Monday, January 28, 2008

The Best American Short Stories 2007

The Best American Short Stories 2007.Houghton Mifflin Company.
398 pages.Edited by Stephen King.

After 2006's underwhelming offering I approached this edition with some trepidation.I was moderately surprised.There was no gloomy stench of death similar to that which hung over its predecessor.
Saying that however,death does feature in several of the stories such as "The Wake","Findings and Impressions" and "Sans Farine".But its not the fundamental encompassing preoccupation of these works."Death" with a small 'd'.

Stephen King notes in his introduction as editor that if the stories have anything in common .."its that sense of emotional involvement".
Im not sure how emotionally involving the majority of the stories are given that two weeks have passed and Im struggling to recall the details of many.A few stuck in my mind such as the already noted "The Wake" and "L DeBard and Aliette:A Love Story.
As this years editor was Stephen King I expected some off beat unusual choices but nothing really stood out in terms of horror,thrills,awkwardness or originality.

I also expected his choices would be long short stories or novellas,similar in length to his own works such as "The Shawshank Redemption" or "Stand By Me".However,looking back over the last five years of this series there doesnt seem to be any great discrepancy.In fact by my rough calculations this years offerings are of average length.Maybe Im getting more impatient or losing my powers of concentration.

Whatever.It still begs the question as to how long is a short story?Is there a word or page limit?Must it be able to be devoured in one sitting or put down and taken up again like a novel?
If there is a theme running through these stories I think its more basic and complex than emotional involvement between writer and reader.Relationships.Not only between couples,family members and friends but also co-workers and members of the same gender.
Relationships.Developed.Successful.Struggling and still-born.

For the most part this years choices are an improvement on last years which isnt really a ringing endorsement but are worth the investment in money and time to read.

Plum Bonsai Show

There was a display of bonsai plum trees held over the weekend in the Seiutei Teahouse at Shirotori Garden.

The traditional teahouse built in the centre of the Garden is used for a variety of cultural events including tea ceremonies,concerts and flower arranging displays.

The tatami mats and wooden interior provided a suitable setting for the flowering trees.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Friday Flash...A Slice of Cake.

Two photos of slices of gateaux or cake available from a local bakery here in Osu Kannon.The first features a chocolate sponge with a centre of cream and sliced banana.On the top is a walnut and a thin chocolate disk held in place by fresh whipped cream.

Below is a slice of strawberry sponge cake.In the middle of the sponge there is a strawberry and fresh cream filling.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ukiyo-e...Japanese Woodblock Prints

The Nagoya Boston Museum of Fine Arts has a ukiyo-e exhibition which has just begun.There are 150 odd woodblock prints,printed books and paintings from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Coming hard on the heels of the Toulouse Lautrec show which piqued my interest in ukiyo-e I ambled down to Kanayama last weekend.
Ukiyo-e or "pictures of the floating world" depict everyday life in eighteenth century Japan.Scenes from teahouses,brothels and kabuki theatre are on show as are prints of insects,sumo wrestlers,landscapes,actors and animals.
One section of the show that attracted a lot of attention explained the process of print making.First an artist copies the original design onto transparent paper.An artisan then carved it on one or more blocks of cherry wood.A publisher then prints the impressions on a robust type of paper called hosh,made from the mulberry tree bark.(Collins Big Book of Art pg 208).All the tools,chisels,cherry blocks and brushes are also on display giving the viewer some idea of the skills and time involved.

The exhibition is set out in chronological order so you can see the development of the prints from simple black and white monochrome ones to the later more colourful and contrasting prints where a separate block was prepared for each colour.
All the well-known names have examples of their work on show.Kitagawa Utamoro known for his depiction of women,birds and animals and Suzuki Harunobu noted for his picturs of actors and lovers appear.Landscape prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige appear including examples from his Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji series.
Ukiyo-e was often used for illustrations in books and used as posters for kabuki theatres.Looking at some of them its easy to see the connection between them and Toulouse Lautrecs posters.Some of the poses and composition are very similiar...see last weeks review.
For my part I found this exhibition educational and interesting.Given the number of other gallery goers I wasnt alone.I was impressed at how well preserved and fresh some of the prints remained.Many of the colours still looked striking despite the age of the prints.
The show runs till April 6th and admission is 1,200 yen an adult.The exhibition is on two floors so you have to take the escalator up to see the final 30 or 40 exhibits.Theres also an English language sheet available for those like me who cant read the Japanese captions.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Friday Flash...UpMarket Bentos

Having received my first full monthly salary since September after the demise of Nova Corp,I decided to celebrate.I purchased these two lunchboxes from a shop in the Mitsukoshi Department Store basement foodcourt.The one above contains potato and ham salad and a small serving of coconut and mandarin dessert.The six sushi rolls include a variety of fish,seafood and cream cheese.

