The Narrow Road to the Deep North

“On the bedside table by the living Buddha, now dead, was an old copy of Basho’s great travel journal The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Hashimoto opened it to a page marked with a dry blade of grass. Days and months are travellers of eternity, he read. So too the years that pass by.”   (Last book read before death by a WWII Japanese commander of the Thai-Burma Death Railway, in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North book coverRichard Flanagan’s father was one of nearly 3,000 Australian POWs who worked on what became known as the Thai-Burma Death Railway in World War II. Flanagan’s father survived. According to Wikipedia, estimates of the death toll are guesses: about 180,000 Asian civilians and 60,000 Allied POWs labored on the railway under inhuman conditions battling cholera, starvation, and beatings. Some 90,000 perished, including over 12,000 Allied POWs. Over 100 Japanese and Koreans were tried for war crimes, and 32 were sentenced to death.

I’m partial to WWII novels, but I don’t know much about the Pacific theater of the war, and next to nothing about the prisoners of war who worked on the Thai-Burma Railway. I’m so glad I read The Narrow Road to the Deep North and encountered Flanagan’s extraordinary writing, but do not attempt it unless you can stomach brutally explicit prose about hellish conditions.

An Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, tries to save as many of the men under his command as he can, but his efforts are mostly futile. We see Dorrigo as a young boy in Tasmania, as a young soldier in an affair with his uncle’s wife who is the love of his life, as a prisoner of war, and as an older, successful, but deeply scarred surgeon and war hero.

There are several moving, intimate, stream-of-consciousness portrayals of other Australian POWs under Dorrigo’s command  as well. Especially riveting is a scene in which the Japanese commanders, cruel and relentless in their mission to get the railroad built, discuss the fine points of haiku. Flanagan follows these men after the war, too, those who managed to have others take the fall for their crimes, and their amazingly clear consciences after the war.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Man Booker Prize and has received many excellent reviews. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times  is more mixed in her review: she feels that Amy, Dorrigo’s lover, should have been excised from the book for the sake of unity and coherence; she describes Flanagan’s writing about the love affair as “treacly prose,” whereas I found many of these passages beautiful. I disagree with her assessment here.

Have you ever thoroughly loved a book or movie only to encounter a respected critic who points out how seriously deficient or flawed is the thing you absolutely love? At this link is an especially vicious review in the London Review of Books. Flanagan must have poured his heart and soul into writing about a terrible time that his father survived, and he spent years working on the novel. This negative review is not reasoned literary criticism that I value or trust, and I wonder what motivates the critic. Sometimes I think critics analyze so much creative work they become jaded, unable to approach a novel or movie in a fresh, unbiased way.

By the way, I don’t consider my blog posts to be book reviews or literary criticism. My intention is to write about how a book affects me, personally, or how I think it might affect you, the reader, or why it may be especially significant in some way. If I don’t feel a book is well written, or if it doesn’t speak to me in some strong way, I don’t write about it here.

I’ll leave you with a passage I especially love, about POWs newly home from the war:

“He brought the fish and chips to their table, then filled some small glass tumblers behind the counter with red wine and brought them out too. Then he sat with them. As they ate, he let them talk. When they flagged he talked of how such a winter meant it would be a good summer for apricots, yes….Then he started up about his own life….How people told him coming to his fish shop made them happy. He hoped that was true. I really do, he said. That’s a life….The old Greek made his own coffee for them – little cups, thick, black and sweet – and he gave them walnut pastries his daughter had made….The simple chairs felt easy, and the place, too, felt right, and the people felt good….”

The Narrow Road to the Deep North illustration

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North book coverBasho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, written in the 17th century, is a classic work of haibun, which melds haiku with prose. It makes for excellent reading alongside Flanagan’s contemporary novel.

Have you ever encountered scathing criticism of writing that you love? How does it make you feel? Does it alter or influence your opinion of the work?

 

 

Books from Around the World, Under Our Tree

The Narrow Road to the Deep North Book CoverThe Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. This World War II novel about an Australian surgeon in a Japanese POW camp won the 2014 Man Booker Prize.  (The purpose of this UK prize is to bring quality fiction to intelligent general readers who might otherwise not hear about the work.) The prisoners helped build what became known as the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. The Narrow Road to the Deep North book cover The books is named after one of the most famous books in Japanese literature, written by the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. I plan to read the books together. I’ll let you know how that works out.

 

 

 

 

A Platter of Figs cookbook coverA Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, by David Tanis I like this cookbook because it’s about eating with the seasons, and it features uncomplicated family meals you can easily make at home. Sections include “How to Cook a Rabbit,” “Feeling Italian,” “Nuevo Mexico,” “Peasant from a Parisian Kitchen,” and “Hot Day, Cold Chicken.” David Tanis is the head chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley six months of the year; the other six months he lives in Paris, where he prepares meals in a tiny galley kitchen for his private dining club. I will read any cookbook affiliated with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. My son bought this book at Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers in Williamsburg.

