The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

In the fall of 1937, a young Chinese man named Stephen is stricken with tuberculosis. Despite the deteriorating political situation in eastern Asia due to Japan’s budding imperialism, Stephen is sent to a small Japanese village called Tarumi, where his family owns a summer house, to rest and recover from his illness. He is to be cared for by the family’s housekeeper, Matsu, a quiet and reserved man whom Stephen knows only as an acquaintance.

As the novel opens, Stephen has no reason to believe that his stay in Tarumi will be anything but relaxing, and he is looking forward to reading and painting, his two favorite hobbies. Soon after he arrives, though, it becomes clear to Stephen that there is more to Matsu than meets the eye. He becomes acquainted with two of Matsu’s old friends, named Kenzo and Sachi, and slowly begins to discover the secrets of their difficult past. As time passes, as he becomes immersed in Japanese life and culture, forges friendships with the enigmatic Sachi and Matsu, and participates in a romance, Stephen begins to feel more and more at home in Tarumi, a place that is at once turbulent and peaceful.

This book takes place against the backdrop of 1930’s Japan. At the time, Japan was fully industrialized and seeking dominance over its less modernized neighbors, especially China; this aggressive foreign policy was one of the contributing factors to Japan’s later involvement in World War II. The novel makes frequent reference to radio news reports- from both perspectives- of Japan’s victories over the Chinese army; it is interesting to see the contrast between the Chinese and Japanese reports of the same battles, underscoring the effect of bias in the media.

The people, food, dress, and customs of the vibrant Japanese culture were portrayed colorfully throughout the book, while the author’s sparse, clear prose beautifully evoked the clean, elegant style of Asian art and poetry. The plot was well-developed and reasonably interesting, incorporating an intricate storyline within a compact package. I was especially impressed by the complex characterization, which was well-executed and made the characters seem vivid and real.

Ironically, however, despite the fact that the novel is written in first person, the protagonist Stephen is remarkably underdeveloped compared to the other characters; his lack of any distinguishable traits is in sharp contrast to the richly layered personalities of the other main characters. The awkward, boring, and halfhearted romantic element of the story is unnecessary- I feel that the novel would be better off if the romantic subplot were replaced with actual development of Stephen as a character.

Despite its shortcomings, though, this book was a success. It was, a bit surprisingly, thought-provoking; the hardships described by the characters made me reflect on what I would have done in the same situations, and the descriptions of a beautiful culture immersed me. The writing style was unpretentious and refreshingly clean. Overall, it was a complex and detailed novel bound up into a deceptively small package. I award it four daggers.



Gossip of the Starlings by Nina de Gramont

Gossip of the Starlings, by Nina de Gramont, is a boarding school story with a twist. Catherine arrives at Esther Percy School for Girls, having been forced from her old (coed) school for boy-related reasons. The school seems rigid, constraining, lonely, until Sky Butterfield chooses Catherine as her friend. Beautiful, eloquent, daring, and brilliant, Skye, the Senator’s daughter, is brimming with life and vim. She transforms Catherine’s life into a whirl of hazy, weed-brightened nights and days of rosy adventures merely rimmed by classes.

Skye is passionate and vibrant, but her desperate thirst for dare and danger becomes concerning for Catherine. Skye has a tragic soul and seems to believe that she is indestructible—a belief she tests more and more frantically, engaging in increasingly dangerous adventures. Skye defies convention, takes what she wants, lives hungrily yet can never be satisfied. She is a tightrope walker, an enchanted seductress, an angel. She is a presence in both of the worlds she inhabits—the world of Esther Percy and the world of my mind. It is tough to say where she is more at home.

Gossip of the Starlings was fantastic. The writing was pure poetry: smooth, eloquent, daintily descriptive without ever being too thick. The characters were painted gloriously, the plot and the allusions drawn were constantly keeping me interested. The following is just a snippet from the long, intricate work of art Gramont has created.

“Now, when I see teenage girls laughing. When I see them loosed on a summer evening – their limbs tanned and gossamer, their imagined freedom radiating like nuclear light – I can’t help but fast forward two decades or more. I know the curve of their bones has already made an imperceptible bow to gravity. I see the decay in slow motion, even or especially through those stunning and immortal years.”

Complemented by such gems of observations, small moments make up much of the novel. They are painted to such rich perfection that after months I recall them still. The image of a blood promise in a night-dark dorm room stands in my mind bright and vivid—scarlet blood, moonlit curls, tender smiles and flushed cheeks as the girls teeter on the edge of destruction; the first in many daring adventures that take them inches from death, the only way, they believe, to truly experience life.

I loved Skye’s seduction, the way even the reader was drawn to her. I could picture her lush beauty, her tender flawless skin, the dare and the dreams in her eyes. The way she could dance logical circles around any opponent, dangle her ripe sexuality at a whim, manipulating the world into her dark and dizzy playground.

After finishing Gossip of the Starlings, I began to search for other hazy books about poetry and death and life and living on the cusp of womanhood. The only other one I found was the Virgin Suicides (by Jeffrey Eugenides), which was excellent but lacking the strong plot of Gossip of the Starlings. Any suggestions?

Anyway, as if you couldn’t guess—Gossip of the Starlings earns a glowing five daggers.

Off embracing my fleeting youth but always, unalterably yours,


The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff

True to its title, the book teaches the fundamental principles of Taoism through Winnie-the-Pooh. Charmingly simple, yet strikingly profound, Hoff beautifully introduces his readers to Taoism.

Take a moment and consider the concept of this book: eastern philosophy explained using a children's storybook character. Cute? Yes. Borderline absurd? Perhaps. Yet, Hoff brilliantly executes the seemingly silly concept. Pooh is Taoism personified. The Winnie-the-Pooh stories Hoff references simplify Taoism's principles and teachings while his references to Chinese writers, Chinese terms, Chinese paintings, western philosophers, musicians, etc. add a delicate flavor to the novel. The Tao of Pooh merges simplicity and profundity into one delightful work of art.

My only complaint is the complaining. At times, Hoff's tone becomes whiny. The tone reminds me of a teenager vehemently defending his/her peculiar lifestyle choices to a large group of overly judgmental peers. However, he tends to have a good point. Knowledge for the sake of flaunting one's imagined superiority is rude and distasteful: definitely not a good way of living one's life. However, when Hoff bashed science, I felt he went too far. Granted, it was only a single sentence, but it struck a chord deep within my gut. He accused "Nearsighted Science" of asking questions it will never know the answer to and coming up with more questions instead. True, science raises more questions than it answers, but I would not go so far as to call it a waste of time. I see science as pushing the boundaries of human knowledge: a useful pursuit (I rather like running water, electricity, computers, indoor plumbing, fiber optics, vaccines, antibiotics, etc.).

Clearly, I am biased towards science. I simply felt some of Hoff's refutations of other pursuits of knowledge/wisdom were too harsh and confrontational. Negative criticism aside, the book does possess redeeming qualities. The stories of Pooh and his friends wonderfully illustrate the tenets of Taoism, which are elegant in their own right.

Therefore, I reward The Tao of Pooh four daggers out of five. Its honest simplicity and charming insight make it a worthy addition to any private library, despite its sporadic fault-finding.

Yours meditatively,
Gabriel Gethin