HOLT UNCENSORED #21
by Pat Holt
NOTE: I'd love to take credit for blowing the circuits of Northern California with this one, but no, a massage power outage blacked out San Francisco just as Holt Uncensored went to press. PG&E sends apologies for the delay.
Wednesday, December 9, 1998
1: OFFBEAT AND UNORTHODOX:
365 Views of Mt. Fuji
They Call Me Mad Dog
2: AMAZON LEAVES ENYART (SORT OF)
1.OFFBEAT AND UNORTHODOX
All right, all you admirers of original writing (yes, there is some!), let's take a journey to the land of the offbeat and unorthodox to see what's a'popping and a'buzzing this holiday season.
Some of the books below will make perfect gifts for that adventurous reader on your list - or they may alienate and offend just about everyone you know (same thing).
365 VIEWS OF MT. FUJI: Algorithms of the Floating World by Todd Shimoda, illustrations by L.J.C. Shimoda (Stone Bridge; 356 pages; $19.95 paperback; here's fun place to order - see note below - send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
If you think nothing's new under the (rising) sun, take a look at this oversized (9" x 7.5") and beautifully constructed novel about a young art curator in Japan who is hired for mysterious reasons to create a museum at an industrial robot factory.
In many ways, the life of the curator, Keizo Yukawa - narcissistic, technically proficient, emotionally empty - is a blank canvas itself as he begins a Kafkaesque journey toward understanding the difference between art and artificial intelligence, free will and destiny, independence and paranoia.
The text of Keizo's story sits in the middle of each double-page spread, deliberately interrupted by careless drops of ink and expertly precise pen-and-ink illustrations that evoke aspects of the story we might otherwise miss. In the margins on either side, serialized subplots and character profiles effortlessly complement and extend Keizo's story.
It's a perfect novel for the computer generation (and ain't we all part of that one), because every page evokes a "menu" of choices that challenge our ability to explore this scattered literary mystery yet follow each narrative thread. Along the way author Shimoda teaches us a great deal about ukiyo-e, the art of the Edo period (1615-1868). Ukiyo-e is translated as "the floating world," and comes from "a Buddhist concept referring to the transience of life in this world of suffering."
Keizo's job seems simple at first. In the mid-1800s, a poor but gifted artist named Takenoko painted a different view of Mt. Fuji every day for a year. (His efforts mirror the real-life series by Japan's famous woodblock artist Hokusai in the legendary "One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji.)
The Takenoko paintings have been collected by three members of the Ono family - Ichiro, the industrialist who owns the robot factory; his sister, Akiko, who runs an historic hot springs inn; and his brother, Gun, a nightclub owner with possible links to organized crime. Tension builds as Keizo finds that each one is at odds with the other, and each one wants something increasingly threatening from him.
The great flaw of the novel is that Keizo, heading always toward psychic and spiritual transformation, remains one-dimensional and immature for too long. He whines, he hesitates, he worries, he retreats until we're driven to distraction. But thanks to Shimoda's genius for keeping a dozen brilliantly different but related stories rolling at once, in the midst of our frustration with Keizo, we're both sidetracked and returned to the novel's center time and again by the subdramas found in the margins.
Early on, for example, Shimoda intrigues with his description of Keizo's girlfriend, Junko, a performance artist who seems to eat only pink glazed donuts and who wears a "giant, plasticized pink glazed doughnut around her waist." When Junko offers a real pink glazed doughnut to a homeless man, Keizo complains, "Why give [the homeless] something so nutritionally worthless as a pink glazed doughnut?"
Junko's answer: "Nutrition only affects the future. The homeless have a hunger that needs to be satisfied today." Well, you can ponder the empty thinking (or is it meaningful commentary) that dominates urban life Tokyo to New York. Or you can observe how Junko's intermittent presence adds to the deepening purpose of each scene. Or you can follow this narrative thread right into the exquisitely woven texture of Shimoda's increasingly complex tapestry of a novel.
