Carole Maso
(City Lights)
There are thirteen prose/poems here, with names like "Dreaming Steven Lighthouse Keeper," "Sappho Sings the World Ecstatic," "In the Last Village," and "Her Ink-Stained Hands." Looking in at random, as I first did, opening a page here and there, just doesn't work:

    Two women. When they are Italian they say "ecco."

    Two women. Their hair plastered to their faces.

    The sound of water at their door.

    Open sea. Never ending. Eternity.

    When you're a sailor you say, "Hey and Hidey and Ho."

It sounded silly to me.

But give it a second chance, as I did, starting at the beginning and, as they say in Alice and Wonderland, "go until you get to the end, then stop." It quickly becomes a wonder. This stuff makes sense; and, even better, it makes music. And it's great music, "Alice in Wonderland" music.

"Two Women Wash Lentils" is about Paris, and a week or two of sensual love between two women --- the light, the beauty, and memories of the beach at Antibes, and "Dark glasses, Day-glo, Picasso." It's a lassitudinous literary lubricious love, with Paris just out the window, and The Book of Oysters, The Book of Slang,

    To have a crush on: faire des yeux de merlan frites, or literally, to make fried marlin eyes at one another. To make goo goo eyes... Outside the world passes. They pick up their Book of Slang to keep up. Paris is glisten and oyster and cherish --- she'll have to take her word for it. They read from the book. Your breasts are: les lolos (little milk pitchers), les amortisseurs, those little shock absorbers. Blaques à tabac, boîtes à lait... In the shape of the gap. Hovering. Your lips but not quite. Your lips about to say --- but not quite ...

It takes a while to catch on, as it should with any worthy novel, essay, poem. There's the word lentille --- slang for "clitoris," éplucheuse de lentilles, a "lentil washer." So the two of them are "lentil washers," two women, just met, one of them quite young, in Paris, in love with loving, with Paris.

They adjourn to an apartment, a bedroom, for days. They have some books, including the Book of Slang. There is a cat, and a tolerant landlady. They don't leave, not for days. They feed on each other, sleep, eat, look out at the city, return to love each other again and again.

As with all great pornography, there is no need to be specific. (The more specific, the more it dulls the senses.) No --- what you want to do is use the words as a hint, to whirl one around, dipping in here and there, night and day, the city lovely outside, the two of them lovely in each others' arms, the language Between what I say to you in English and what I say to you in French. In the interval between what is said and the translation... and the slang In the interstices. In the liminal space. My lentil and yours. So much pleasure... In the reach. Open your French doors...

Most of all, a rare sensuality, the kind that you and I always dream about, a week or more of passion, in French, in English, in Italian, in love --- halos, aureoles, Between the god and the light --- the interstice...

This is great writing. And for those of us who cherish a memory, maybe years ago, a chance night, or a week, a year of sustained shoot-off-all-the-rockets love --- the words conspire (a mere twenty-five pages!) to bring back so many memories. Where the city and the love and the words and the bodies are in such profound intermesh that all one can do is look back and swoon: this was love as love was meant to be loved, this was passion as passion was meant to be played out, this is alas, at last, the parting where they weep wondering what else, who else in this whole wide gorgeous world they miss. Will miss.

--- Lolita Lark

Origins, Rituals, Festivals
Spirits, Sacred Places

C. Scott Littleton
It all started with the twins Izanagi and Izanami who came into being standing on "The Floating Bridge of Heaven." They stuck their spear into the jelly-like mass that was the primeval ooze of the earth and from that sprang an island, Onogoro.

They floated down, fell in love, and had an eternity of passion. From this sprang their first baby, the Leech Child. Not pretty. After this, Izanami gave birth to a variety of gods and sprites and, ultimately, to several islands that became the Japanese archipelago. Ow. Finally with the arrival of their last child, she succumbed to the flames and went off to live in the land of the dead, Yomi.

Izanagi went to seek her out, but, not unlike Euridice, made the mistake of looking back: she had become "a rotting, hideous demon." He took flight, chased by his gruesome birthmate and wife, along with an army of Weird Sisters, known as "The Hags of Yomi."

When he got home, safe at last, he took a bath in the Hi River. Thus cleansed, the sun goddess was born from his left eye, the moon god from his right eye, and the storm god from his nose.

Izanagi then handed off all his power to the lord of the sun, the lord of the night, and the lord of the sea. He retired to the island of Kyushu where he lives today in Happy Tofu Acres, in a planned community for retired gods.

§     §     §

Littleton leads us on a learned, merry chase through the various ins and outs of Shinto. For those of us veterans of WWII, it was a totalitarian creed, one that made a god out of the Emperor of Japan, and that led to the "Greater Asia Co-prosperity Sphere," the attack on Pearl Harbor, and, ultimately, the ruthless murder of a million people in China, Korea, Burma, Okinawa, Laos, Singapore, and Indonesia.

The author addresses this issue, telling us that the Emperor claimed to be descended from the sun god, that the divine descent "made the Japanese people distinct from all other peoples --- they were the children of the gods."

    In the 1930s, such claims were to be used to justify imperialism on the grounds that foreign nationals were intrinsically inferior.

After the capitulation of Japan, the Allies invoked that fearsome (and all-too-lengthy) word disestablishmentarian, and made sure that the emperor was now seen as a mere human, no longer as the Sun God.