This second bento is also colourful and has a number of different tastes and textures.
Under the fried lotus root rings in the centre of the lunchbox there are three medallions of meat surrounded by a spicy Chinese vegetable salad.At the back in the purple patty pan there is a mouthful size offering of seaweed and mushrooms.In the foreground,the crimson-reddish patty pan contains some pickled vegetables.
While a little more expensive than their supermarket equivalents I feel its worth it in terms of the presentation,care and attention that distinguishes them from their run of the mill counterparts.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Toulouse-Lautrec Exhibition

I spent a couple of hours Friday morning at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art viewing the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition that ended last weekend.Subtitled "la vie parisienne" it covered the last 10 years of his short 36 year life.On display were some 300 odd works including paintings,drawings and the posters for which he is widely known for.According to my copy of Art for Dummies Toulouse-Lautrec "was and wasnt an Impressionist and stands alone with a personalised and quirky form of realism"(pg 155).
I was intrigued by the inclusion of a number of Japanese wood block prints in the show.These woodblock prints or ukiyo-e(literally "pictures of the floating world") began filtering into Europe from the 1850s and became available for purchase in some specialised stores in Paris.A number of the European painters of the time,including Toulouse-Lautrec, adopted in their own work some features of the prints.
In his posters,you can see for example, his use of black silhouetted figures and black,background shapes that were commonly employed in ukiyo-e.Some of the poses and stances of figures in his posters again look reminiscent of the earlier prints.As does his use of clear outlines and the use of contrasting flat areas of colour with areas of patterns.
It was interesting to walk back and forth between the Japanese prints and the posters and compare the styles.
I was pleased I made the effort to see this show.Even though there were no real stand outs for me on display it was still worthwhile seeing the paintings and posters first hand.I also appreciated the opportunity to see how Japanese wood block prints influenced his work particularly in the design of his posters.

Bonsai..Where Size Aint Everything.

Last weekend saw the 78th Annual Bonsai Exhibition hit town at Fukiage Hall in Chikusa.Inside a chilly,crowded aircraft hangar like structure,row upon row of immaculately manicured bonsai specimens sat.Ready and poised for their yearly audience before their admiring masses.
The word 'bonsai' is a combination of the Japanese word 'bon' meaning a shallow container and 'sai' meaning plants.
You could roughly divide the exhibits into three classes.The smallest group were those you could carry with one hand.The middle group being those plants growing in a container that requires a person to use both hands to carry it while those in the largest category are grown in a container that need two people to carry them safely.
Many of the specimens appeared to be either goyo matsu (Japanese White Pine),hinoki (cypress),maples or junipers.There were also a number of flowering cherry and dwarf apple and kaki(persimmon) trees making up the numbers.

As well as the variation in size it was obvious even to my uneducated eyes that there are a number of ways to train and grow bonsai plants.
Some of the pines were trimmed and pruned to give them a symmetrical,layered look with not a needle out of place.Others had their branches and trunks gnarled and knotted through the judicious use of copper wire and weights.In fact some of them looked almost as hunched and doubled up as the majority of the people viewing them.
Bonsai doesnt seem to appeal to anyone under the age of 60 if my cursory glances around the hall were any indication.Which is a shame but perhaps understandable given the amount of time,care,patience and attention such a hobby requires.There are no instant results,no quick adrenalin rushes,no bonsai groupies.

It was unfortunate that photos were forbidden in the hall because some displays were spectacular.In particular a small grove of maples in a bed of mint green moss. Fragile roots exposed.Branches bereft of buds.Skeletal trunks.
Or the flowering cherry with its roots encompassing a small volcanic rock which appeared to be in danger of exploding under the pressure.
The photo above shows a cheap pine I bought at one of the trade tables at the show.One could purchase a seedling like this for a modest 800 yen or really lash out and purchase a more developed specimen and spend in the order of 40,000yen or more.

In these days when my email is full of spam promoting products to increase the size of various parts of my anatomy and where obesity is becoming a lifestyle choice,it is reassuring to know that at least as far as bonsai is concerned small is still beautiful.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Friday Flash...Kagimochi

Another New Year decoration commonly seen is the kagimochi.Traditionally it is an offering to the god of the incoming year and placed on the family altar before New Years.On January 11th,known as kagami biraki, it is broken up and eaten by members of the household.
Kagimochi is a small,round,two tiered sticky rice cake made from mochi rice.It looks similar to a headless snowman.It usually has a small bitter orange on top.The orange is known as a daiai which is a homonymn for the word "generations" and considered lucky.
The kagimochi above has a plastic rodent atop instead of an orange as 2008 is the Year of Mouse.
Mochi rice cakes are made from boiled sticky rice or mochi-gome.The mochi-gome is hit repeatedly with a wooden mallet-like hammer until it becomes sticky.It is then formed into rice cakes or made into kagimochi decorations.
As mochi is very sticky around New Years it contributes to a number of deaths caused by choking.It seems that elderly people in particular are susceptible to choking on mochi.This year it was variously reported that 5 elderly people died and at least 5 others were admitted into hospitals after choking on mochi cakes over the New Year period.Perhaps the mochi cakes should come with a health warning.

