September’s Book Cover from Favorite Books

Blind Spot by Teju Cole

This book drew me in because of its lyrical writing and powerful photographs.  It is a book about photography, and it was revealing to read how a good photographer interprets his work.

Cole says, “This project came about when I began to match words to these interconnected images.”  He goes on, “In each place I have traveled, I have used my camera as an extension of my memory.  The images are a tourist’s pictures in this sense.  But they also have an inquiring feeling to them, and in some cases, showed me more about the place than I might have seen otherwise.”  The commonalities among the photos are glimpsed in layers, fragments, or fleeting intuitions.   “I am intrigued by the continuity of places, by the singing line that connects them all. . .” Cole says, “Human experience varies greatly in its externals, but on the emotional and psychological level, we have a great deal of similarity with one another.”

Take cities, for example.  Cole says, “All cities are one city.  What is interesting to find, in this continuity of cities, the less obvious differences of texture:  the signs, the markings, the assemblages, the things hiding in plain sight in each cityscape or landscape:  the way streetlights and traffic signs vary, the most common fonts, the slight variations in building codes, the fleeting ads, the way walls are painted, the noticeable shift in the range of hues that people wear, the color of human absence, the balance of industrial product versus what has been made by hand, greater or lesser degrees of finish, the visual melody of infrastructure as it interacts with terrain: wall, roof, plant, wire, gutter: what is everywhere but is slightly different.”

Some of the photographs, especially those of signs, juxtapose words and images in echoing layers.  For example, “a sign saying ‘cars’ bearing an image of a car above a car.”  Other images are metaphors for ideas that are reinforced by the accompanying text.  “More than the work itself, its form, its genre, its existence in tangible form, what interests me is the secret channel that connects the work to other works.  Tarkovsky calls it ‘poetry.’ . . . When I make a work, no matter how small, its poetic possibility interests me, those moments in which it escapes into some new being.”

Like me, Cole is drawn to themes that make their appearance again and again.  One of these themes is blind spots.  Cole says, “To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at.  Even in the most vigilant eye, there is a blind spot.  What is missing?”




July’s and August’s Book Covers from Favorite Books

Two of my favorite recent reads are books about Japan.

Forms of Japan by Michael Kenna and Yvonne Meyer-Lohr is an oversized book containing 240 of Kenna’s black and white photographs of Japanese landscapes, skies, and cultural icons.  Although Kenna is not Japanese, his photos have a Japanese sensibility — they reflect calmness, serenity, and simplicity and show beauty in stark, fleeting things.

Here is what Kenna says about his work:  “When I photograph, I am irresistibly drawn to subject matter with visual patterns, interesting abstractions and graphic composition.  The essence of an image often involves the basic juxtaposition of our man-made structures with the more fluid and organic elements of the landscape.  I enjoy places that have mystery and atmosphere, perhaps a patina of age, a suggestion rather than a description, a question or two.  I look for memories, traces, the presence of our human interaction with the land.  Often, I try to emulate the calm and solitude I find in the land, to share that with viewers.  At other times, I photograph the more turbulent phenomena of nature.  The resulting images are interpretations, products of intimate conversations with miscellaneous subject matter.”

I appreciated how Kenna’s photographs were curated and organized to bring to life some of the essential “forms” of the Japanese experience.  There are five groupings, or chapters.  “Each subject transports notably its concrete reality, captured in the photographs, but also corresponds to a specific formal subject:

SEA – Forms of Isolation
LAND – Forms of Strength
TREES – Forms of Transformation
SPIRIT – Forms of Entireness
SKY – Forms of Elusiveness”

Almost all of the images are composed in such a way that the white space is an integral and suggestive part of the whole.  I believe it is Meyer-Lohr who writes, “Simplicity and plainness are created by empty space.  They provide the necessary leeway to be able to absorb a wide variety of thoughts and feelings.  It is the same principle that also underlies the world of Japanese myth and communication through emptiness.  This provides space for one’s own imagination, for the grace and beauty of small things, for the unfolding of that which lies in between.”

She continues her thoughts on empty space in art:  “It is considered a symbol of stillness, the precondition for the appearance of the inner vision.  Lack of balance, asymmetry, simplification, abstraction, wabi or sabi and loneliness are just a few of the most important characteristics of Japanese art and culture.”

There is a lot to absorb in the photographs and accompanying quotes and texts of this lovely book.  I hope its influence manifests in my future watercolor paintings and photographs.

