Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


Reading Minnesota

Posted in Books,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 27th, 2022

Perhaps it’s the pandemic’s influence. Without especially meaning to, I’ve recently found myself reading works set in or about Minnesota–the place I identify as home even though Ronald Reagan was still president the last time I actually resided there. None of the books has struck me as deeply as Emily Fridlund‘s History of Wolves, a brilliant 2017 novel about a girl forced to find her own way in the world despite brutal parental indifference that I first encountered several years ago. But all of them have moved me in one way or another.

Hijinx and Hearsay: Scenester Stories from Minnesota’s Pop Life by Martin Keller (text) and Greg Helgeson (photographs) brought me back to my teens and early twenties with its recollections of the Twin Cities music and comedy scenes from the early 1980s: local gigs by national artists, regular livehouse appearances by local bands, sketches of the backstage people at local clubs and labels that kept things running. In part, this was because I attended many of the shows that Keller depicts here, and in part because I grew up with Keller (via his gig as editor of local alternative weekly newspapers) as my virtual guide to everything that was cool and worthwhile in my hometown. Encountering that voice and sensibility again was sheer pleasure.

Solar Storms

Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms is a 1995 novel that somehow escaped my notice until recently. It brought me to a part of Minnesota I know only tangentially: an isolated Native American settlement on the fringes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area up north, circa 1971. A troubled teen-age girls returns to her birth family relatives in an attempt to discover the truth of her own violent past–only to step into the middle of the ongoing violence of ‘progress.’ Set at the dawn of the American Indian Movement, the story foreshadows the Standing Rock protests of recent years and takes its readers on an imaginary journey through an alternative mode of living with the world around us.

Vestments

John Reimringer’s Vestments feels like the work of a present-day heir to the fiction of J.F. Powers and Jon Hassler. The hero is a disgraced young priest whose difficulties adhering to the vow of celibacy force him out of the pulpit and back into the too-tight embrace of his own troubled family in St. Paul. At one point in the story, the hero lives approximate two blocks from the house on Hague Avenue where I grew up: he visits the bars and restaurants I knew as a young adult, encounters the same folks in them that I did back in the day. Reading fiction set in the Twin Cities, I often find myself alienated when the author gets a detail wrong (I’m looking at you, Jonathan Franzen), but to my eyes Reimringer gets everything right.

Good People

Speaking of Jon Hassler, I recently with reluctance allowed myself to read The New Woman, the last work in his Staggerford series that my father introduced me to circa 1988. I’ve been savoring the novels over the decades but at last reached the end of the line. I discovered recently, however, that Hassler also put out collections of short stories and essays, as well. I started with his out-of-print 2001 collection, Good People…from an Author’s Life: I bought the Cobb County Public Library’s old de-accessioned copy from an online dealer. As Hassler admits in his preface, it’s tough to write an interesting book about goodness–in terms of thematic interest, it literally pales next to evil. But it’s also a mellow pleasure to read his anecdotes about the people he lived among who became models for the denizens of fictional Staggerford, Minnesota.

Shadow Prey

A friend recommended John Sandford’s 1990 thriller, Shadow Prey. I rarely read murder mysteries, but this one is set in the Twin Cities: a serial killer is on the prowl among the local Native American community. The book is in some ways the antithesis of Hogan’s novel: a white male cop plumbs the threatening other-world of indigenous culture. But it again gets the local details of the paranoid world of its protagonist right: reading it, I knew which diner the hero was visiting, which streets housed the villains’ hideout.

Plague Year Listening: A Look Back

Posted in J-Pop,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the December 22nd, 2020

The lockdowns of 2020 provided ample opportunities to sit at home and listen to music. Here are twenty albums from the plague year that gave me the most pleasure, listed in alphabetical order.

I got back into the habit of buying CDs this year, so thanks to the pandemic I own physical copies of most of these titles. Looking over the list, I’m pleasantly surprised to see how much of it (seven out of twenty) comes from local Chicago artists. Maybe in 2021 I’ll be able to go see them play live….