Littleton convinces us that it is an ancient and honorable religion, one that has a fascinating history, and some lovely beliefs --- and that to its discredit, it was hijacked by the ruling elite of Japan in 1865. They took the more militaristic properties of the religion and turned it to their own ends. You may notice certain echoes in our own time with certain other, equally arrogant religionists.

Traditional Shintoism is more fond of fairies, spirits, ghosts, and various other flighty creatures than it is in running the world. Like Greek mythology, these sprites are not at all unlike humans; in fact, at time of death, you and I will be converted into what they call kami.

We will then --- and this is the part I like the best --- spend our time floating around soaring mountains, gentle valleys, noisy waterfalls, quiet vales, sun-drenched meadows, spray-soaked islands, warm springs, and the tops of buildings. Shinto pays respect to us mini-gods with mini-temples --- some placed atop tall structures in downtown Tokyo --- with regular offerings of food in case we get hungry.

There are also annual ceremonies honoring these mythic creatures who, when they are not eating each other, are loving each other to death. Littleton says that Shinto and Buddhism live comfortably side-by-side in Japan. "Shinto is essentially a life-confirming creed ... and most Japanese are married according to Shinto rites." When you die, you move to "the regions of the dead" --- where you stay for exactly thirty-three years, at which time you lose your individual nature, and "merge with the collective family kama."

At the same time, the Buddhist concept of rebirth is seen as the ultimate reward (or horror) of life. Thus Japan lives in a duality of religions --- going through life immersed in the rituals of Shinto, dying with those of Buddhism.

--- S. J. Winthrop

How to
Be Alone

Jonathan Franzen
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
The cant in American publishing is that collected essays won't sell. Thus, diverse compilations of introspective thought-pieces are rare --- except from university presses. Jonathan Franzen is obviously an exception to this: he's a novelist who has taken to writing pieces for Graywolf, Harper's and The New Yorker. And thirteen of his essays are collected here.

It's a diverse bunch. There's one on cigarettes, another on the Chicago postal mess. We have a personal description of his father in the throes of Alzheimer's, what it's like to be on book tour in St. Louis, the state of the novel in the United States, and the prisons --- federal and state --- in Colorado.

Throughout all these various literary meanderings, Franzen shows himself to be literate and serious. He delivers a mountain of facts:
  • The recent failings of the post office system are a direct result of a Postal Service reorganization in 1992 that gave popular (and expensive) buy-outs to the most crucial employees --- those who knew best how each of the local mail centers worked;
  • All memories, the neuroscientists say, "are actually memories of memory;"
  • The cost of smoking in this country is actually positive rather than negative. This paradox comes about because of two things: the generous income from excise taxes on cigarettes, and the savings to pension funds because smokers tend to pop off early;
  • There are 1,500,000 people in prison in this country, and small towns lobby the Bureau of Prisons assiduously to construct new ones in their areas. One such, Florence, Colorado, was described by a local booster as follows: "The whole town has a lot in common with Dachau."
  • Alzheimer patients sometimes speak of "something delicious in oblivion." Franzen explicates, "If your short-term memory is shot, you don't remember, when you stoop to smell a rose, that you've been stooping to smell the same rose all morning;"
  • A mailman learns that when attacked by a pack of dogs, always mace the one that barks first;
  • "Let's think about what a million and a half men in jail might imply about the way we do business."
Franzen is serious, very serious. He is also distant, fretful, and cool --- perhaps too cool. Most of these essays tend towards the apocalyptic: television is making our children illiterate; The Novel is disappearing; only Philip Roth knows how to write about sex; technology is befuddling and belittling us all; the prison system is a functioning fascism in the original Italian sense as devised by Mussolini,

    getting government to work with the bloodless efficiency of a corporation; of making the trains run on time. Fascism's real essence is a patriotic corporatism that presents itself as beneficent and effective.

His report on the decline of his father is measured, and --- to this reader --- a bit too chilly for one talking about his own flesh and blood. His extended and repeated mourning the death of the novel is a bit silly, for in the time since he wrote this wake, we have been getting fine writings from the likes of Javier Marías, Jamie O'Neill, Amos Oz, Gaétan Soucy, Umberto Eco.

The big problem with Franzen, unfortunately, is not his prose --- which is more than adequate --- but his slant, his point-of-view, his set. His essays remind one of Northern European Heavy Thinking of a century ago, the likes of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, and that crabby old Schopenhauer.

There's hardly a boff to be found anywhere in How to Be Alone. Even when he's onto something as inherently comic as modern sex-technique writers, or the fun of scavenging junk, or how to live with a fifteen-year-old computer --- the words are serious, studied, careful, weighty.

Watching one's father succumb to Alzheimer's is a tragedy of the first order, but others who have described it --- including one wonderful documentary I watched twice on PBS whose name I have forgotten because of my Alzheimer's --- often regale us with the many inadvertent comic happenings, an adult mouthing words that can, sometimes, be agonizingly funny.

Franzen is Seriously Worried, and he wants us to know it. It's a now-we're-really-in-for-it hand-wringing. kind of writing. Around page 210 or so, it got so glum that we were toying with the notion of calling up some of those Patch Adam's clowns to head over to Franzen's New York apartment and once they got into his room, they'd get him down on the floor for a serious 15-minute tickle-job --- telling him all the while,


--- Germaine Warren

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