Tag Archives: reading

Haiku for February

The many streams of Japanese literature I’ve looked into over the last month have flowed into a river that remains a bit muddy for me, something like the creek down the street as it appeared this morning. But just as on those waters I see beautiful things reflected, I am being greatly enriched by several writers, and meandering along rabbit trails still so mysterious, I don’t have much to tell yet.

I decided not to read The Gate by Natsume Sōseki, because it sounded too much like Kokoro, but in reading about the author I learned that he wrote a lot of poetry, and before I had taken two steps down that trail I found these two haiku poems by him that shed some light on recent days.

Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.

Yesterday I didn’t go walking in the afternoon as planned, because of just such a scene out my window, with dark clouds suddenly filling the background where sun had a few minutes before been enticing me. The weather has been freezing, even under the sun.

The cold wintry wind
Is blowing so hard that
The sun sinks into the ocean.

This morning rainy weather has returned, a little warmer, so I went out before the clouds started to empty themselves. Last week I’d seen people walking on the other side of the creek along one stretch that I haven’t explored so much, and today I found that route, which was not much of a path, mostly a vague line where grass had been trampled into the mud, but with interesting little details so be seen.

A eucalyptus tree that had fallen, but kept growing in its humbled condition. A daisy, and fennel shoots in clusters of Irish-green ferny filaments, and — oh, the path petered out into puddles, and obviously my boots were not waterproofed enough to go farther.

I’m going to build a fire in the stove now, and do a little more management of belongings and spaces pre-remodel, and then I hope to sit by the stove and read Curdie and/or some Japanese poetry while I listen to the rain. Just last night I put several books on hold at the library, and added a couple to my Kindle library, almost all from the genre of Japanese literature.

That creek is muddy because there is so much stuff suspended in the water. Animal, vegetable, mineral matter — living things and the elements and food that constitute their beings. And in my mind, another sort of living, nourishing material that a week ago seemed to be just a hopeless mishmash. Now that I’m beginning to pick out a few particulars to consider, and to see patterns and currents of culture and humanity, there is much beauty.

Glimmers and daily bread.

In regard to my reading habits of late, I am behaving much as I did during the months when my husband was sick unto death. It must be that the challenging remodeling project, combined with the physical disorder in several rooms, are taking all my resources to deal with it all, and making me hungry for literary comfort food. It’s hard to predict what I will be able to attend to, as I am impatient and flighty. The rare poem, or children’s stories of the deep and primal sort — those seem to be the best right now.

In the high school class that I help teach at church, we are are still working our way through C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, in which story George MacDonald has a part, being as he was greatly responsible for Lewis coming to faith. That got us talking about MacDonald’s books, and I was reminded of The Princess and Curdie, which I hadn’t read for a long time. I brought it into my “book larder” almost as soon as I got home on Sunday, and have been taking that nourishment.

A quote from writer Mary Karr that I read today seems pertinent: “Memorize poetry & short prose hunks. This makes language eucharistic: you eat it. You take somebody else’s passion & suffering into your body, and it transforms you.” I found this to be the case a few years ago as I read MacDonald’s Phantastes at my cabin.

When I read the words that Curdie heard Princess Irene sing, before I had run across Carr’s advice, I had immediately thought that I should learn them by heart, to be part of a laid-up treasure to draw from.

They are the kind of message that must be stored in the heart if it’s to have any meaning and use at all:

 

The stars are spinning their threads,
And the clouds are the dust that flies,
And the suns are weaving them up
For the time when the sleepers shall rise.

The ocean in music rolls,
And gems are turning to eyes,
And the trees are gathering souls
For the day when the sleepers shall rise.

The weepers are learning to smile,
And laughter to glean the sighs;
Burn and bury the care and guile,
For the day when the sleepers shall rise.

Oh, the dews and the moths and the daisy red,
The larks and the glimmers and flows!
The lilies and sparrows and daily bread,
And the something that nobody knows!

 

 

 

Green tea, and stories from Japan.

I have begun reading a few Japanese novels, in translation of course, and maybe I will add a nonfiction book, because Bellezza has drawn me into her Japanese Literature Challenge 12 — Yes, it’s the twelfth time she has hosted this project! I’ve never had any thought of joining in before, until this month I read a review of one novel linked from her site. It sounded intriguing, so I checked to see how many pages were in the book  — I am lately tired of slogging through 500 or 800 pages in order to complete a story — and it was barely over 200 pages, whee!

Nosing around the body of relatively modern Japanese literature with an eye to length, I soon came up with a plan. The first three books are short, and then things get more difficult, so I might not do all five before the end of March. But I did already complete The Great Passage, and am definitely having fun. It was the coziest thing on a rainy day, to sit by the fire with a book, and green tea from a Japanese-inspired pot. My list:

The Great Passage by Shion Miura

Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki

The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo

 

If the tea in the photo doesn’t look green to you, it’s because, unfortunately, the day with green tea prevented me from sleeping that night, so I switched to a more thoroughly soothing blend for the next rainy reading session. I read while waiting at the dentist, and at the doctor, and after I crawled under the blankets at night.

Now I’m in the middle of Sweet Bean Paste, which refers to a confection that I’ve never been drawn to. The idea of mixing beans and sugar puts me off, but I should probably at least try to sample it before I write a review. If I could learn to appreciate it, it sounds like a proper accompaniment for my Japanese reading — and cup of tea.