Fiona Apple, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”
Beach Bunny, “Honeymoon”
Curtiss A, “Jerks of Fate”
Ehara Mei 江原茗一, “Ampersands”
The Flat Five, “Another World”
Ted Hearne, “Place”
Jyoti (Georgia Anne Muldrow), “Momma, You Can Bet!”
Kate NV, “Room for the Moon”
Lianne La Havas, “Lianne La Havas”
Mary Lane, “The Real Mary Lane”
V.V. Lightbody, “Make a Shrine or Burn It”
Paul McCartney, “McCartney III”
Sen Morimoto, “Sen Morimoto”
Ohmme, “Fantasize Your Ghost”
Kate Rusby, “Hand Me Down”
Tokyo Incidents, 東京事変 “News” 『ニュース』
Twin Peaks, “Side A”
Various artists, “Save Stereogum: An ’00s Covers Comp”
Wussy, “Ghosts”
Zombie-Chang, “Take Me Away from Tokyo”

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Open-Access Article: “Early Freeze Warning: The Politics and Literature Debate as Cold War Culture”

Posted in Books,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the September 3rd, 2020

An essay of mine originally published in the volume Literature Among the Ruins, 1945-1955: Postwar Japanese Literary Criticism (Lexington Books, 2018) is now available in open-access online form at Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.

Here’s the abstract:

Abstract: This essay revisits the 1946-7 “Politics and Literature Debate” (Seiji to bungaku ronsō), a pivotal controversy among leftist Japanese writers and intellectuals that is conventionally cited as the starting point of postwar literary history. Situating the debate in tandem with three influential texts published at roughly the same time in the West—Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1951), Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), and The God That Failed (1950), edited by Richard Crossman—the essay argues that the debate should be considered an early instance of the Cold War culture that would emerge globally in the decades that followed.

Also available from Lexington Books is a companion volume, The Politics and Literature Debate in Postwar Japanese Literary Criticism, 1945-52, an anthology of annotated translations of all the key essays from the celebrated “Politics and Literature Debate” in late 1940s Japan.

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Free Open-Access E-Book Editions of Two Edited Volumes

Posted in Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other,Uncategorized by bourdaghs on the August 13th, 2020

I’m delighted that University of Michigan Press has just made two books I edited available in free open-access e-book editions. This was made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Humanities Open Book Program.

The first one is the English translation of Kamei’s Hideo‘s Transformations of Sensibility: The Phenomenology of Meiji Literature(亀井秀雄著『感性の変革』). The work was first serialized in Gunzo in 1978-9, then published in book form in 1983, and our translation first came out in 2002. The English translation includes new introductions by Kamei and me, situating the unique approach he takes to literary analysis in the book against its historical situation. You can download the open-access e-book version here.

The second one is The Linguistic Turn in Contemporary Japanese Literary Studies, which first appeared in 2010. It includes translations of classic essays by Kamei, Mitani Kuniaki, Noguchi Takehiko, and Hirata Yumi, plus new scholarly essays by Joseph Essertier, KONO Kensuke, Norma Field, Richi Sakakibara, John Whitman, Leslie Winston, and Guohe Zheng. In my introduction to the volume, I sketch in the history of linguistics-based approaches in Japanese literary scholarship, using the 1980s “Kokoro ronso” as an entryway. You can download the open-access e-book version here.

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Re-Encountering John Lee Hooker

Posted in Books,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the May 13th, 2020

Last week, I enjoyed reading Robert Christgau’s belated review of Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century, Charles Shaar Murray’s 2002 biography of John Lee Hooker, the great Detroit blues musician. Christgau admits that he’s never been a huge fan of Hooker’s recordings, but Murray’s writings have opened his ears in a new way.

No surprise, then, that Hooker has risen in my personal blues pantheon. Sure I still prefer early Skip James and Robert Palmer’s Elmore James best-of, among others. But on The Healer, just as a for instance, I can now hear how right it is that the star-stoked first half, most strikingly the Carlos Santana title song and Los Lobos’s big-bandish “Sally Mae,” wind down into a guitar-bass-drums “My Dream” that’s less sung than sweetly murmured and the solo “No Substitute” finale, which fades into a whisper on the repeated theme “There ain’t no substitute for love.” “No Substitute” is some kind of masterpiece. I can’t imagine anyone but John Lee Hooker getting away with it. And I also can’t imagine feeling it the way it deserves if Charles Shaar Murray hadn’t shown me the way.

I haven’t read the Murray book yet, but Christgau has convinced me to put it on my to-read list. And it reminded me of the two times I got to see Hooker play.