 

                                                                                                                                                        

Cereal magazine coverCereal: Travel & Lifestyle Magazine, Vol. 8 Click on this link right now and visit Cereal, a stunningly photographed and designed magazine and online journal. This volume features, among other things, a section on Yukon, Canada with spreads on Kluane National Park & Reserve and the Demptster Highway which leads to the Arctic Circle. (Someone in the family has been to the Arctic Circle via the Dalton Highway.) This mag’s style and visual aesthetic reminded me of a cookbook and lifestyle book I received last Christmas, The Kinfolk Table: Recipes for Small Gatherings. (Kinfolk is a magazine, too.) So I got out the book and saw there are a couple of recipes and a profile of food writer Rosa Park, who happens to be the editor of Cereal. Both Cereal and Kinfolk are beautifully designed and photographed, wonderful for browsing.

 

 

Southern Light: Images of Antarctica book coverSouthern Light: Images from Antarctica, by David Neilson. Someone in our family dreams of visiting Antarctica.  This is a luscious collection of black and white and color photos, including several gatefolds that open up to three panels of photos on each side. At least seven kinds of penguins, all the major mountain ranges, Deception and Elephant Islands, historic exploration sites, and essays on climate change, too. Our son bought this book at Strand Books in New York. (“Come for the books and stay for the synth musik.”)

 

 

RHS Vegetables for the Gourmet Gardener book cover

RHS Vegetables for the Gourmet Gardener, by Simon Akeroyd. To feed my gardening habit and enrich my gardening and nature writing. RHS stands for Royal Horticultural Society, the UK’s leading gardening charity. This beautiful book was designed and produced by Quid Publishing in England, the same publisher that produced another volume I own, RHS Latin for Gardeners.

Our son purchased this at Daunt Books for Travellers in London. On the bookmark tucked inside:  “The heart of Daunt Books is an original Edwardian bookshop with long oak galleries and graceful skylights. Its soul is the unique arrangement of books by country – where guides, novels, and nonfiction of all kinds will interest traveller and browser alike.” If I ever get to London this shop will be on my bookstore list.

 

 

Four Seasons in Rome book coverFour Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, by Anthony Doerr. If you read my blog, you know I’ve been wild about Anthony Doerr lately. His novel, All the Light We Cannot See, was a National Book Award finalist and has become a bestseller. He happened to visit Rome when Pope John Paul II was dying and attended the vigil. I can’t wait to see Doerr’s take on this fabulous city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gorgeous Nothings book coverEmily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings, by Marta Werner, a scholar of poetry, and Jen Bervin, a visual artist. No other book is quite like this one – a work of art, a facsimile publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems as she wrote them on fifty-two envelopes. These artifacts let the reader see Emily’s original line breaks and words spread across the entire space of a page, together with variant word lists that are meant to be part of the texts themselves. Reading these poems in their original medium, as opposed to in a traditional typeset book, is an entirely different experience.

 

 

 

My Struggle book coverMy Struggle, Book Three, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. My son has read the first two autobiographical novels in the hugely popular series (there are to be six!) by the Norwegian author, published in 22 languages. I hope to tackle the first two volumes myself this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Berlin Wonderland book coverBerlin Wonderland: Wild Years Revisited 1990 – 1996 Amazing photos by seven photographers documenting the wild, artistic subculture that bloomed after the Berlin Wall came down. One of our sons is studying in Germany and bought this at Hundt Hammerstein in Berlin, a gift for the photographer in our family. The text is in English and German.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manage Your Day to Day book coverManage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind, edited by Jocelyn K. Glei. This is a great little book about how to meet creative goals and fulfill your calling rather than spend your days reacting to the demands of social media and new technology – a huge issue creative souls in the past did not have to deal with. Creative work, in the context of this book, can be anything from painting to starting a business to launching a volunteer effort or charity drive.

These very short articles by creatives and thought leaders like Seth Godin and Gretchen Rubin are practical and full of wisdom. I love this tiny red and black book and decided to pass it on to my photographer son (the industrial designer has browsed through it, too.) The most important take-away for me: disconnect from the Internet and get creative work done first thing, NO MATTER WHAT. Produced by Behance, which “is on a mission to empower the creative world.”   (See: http://www.99u.com; http://www.behance.com)

 

 

Summer morning meditation, week 2

Pond with Buddha

Meditation at the pond, 7:30 am.

For my mindfulness meditation class, this week we are to record one pleasurable moment each day.  Here are two:

Friday morning: helping a medical student find information about adolescent health. Enjoying her youth, beauty, enthusiasm, the unfolding of her potential. She will help many people.

Saturday morning: visiting the backyard pond, enjoying the coolness.

I’m thinking that a great book to read, lying in the hammock next to the pond, would be The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Basho.

Please share your recent moments of pleasure in the comments.

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