record stores. I can appreciate the cool factor of indie record stores, but how many of them carry the full Yazoo catalog?

Anyway, I've felt this way for many years, and I think I still feel this way, but I've been forced to make one whopping exception: used bookstores. Like, Powell's, dude. Powell's. It's worth a trip to Portland all on its own. That City of Books really is all that.

I've been lucky enough to live in a lot of places with good used bookstores. The three years I lived in Provo, I was a few blocks away from Pioneer Books; I haven't been to their new location, but their old one was a marvel, a nondescript strip-mall storefront that kept going back and back and back through room after room of tottering piles of books, each room darker and danker and richer than the last, each room connected with a narrower, skeevier-looking passage than the last. Salt Lake, for that matter, has one of my favorite used bookstores: Sam Weller's. This one, too, is fun because the path through the stacks takes odd turns and feels like a labyrinth.

St. Louis had some good ones, and Tokyo - well, Japan is so book-happy that it makes even Powell's look like a 7-11 magazine rack. In fact the only city I've lived in as an adult that disappointed me for used books was Cambridge/Somerville. I went to Harvard expecting to find used-book nirvana. And there are a couple of used-book places in Harvard Square - the basement of the Harvard Book Store (not to be confused with the university bookstore, the Coop - which is run by Barnes & Noble) is where I went most, but it was just half of a basement, really. Used to go to McIntyre & Moore in Davis Square, but found them overpriced and understocked. I always wondered if there was some secret book haven north of the Charles that I was missing, and maybe there was (but if so, don't tell me about it: I don't think I want to know what I missed, now that I've left).

Eugene even has what I need: Smith Family. In fact discovering this place, a couple of blocks from the University, was something of an epiphany for me. If you've wondered (and why would you) why I've been blogging almost exclusively about English-language books for the past year or so, it's because I've been taking immense pleasure in wandering into Smith Family and finding good, awesome, intriguing, tantalizing books and walking out with them. Needless to say their selection of Japanese-language books is quite small (but they do have some, which is amazing enough; but then, so did Pioneer), so the books I walk out with have been in English.

I've been surprised at how important this experience has become for me, of every couple of weeks popping back into Smith Family to plan some more heavy reading. Maybe it's time for me to reassess my dismissal of bricks-and-mortar bookstores. When I'm looking for a specific title, especially a scholarly one, I'll still usually end up having to get it on Amazon - but there is a very real pleasure in going to a place full of books, overspilling the shelves and begging for a home, and just being there for a while.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Portland Japanese Garden

So, in case it hasn't come through yet, we, me and Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki, really really like Portland. I guess it's a hip and happening place, which makes me feel a bit squeamish about saying I like it (I did a teaching demo at a college there and definitely felt like the students were way too hip for my blood), but it really does have most of what we love in a city. Beautiful setting, walkable urban density, great public transport, excellent restaurants, decent museum, and vibrant cultural consciousness that, in typical Pacific Northwest fashion, is more trained on East Asia than we'd expected, which is good for us.

And it has Powell's, but that's a topic for another day.

Dig. Not only does Portland have the Chinese garden, which would be enough for any American city to boast of; it also has the Portland Japanese Garden, which is just as nice.

Here I'm on solider ground. I've been to a number of famous Japanese gardens, including a lot of the Kyoto greatest hits. I won't say the Portland garden is a substitute for going to see the real thing, but I will say that it feels pretty authentic. A little more self-conscious in its desire to mix various styles together in one place, to provide an overview of the tradition, but that's not a bad thing, and it's handled quite well. Even the kare-sansui is pretty impressive.

And, just as important as authenticity, it's beautiful. It's a wonderful site for a garden, nestled in the west hills, with fir-covered slopes hemming it in, and it takes full advantage of the setting, with pleasant ravines and a waterfall worked into the design. And it opens up at one point on a magnificent view of Mt. Hood over the city skyline.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland

So I finished reading this on the train up to Portland a couple of weeks back. ...I love traveling by train. It's a much more relaxed, not to mention comfortable, experience than air travel, and more scenic than car travel - plus, you can read. If this country invested half as much in rail as it does in highways, life would be a lot more pleasant.

