Lost Japan

Lost Japan, by Alex Kerr (Penguin, 2016)

*

Lost Japan is a sort of love letter to the author’s adopted homeland in the Far East. In this collection of essays (which are edited together pretty well into a coherent narrative), Kerr uses his many decades of expertise in Japanese history and art to let us know why Japan was such a brilliant and unique nation.

Japan is a treasure house of uniqueness. As an island off the Asian mainland, it was able to absorb cultural influences from China and Southeast Asia while at the same time preserving near-total isolation as a society. It became a sort of pressure cooker into which many ingredients went, but from which none came out.

He goes on for countless pages about the beauty of kabuki and the wonderful simplicity of Japanese homes and arts. It is not the lines on the page, nor the notes in the song, but rather than space between it all that is what makes everything so beautiful… 

However, his book is not just a love-letter to Japan. It is lament for the fact that Japan is now just about the ugliest place on earth, in his assessment. He observes the numerous ways in which Japan has been destroyed – and not by the Allies in WWII, but rather by its own people. Its arts and culture are all but dead, he says, and the “The wholesale collapse of the natural environment…will one day been seen as one of the major events of this century.” He tells us how the countryside has been raped by industry, how forests have been cleared and replaced by uniform pine trees, and how the cities are ugly cesspits marred by pachinko parlors.

But at least it’s not as bad as modern China…

It amazes me that Kerr won a prestigious award for this book back when it was first released – in Japanese – in the mid-1990s. I don’t mean to say it’s not a great book because it really is excellent. Rather, it’s so astoundingly critical of Japan that it’s hard to imagine people there accepting the word of a foreigner in such matters. Certainly, that could never happen in China or South Korea. Yet such is the clarity of his explanations and the passion for an old Japan long since ruined that readers could hardly deny his vision.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

The Travelling Cat Chronicles, by Hiro Awikawa (Random House UK, 2017)

*

In The Travelling Cat Chronicles, the reader is introduced to Nana, a male cat with an odd name. The name is given to him by Satoru, the man who saves Nana’s life after a bad car accident. The two become fast friends and live together until, for reasons that aren’t explained until much later in the book, Satoru needs to give Nana away.

We are taken on a beautiful journey across Japan as Satoru drives his silver van with Nana sitting beside him, nose pressed up against the window. It is mostly Nana who narrates the story, telling us what he sees as they go from place to place. On their journey, Satoru seeks three old friends and asks them to take in his beloved pet cat, but he won’t tell them why he needs to give Nana up, either.

As we follow this journey, the narrative becomes more complex and takes us into Satoru’s past, to his tragic childhood as it intertwines with the lives of his three friends. Finally, after deciding that none of his friends can take Nana from him, he goes to his Aunt Noriko, who raised him as a young boy. From here I will give no more plot details to avoid spoiling the book.

This novel is heart-wrenching and yet often incredibly funny. It is also inspiring, as it shows us the very best of life – the love between people, and between humans and animals. Satoru is an almost angelic figure, and the cat’s devotion to him, in turn, is admirable. I particularly enjoyed the cat’s perspective, which the author attempts to give yet at the same time compelling his narrator to do the seemingly inexplicable things that cats do. The result is a warm and funny novel.

How to be a King

A 6 year old girl

Sits splayed on the floor, a golden crown nestled

In a tangle of matted brown hair. To rule a country, she thought –

What would I need? The power to command, she thought –

The power to control. Or is it perchance,

Riches galore, to pave the way to the throne in gold,

To have the world at my feet, the chance to grow old

While others around me fight for my peace.

 

The little girl grew and as she aged

Was scarred in places, she never dared say –

Doubled over too long, knees locked at her face

Despair. All at once and again, picked up the crown,

To nestle back in her hair.

To learn about Kings, she thought –

I have danced at night to the song of the trees,

Shaking their branches and thorns as they scraped

Down my knees.

 

I have lived yet,

I am a King

The Golden House

The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2017)

*

Rushdie’s latest novel is set against the backdrop of the Obama administration. It features a mysterious family who move into a New York neighborhood from a country that cannot be named… except that it is named, and it’s India. These bizarre people, who call themselves Golden and give themselves other names from Ancient Rome, like Nero, attempt to hide their past, and the narrator, a film-maker, attempts to uncover it. 

The narrator, whose name we find out eventually is René, is unreliable and annoying. Rushdie is playful in his story-telling, but the playfulness soon loses its charm. The childish voice becomes irritating quickly, and the reader is left wanting a different approach to what could have been a very interesting story. The numerous pop culture references seem forced and silly, as though the author is simply wanting his book to gain some cheap acceptance by people who are capable of remembering things that happened five years ago.

This book lacks subtlety, lacks interest, lacks a coherent, engaging voice, and lacks just about anything else to make it at all worth reading.

Homo Deus

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper, 2015)

*

What does the future hold for humanity?

This is a question that many writers, artists, and thinkers have tried to answer. In fact, predicting the future is a sort of industry. Beyond sci-fi, serious writers have attempted to map out the future of our species in daring works of non-fiction. Yet Harari’s is one of the most believable.

