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An Artist of the Floating World
Kazuo Ishiguro (1986)
Ishiguro’s second novel is not as well known as his Booker-prize winning Remains of the Day, or his popular and acclaimed Never Let Me Go, but it is in An Artist of the Floating World that Ishiguro hits the stride that will eventually lead him to his 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. In his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro had included a sub-plot in which a former teacher is forced late in life to rethink the values according to which he had lived his whole life, and the author has commented that this was the seed for his following book, in which he devotes the entire narrative to a former significant artist reevaluating his life’s choices.
That protagonist and narrator is an aging artist who, as a producer of propagandistic art for the extreme right-wing party in Japan in the 1930s, did much to empower and justify the politicians who led the country to defeat in the Second World War. In particular, Ono was concerned with what he refers to as the “China crisis,” by which he seems to refer to the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-45—a war for which high officials in the Japanese government were convicted of numerous war crimes in post-war Tokyo trials, and a war in which Ono lost his son Kenji. Ono also lost his wife in an air raid at the very end of the war. The narrator never deals with either of these deaths in this book, and one wonders just how much those losses may be affecting him beneath the calm, unruffled surface of his unemotional narrative.
This is definitely a novel that conforms to Hemingway’s famous description of writing on the principle of the iceberg, only one-eighth of which is above the water, while seven-eighths is below the surface. Below the surface of Ono’s words—even, perhaps , his conscious thoughts in this novel—there lies the bulk of his life’s meaning. The story of the novel takes place on selected days over the course of about a year and a half in Ono’s life: Part one is set in October 1948, part two in April 1949, three in November 1949, and the relatively brief part four in June of 1950. The inciting incident for the narrative, which serves as Ono’s incentive to reexamine his own past, is the looming engagement of his younger daughter Noriko.
We learn that in the previous year, Ono had been in negotiations with the family of Jiro Miyake to marry Noriko to Jiro, which, it is implied would have been a love match. Those negotiations had broken down, however, and the Miyake family had pulled out. The reason those plans had broken down is unknown, but it is certain that Noriko believes her father to have somehow been responsible for the breach. In this she seems to be supported by her older, married sister, Setsuko (who is visiting from out of town with her son Ichiro as the novel begins). Setsuo is the more diplomatic and more deferential daughter, and hence more traditional than her outspoken sister Noriko, but both sisters are concerned that the same rejection does not happen with Noriko’s new potential marriage to Taro Saito. They advise Ono to make sure that none of his acquaintances might have negative things to say about him when private investigators for the Saito family question them about Ono’s character.
This is what sets Ono on to track down some of his old acquaintances. In doing so he relives his previous life, and we see the path that led him into what the younger generation in 1948 Japan, under the influence of American occupation, now sees as treasonous. We explore Ono’s memories of his childhood, his love of painting encouraged by his mother but squelched by his authoritarian father. We learn about his recruitment by the influential artist Seiji Moriyama, or “Mori-san,” who runs an art school at his run-down villa where a handful of young artists study under his direction. It is Mori-san who teaches that the transient beauty of late-night moments in the pleasure districts of the city, among the bars and the Geishas, are the ideal themes for painting. This he calls the art of the “floating world.” The phrase, it has been pointed out, is an English translation of the Japanese term Ukiyo-e, a style of painting and printmaking popular in the Edo period, at least a century earlier than Ono’s memories. The word Ukiyo, originally referring to the Buddhist notion “transitory,” was replaced by the character meaning “to float” in order to express the hedonistic joy artists wanted to glorify in their depiction of the pleasures of those evening debauches. Mori-san wants his pupils to engage in this old-fashioned style, but also wants to incorporate new western techniques, using blocks of color to replace the dark outlines traditionally used in Japanese prints. Mori-san expels any students who do not adhere to his teaching. But the decrepit state of his villa suggests the outmoded nature of his technique.
Ono recalls, too, his recruitment by the nationalist Chishu Matsuda, and how soon after their meeting he began to take a new direction in his painting, becoming more socially aware, becoming, too, more militant and nationalistic, after which he was cast out by Mori-san. Apparently through the influence of Matsuda, Ono then worked with the nationalist government during the war, helping to create propaganda in the form of posters during when he refers to as the “China crisis,” presumably to build support for the war in Manchuria in which his son was to lose his life. Ono’s work won various awards, and he was later appointed to the Cultural Committee of the Interior Department. We learn, too, that Ono acted as a police informer, betraying one of his own students, Kuroda, to the “Committee of Unpatriotic Activities” when he disapproved of Kuroda’s less nationalistic bent in his art. Kuroda ended up going to prison, and declines to ever meet with Ono after the war.