*One way to order this book: Click to the Stone Lion Bookstore in Ft. Collins, Colorado (or send email query to email@example.com). It's not a great website for ordering books, but the staff at Stone Lion got so excited about a visit by Shimoda that they piled copies of the book into a circular cone that resembled Mt. Fuji right by the entrance. If you can't resist that kind of visual, give those folks at The Stone Lion your order. SWITCH by Carol Guess (Calyx; 272 pages; $14.95 paperback; $28.95 hardcover)
Set almost entirely at a diner in Cartwheel, Indiana, this often-eloquent and very different coming-of-age story introduces a waitress named Caddie, who is careful to hide a not-so-terrifying (in fact joyous but still ominous) secret. The factory worker named Joe with whom she lives is really a woman named Jo, and together these two have created a kind of love - deep, knowing, passionate, sometimes other-worldly - that takes them from the (graphically described) sexual to the (dangerously seductive) sacred.
Caddie and Jo's relationship is observed but not "seen" by the assembly-line men at the brake factory who heckle Jo with affection when they see "him" kissing Caddie goodbye each morning. "It amazes me now to think it," Caddie tells us, "but we were never found out, and after the first year or so we began to take the men's comments for granted, to believe in them ourselves, to believe that we were assured a place in their particular order."
Each character's understanding of universal order lies at the heart of this multi-layered novel, but right off the bat, Caddie tells us that Jo has inexplicably vanished. Every morning she wakes "with the taste of Jo's skin on my lips, as if my mouth had a memory," and gradually we learn the whole story (sometimes told by Jo herself) of the two lovers' real secret, one that nobody in Cartwheel would ever understand - or so Caddie believes.
Young and inexperienced, thinking that "because Jo was the first person to say that she loved me, I did not know who I was now," Caddie learns about life through her exhausting work at the diner and her increasingly intimate-yet-distant relationships with the other waitresses, cook and owners.
It's unfortunate that the pace of the novel slows to a crawl as little actually happens after Jo leaves. Events occur that are intriguing in themselves - a wedding, a visit by Mormon missionaries, a baby - and few readers will forget the waitresses' discovery of a perfectly preserved dead fawn whose legs and head have been arranged to suit a deranged murderer's tableau. Nevertheless, as anecdotes pile up on each other, the lack of a driving narrative force is palpable.
Still, novelist Guess proves to be a sure and audacious writer whose eye for the telling detail is marvelously evident, even in her many throwaway lines. Customers smitten with one of the waitresses "glance up at Gwen and smile like some busted star." Wearing lipstick, Caddie finds that "the waxy feel of gloss makes my words sticky." As she waits for change at the supermarket, Caddie sees a "puddle of coins appear at the bottom of a metal dish." From inside an interloper's Bible, a "red leather bookmark [is] sticking out like a tongue."
Guess, author of the promising short-story collection, Seeing Dell (Cleis, 1996), is a novelist to watch.
THEY CALL ME MAD DOG! by Erika Lopez (Simon & Schuster; 310 pages; $20; http://www.adlbooks.com, http://www.keplers.com).
Speaking of audacity, the flamboyant author of that crazy bipolar novel, Flaming Iguanas, is back with an unapologetically bawdy, often hysterically funny story. Here loud-mouthed and wonderfully neurotic biker gal Joline Tomato Gertrude Rodriguez goes bonkers when her lover Hooter Mujer leaves her. A stint in a feelthy jail makes us realize those Hollywood movies about Girls in the Big House never told the full story.
Tomato lets loose on everything from sex toys and tampons to lezbo food (don't ask), insists that Catherine Deneuve "really DID like kissing Susan Sarandon" in that vampire movie and pictures herself on the Rosie O'Donnell Show "helping to perpetuate the myth that Rosie was heterosexual so parents wouldn't mind her talking to their unadopted children so much." Taboo-busting, clearly, is the author's stock in trade, and it's so maniacally delivered and unbelievably raunchy that you just have to absorb it without judgment to see if this dame is for real.
Of course, as Tomato lurches from delightfully obscene references to gross-out toilet humor and truly cheap sexual references, her combative comic-book drawings get a little weary and her studied iconoclasm turns increasingly self-conscious and desperate. After all, too many shocks have the same effect of too many bon-bons - they just lose their impact after a while.
But while we may tire of Tomato's penchant for the blasphemous at any cost, her blistering indictments of hypocrisy in modern life have genuine intellectual bite, and she is capable of surprising complexity and warmth. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be horrified and want to throw the book out the window. But seeing the world through Tomato's radically different lens is worth the often arduous journey.