We went up because we were craving dim sum, and you can't get that in Eugene. We went to Chinatown in Portland, but the dim sum we had was disappointing, because it turns out the good restaurants have moved to a new Chinatown in the 'burbs. In fact, downtown Chinatown is kind of dying, we discovered (it was our first time), which is a shame, not only because the location is so good, but because there are a lot of funky old buildings there that one would like to see thriving.

And, more than anything, because Portland's old Chinatown does have one absolutely awesome attraction that can't easily be moved out to the suburbs: the Lan Su (as in PortLANd-SUzhou, Portland's sister city) classical Chinese garden.

I've never been to China, so I can't swear it's authentic, but it was built by craftsmen from Suzhou about ten years ago, and it's said to be the most authentic Chinese garden outside of China. Certainly it beats anything else I've seen in the States. It's smallish, as befits an urban garden, but it feels quite spacious, due to the cunning layout which fills the space with nooks and crannies and odd-angled vistas, preventing you from seeing the whole thing at once, water or land.

Both in its contemporary situation and in the tradition it's supposed to represent, it's an urban garden, as I say: it's meant to be what a scholar in the city might have had at home, his peaceful oasis and refuge from official duties. For that reason, the skyscrapers and occasional traffic noise contribute to the effect, rather than detracting: they remind you, gently, what you've shut out beyond the walls.

What's within the walls is quite beautiful, combining traditional architecture and landscaping to provide a sequence of picture-postcard views of water, flowers, trees, rocks, buildings. I think the best view is to be had from the second floor of the teahouse. Which is, note, a functioning teahouse with a dizzying variety of teas and sweets to complement them.

There are worse ways to while away a summer Sunday afternoon than drinking oolong tea and eating moon cakes and toasted pumpkin seeds in a Chinese garden.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains Of The Day (1988)

Once again, this seems like a logical progression from his previous book. One of the ironies in Artist Of The Floating World was that we're never sure quite how war-mongering Ono's art was: as long as he's in denial about his war responsibility, the other characters (who we only see through his eyes) seem to be blaming him for a lot, but once he admits his guilt, those around him act as if he has nothing to be ashamed of - they even laugh a bit that he thinks a mere artist could have had any influence at all.

Here, Ishiguro's again concerned with war guilt, but this time there's a figure who has been held unmistakeably guilty by his society: Stevens' employer Lord Darlington, who was a Nazi sympathizer and sometime anti-Semite engaged in actual treason against Britain, and who was exposed for same. No ambiguity about his guilt. Ishiguro's interest is still squarely focused on the issue of denial, but no longer is it the guilty party who's engaged in denial. Now he's examining how we can be blind to great moral failings in those we love, or look up to.

In that sense this makes a fine companion to Ishiguro's first two books; thematically they form a sort of trilogy, with thematic and tonal affinities that far outweigh the fact that this book takes place in a different country than the first two. The first time I read Artist I felt that its characters were Englishmen in disguise, and I still think that to an extent; certainly Ono and Stevens (and Etsuko's father-in-law) would understand each other.

This is the best of the three, however, and I think it's partly because in shifting settings Ishiguro has brought his themes into sharper focus. His main concern in these first three books is repression: of guilt, of emotion, of need, of self. In the first two books it seemed to me that he was locating this repression in an imaginary Japan constructed of equal parts Western stereotypes and Ozu mannerisms, and to me it felt a little overdone. In Remains Of The Day, he's fessed up to the fact that this repression (also) exists in Ishiguro's own England - but in locating it in Stevens the butler he's both hit on the perfect device for exploring repression (Stevens' view of the job description is that it's basically a professional represser) and managed to depict repression without stereotyping an entire culture. We're free to see bits of Stevens in ourselves and people around us (we'd be fools if we didn't), but at the same time Stevens is an extreme case, made believable precisely because his repression is depicted as a function of his vocation, rather than (solely) his nationality.

That's not the only reason this is the best of the three, of course. I'd also point to the fact that the England of Remains seems so much more vividly rendered than the Nagasaki of Hills or the unnamed metropolis of Artist: Ishiguro is simply surer of his setting here. Then there's the variety of tone in this book: it has the famous muted love story, which is undeniably moving, and it also has moments of humor the likes of which Ishiguro hadn't shown before.