What I need to know is, if a Japanese reader can’t drink tea with caffeine, what does she drink?

The risk of dancing with Little Bee.

Little Bee is among a rare set of books in my personal Modern Era, in that I found it in “hard copy” right in front of me, and picked it up with my own hands, and read it through to the end without consulting Goodreads or Amazon in making a guess as to its worth or suitability. That day last week, when I visited the used bookstore in Colorado Springs, it was the four double-sided book racks on the sidewalk that drew me closer, and that’s where I found Little Bee carrying a $1 sticker like all its shelfmates. A cheap risk.

The book appealed to me first because of its short and sweet title that reminded me of the friends in my garden, and secondly because of its appearance: small (unintimidating), paperback, and mostly a pleasing orange color. I did read a few lines of blurbs on the back and inside cover, and noted words like “dark” and “hope.” I probably also read a bit in the middle somewhere, to see if anything tacky jumped out.

I bought it and read it in a couple of days. It helped that I had at least three solid hours coming home Tuesday, on the plane and bus and at the bus stops, and I reached the last page in bed, just before turning out the light. — Forgive me, that was a long intro that would annoy me if I read it somewhere.

Little Bee is a page-turner of a novel. It tells the story of a young refugee from Nigeria first of all: “Everything was happiness and singing when I was a little girl. There was plenty of time for it. We did not have hurry. We did not have electricity or fresh water or sadness either, because none of these had been connected to our village yet….that village we did not yet know was built on an oil field and would soon be fought over by men in a crazy hurry to drill down into the oil.”

Though she never drank tea in her country, because it was mostly exported, she did get a cup on arrival at the detention center: “And when I tasted it, all I wanted to do was to get back into the boat and go home again, to my country. Tea is the taste of my land: it is bitter  and warm, strong, and sharp with memory. It tastes of longing. It tastes of the distance between where you are and where you come from. Also it vanishes — the taste of it vanishes from your tongue while your lips are still hot from the cup. It disappears, like plantations stretching up into the mist.”

I likely read those lines before I got on the airplane, and when the attendant asked what I would drink, hot tea seemed the best choice. I resolved to drink more real tea in the future. I always knew it was rich in historical associations, but Little Bee’s words reveal it as rich in art and philosophy as well.

After Little Bee, this is the story of the British family with whose lives hers is indissolubly linked by one of those events called “dark.” Given the subject matter, the novel might have been highly politicized, but instead it is an account of how the various characters cope with the traumas from outside, and with the troubling revelations of their own souls’ poverty.

“Isn’t it sad, growing up? You start off like my Charlie. You start off thinking you can kill all the baddies and save the world. Then you get a little older, maybe Little Bee’s age, and you realize that some of the world’s badness is inside you, that maybe you’re a part of it. And then you get a little bit older still, and a bit more comfortable, and you start wondering whether that badness you’ve seen in yourself is really all that bad at all….”

“Maybe that’s just developing as a person, Sarah.”

“Well,” I said, “Maybe this is a developing world.”

Because of the grace of God, the way He made us humans with the strength of spirit to survive all the darkness threatening to kill us, there is much beauty and joy in the book. Like Little Bee’s description of this breakfast table scene: “The sun was lighting up the kitchen. It was thick yellow — a warm light, but not a show-off light. It did not want the glory for the illumination of the room. It made each object look as if it was glowing with a light from deep inside itself. Lawrence, the table with its clean blue cotton tablecloth, his orange tea mug and my yellow one — all of it glowing from within. The light made me feel very cheerful. I thought to myself, that is a good trick.”

The two women in the story alternate telling the tale in the first person, sometimes describing the same event from their vastly different perspectives. And those two characters especially spend a good bit of time filling each other in on their past. This is Little Bee talking again, typically philosophical:

“Everyone in my village liked U2. Everyone in my country, maybe. Wouldn’t that be funny, if the oil rebels were playing U2 in their jungle camps, and the government soldiers were playing U2 in their trucks. I think everyone was killing everyone else and listening to the same music. Do you know what? The first week I was in the detention center, U2 were number one here, too. That is a good trick about this world, Sarah. No one likes each other, but everyone likes U2.”

The girl tells how U2 was playing in her Nigerian home, the radio on which they were supposed to be listening to the BBC having been tuned by her sister to the music station instead, because “Nkiruka loved music and now I saw that she was right because life is extremely short and you cannot dance to current affairs.”

The motivations that drive these characters’ actions, their rationalizations, their good deeds, are not pure or simple. Survival, anger, boredom, revenge, guilt… and sometimes, the heart knowledge that we are fellow humans on our way to the grave, and we have nothing to lose from loving.

I very much enjoyed the character of Little Bee, whose child self is haunted by horrific memories even as she is growing into a wise young woman. The less sympathetic characters are shown to be not all that different from us average lost sheep who wander bleating here and there looking for food, and they all get at least a little more light and understanding as the novel progresses. Even one of the “baddies” is shown in remarkably few words to be irreducible to a caricature.

Picking up a book that I know nothing about, and then reading the whole thing privately, with not one iota of input digital or otherwise from another reader — that is a refreshing experience. It feels almost wild and irresponsible to my recent self. But this experiment with Little Bee was satisfying at all levels, and I can see myself taking similar risks in the future. Here’s to more reading adventure!