Ono’s recounting of these various activities is quite matter-of-fact, and while readers may feel a distaste culminating in a kind of appalled horror as the revelations become more explicit, Ono seems oblivious to his own culpability in the national disaster his activities helped contribute to, or the personal suffering he caused for Kuroda—or even, indirectly, the death of his wife and son. But it’s clear by the time we are well into the book that this narrator is highly unreliable: we are certain that we cannot trust his evaluations of his own past actions, and when he surprises us at the crucial meeting with his potential son-in-law’s family when he actually admits he made mistakes during the war, it becomes clear that we can’t trust that he even believes what he is saying in his narration. But when later in the novel his daughter Setsuko calls into question things he has told us about his own conversations with her and others, we come to realize that it is possible all of his memories have been distorted by his own consciousness. Was he as important as he tells us? Did he even have some of the conversations he claims to have had? Has time rewritten his own life story in his mind?
In the end this is a brilliant tour de force in the realm of unreliable narration. It’s also a vivid picture of post-war Japan, and the changing cultural values. Noriko depicts the “modern” woman and Setsuko the traditional. Ichiro, whose relationship with his grandfather is one of the more lighthearted aspects of the novel, is a young boy completely immersed in new western values, with his interest in cowboys and in Popeye cartoons. In this child, Ishiguro seems to be channeling some of his own childhood in postwar Nagasaki, though the boy’s obsession with the new Godzilla movie is anachronistic (since the film did not come out until 1954, the year Ishiguro was born). But more than anything else, this is a novel that explores human beings’ great skill at fooling ourselves, and rearranging memories to fit our own later interpretation of things, and our reluctance to come to terms with our own failings in a world that is forever changing, forever transitory, forever “floating.” Four Shakespeares for this for sure.
To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/
You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1
Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.
Review No. 171: Krispy Kreme Doughnuts
1105 Dave Ward Drive
76.7 Percent finished reviewing Conway restaurants
He Said: Last week “Cream-Filled Doughnut Day” appeared on the calendar, and She Said and I decided it would be a very auspicious day on which to actually go to a doughnut shop and have ourselves some cream-filled doughnuts. Conway’s local Krispy Kreme was up on our schedule, so I was dispatched to Dave Ward Drive to hunt and gather for brunch.
Krispy Kreme is, of course, a huge American-based chain with more than a thousand stores in the United States and internationally. They were founded in 1937 by Vernon Rudolph, who bought a recipe for yeast doughnuts from a New Orleans chef and began selling them in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The rest is history, as the company began to slowly expand. In 2016 the company was bought by the Luxembourg-based JAB Holding Company, but it remains headquartered in Winston-Salem.
She Said:I know people were excited when Krispy Kreme opened in Conway, but we never felt the need to stray farther afield than Ed’s at the time. But given the national holiday and the need to review, it was time.
He Said: The Conway location is a little hard to get into when you are zipping by on Dave Ward, and it’s not completely clear where to turn in if you don’t know it; Hardee’s driveway being right there makes it hard to see in a split second which is the right driveway.
The inside is rather inviting for a chain doughnut shop, with a lot of doughnuts on display on the shelves, and a variety of drinks available. The place is pretty comfortable and doesn’t make you want to run for the exit when you walk in.
She Said: I didn’t go with He Said, and my ambience at home was lovely. J
He Said: As mentioned, there are a good variety of coffees, teas, other hot drinks, and soda and other cold drinks, but I didn’t have any of them, since I was bringing the doughnuts home. But there were a lot of drinks I could have had if I’d wanted.
He Said: They have a huge variety of both yeast and cake style doughnuts here, including a couple of brand new Reese’s peanut butter and chocolate variety doughnuts. But this was, as noted earlier, cream-filled doughnut day, so I got two chocolate iced doughnuts with “kreme filling,” one chocolate iced glazed doughnut with sprinkles, and one glazed blueberry cake doughnut (that one specifically for She Said).
The chocolate glazed doughnut was scrumptious—it was so much better than the one I had a few weeks ago because every bite was sweet, chocolatey and undry. The cream filled chocolate doughnut was even more tasty, with the sweet crème enhancing every bite with sweet goodness. Other doughnuts I’ve had in town, with a few exceptions (looking at you, Ed’s) seem like a lot of dry, chewy dough, with a hint of sweetness. Not so here. These are the real deal.
She Said:The cream doughnuts were indeed delightful, and I gobbled mine up with glee. I don’t eat a lot of this kind of treat, and now I can see why people do! The dough was the perfect complement to the lightly whipped cream center, and the whole treat was perfectly sweet. I found the blueberry doughnut merely passable, though, as if it were a Xerox of a blueberry doughnut, just not quite there, but not bad either.