The first time was in 1980, I think, at the Union Bar, a venerable blues joint in Minneapolis. I was nineteen at the time and went with my friend Frank to see the “King of the Boogie” in person. We worked our way through the crowd up to the front of the stage, and I remember being blown away by Hooker’s solos. Atonal and punk-ish, they repeatedly seemed on the verge of veering off into chaos but then Hooker would play a lick that instantly pulled the whole string of notes together so that the whole thing made brilliant, completely unexpected sense. It was as if the rest of us were stuck in Euclidean geometry, and he was playing fractal equations. Hooker was sixty-three at the time, but his calloused and deeply grooved fingers looked like they were about a thousand years old.

All through the show, two women who looked to be in their late twenties were standing right in front of Hooker, who played sitting in a chair. I noticed that one of the women kept reaching out and stroking Hooker’s shin as he played. He steadfastly ignored this for most of the set, until near the end of the evening. At that point, he looked straight at the woman with a grin on his face and announced, “The next song goes out to a young lady in the audience tonight. It’s called, ‘(If I Could Only Do Now) The Things That I Used to Do.”

The second time was in the summer of 1986. He was playing at the Cabooze near the University of Minnesota campus. I went with my friend Tom. Again, Hooker provided an amazing lesson in how to make the blues sound completely original. Between sets, they announced that he would be available at the merchandise table to sign autographs. So Tom and I dutifully lined up: for a mere $5, you could get your own signed John Lee Hooker photograph.

As we waited, though, I saw that the whole process was oddly mechanical. When your turn came, you approached Hooker, who took the 8×10 glossy from his manager and slowly printed his name below at the bottom with a thick magic marker. He barely made eye contact with the fans who had waited their turn.

This wouldn’t do. So, when my turn finally came up, I lied through my teeth. “Great show,” I said. “You know, the last time I saw you play was two years ago, in Sendai, Japan.” Hooker’s show in Sendai happened in early 1984, before I got there for my year-abroad program that autumn, but I heard all about it from friends at the Peter Pan rock music coffee house. Hooker paused, looked up at me with a smile and asked how long I had stayed in Sendai. I told him I’d stayed there for a year and that I was looking for a way to get back–both of which were true. He asked if I had a girlfriend there, and I told him that I did. He smiled again and said something about how much he liked touring in Japan. He then took up the black marker and signed my photograph (that’s it above) and it was Tom’s turn to get his autograph.

Honesty is usually the best policy, but not always.

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A Light Bulb Goes On in my Mind

Posted in Books,Music by bourdaghs on the June 16th, 2019

I am reading Mark Fisher’s brilliant posthumous collection, K-Pop: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016) (edited by Darren Ambrose, Repeater Books, 2018) and come across the following passage from his 2004 essay, “K-Punk, or the Glampunk Art Pop Discontinuum.” In the piece, Fisher is trying to define the position of glam rock (in particular, Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music) in a history of UK youth subcultures.

Here’s the passage that caught me up (p. 279):

After the Fifties, pop and art have always been reversible and reciprocally implicating in British culture in the way that they are not in America. […] British pop’s irreducible artificiality makes it resistant to the Romanticist naturalisation that the likes of Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs achieved in respect of American rock. There’s no way of grounding British art pop in a landscape.

Not a natural landscape in any case. […] in the late-twentieth century the ‘space’ of the internal-psychological was completely penetrated by what [J.G.] Ballard calls the media landscape.

When the British pop star sings, it is not ‘the land’ which speaks (and what does Marcus hear in the American rock he mythologises in Mystery Train if not the American land?) but the deterritority of American-originated consumer culture.

Fisher is guilty of a bit of over-generalization here, of course, but he’s also onto something. And the light bulb goes on in my head:

“We are the Village Green Preservation Society, God save Donald Duck, vaudeville, and variety” (“Village Green Preservation Society,” The Kinks, 1968)

“We’ll surf, like they do in the U.S.A.” (“Australia,” The Kinks, 1969)

“Cos I’m a Muswell Hillbilly boy/But my heart lies in old West Virginia/Never seen New Orleans, Oklahoma, Tennessee/Still I dream of the Black Hills that I ain’t never seen” (“Muswell Hillbilly,” The Kinks, 1971)

“Everything around me seems unreal/Everywhere I go it looks and feels like America” (“Working Man’s Cafe,” Ray Davies, 2007).

Of course, Ray Davies had this realization long before I did.