Monday, January 07, 2008

MiddleMarch...Ring for Jeeves....Book Review

by George Eliot.Oxford University Press 1999.Introduction by A.S Byatt.924 pages.
The subtitle "A Study of Provincial Life" gives the reader a hint of what the author was trying to achieve by writing this novel.Its a mixture of sociological,historical and philosophical thoughts.Among other things.Such as small town persecution of strangers and outsiders,gossip and relationships not only between the different classes but between men and women.Of course the concept of marriage is also well traversed as illustrated by the part it plays in the lives of the two main characters Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate.The motivation for getting married be it for money,stability,social standing or security is also examined in the lives of other characters in the book.
I found it a difficult book to read for a number of reasons.First there was an actual physical problem with reading the novel.The actual type is miniscule and it required a lot of concentration just to focus on the sentences in mid page without going cross-eyed.Obvivously not Eliots fault but it did detract from the enjoyment.
Secondly,I found it at times too ponderous.I know its 900 odd pages long but much of the book seems to be taken up with descriptive passages and philosphical tracts that dont advance the story or plot lines. By the mid way point,around 500 pages into it,I had considered giving up but continued on the grounds I had already invested a large chunk of time to it.While Im glad I perserved I would approach reading another Eliot with caution.

Ring for Jeeves by P.G Wodehouse.Sphere Books Ltd 1971 150 pages.
After the three month or so struggle with MiddleMarch I read this much lighter book in three days.Lighter in weight and tone.Maybe more forgettable but probably more enjoyable.
It is however interesting to compare the two books.Both were written in times of great social change.MiddleMarch is set in the time of the Reform Acts and the advent of railways and industrial advances.
Likewise the Wodehouse book is set in the 1950s as one character claims"We are living now in what is known as the Welfare State,which means broadly that everybody is destitute"pg104.
Both authors have a character named "Bulstrode" in their respective novels.The Eliot Bulstrode does however have the more significant role of the two.
Both authors have great descriptive powers particularly Eliot as was noted above."Mr Cadwaller was a large man,with full lips and a sweet smile;very plain and rough in his exterior but with that solid imperturable ease and good humour which is infectious"pg74.Obviously with 900 odd pages at her disposal she can afford to wax lyrical about all kinds of things in some depth.
Not to be outdone and taking into account the much shorter 150 page length I think this Wodehouse description equally good..."Nature in her bounty had bestowed so many pimples that there was scarcely room on his face for the vacant grin which habitually adorned it"pg145.
While I have reservations about attempting another Eliot I have none regarding Wodehouse.No doubt the payoff with reading an Eliot is greater but I feel its much like climbing Mt Fuji.Ive done it once and while parts were enjoyable I cant see much point in repeating the exercise.

KitKat Cherry Balls

KitKat Balls
According to the old calendar we have entered the coldest part of winter.Hence I was a little surprised when I saw this packet of cherry flavoured KitKats on the shelves of a small shop on a local train platform.
Firstly,its the first time Ive seen circular KitKats.If you cut a cross-section with a knife you find a layer of wafer surrounded by the cherry filling.
Secondly,it struck me as odd to see something I associate with the season of Spring and the months of April and March appearing in the midst of Winter and January.
Maybe I can put it down to global warming or commercial pressures but it does seem odd.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Friday Flash..Hatsumode 2008 (part 1)

Hatsumode refers to the first visit you make to a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple each New Year.
Traditionally,Japanese people crowd such places en masse over the first few days of the New Year starting from midnight January 1st to pray for a good New Year.

The photo above shows the throngs waiting on January 1st at Osu Kannon.While it wasnt snowing,it was bitterly cold with an Arctic wind blowing into the well wrapped up masses.

As well as stalls selling the almost obligatory lucky charms in the temple courtyard, there were also the usual food stalls set up nearby.
Steam can be seen rising from the potato stand where the hot potatoes were literally selling like...

This okonomiyaki stand was also doing a brisk trade as customers formed a patient, orderly line as their meal was cooked.

Another staple like okonomiyaki, to be found at festivals and public events is the choco-banana.This was a steal,literally at 300yen each, but very hard to resist with a generous coating of chocolate.

The shot above shows a traditional New Years decoration called a kadamatsu.Translated literally it means gate pine.Again,like the shimekazari below,the design varies.It can be simply a twig of pine branches taped to a gate or as elaborate as the one above.Typically such decorations include pine,bamboo and ume or plum branches and sprigs which in turn represent longevity,prosperity and reliability.
The centrepiece of the kadamatsu is formed from three bamboo branches or shoots.Again according to traditional Japanese flower arranging each of these three branches are cut to different heights.They represent heaven,humanity and earth with heaven being the tallest and earth the shortest of the three.
These decorations are usually placed in pairs at either side of gates or the main entrances of businesses or homes for the first few days of the New Year.

Friday Flash..Hatsumode 2008 (part 2)

These photos below show some examples of New Year decorations or shimekazari which are hung on or over the front door.

There are many different designs but generally it is a rope or straw decoration from which a shide or white strip of paper hangs.

Shimekazari are hung on or over doors to both show the temporary residence of the God of the New Year or Toshigami who brings good luck and also to deter bad spirits from entering the home.