Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saturday Evening Re-post: Tampopo: Japan from the Inside Looking In


It was billed as the First  Japanese Noodle Western, and it came out in the US just twenty-three short years ago. Before I went to Japan for my own self three years after seeing it, I had already been there through this movie.

The film is Juzo Itami’s Tampopo, and though I’d seen a few of Kurosawa’s great movies, this was the one, I think, that first took me to Japan; Tampopo has a heavy cross-cultural element absent in Kurosawa’s work. Plus it’s just funny as all get out, separating it from Serious International Cinema.
The story is told as a western—that’s the first clue to the territory it explores—but this is a Noodle Western as opposed to a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. The gunslinger is replaced by a tough-guy Japanese truck driver (they have serious gun laws in Japan, after all) who rolls into town (or rather, the noodle shop) and cleans out the Bad Element to restore order that can only be found in the perfect bowl of pork ramen.

But the heroic quality of the main narrative is belied by the constant, and I mean Constant, forays into vignettes about food and Japan’s relationship to it--and this is where the film becomes a masterpiece. Here are just some of the things we learn about Japan:

Shopkeepers are serious about keeping their wares free of blemishes.

Great Japanese food is  meditation.

Great Japanese food is sex.

Great Japanese food is ceremony.

The Japanese value an egalitarian spirit: you never know where you’ll find a true master.

 . . . and lots more. Because food gives us something to focus on going into it, the revelations about Japanese culture are much simpler to, well . . . digest, I guess. It’s like Robert Whiting’s work on baseball in Japan (at least for us American baseball fans, anyway). You approach You Gotta Have Wa, for example, with an understanding of baseball, and then get to watch what happens when it gets to Japan.

All of this relates directly to what XPat Fiction is about, by the way. Our books observe society from the outside in, through the eyes of an expatriate, and even though Juzo Itami was on the inside when he made Tampopo, he positioned himself as an outsider to the point of even calling his movie a “Western.”

And I’ll go one further to claim that great social insight is done from the outside, even when done from within. I suppose that’s why looking out the window is such a popular positioning for songwriters like Robert Hunter, Serius Jones and Jay Rock, Graham Parker, Bruce Hornsby, Sarah Buxton, Townes Van Zandt, and . . . enough already.

The greatest of all is that genius of outside-looking-in-from-the-inside, Ray Davies. I think he really meant it quite literally when he sang “every day I look at the world from my window.” And just to add emphasis to the cross-cultural appeal, here’s the Vietnamese band The Rice Growers doing “Waterloo Sunset”:

Friday, December 28, 2012

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Saturday Evening Re-post: A little Cyrillic is a dangerous thing

Sometimes it's worthwhile to review (brush up on?) Impressionist art—that world of visionaries who eschewed angels, madonnas, and Zeuses seducing Europas, in order to paint, literally in some cases, what they saw outside their own windows.

The last few evenings I've been flipping through some books I have on Manet, Monet and that lot. For the real thing, the mother lode is the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. The National Galleries in both Washington and London rank up there, as does the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but the Impressionists' output was sufficient that we can find treasures in lots of places. The Portland Art Museum has the Van Gogh they acquired last year, and a wonderful Renoir of sailboats in Argenteuil. What could have been a more modern subject for a painting in the 1870s, when both leisure and trains were innovations, than pleasure boating just a short train ride away from Paris?

Perhaps my favorite of all, Monet's Boulevard des Capucines, a painting of the view from the window of the gallery where the very first Impressionist showing was held in 1874, before they were even called Impressionists, is in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.  A few winters ago (yes, winter!), I prepared for our visit to Russia by learning the Cyrillic alphabet. Not a word of Russian, mind you--just the alphabet. I don't know why I thought that would be useful. Maybe I was just trying to get into the right spirit.

So my wife and I were there, stooging around Moscow, zeroing in on the Pushkin, when I read an inscription over the door of a large building, that included the word—I still swear I saw it—"Pushkin." Maybe it said, "This is not the Pushkin Museum," or "The Pushkin is across the street." I have no idea. But I said, "Ah! Pushkin! This must be it."

So we walked in. It was lunch time, and through a side door we spotted some tables where people were eating, so we decided to stop there before beginning our tour.  It was a tiny restaurant—maybe five tables—with no menus or prices up. That should have been our first clue, but it wasn't.
Everybody stared at us. Clue number two?

Some glum babushkas were standing behind a counter to take orders. We didn't know what to ask for, but luckily a diner walked by with a tray of something, so I pointed at her plate and held up two fingers. We were soon presented with some sort of meat, covered in a thick cream sauce, with a vinegary salad-like side dish, and a nice heavy hunk of dark bread. It was all very tasty and filling, perfect fare for a winter meal in Russia. It cost almost nothing—less than $3 for the two of us. That should have been another clue. But it wasn't.