The Abundance of Less: Lessons in Simple Living from Rural Japan by Andy Couturier is a newly revised edition of A Different Kind of Luxury, which was written in 2010.  The book profiles ten people who have intentionally chosen to live simple, sustainable lives in rural Japan.  The new edition contains more photographs and updates on the lives of these Japanese artists, farmers, activists and philosophers in the aftermath of the March 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.  Two of the original ten had died before the second book came out.

When I first read the earlier edition in 2011, I was so taken with the book that I wrote a blog post about it.  (You can link to my post here.)  I enjoyed rereading the interviews with this new edition, and this time I was struck by how many of the people were influenced in their choices by time spent in India when they were young adults.  While on their sojourns in India, they got into the habit of not needing much, with the surprise benefit of opening their lives to more time.

Gufu Watanabe, potter, botanist, farmer said:  “If you start to accumulate things, you can’t travel, so I lived without.  I figured I could live a whole life without anything, and then I wouldn’t really have to work when I got back to Japan.”

Osamu Nakamura, woodblock printer, also figured out how to exist in Japan largely outside the cash economy:  “To have more time than things to do in that time, that is a very rich kind of feeling.”

Atsuko Watanabe, mother and activist, remarked:  “Most people spend their time relating entirely to things that are made solely for the purpose of keeping the economy spinning, of making money for someone . . . they don’t stop to consider, Why is it that I as a human am alive?”  She observes, “If you are selling your time, no matter how much money you get, you can’t every buy back that time.”  And, “Now, as long as you don’t desire too many things, you can have some time.”

I am inspired by the quality of the lives these Japanese people have made for themselves, how they found meaning in the small-scale, slow, and simple ways of being in the world.





June’s Book Covers from Favorite Books

Chemistry: A Novel by Weike Wong

I did a lot of reading in June, but it wasn’t until June 23rd that I finally read something that I felt worthy of a recommendation.  Chemistry: A Novel by Weike Wong is about a young woman finding her path in life after a breakdown.

The narrator is a PhD candidate who works in a chemistry lab with her boyfriend, Eric.  He seems to live a charmed life — loving and doting parents, and straight trajectory through college in which he completed his PhD, graduated, and was offered a job in Oberlin, which necessitated a move.  Eric asks the narrator to marry him and move with I’m, but she wavers and cannot commit.

Her life is not so charmed.  She was raised by first-generation Chinese immigrant parents who were stern, demanding, unemotional, and who set high expectations.  Her father’s story was a classic immigrant success story — he became an engineer, and the narrator feels the stress of trying to match his achievements:  “But such progress he’s made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon.”

And her work in the lab is not getting results.  “The goal of a science PhD is to have an original idea,” she says.  And while she has always been a top student, “. . . what every scientist knows — you can’t just be proficient; you have to have insight.”  She cannot help but feel like a failure:  “Ninety percent of all experiments fail.  This is a fact.  Every scientist has proven it.  But you eventually start to wonder if this high rate of failure is also you.  It can’t be the chemicals’ fault, you think.”

She suffers a breakdown of sorts and leaves school and the lab on medical leave.  As she struggles with what to do next, she works through the legacy of her parents lives, her harsh upbringing, and her views on marriage.  She has to work through disappointing her parents and finding her own purpose.  Her parents’ marriage was fraught and tense — not a great example.  And now her best friend is dealing with a cheating husband and an imperfect reconciliation.  The narrator looks at the marriages of some women chemists from history — Clara Haber had to give up her chemistry career when she married fellow chemist Fritz Haber.  When he developed chlorine gas as a weapon of war, she shoots herself.  Marie Curie worked in partnership with her husband Pierre, and they shared their discoveries and the acclaim of Nobel prizes.

The narrator speaks in a rather flat, unemotional voice.  “[I]t is the Chinese way . . . to keep your deepest feelings inside and then build a wall that can be seen from the moon.”  But I was drawn to the character and her flawed family.  Who cannot love someone who makes a statement like: “What my mother lacks in vision, she makes up for in hindsight.”


May’s Book Covers from Favorite Books

The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World by Brian Doyle

One of my favorite reads from May celebrates the art of storytelling. The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World by Brian Doyle is a novel told through the voice of Robert Louis Stevenson while he was a struggling writer in San Francisco in 1879-80.  During that time Stevenson was waiting for his betrothed’s divorce to come through so that she would be free to marry him.   Stevenson lived in Mrs. Carson’s boardinghouse at 608 Bush Street. These real-life facts are the starting points for Doyle’s novel.

Doyle heard about a novel that Stevenson contemplated but apparently never wrote, which was to be entitled Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World:  “. . . ever since I read about this unwritten book of Stevenson’s, many years ago, I have dreamed about writing it for him.”