He Said: The woman who waited on me was patient, good-humored and efficient. I got no complaints here.
What We Got and What We Paid: Four doughnuts (chocolate glaze, blueberry glazed, and two chocolate kreme filled, all for $5.50.
Elapsed Time from Our Arrival to Food Arrival: Pretty much immediate from order to receipt and payment.
He Said:I would not hesitate to stop here again if I’m in the neighborhood and craving a doughnut.
She Said:I’ll apply those cream-filled doughnuts to my face again! But I’ll go somewhere else for the blueberry cake.
Is Krispy Kreme good at what it’s good for? It certainly is! Sweet doughy deliciousness, especially if it’s got a creamy center.
Stacey Margaret Jones’s novel, Mr. Catherine, is available online from the following sellers (ebook only through June 24, ebook and paperback as of June 25, 2019): Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play and Apple Books.
Where is Catherine? Catherine has gone missing, a year after confessing to having an affair. Her husband, a marriage and family therapist, hides her infidelity from the police to protect her reputation—and to shelter his pride.
As the secrets begin to pile up, Mr. Catherine, the unnamed husband of the missing woman, is plunged into a world of underground dealings, kidnappers, ex-lovers and drug running in Little Rock, Arkansas, all while grappling with his part in the highs and lows of the life they led together.
With each passing day, a sleepless Mr. Catherine grows more frantic, drinking and popping pills, which stir up painful visions and remembrances that hold a mirror up to the narrator as he comes to terms with his own emotional betrayals.
Mr. Catherine is a fast-paced domestic noir that explores the dangerous secrets between a husband and a wife, as well as a deeper meditation on marriage, connection and honesty.
Blinded By the Light
Gurinder Chadha (2019)
In 1927, the movie industry was revolutionized by Warner Brothers’ release of The Jazz Singer—a musical drama that featured the first sound dialogue and the first synchronized recorded musical score, including six songs performed by Al Jolson, the most popular singer of his time. The film traced the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a young singer who defies his family’s old-world Jewish traditions, embodied chiefly by his cantor father, and though Jakie leaves his home and changes his name to make it as a jazz singer, he cannot escape his heritage.
Flash forward to 2019 and change the venue from early 20th century New York to Thatcher-era Britain, change traditional Jewish culture to Pakistani, and you’ve got essentially the same plot, repackaged to make it more timely. There have, of course, been countless similar movies in the 92 years in between (including two remakes of The Jazz Singer itself, not to mention recent films that give the basic intergenerational conflict a South-Asian flavor, like The Big Sick), so the question we need to ask about this film is this: Given the fact that we’ve seen this plot countless times before, what is there in this iteration of the old cliché that makes it worth our while to watch it again?
Well, people went to The Jazz Singer to hear Jolson sing. If you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan (and if you’re not, get off of my page) you may want to go to this movie to hear Springsteen. Not that he appears in it himself, but it is his music that inspires the film’s young protagonist Javed (the remarkable newcomer Viveik Kalra, who was essentially picked straight out of acting school to play this part) to follow his own path and defy his autocratic father Malik (a surprisingly sympathetic Kulvinder Ghir of TV’s Still Open All Hours). And Springsteen liked the premise of this film so much that he allowed them to use 17 of his songs, thus making the film’s soundtrack a beautiful thing to behold. And there are really not many movie experiences this summer more joyous than seeing three teenagers romping to “Born to Run” or “Thunder Road” in Bollywood style production numbers in the working class British factory town of Luton.
Secondly, the film’s optimistic depiction of how music or art can both inspire and bring people together raises this movie above the cliché. Javed, an aspiring poet, has been writing his thoughts and his verse in journals for years, but never seems to be willing to make his work public, except by occasionally writing lyrics for his lifelong white neighbor and friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman of Game of Thrones).
But in school, the Muslim Javed meets a new Sikh friend named Roops (Aaron Phagura of TV’s Him), who clues him in to the Boss. From the moment he sticks the cassette tape of Born in the USA into his 1987 Walkman, Javed is hooked. Astounded by the feeling that a white American New Jersey rocker can speak with such instant understanding to the son of a Pakistani immigrant factory worker in British Luton, Javed exclaims “Bruce knows everything I’ve ever felt!”