Satisfiedboth culinarily and financially—from our grand meal, we started looking for the ticket booth to start our tour. But what you've long since figured out finally dawned on us: this wasn't the Pushkin Museum at all. It was some sort of office building. We had stumbled into lunch at the company canteen.

Soon enough we located the real Pushkin and our Monet. We never did learn what that inscription over the door said. Maybe, "Stop here for lunch before the Pushkin." I recommend the stuff with the cream sauce.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Monday, December 17, 2012

What is the appeal . . .

. . . of travel? Of leaving home for something else? Is this not an urge to explore new things, to experience the exotic? Is that not obvious?

And so today I am thinking about the passing of Ravi Shankar. That I know so little of the man's oeuvre is beside the point. That Indian music has influenced me only in the most superficial ways is irrelevant. For all I know, he was not the greatest master of the sitar, but he was the player George Harrison sought out. He was the reference point for "Tomorrow Never Knows" for the Beatles and "Heart Full of Soul" for the Yardbirds.

The point is that it's quite possible that he achieved such a level of international fame because of the universal urge for the exotic, the unusual. Those British and American teens perfectly situated in their 1960s cultural upheavals and not-quite-post colonial ways seemed to have it all right there in Haight Ashbury and Piccadilly Circus, but all is never enough. Experience of the other is craved.

None of this speaks to the real merit of the real musician, who was in fact not exotic or unusual at all within the milieu of Indian music, and that observation brings things full circle. Once the initially exotic is understood as part of the general human experience, once it becomes no big deal, we all can move forward to a more healthy appreciation for it; we can cease treating it as a specimen.

Well, then. All these years of musical cross-pollination later, the real-deal Ravi Shankar looks merely masterful, not strange:

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Saturday Evening Re-post: Jumpin' Jehoshaphat!


We think of the archetypal narrative of an important individual as starting from some lowly or disadvantaged background, which the subject must then overcome in order to reach the ultimate level of greatness. The popularity of such stories in every culture and language would seem to indicate that at a basic level we all draw something from them. Maybe they inspire us--normal, average Joe's that we are--to punch above our weight. Or maybe we simply get a vicarious kick out of them.
But the opposing direction has its attraction too: a person born to great wealth and position gives it all up for some noble purpose.

(The Jesus narrative even manages it both ways, with one trajectory from birth in a stable to, thirty-three years later, ascension into heaven, and the opposite one, sacrificing his divine realm for earthly life as a flesh-and-blood human.)

The story of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, is the riches-to-rags kind. Most people know the standard version. Astrologers warned King Suddhodana that his new son would be a soft-hearted sort, who, if he witnessed human suffering, would abdicate his princely status and become a holy man, so the king took every possible precaution to shield his son from knowledge of sickness, old age, and death. Young Gautama had everything he could desire, including, at age sixteen, a beautiful wife and, soon after that, a son. But eventually young Gautama ventured outside his father’s protective palaces and witnessed a sick person, an old man, and a corpse. He soon figured out that these were all part of the human condition, that he, and every single one of us, faced the same fate, so he set out on his quest to come to terms with this knowledge, and along the way founded Buddhism.

I didn’t know until recently that this legend had been so compelling during the middle ages that Christianity had absorbed it, in a baptized version, of course. It’s included in that wealth of saintly material so prized by medieval storytellers and Renaissance artists, The Golden Legend.

The king this time was called Avennir (or Abenner), a proud persecutor of Christians. Christianity has been a part of that vast palette of Indian religions since the earliest days. There are stories that the apostle Thomas ("Doubting Thomas") traveled to Kerala to preach to the Jewish communities there. Whether that's true or not, Christianity in India certainly goes way back, long before European empires took it to other colonial outposts, and King Avennir didn’t like it one bit. His astrologists warned him that his new son, Jehoshaphat, would grow up to be a Christian, so he ordered the son to be brought up in such a way that he never saw suffering people in need of Christ’s presence.

Of course once again the child slipped the leash, learned the truth, and became a Christian hermit. The day of commemoration in the Catholic Church was November 27, in the Eastern Orthodox, August 26. Thus did the title bodhisattva become transformed into Jehoshaphat, and the Buddha become a Christian saint.

 And why not? Jesus himself is considered a prophet in Islam, so fair’s fair.

—RJ Huddy

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Kamenny Island

From Authenticity:

Peter drove his dark blue Volvo, with Alexis next to him, through the tree-lined streets of Kamenny Island, past enormous new French Renaissance chateaux, timbered English country houses, Palladian Italian villas, and miniature Gothic castles of Russia’s new millionaires. The driveways were full of Mercedes, and the roofs bristled with satellite dishes. Though it was nearly midnight, the sky was still light, and a pink-gray twilight reflected in the windows of the houses.
Here is a view of an embassy on Kamenny Island, with almost the right lighting:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A food out of season: zaru soba

It's almost winter here, but I for some reason am thinking about zaru soba, the seasonal dish that makes summer feel too short in Japan:

Knifing Forking Spooning
has the details.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Monday, December 10, 2012

Turkish Musing

I've done a fair amount of musing about Turkey over the years, and now I've found the Turkish Muse—the blog that is—written by Barbara Isenberg and her husband Jeff.

