Review – Ceramics and Modernity in Japan

I’m trying lately to build a solid base of knowledge in ceramics, not only of aesthetics and mechanics, but of culture and context as well. This book, part of the Routledge Research in Art History series, is an excellent resource for exactly that.

The cover of the book Ceramics and Modernity in Japan.
The image is the abstract work Mr. Samsa’s Walk by Yagi Kazuo.

It features 11 scholarly essays (including the intro and epilogue) examining how the whole ceramics world—creating, seeking, purchasing, and appreciating—changed in post-Meiji Japan. The individual topics are relatively specific, but are well arranged and referenced enough to give an excellent overall grasp of the various issues at play.

The articles are all both rigorous and accessible, with the possible exception, perhaps, of “More than “Western”: Porcelain for the Meiji Emperor’s table” by Mary Redfern, which reads like something an undergraduate in social science might write to fill in a word count assignment. Study, overly erudite, and off questionable insight

Of particular interest to me are the many references to the interplay between attitudes toward other Asian nations during Japan’s colonial and post-colonial periods and the concurrent growth of the mingei movement under Yanagi Sōetsu. There is also a very illuminating reference to the circularity of how ceramic science from Europe influenced Japanese pottery, which in turn went on to influence the British studio pottery wave spearheaded by Bernard Leach.

These incidents fundamentally changed my perception of the mingei movement and Leach; particularly his “translation” of Yanagi’s work into “The Unnamed Craftsman.” The clear biases and, dare I say, agenda they shared makes much of what they say very suspect, even as it touches on some clearly vital issues of the intersection of art and Buddhist ideas.

Anyone who is interested in fort insight into the historical context of his Japan came to be “potter’s paradise,” the tension between art and craft in ceramics, and the roots of Japan’s enormous valuation of pottery and the “living national treasures” that create it would do well to read through this one.

Highly recommended.

Review – The Japanese Sake Bible

The Japanese Sake Bible: Everything You Need to Know About Great Sake – With Tasting Notes and Scores for 100 Top Brands by Brian Ashcraft

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are quite a few good books for sake beginners that introduce concepts like how it’s made, the different classifications, and the basic history. There are also very technical books that go into the chemistry and technical details of brewing and flavor.

This might be the only book that is both.

I’ve yet to encounter such a comprehensive discussion of sake-its history, its brewing, and the figures who have guided them both.

You can start this book from zero knowledge and end up with an admirable understanding of Japan’s national drink after finishing. It’s a truly well researched, nearly exhaustive look at sake. It’s not as technical (or difficult) as Gautier Rousille’s Nihonshu, or as intimate as John Gauntner’s Sake: The Hidden Stories, but exists as a bridge between them.

The tasting notes at the end offer a look at many of the most important modern brands, but tasting notes are always exercises in subjectivity so don’t get too caught up in them.

Overall, this is a stellar addition to the English language sake library.

Jump on it.

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Review – Penguin Highway

ペンギン・ハイウェイ by Tomihiko Morimi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Penguin Highway

This is a coming of age novel, a story of children facing reality bending mystery, and lots of talk about boobs.

Akireta Aoyama is a young boy with an analytical mind and an obsession with breasts. Not exactly in a prurient way, but in the confused way of a young boy on the cusp of puberty who knows he’s interested, but not exactly why.

One day, his small Japanese town is set abuzz by the sudden appearance of penguins… And that is only the beginning of the weirdness.

I read this novel as a bit of exploration of Japanese SF, and I fear it did little to deepen my understanding of the first. This is a shallow, wide ranging look at all kinds of things: friendship, death, reality, love and so on. The topics can be heady, but they’re all destiny with by children, so nothing goes very far-topics are touched on, then left to wander as the children go about their adventures.

The climax mixes utter predictability (there is very heavy foreshadowing of a certain event) and utter nonsense in a vaguely unsatisfying way. The characters are memorable and enjoyable, though, and there is enough going on to keep interest going.

But in the end, this felt like a pretty rote “kids in small Japanese town have weird adventures and grow up a little” kind of story, complete with Summer festival yukatas and the bully who ends up helping the heroes when they need it.

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Review – Revival


Revival by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a long, strange trip it has been. I have been reading Stephen King for probably 30 years. When I was in Jr. High I used to sneak away from my mom at Wal-Mart to buy paperbacks, and hide them in my pockets until I could get to the privacy of my room. My mother was not a fan, you could say.

I loved those books. I loved the goriness, the crafty little turns of phrase, and the depiction of rurality that I recognized (being from rural Kansas, I guess there’s not that much difference between little prairie towns and little New England towns). Over the years, I came to see what King himself called his “salami-making.” These were fine, creepy yarns, sometimes even gutwrenchingly sad (Oh, Henry…). But they weren’t “Litrachure.” King had no pretensions of deep exploration of the human condition, he wrote scary stories to read in the dark.

But now, as I approach middle age, I’m starting to question that truism. Because there are stories like Hearts in Atlantis, or The Body, or this one, Revival, that seem to transcend the rough-ground spiciness of, say, Christine. It might just be the decades of life that have come to inform the writer’s thinking. Or it might be the decades of life that have come to inform this reader. But somehow, I think King is tapping into a deeper vein these days.

Revival is at the same time a memoir of a life not wholly unlike Kings, a love letter to the origins of a certain brand of horror, and a look at what makes the first so good, and the last so bad.

For roughly the first half of the book, we read the story of Jamie’s life as something not entirely unusual. There are the purely human pains of tragedy and disillusionment. There are also the more mundane growing pains of rough big brothers, feeling your way through first love, and addiction. There is little that could be called supernatural or ominous, apart from what Jamie himself alludes to in hindsight.

This is a slow burn. It builds a living character, a life of complexity and reality that other writers would rush through. But King does not rush here. He takes his time, because this weaving is what makes the latter half punch so hard.

In the latter half, the ominous shadow of Charles Daniel Jacobs (Charlie Daniels and the Devil in Georgia, huh?) grows heavy, and the threads of the weave begin to darken with the taint of Lovecraft, Derleth, and Machen (three names mentioned right at the top of the book…). For this book is as pure an expression of cosmic horror as any you’ll find. Jacobs, the reverend of Jamie’s youth, is desperate to tap into the powers that run the world behind the world, no matter the cost…

And the cost is great. Because this ending gathers up those threads of youth woven so slowly in the beginning of the book and brings them back to the end to come full circle. The joys of youth become the pain of age, now tainted with darkness from beyond the veil.

It’s masterful.

And yet, there is still some salami here. Because King does what other cosmic horrors often avoided: he made the implicit explicit. He describes in detail what lays behind the veil, and in so doing removes much of its more lingering power. There is still dread here, but I can’t help but think its was blunted by that choice.

I still think that this is one of the best expressions of King’s strength, his characters, and leverages that strength to make a genuinely unsettling horror story. Revival is maybe the best of King, and a transcendence of the limits he placed on himself so long ago.

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Review – The Three Impostors

The Three Impostors

The Three Impostors by Arthur Machen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Three Impostors by Arthur Machen

Machen is a titan of the weird fiction genre, and this is one of his less famous works. It’s an episodic story, the result of serialization, with the framing work of two friends in London with differing views on mystery and spirituality getting wrapped up in a strange web of lies and stories involving magic, lurkers in the wild, and other staples of the old weird.

This is a perfectly diverting book, full of creepiness and period frumpery that was perfectly worth the time reading it. And since it’s free on Project Gutenberg, anyone with the slightest urge can give it a try.

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