Feeling his own emotions put into Bruce’s words—“It’s a town full of losers/I’m pulling out”— Javed finds the inspiration to hone his own writing, winning an essay contest that his sympathetic English teacher Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell of Avengers: Endgame) enters him in, writing a love poem for the activist white girl Eliza (Nell Williams, another Game of Thrones alumna), and finally writing decent lyrics for old buddy Matt. In fact, Javed even finds a way to bond with Matt’s dad (a lively Rob Brydon from Tristram Shandy), a huge Springsteen fan. Thus music brings together white and brown, immigrant and native, Muslim, Christian and Sikh. Sure it’s idealistic and maybe a bit cheesy, but it does feel good and there’s something true about it.
That truth comes in the face of real racism and xenophobia that the film does not shrink from. The film was directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), who knows what it was like growing up in London with an East African Indian background. Chadha co-wrote the screenplay with her husband Paul Mayeda-Burges loosely basing the script on a 2007 memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor, who traced his own Javed-like obsession with Springsteen in a book entitled Greetings from Bury Park (Bury Park is a district of the city of Luton, and the title, of course, puns on Springsteen’s debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.).
The film presents quite starkly the skinhead bullying Javed meets on an everyday basis, the swastikas and “Pakis Go Home” graffiti spray-painted on their doors, white children urinating through the mail slots of a Pakistani apartment, even a pig’s head stuck on a community minaret. When Javed publishes a front-page article in the local newspaper extolling the importance of the local mosque, his father Malik is furious with him—such a thing goes against his time-honored approach of keeping his head down and not making waves, essentially of being inoffensive himself in the face of much that is offensive. But when Malik, caught in the high unemployment brought on by Thatcher-era economics, is laid off from his job at the local GM plant after 16 years, he wonders why he ever came to Britain.
It is impossible to see this film without seeing the obvious parallels with the white nationalist politics of Brexit-era Britain and Trumpesque America. The movie isn’t suggesting that pop music, or any other art, is going to heal those deep divisions. After all, as the highly political W.H. Auden said, “poetry makes nothing happen.” But it does make the inoffensive point that (though no fan of the president, whom he has called “deeply damaged”), Springsteen’s music is in many ways the voice of white working class America—from which much of Trump’s base comes—and voices precisely the same concerns and desires that fire South Asian immigrants. On the level of basic humanity, this film strikes home in an unexpected way.
In 1927, Jolson performed in blackface in that first talking musical, evincing a casual racism that is shocking today to anyone who watches the old film. Although it is often hard to see, and may be two steps forward and one step back, society moves inexorably toward enlightenment. Blinded By the Light takes the old story and presents it with a contemporary sensibility, despite its setting more than 30 years in the past. Three Tennysons for this one.
The latest Merlin Mystery from Jay Ruud, THE KNIGHT OF THE CART, will be available September 15, but you can preorder your copy today! To learn more about this and other Merlin Mysteries, visit https://encirclepub.com/
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
(James Gunn, 2017)
The original Guardians of the Galaxy grossed more than three-quarters of a billion dollars worldwide in 2014, making this sequel inevitable, and clearly volume three is in the works, to judge by the closing credits of the current film. Volume two, which made nearly $150 million its opening weekend, has not disappointed its backers, and promises to make an even bigger fortune in the weeks to come. There is enough of what made the original film successful carrying over into part two to ensure the continued success of Star Lord and his crew.
Chris Pratt is back in his role as Peter Quill (aka “Star Lord”), and he is joined by his kind-of sort-of love interest, the green-skinned alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the terribly literal strongman Drax (Dave Bautista), along with the engineered raccoon-like scaliwag Rocket (voiced frenetically by Bradley Cooper). You may remember, too, that the original Guardians included a giant talking tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who sacrificed himself to save the others at the end of that film. Being a tree, Groot provided a cutting that the other Guardians kept, which has now grown into a new Baby Groot—still voiced by Diesel, though, as a baby, the infant Groot has a very limited vocabulary, so Diesel doesn’t get many lines, beyond a baby-talk “I am Groot” kind of thing. But Baby Groot pretty much walks away with this film, he’s so incredibly cute. Preparing us, we can be sure, for a massive marketing campaign of Baby Groot action figures in the very near future.
Another popular aspect of the first film was the mixed tape that Quill’s mother left him at her death in 1988, creating a best-selling soundtrack of ’60s and ’70s songs that were the soundtrack of Quill’s life through the adventures of Volume One. Volume Two begins with two set pieces: The first is an idyllic love scene set in 1980, played out to the tune of Looking Glass’s hit song Brandy, involving a liaison between Quill’s mother and a CGI-youthened Kurt Russell (as a visiting humanoid space lover) that recalls the popular 1984 film Starman, for which Jeff Bridges received an Oscar nomination. How awesome would it have been to have gotten Bridges to play this role in Guardians? But I digress. Russell shows up later as Quill’s fugitive father, but more of that anon.