In Doyle’s novel,  Stevenson takes breaks from long days of writing by relaxing in the companionship of Mrs. Carson’s husband, John.  Stevenson says, “I with great pleasure and mounting amazement pry an endless series of stories from Mrs Carson’s husband John, who has been all over the world in various ships, and has had adventures of every conceivable sort, in dense jungles and remote islands and terrible battlefields, and, he says, in blazing deserts and dripping forests and under the sea . . .”

And Mr. Carson is a gifted storyteller who transports his listeners with his words alone — something quite inspiring to an aspiring writer like Stevenson.  “So it was that I began to marvel not just at Mr Carson’s tumultuous adventures, but at the man himself, and at the subtle currents of his heart; and I began to wonder if he was not very consciously and deliberately choosing particular chapters of his life to tell, in order to tell me other things, perhaps — about the nature and power of stories, about how decisions not only reflect but create character, about how stories actually shape our lives; could it be that the words we choose to have resident in our mouths act as a sort of mysterious food, and soak down into our blood and bones, and form that which we wish to be?”

This is an adventure story (Mr Carson’s tales) and an ode to the joys and power of telling stories.  “. . . I reveled . . . that a man could tell a tale so riveting that time and space fell away altogether, so that when the story paused or ended, the listener — or the reader! — would be snapped awake as if from the most delicious dream, and would have to shake himself or herself for a few minutes, as you shake away the bright fading threads of dreams.”

“There is a story in everything, and every being, and every moment, were we alert to catch it, were we ready with our tender nets; indeed there are a hundred, a thousand stories, uncountable stories, could they only be lured out and appreciated; and more and more now I realize that what I thought was a skill only for authors and pastors and doctors and dream-diviners is the greatest of all human skills, the one that allows us into the heart and soul and deepest layers of our companions on the brief sunlit road between great dark wildernesses.  We are here to witness, to apprehend, to see and hear, to plumb, with patience and humility, the shy stories of others; and in some cases, like mine, then shape and share them; so that they might sometimes, like inky arrows, sink into the depths of other men and women and children, and cause pleasure, or empathy, or a short of delicious pain, as you realize that someone somewhere else, even perhaps a long time ago, felt just as you did.”  The vice of Stevenson goes on to say, “Stories, among their many virtues, are messages from friends you did not know you had; and while you may well never meet the friend, you feel the better, with one more companion by your side, than you thought you knew.”

This book made me want to re-read Stevenson’s classics:  Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Jekyll and Hyde, and A Child’s Garden of Verses.


April’s Book Covers from Favorite Books

The Luster of Lost Things by Sophie Chen Keller

Most of the reading I’ve done lately has been background and preparation for a two-week vacation to Texas, so aside from that, I have just one book to recommend from my April reading.

The Luster of Lost Things by Sophie Chen Keller is a novel about a 12-year-old boy, Walter Lavender, Jr. who knows about lost things.  His father, a pilot, went missing when his plane disappeared mid-flight shortly before Walter was born.  Walter is still waiting for his Dad to return home.

Walter’s life at school is lonely because he has a physical disorder that makes it difficult for him to talk.  But his home life compensates — his mother creates a warm and comforting community centered around her dessert shop, The Lavenders.  After she kindly invites a stranger to wait out a storm in the shop, she is gifted with a book  of several paintings from that stranger.  The book seems to suffuse the shop with magical reverberations of kindness and belonging.

Although Walter cannot communicate well, he has a special gift for helping people find lost things.  He says, “I keep finding because it is a way for me to be part of something bigger, even if it is only for a while.”  He learns a lot about humanity during his searches:  “. . . everyone loses things . . . In the things they look for, parts of people turn clear as glass and you can see into them and what they are made of and how they live.”  He says, “With just a few phrases, two or three questions, I will know enough to understand someone, because people only bother looking for things that matter.”

Walter knows his gift is tied to the disappearance of his father.  “. . .[T]he more you persist in searching, the more you are likely to stumble across something unexpected. In looking for someone else’s lost thing, I am also looking for mine — some sign that will lead me to Walter Lavender, Sr., and tell me what happened to him.”

When the shop’s landlord threatens to close the shop,  the security of Walter’s and his mother’s lives starts to dissolve.  And then the magical book goes missing.  Walter sets out to find the book and save his mother’s shop.  This search takes him across New York in a series of adventures and encounters from which Walter learns even more about himself and what matters in life.

In my public library, this book is catalogued as adult fiction, even though it is about a 12-year-old boy.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.