WHITE HATS: Stories of the U.S. Navy before World War II by Floyd Beaver (Glencannon, 800-711-8985; 244 pages; $17.95 paperback)
As he did in The Homeward Bounder and Other Stories, former Navy chief petty officer Beaver can quietly addict us to the gripping sea stories he has made it his business to research and retell. Now with the action and suspense of wartime combat wonderfully missing in "White Hats," Beaver's stories about the U.S. Navy between wars, he concentrates on the quiet intimacy of men working together as an efficient machine at sea.
One expects an old-fashioned "man's man" sensibility to percolate right through these stories, and it is there, but Beaver's love of shipboard technology and the dependence of "white hats" (sailors) on each other and on the military - and, always, on the sea itself - brings a refreshing authenticity to the elements his characters confront daily: fear, God, love and loneliness bordering on cosmic isolation.
There is humor throughout, as when irreverent signalmen are ordered to decorate the ship with flags for Sunday religious services and arrange the pennants to spell out the word b-u-l-l-s-h-i-t behind an unsuspecting chaplain. And there is high drama, especially during horrendous storms, when "the banshee shrieking of winds and the shuddering shock of seas against a hull can be unnerving. Steel can be torn and rivets popped and men washed over the side."
Most of the stories are set in the Great Depression, when it was hard to get into the Navy (too many penniless men trying to sign up), or in the late 30s, when it was hard to get out (World War II was clearly on its way, these men knew). So "White Hats" offers a surprisingly candid look at the introspection and emotion that seem to well up in sailors peacetime life - especially before-the-draft sailors routinely maligned by society as "deficient" and aberrant for wanting to live "behind the steel walls of the Navy's ships" solely in the company of other men.
Few writers are as knowledgeable or gifted at showing us such intricate shipboard maneuvers as launching an airplane off the catapults of the signal bridge with explosions "as loud as five-inch guns," or patrolling the Yangstze River sniping back at snipers, or conducting maneuvers near Pearl Harbor (all too "futile," the narrator says ruefully), or conducting a rescue-at-sea.
Equally affecting are brutally honest scenes of heartless racism and misogyny (old Navy saying: "Treat a whore like a lady and a lady like a whore and you won't never have no trouble with women") and heartbreaking scenes of tenderness and care that threaten inflexible definitions of what makes a man in this man's Navy.
Perhaps these stories make such an enduring impression because they exist in a growing vacuum: Ever since statistics proved that women buy most of the books in America today, publishers have increasingly geared their lists to the kind of Oprah Winfrey picks that used to be called "women's fiction." It's not that "men's fiction" has been left in the dust but that the tried-and-true men's genres - Westerns, military stories (not the action-packed techno-thrillers) - seem to have been relegated to a smaller and smaller niche, and that is a pity. White Hats - well-written, authoritative, compelling, authentic - could do much to return good fiction by and about good men to audiences that remain hungry for such books.
GEISHA by Liza Dalby (University of California Press; 347 pages; $17.95 paperback; http//:www.codysbooks.com)
If you loved Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, here at long last in paperback (originally published in 1983) is a nonfiction story every bit as engrossing and instructive as the Golden novel. This true story by anthropologist Dalby, the only nonJapanese woman ever to be trained as a geisha, takes us deeply inside the stubbornly changing world of geisha life in Japan during the mid-1970s.
We learn that following World War II, child labor laws and newly cosmopolitan cultural traditions allowed the geisha an independence their teachers had never enjoyed, yet the geisha photographed by Dalby seem almost exactly the same as those in woodblock prints from the early 1800s.
Dalby is a stickler for context of every historical and political kind, and sometimes her story is lost in a barrage of dry fact and recitation. But her objectivity as an academic is never at odds with her personal involvement among the geisha who welcome, teach and befriend her. While it's startling to see her Western face in traditional white powder and geisha attire, she blends so perfectly into geisha life and traditions that we trust her account implicitly.
All the old myths are discussed - no, geisha are not high-class prostitutes; yes, they "embody precisely those aspects of femininity that are absent from, or only incidental to, the role of wife." What the American concept of "liberation" means to Japanese women, and the means by which wives and geisha may act with independence and authority in their own time, lies at the heart of Dalby's engrossing nonfiction account.
2. AMAZON LEAVES ENYART (SORT OF)
Thanks to the many readers who responded with vehemence to stories here about Amazon.com's relationship - and its shaky attempts to terminate the connection - with conservative Christian radio host Bob Enyart (see Holt Uncensored #19 and #20). As of now the Amazon logo and welcome letter have been removed from the Enyart site, though links to Amazon remain - hard to know why.