Americana. It started as a flickering light sending black-and-white images through an old movie projector. Faces of cowboys and Indians, superheros, the good guys victorious over the emissaries of evil. Then as I grew the music took over. Rock, jazz, skiffle…the blues…and country songs came to liberate me, a north Londoner, growing in [sic] up in the austerity of postwar Britain. The music gave me hope and feeling that I could express myself in song through this new art form called rock and roll.

(Ray Davies, Americana: The Kinks, the Road, the Story [Sterling, 2013], p. viii)

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How to be an Ethical Music Fan in a Corrupt World

Posted in Books,Change is Bad,Classical,J-Pop,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the March 26th, 2019

1). How to buy music: Never, ever order your music from Amazon.com or its woeful kin. Obviously. Your local record shop, should you be so lucky as to still have one, needs your business. Another alternative is buying directly from the artist’s website. It’ll probably cost you a couple extra bucks, but that’s a low price to pay for retaining the rights to your soul. Online retailers have replaced record companies as the Satan of the music industry. Don’t feed Satan.

2). How to listen to music: Here’s how you can pry something out of Satan. After you have bought the CD or vinyl or mp3 download, use a streaming service to listen to the tunes. If you don’t subscribe to a streaming service, try YouTube. They all pay shit royalties to artists and composers, but after you’ve already shelled out a fair price for your own copy, listening via a streaming service throws a few more pennies in the direction of the people who actually made the music.

3). How to find new music: Read. Good music writing teaches you about your own limits and points out a way past them. Criticism is being squeezed as badly by capitalism as any other branch of today’s music world. If you are so lucky as to live in a place where the local press runs music criticism, read it. Then like it and share it on social media: publishers count up those beans. And buy and read books. Your local bookstore has shelves bursting with excellent writing on music. You could start with Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, Mark Fisher’s K-Punk, or Jim Walsh’s Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes, to name three random examples sitting on my desk right now.

Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments. We need all the ideas we can get.

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Things You Find in a Japanese Used Bookstore

Posted in Books,Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the January 28th, 2019

In his 1931 essay, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting,” Walter Benjamin writes that to a book collector, the attraction lies not so much in the fate of a book as a work, but rather in the fate of one specific copy of that book. For a collector, “the most important fate of a copy is its encounter with him” (Harry Zohn trans.). In other words, a collector gathers up stories of encounters with books as much as she does books themselves. So here’s a story.

Last December we visited Tokyo. Our last afternoon in the city, I was killing time in Kichijoji and wandered into Yomitaya, a used bookstore not too far from the train station. After browsing the stacks, I had to check out the locked glass cases up front, where they keep the good stuff. Immediately catching my eye was an elegant letter, several pages thick and composed in classical style with a writing brush, sent by the novelist Nogami Yaeko (野上弥生子,1885-1985) to yet another novelist, Oba Minako (大庭みな子, 1930-2007). A remarkable find: modern Japanese literary history, connecting Natsume Soseki’s Thursday afternoon salon from the 1910s (where Nogami occasionally visited) to the revival of feminist writing in the 1970s and 80s, was sitting there right in front of me. The price tag said 150,000 yen, roughly $1400–well out of the price range of this collector.

But then I noticed a postcard sitting next to it, wrapped in clear vinyl: a New Year’s card, sent from Oba to Nogami. There was no price tag on it. It was almost time for me to leave and meet up with the rest of my family, but idle curiosity wouldn’t let me go. I approached the clerk at the cash register.

“I’m sure I can’t afford it, but how much is that Oba Minako postcard?”

The clerk at first didn’t know what I was speaking about. We walked over to the glass case and I pointed it out. She unlocked the case and pulled the vinyl wrapper out, looking for a price tag. Finding nothing, she slid the card out–and it turned out that there were actually two different New Years greeting cards in it, both from Oba to Nogami. But still no price tag.

The clerk explained that the owner of the shop was away just then, and he was the one who would know the price. She turned to another clerk and explained the situation. He picked up the phone and tried calling the owner to ask the price. I felt bad, because I almost certainly wasn’t going to be able to afford the thing. I did, however, start asking myself about how high I was willing to go. I had no idea what the price would turn out to be, but decided that I could spend up to 5,000 yen (roughly $45).

They couldn’t reach the owner on the phone, alack. I thanked the two clerks and made to leave the shop when their telephone rang, and of course it was the owner. The male clerk spoke for a minute or two with the owner, then opened up a file on his computer to confirm the details of the item.