Yuval Noah Harari is a historian, and his previous book, Sapiens, is one of my favourite books. In that text, he masterfully explored the entirety of our species’ history, and in this one he looks into the near future. He often makes bold claims, but then tempers them with caution that no one could know the future, as well as offering tempting evidence to support his ideas. 

He starts off where the previous book left, by looking into the past. Here, he concludes – with the first of many seemingly shocking claims – that humans have defeated the problems that have tormented us since the dawn of time. We no longer suffer from disease, hunger, or war, he says. (Of course, he acknowledges that we do, but only in rather isolated cases and that, for example, more people die from eating too much than too little.)

For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals combined.

Thus, Harari turns to the future. If we have beaten the problems that have always plagued us, where now do we turn? We turn ourselves into gods, of course. That means humanity will in the future seek to achieve happiness, immortality, and divinity. (For some reason, he always lists his ideas and examples in sets of three.) This change, however, will not by conscious. We will not decide to do these things, but rather we will step-by-step graduate into them without realizing it, even if it happens quickly:

In pursuit of health, happiness, and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be humans.

The rest of the book sort of follows these ideas, but it wanders significantly into different but related territories. Structurally, it’s almost a stream-of-consciousness work as it wanders hither and thither, covering animal rights and artificial intelligence, the validity of human experience and the importance of data, and even speculating as to whether our world is real or just a simulation. He zips between the distant past, the present, and the decades to come in order to ask and answer questions about what we can expect humans to do.

Yet even if it goes off track a little, and is sometimes a bit repetitive, it is always readable. Harari knows how to explain very complex matters in simple language. He delves into deep science and philosophy, as well as areas from across the whole of human history, and the reader is not overwhelmed. It is a pleasure to follow his arguments.

Forest Dark

Forest Dark, by Nicole Krauss (Bloomsbury, 2017)

*

Nicole Krauss’ forthcoming novel is an odd one. It tells two stories that are clearly linked, and yet at the same time the characters may as well be living in different realities. On the one hand there is Jules Epstein, an old man who’s retired, recently divorced, and just lost his parents. He appears to be suffering an existential crisis, although reading this novel I felt it may well have been a degenerative disease because of references to memory loss. On the other, there’s Nicole, a novelist with writer’s block and also suffering a crisis of sorts. Both characters, although they are unrelated, are drawn towards Israel, and in particular the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv. 

The book starts out with a witty and engaging mystery as Epstein goes missing. The second chapter is jarring as it brings us straight into Nicole’s story without warning, and for a while it seems that Nicole may be Epstein’s daughter. For the longest time, we are left wondering when their paths will cross, but this never happens. They are only linked by this attraction to the Hilton, and by certain philosophical ideas about infinity.

On a sentence level, this is a hell of a book. Krauss writes beautifully and brings up seriously deep ideas. However, structurally, it is quite off-putting. Nicole’s sections (the book flips from one to the other) are sort of stream-of-consciousness and include a lot of philosophizing and digressing. Just when you think something is about to happen, you get page upon page of ideas and memories and nothing much does happen. There is a plot about Kafka, and a whole lot of talk about Jewish lore and how nothing can become something, and at times it is wonderful to read, but a lot the time it is a bit tedious.

Startup

Startup, by Doree Shafrir (Little, Brown, and Company, 2017)

*

Startup grabs you from the very first pages. Like Douglas Coupland, Doree Shafrir socks you with cultural reference after cultural reference. The book is absolutely up to the minute. Her characters don’t take taxis; they use Uber. They don’t send texts or use Messenger; they use Slack and Snapchat. It’s actually quite impressive that she has captured 2017 so well in novel form, with a cast of mostly millennials that seem pretty real and startups developing apps that are plausibly ridiculous.

The novel revolves around a startup whose founder is trying to make it into a billion dollar company and a tech website whose reporters are eager to take him down. As the lives of these characters – who are only vaguely related at the beginning – become more entwined, the women in the novel take it into their hands to destroy the men. As an office romance falls apart, Mack McAllister gets desperate and sends a few drunken messages to his ex, an employee. These are seen – in an almost Thomas Hardy-esque situation – by Katya, a reporter for TechScene.

Startup is in many respects a really good novel, but it is also a clumsy feminist take-down of tech culture wherein all the male characters are archetypal scumbags and the women – who invariably have more depth – are eventually willing to draw upon all their strength to punish the men for their mistakes. It makes the book seem to lack depth, heart, and restraint at points. Towards the end, there is too much half-witted philosophizing and the book falls apart a bit.

Still, politics aside, Shafrir’s book is mostly enjoyable and makes for a solid summer read.

Born to Run

Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster, 2016)

*

Bruce Springsteen is one of the most important musicians of the last century, and certainly one of the most iconic rock stars. His long-awaited autobiography seeks to shed light on his working class background and rise to international superstardom. Unfortunately, what results is a tedious, horribly written, and often egotistical reflection. 