Here is a Turkish breakfast, as featured on the blog. I can't quite recreate the perfect Turkish breakfast here in Portland, but every summer when the tomatoes are ripe I try:

Breakfast Plate

Friday, December 7, 2012

Travelbug Friday: Petra

Seems like it's one of those other-world kind of experiences, like the monastery at Trabzon. Petra in Jordan:


Thursday, December 6, 2012

alt.cover: Learn Thai with Me

A first-draft idea for the cover of Learn Thai with Me:

This cover was an attempt to recreate the feel of an inexpensive phrase book circa 1960s or 1970s.
These phrase books look a little more slick these days, but they still look pretty quickly done:

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

E-books as they should be: a dollar each

Got an e-reader? Me too. And it's OK! I like having books in one place with the ability to browse them willy-nilly (There! I finally used "willy-nilly" in a blog post!). On the other hand, ever since I got my e-reader, I've started noticing something: real books—that is, print editions—are a whole lot cheaper than digital editions of books.

In fact, as a result of the digital explosion, books in print are showing up freely all over the place. Or at least I assume the rise of digital books is why, in the course of the last year, I have found in free boxes on my neighborhood streets copies of The InstructionsOlive Kitteridge, and The Trial of Socrates, to name just three of the books I'm looking forward to reading for free. And then I also noticed the pickings were better than usual at the annual used book fundraiser for my son's school. I count the quality of the pickings by the number of available Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene novels available. I picked up some. Two bucks each.

What's the point? The point is that the e-reader is in a very strange period right now. The potential is enormous, but let's face it, when it runs $11.99 to add The Sun Also Rises to my reader, I'm going to just pull my old print copy from the shelves instead. That $11.99 looks like a lost opportunity to the publisher. People like me would re-buy the book for the convenience of adding it to the old digital shelf for a buck or two, but shelling out $12 a pop for older but not-quite-public-domain titles gets far too expensive far too quickly.

As a result my e-reader is public-domain heavy right now. That and books I have made myself. I am not very motivated to casually acquire digital copies in the same way that I have accumulated print copies over the years.

And that is why we offer XPat Fiction books for one dollar at our own e-book store. Perfect for holiday gift-giving because after you've gone and bought all those gifts, you're going to need to save a little money buying digital editions for your e-reader.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

From the Authenticity art gallery: The Alba Madonna

Raphael's Alba Madonna is a much-discussed painting in Authenticity. As featured in the gallery:

Sunday, December 2, 2012

To Maria Callas

Harrison Bacon, central character in RJ Huddy's The Verse of the Sword, is a little obsessed with Maria Callas. Here's what Arthur Silber wrote on this day in 2005:

Had she lived, Maria Callas would have celebrated her 82nd birthday today. It is only fitting that, in a life filled with controversy, the first dispute should concern this usually simple fact: Callas herself insisted she was born on December 2; other records indicate the fourth to be the correct date. She left us in 1977, when she was only 53 years old. She once remarked: "First I lost my voice, then I lost my figure and then I lost Onassis." She lost the ability to make her artistic vision real, which was her soul's reason for being, then she lost what she believed to be her physical allure -- an attractiveness she achieved at great personal cost, in service to her art in the first instance -- and then she lost perhaps the only man to make her feel truly feminine, and genuinely like a woman. When it was all gone, Callas felt there was no reason to go on -- so she died. Some of her friends still believe her death was largely self-willed. (Here is a site with a wealth of information about her.)

Callas was indisputably a supremely great artist, one of the very highest and most demanding rank -- an artist who comes along only a very few times in a generation, if we are extraordinarily lucky. This obviously does not mean that a listener has to love Callas's voice, in terms of its basic quality alone, above all others. With regard to lushness, richness, timbre or what is often referred to simply as beauty (a term which is unhelpfully most often left very vague in terms of a more specific meaning), one may prefer Renata Tebaldi, for example. In certain moods, I prefer to listen to Tebaldi myself, if what I want to hear above all else is a sound of almost inhuman, ineffable purity. Very early Tebaldi, up to the late 1950s, is what you want for such occasions. Callas's severest critics will sometimes gleefully point out her many technical failings, especially in the later stages of her very brief career.
 The rest, an indispensable tribute, is here.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Is Esther Chambers an expatriate?

I posted a review of Little Century over on another blog, and now that I think about it, the case could be made that the big story of that book is essentially that of an expatriate arriving in a new country. In this case, the ex-pat is the young girl who travels from her home in Chicago to Oregon's high desert country, where she occupies a homestead.