The second set piece incorporating the mixed-tape soundtrack is a battle that the Guardians fight against a giant slug-like monster while they are trying to protect essential batteries for a gold-skinned race of obnoxious little snobs called “the Sovereign” that takes place in the background while Baby Groot is grooving out to the vibes of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” And, in the meantime, the opening credits roll.
If you see the film in 3D, which I am unconvinced is ever worth the exorbitant surcharge laid on it by the profit-obsessed Hollywood film industry, you will actually be entertained by the way things swing out at you and Baby Groot during this battle. And that is the third aspect of Film One that carries over into this one: top-of-the-line action sequences and CGI effects that dazzle the viewer, making this film a true feast for the eyes. If, and that’s a big if, it is ever advisable to pay for the 3D version, this is the time. Trust me, I wouldn’t tell you if it wasn’t true.
But what really made the original Guardians of the Galaxy such a huge popular hit, more than any of these qualities, was the irreverent attitude and tongue-in-cheek cynicism of the characters, especially Quill, and at base the ironic view of the whole film toward the conventional “it takes a bunch of superheroes to save the galaxy” theme inherent in these comic-book movies: A healthy awareness of the absurdity of the basic notion behind these kinds of fantasies—the feeling that, if you can’t make a joke about it, it doesn’t belong in the film—is a healthy perspective to keep. Indeed, that’s what originally differentiated Marvel from DC comics in the first place. Those straight-as-an-arrow, super-serious DC heroes like Superman and Batman were really expected to be taken seriously in their quest to save the world. But Spiderman? Is he strong? Listen Bud: he’s got radioactive blood. Marvel heroes had more psychological complexity, and were wise enough to laugh at themselves. That essentially has held true of the films coming from these two traditions. Iron Man, for instance hits that irreverent note pretty strongly. And the first Guardians hit it out of the park.
Not so much this one. Somewhere around Act II, Kurt Russell shows up riding an egg-shaped craft and saving the Guardians from the hot pursuit of the Sovereign (from whom Rocket has cavalierly stolen a precious battery), and he no sooner meets Quill than he announces that his name is Ego (seriously—do you think that might signify anything?) and that—hold onto your hats—he is Quill’s father.
The revelation underscores the theme of the whole movie, affecting each of the characters in his or her own way. Quill must deal with suddenly having a father when he has grown up without one, and come to terms with his father’s abandonment of his mother. In the meantime, Gamora is at odds with her criminal cyborg sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), whom she has arrested and plans to turn in and with whom she is engaged in a kind of “Dad liked you best!” sibling feud. Even Rocket begins to examine his emotional traumas as a fatherless youth, and Yondu (The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker), the blue-skinned disgraced Ravager who kidnaped Quill as a child, emerges as a kind of long-lost father figure for our hero. This is balanced against the new “family” that the Guardians have forged themselves into, a relationship underscored by the presence of Baby Groot and the need for all the Guardians to watch over him as the new baby in their family. The chief question of the film becomes whether Quill will be forced to make a choice between his newly revealed father and the group of misfits who have become his surrogate family.
Ego himself raises even more serious questions—questions of a theological nature, and questions that may suggest a spoiler alert on the way, so if you want, you might skip this paragraph until you’ve actually seen the movie. Ego, you see, is not simply a humanoid alien being. Essentially Ego is a god, and his motivations are the sort of motivations that human theologians attribute to the creator God as they try to understand him. Even the father’s name—Ego—recalls Yahweh’s declaration to Moses that his name is “I am.” This is all fine for an omnipotent being, but as it turns out Ego is not omnipotent, and the “Ego” name may suggest a darker side, a kind of sociopathic Narcissist. But I don’t want to give too much away.
If all this seems a bit heavy for this little band of sardonic misfits to carry, that’s probably the one real drawback of this movie. It seems out of character for the wisecracking Quill to be so bogged down with existential angst, and when it affects Rocket, well, that might just be going too far. Fans of the original Guardians are still going to find enough here to delight them. And Russell, Rooker and Pom Klementeiff as Ego’s timid little servant girl Mantis give winning performances to complement the lead ensemble. Some may find that the serious turn takes away from the irreverent cynicism that made the first film such a treat, but I’m sure they’ll all be back for Volume Three. It will be interesting to see whether that installment continues this new introspective trend or returns to the cheeky tone of the first Guardians. But for now, I’ll give this one three Tennysons. It’s definitely worth a look.
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