While the stories are vaguely interesting and the backgrounds to his albums are certainly valuable, sadly this book is dragged down by the fact that it is clearly written by an inexperienced writer. Springsteen may be one of the greatest rock stars of all time, but he is a terrible author, and the people at Simon & Schuster really ought to have insisted upon a ghostwriter or, at least, a better editor.

From the offset, reading a book that is so filled with mixed metaphors, exclamation marks, RANDOM PHRASES IN ALL CAPS, and frequent misuse of the word “literally” is disarming and annoying. It feels like it was written by a child. Getting through the first half of the book is nothing short of a chore. Thankfully, by that point one becomes accustomed to this irritating style of writing, and the rest can be enjoyed a little more.

I would not recommend this book to anyone, especially Bruce Springsteen fans. They say don’t meet your heroes. Well, I’d add to that “…or read their shitty autobiographies.”

Post-Truth

Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back, by Matthew d’Ancona (Ebury Press, 2017)

*

That politicians lie is not exactly news, and no one would surely bother reading a book about that well-established fact. However, in recent years there has been a disturbing trend wherein we no longer seem to care that they lie. This is the topic of Matthew d’Ancona’s new book, Post-Truth, in which he suggests something very alarming:

We no longer expect our elected politicians to speak the truth: that, for now, has been written out of the job description, or at least significantly relegated on the list of required attributes.

Naturally, as a book published in 2017 about the effects of fake news, it makes numerous references to the tragic rise of Donald Trump and the regrettable decision by the people of the United Kingdom to leave the EU. However, these are not the subject of the book, which looks more broadly at the history of and importance of truth, and where it all stopped mattering. He gets into climate change denial, anti-vaxxers, and other conspiracy theorists, stating that, “like an infection resisting antibiotics, a virulent conspiracy theory can fend off even incontestable facts.”

For such a short book, Post-Truth does cover a lot of ground. It looks beyond Brexit and Trump to other examples of the diminishing value of truth in our society, exploring why we no longer care so much for facts. Of course, he gets into the rise of the internet and people’s growing distrust of the mainstream media (although, tellingly, as a proponent of the MSM himself he fails to acknowledge its role in moving us into the post-truth world).

It seems that these days people prefer emotions to facts, and that reality is often less appealing than a carefully crafted but utterly false statement like, “Make America Great Again,” which, he says, “may have won votes, but are also insultingly hollow.” D’Ancona explores various examples of politicians and media outlets blatantly exploiting people’s emotions and, in the process, getting them to move away from an appreciation of anything that is factually true.

Although it may seem depressing to live in a world where Donald Trump can be elected to the most powerful office and people will blindly follow the most obvious lies, doubling down on their certainty even when presented with undeniable evidence that they are wrong, d’Ancona suggest that it is not all so bleak, and the book ends on an upbeat note, with some advice for stemming this tide of idiocy. He acknowledges that “the gap between rhetoric and reality breeds disenchantment and distrust,” but suggests that those on the side of reality – ie people who believe in science and truth – ought to deliver their facts in a more palatable way. “Truth requires an emotional delivery system that speaks to experience, memory, and hope,” he says. If Trump and the Brexiters could win people’s support by sugar-coating obvious lies, why not sugar-coat incontrovertible truths to make them more appealing?

The Business Traveler’s Guide To Southeast Asia

The Business Traveler’s Guide To Southeast Asia: smart tips from a seasoned international warrior, by Colin Restall (The Colville Publishing Company, 2017)

*

Colin Restall is a businessman with twenty years’ experience in Southeast Asia, and in this ebook he shares his insight into some of the countries with which he’s most familiar. In addition to the geographically located Southeast Asian nations, he also includes Hong Kong, which is another major hub of business, albeit slightly outside of the region by some definitions.

His book first tackles general travel information, then specific information about the countries he has chosen to describe, and finally he moves into some more general information about each individual country. The result is a book that is essentially quite useful for people intending to travel to Southeast Asian on business.

The first section is, however, rather too basic. Perhaps it is due to my own experience in travelling, but the information contained here is just too obvious. The only people for whom this would be worthwhile are those who’ve never even read a single word about Southeast Asia.

When it comes to the middle section, however, the details given about actually interacting with people in each country are better. There is some genuinely valuable descriptions of the major airports that would be useful even for experienced travellers, too. In particular, the author’s dissection of Asia’s business card culture is fascinating (and, in my experience, it is entirely accurate). 

I can’t imagine why he chose to put the most general information at the back of the book. Each of these sections gives an overview of the various previously described countries, but reads more like a Wikipedia article. Knowing a few details about ancient societies who lived in these places doesn’t really seem in-keeping with the rest of the book, and if it were to be included, it should surely come earlier than it does.

The biggest fault with this book, however, is the author’s gross over-use of exclamation points. These should be used sparingly in any book, and even a light-hearted ebook ought to be comparatively free. Yet throughout Restall’s guide, he peppers his sentences with exclamation points that this reviewer found unbearable.