December 2020 Wrap-Up

The Woodlanders [1887] by Thomas Hardy ★★★★★

In this novel by Thomas Hardy, Grace Melbury is torn between her feelings for simple farmer Giles Winterborne and her emotions towards sophisticated doctor Edred Fitzpiers. Evoking the beauty of rural life and nature, Hardy paints in his story a powerful image of imperfect characters who find themselves in circumstances beyond their immediate control. Themes of unbridgeable class divide, marriage confines and the negative effects of growing industrialisation all feature in this great novel by Hardy.

Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death [1985/1998] by Yoel Hoffmann ★★★★★

I cleansed the mirror/of my heart – now it reflects/the moon [Renseki, 1789];

“A tune of non-being/filling the void:/spring sun/snow whiteness/bright clouds/clear wind” [Daido Ichi’i, 1370].

Japan has always stood unique in the world in its attitudes towards death, including death taboos and rituals, and there was a centuries’ old tradition in Japan to write “death/final farewell poems” (jisei). This well-researched book compiles these poems written by both traditional haiku writers and zen monks, and some of the poems in the book have been translated to English for the first time. If poems by zen monks are full of (hidden) meaning and profound philosophy, poems by traditional haiku poets are more evocative. The book is a “must-read” for anyone interested in Japanese haiku (a type of short form poetry) or Zen Buddhism (because the introduction by the author also elucidates on many complex Zen Buddhism concepts, quoting direct sources and providing numerous examples).

The Waiting Years [1957] by Fumiko Enchi – ★★★★★

I liked The Waiting Years much more than Masks [1958] by the same author. The Waiting Years is a powerful novel by a female author that tells of Mrs. Shirakawa who is forced to seek a maid or rather a young concubine for her husband. Mrs. Shirakawa finally finds strikingly beautiful and innocent girl Suga who is about to be “sacrificed for the sake of her family’s fortunes” [Fumiko Enchi, 1957: 34]. After Suga, another girl follows to please the increasingly despotic husband and the first mistress is soon torn between duty, guilt, compassion, jealousy and fear. The situation grows out of Mrs Shirakawa’s control, especially, since after some years, her husband sets his eyes on his son’s seductive young wife. Fumiko Enchi had a talent for portraying complex inter-relationships, and demonstrates the resilience and loyalty of women living in the Japanese patriarchal society in the now bygone era. That was the time when women had little chance to escape from their obligations, and Enchi presents a unique portrayal of one woman with “a distinction acquired through suffering” whose character is as fascinating as it is unforgettable. With subtlety and unmatched observational powers, the author shows the internal struggles of the character labouring under internal moral obligations and human emotions that conflict violently: “feminine ethic…had…taught her to yield to her husband’s wishes in every respect, no matter how unreasonable they might seem” [1957: 43]. It can now be said that Fumiko Enchi’s novel has an ending to match the greatest finales of our contemporary author Kazuo Ishiguro (who must have been influenced by the author), and The Waiting Years must surely be one of the greatest Japanese novels.

The House of Mirth [1905] by Edith Wharton ★★★★1/2

The House of Mirth may not be a novel that is on the same level with Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, but it is still an excellent book with one memorable central heroine, Lily Bart, whose independence of spirit, pride and the reluctance to go against her own principles all mean that she soon faces the nightmare of her life – being a societal outcast.

Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City [2020] by Gary Kamiya & Paul Madonna – ★★★★1/2

This is a new non-fiction book that tries “to portray San Francisco that is rich, deep, and strange – an unknown city“[2020: xii]. A collaboration between author Gary Kamiya and artist Paul Madonna, it was finished during the quarantine of 2020 and presents the city from many different angles. From old apartments blocks on Joice St. and Waverly Place’s dark history to the city’s parks, piers and its historic “blue-collar” regions, we are taken on a wondrous journey through little-known history, literature, architecture and social conditions of San Francisco, as the author sheds light on interesting historical trivia of the city, such as how Russian Hill might have gotten its name and the precise circumstances in which the famous Haas-Lilienthal House was built. We learn about many illustrious people who helped “to build” the city, from Andrew Smith Hallidie, whose invention made the cable car possible, and Donaldina Cameron, who is known to save many girls from Chinatown’s sex slavery ring, to property owner Carl Henry, who is partly responsible for the creation of “the crookedest street in the world” – Lombard St. Perhaps the author’s dropping of literary/film titles is “too on the nose” and the information presented is sometimes debatable (one reference is a Wikipedia article), but the book is still a highly entertaining and insightful journey through San Francisco and its history.

Minamata: The Story of the Poisoning of a City, and of the People Who Choose to Carry the Burden of Courage [1975] by Eugene W. Smith & Aileen M. Smith – ★★★★1/2

[The belief] that pollution is criminal only after legal conviction is [the belief] that causes pollution [Smith, 1975: 172].

This book introduces the true case of the Minamata mercury poisoning that occurred in a small fishing village of Minamata, island of Kyushu, Japan, from the early 1950s to the 1970s, with its effects lasting to the early 1980s (and maybe even beyond). This is a shocking case of corporate crime and greed that crippled thousands of people for life and led to long and agonising deaths for so many others. Chisso Corporation poisoned the waters around Minamata, contaminating the fish that was then eaten by villagers who then experienced frightening neurodegenerative symptoms (from muscle weakness/atrophy and difficulty breathing to convulsions and complete loss of awareness). Eugene and Aileen Smith spent three years in Minamata, investigating the poisoning, gathering evidence, talking to survivors (who were often also stigmatised), and photographing the trauma. The book’s unflinching, vivid photographs bring to life the true horror experienced by the victims of Chisso Corporation, and the authors really put a human face on the disaster and the disease, trying to show the true human cost of this “industrial genocide” [1975: 33]. For example, the authors focus on the moving case of Shinobu, a girl with one neurodegenerative condition because her mother ate poisonous fish when she was pregnant. Her daily struggles and courage to try to overcome the condition and lead a normal life are touching and inspiring.

This is also a story of people coming together and bravely fighting for justice against all odds. Chisso Corporation was exposed as a liar that had refused to admit their responsibility for years, resulting in painful and protracted trials and unfair settlements. In 1969, the “final” trial started, and the verdict was reached on 20 March 1973, when it was declared that the company was liable and should pay full compensation for the dead and severely-injured. By 2004, Chisso paid out 86 million dollars in compensation. In 2010, another settlement was reached to pay “yet uncertified victims”. This case of industrial mercury poisoning needs to be better known and the book is more far-reaching than appears at first glance. Industrial pollution has not stopped around the world, and rivers, lakes and oceans, as well as soil and air continue to be polluted by companies, resulting in many people and animals suffering. Their suffering is also diverse – from mild allergies and asthmas to full-blown animal extinctions, human cancers and even deaths. Recently, the UK court has declared that one small girl’s death was partly caused by road pollution (the failure to reduce pollution contributed to Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death, and the girl had asthma). This was a landmark case in Britain which will hopefully open everyone’s eyes on the pressing issue of how damaging pollution really is and can get for human and animal health, as well as for the nature in general.


10 thoughts on “December 2020 Wrap-Up

  1. A diverse range of books here, of which the Japanese death poems collection attracts most, while I’m glad you summarised the Minamata study because I too was unaware of the tragic scandal (even though I’m unlikely to seek out the book).

    Liked by 1 person

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