He looked up at me and said, “3,000 yen.”

I had my wallet out in an instant, wanting to make the purchase and get out of there before they decided that the price was a mistake. How could I not buy them after all of that?

Below you can see images of the little scrap of Japanese literary history that I picked up in that used bookstore. I have no idea what I’ll do with them, but I knew in the moment there was no way I could leave that shop without them.


1984 postmark

(「新年おめでとうございます。一九八四年元旦。いつも伺ったときのことを思い出しております。大庭みな子」)
“Happy New Year. New Year’s Day, 1984. I always think about the time I visited you. Oba Minako”


December 1982 postmark

(「新年のよろこびをもうしあげます。元旦」)
“Felicitations on the New Year. New Year’s Day”

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What I Listened to in 2018

Posted in Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the December 27th, 2018

It’s that time of year: I’m enjoying reading people’s top-albums-of-the-year lists. So, for what it’s worth, here are the twenty 2018 albums I listened to the most, in alphabetical order:

Courtney Barnett, “Tell Me How You Really Feel”
Cero,”Poly Life Multi Soul”
Chai, “Pink”
Shemekia Copeland, “America’s Child”
Dave Davies,”Decade”
Ray Davies, “Our Country: Americana Act 2”
Dessa, “Chime”
Betty LaVette, “Things Have Changed”
Lykke Li, “So Sad So Sexy”
Janelle Monae, “Dirty Computer”
The Kinks, “Village Green Preservation Society” box set
Chris Mars, “Note to Self”
Kacey Musgraves, “Golden Hour”
Noname, “Room 25”
Ohmme, “Parts”
Parliament, “Medicaid Fraud Dogg”
Ike Reilly, “Crooked Love”
Robyn, “Honey”
Stew and The Negro Problem, “Notes of a Native Son”
Walter Wolfman Washington, “My Future is My Past”

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Literary Tourism and Letters of Recommendation

Posted in Books,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 22nd, 2017

Over the past decade, I have practiced a particular form of readerly tourism. When I travel somewhere that is the setting for a novel, I bring the book along and read a few pages while sitting in the specific location. For example, in 2014 I spent part of an afternoon in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Later that same year I sat on a park bench in downtown Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and read Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street.

This past September I was in London for a few days. As part of the never-ending exercise of attempting to turn myself into a well-read human being, every summer I read one enormous classic of world literature. For 2017, the choice was Dickens’s Little Dorrit. And so on a brisk, sunny September morning, I rode the Underground to Monument station, walked south across London Bridge and headed for Little Dorrit Playground, a small modern park for children in the neighborhood where much of the story takes place. As I sat on a bench, reading a chapter from the novel, a young mother played with her toddler daughter on the climber and swings.

From there I walked across the street to the site of the old Marshalsea debtors prison, the central setting of Dickens’s story. Only the southern wall of the “College” remains, along with some historical markers describing the significance of the site.

A few months later, at the height of recommendation letter season, I find myself recalling a specific passage from the novel. Pancks, the comical ‘Grubber’ (bill collector) who haunts the impoverished neighborhood of Bleeding Heart Yard, is repeatedly figured as a kind of overcharged motor (“a little steam-engine with more steam than it knew what to do with”). Later in the novel, Dickens gives Pancks a memorable opportunity to demonstrate a powerful sense of working-class resentment against the capitalist class in the figure of his boss, landlord Casby. But the passage that comes to mind now is where he talks about the relative value of personal references in determining the creditworthiness of individuals.

‘As to being a reference,’ said Pancks, ‘you know, in a general way, what being a reference means. It’s all your eye, that is! Look at your tenants down the Yard here. They’d all be references for one another, if you’d let ’em. What would be the good of letting ’em? It’s no satisfaction to be done by two men instead of one. One’s enough. A person who can’t pay, gets another person who can’t pay, to guarantee that he can pay. Like a person with two wooden legs getting another person with two wooden legs, to guarantee that he has got two natural legs. It don’t make either of them able to do a walking match. And four wooden legs are more troublesome to you than two, when you don’t want any.’ Mr Pancks concluded by blowing off that steam of his.

And so, yes, I’d be happy to write that letter of reference for you–and for you, and for you too. The more, the merrier. Meanwhile, I’ll be dreaming about what book to read next summer–and where it might take me.

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