Sunday Salon 4-29-12

Good morning, all! While we’re dealing with a power outage in my part of Reno, Nevada, I’m using my more-or-less trustworthy laptop to communicate with you today. As you might remember from last week, I’ve been experiencing some doubts as to whether my blog is going to continue. That question hasn’t been resolved yet, but in the meantime I thought I’d at least provide an update as to what I’ve been up to. This week I finished two of the three books I’d been reading: The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and A Brief History of Ireland by Paul F. State. There’s a chance that a review of the latter will appear at some point. I’ve now moved on to The Yellow House by Martin Gayford, which so far has been very enjoyable.

A while back I’d also mentioned my plan to read and write about Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, which deals with Christianity in Japan in the early seventeenth century, and the film made of the book by Masahiro Shinoda. While this resides near the top of my list of things to do, quite coincidentally I came across a brand new non-fiction book on the same subject, In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians by John Dougill. It’s a really interesting bit of history, and I look forward to reading these books and re-watching the film (which according to rumor is going to be remade sometime soon by Martin Scorsese, with Daniel Day-Lewis starring). Might make a good subject for an blog article too – we’ll see.

Lastly, I’ve finished viewing the four films included in The Mizoguchi Collection, a recent U.K. Blu Ray release by the Artificial Eye company. These films by the great Kenji Mizoguchi from the 1930s and 1940s reminded me of why he is usually included in the great triumvirate of Japanese filmmakers, along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Particular revelations were Sisters of the Gion, which I’d seen before but hadn’t been so impressed by until now, and the melodrama The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. With the new Blu Ray releases of two of Mizoguchi’s masterpieces, Ugetsu monogatari and Sansho Dayu, winging their way to me from England, it might be a good excuse to write at some length about Mizoguchi. Once again, maybe…

Have a great week!

Sunday Salon 4-22-12

Hello again, Sunday Salon readers! I’ve been away from blogging for a couple of weeks, my only entry being a collection of pictures of a Russian actress, Tatiana Samoilova, whose work I really like. There’s a reason for my absence, which I’ll discuss shortly. But I would imagine that lots of those who blog run into roadblocks from time to time, and even need a little time away from regular writing. If you have helpful suggestions as to how to stay engaged and motivated in your blogging, I’d be very happy to hear them! Whether this Salon entry of mine signals a return to regular posting remains to be seen; I hope to become de-paralyzed shortly.

The reason for my pause in writing is somewhat strange, inasmuch as it was also probably the most tangible success my blogging has had to date. I got an email a week or two ago from an organization in Australia that specializes in the art of Oceania (I won’t identify it for now, as this arrangement is still tentative). Anyway, someone in the organization came across my blog article on the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. They apparently liked it, and asked me if it was all right if they reprint it in their newsletter.

On the one hand, this was fairly flattering, coming as it did from specialists on this art, and gives my writing a bit of validation. However, it also got me to thinking about all the other experts in their fields who could conceivably come across my writings. Unfortunately I know somewhere between little and nothing about most of the subjects that I write about – the writing of this blog is, honestly, part of my learning process. And I write about lots of different things, basically anything that captures my interest at a particular time. Suddenly I was feeling haunted by these theoretical, really knowledgeable people who might come across my stuff and find me to be a poseur, or an idiot. I suspect that a lot of people who put their writings out into the world have a fear of criticism. Apparently I do too, but hadn’t noticed it until now. We’ll see if I can get over this oversensitivity.

In the meantime, I’m still working on the same books I was two weeks ago: Paul F. State’s A Brief History of Ireland and Rachel Maddow’s Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. In the evenings I’ve just started enjoying what seems to have become a classic in Scandinavian crime fiction, The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

To close, some pictures – the view from outside my front door…

and from inside my front door, my probable reading for the next few months…

Happy Earth Day!


– The World Heritage Centre at the UNESCO website has pictures and information for all World Heritage Sites. You can spend a whole lot of quality time there.
– The Fondation Pierre Berge – Yves Saint Laurent currently has on exhibit Kabuki, Japanese Theatre Costumes. For those of us not visiting Paris anytime soon, Evelyne Politanoff has published an article on the exhibition at the Huffington Post, with lots of beautiful photos.
– The Brain Pickings website has done it again with another wonder, “The Life of Rumi in Rare Islamic Manuscript Paintings from the 1590s,” once again with many great illustrations.
– A very interesting interview with composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
– Why is it so pleasing to know that, in his extensive collection of videos, Ingmar Bergman owned copies of The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters?

Sunday Salon 4-8-12

Happy Easter, everyone! It’s a beautiful day here in Reno, baseball season has started, the Masters wraps up this afternoon, and I get to do my taxes! There had to be something to bring me down…

I was happy to get two fairly large pieces of writing done this week, a review of Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, and a quasi-kind of-sort of bit of art analysis, Looking at Giotto’s The Lamentation. The coming week, unfortunately, is likely to be a slow one for writing, as my employer, the Reno Chamber Orchestra, has performances the weekend of April 14/15, and there are many meetings and rehearsals and such to attend. This did give me the opportunity, though, to produce the Orchestra’s first-ever podcast, a guide to the Requiem in C minor by Luigi Cherubini that will be featured at the upcoming concerts. If I can get the technical end figured out, the podcast will appear at the RCO website in the next couple of days.

In terms of reading, Émile Zola’s L’Oeuvre has been finished, Paul F. State’s A Brief History of Ireland is ongoing, and next up are Martin Gayford’s The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence and Rachel Maddow’s Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power.

Have an excellent week, and happy reading!

Looking at Giotto’s The Lamentation

Everyone knows about the Sistine Chapel and its importance to art history. Another such artistic monument is the Scrovegni, or Arena, Chapel in Padua, Italy, the interior of which is covered with fresco paintings by Giotto di Bondone (c. 1266-1337). Looking around its interior – virtually, via books and online sources, since I’ve never actually been there – I was struck by the extent to which Giotto anticipated Renaissance era painting in his work, during a time in which the more stylized, Byzantine approach still dominated Western religious painting. Among the most impressive and moving of the paintings in the Chapel is one widely regarded as one of Giotto’s masterpieces, The Lamentation. Having already featured it in this week’s Wordless Wednesday, I thought it might also be interesting to examine this painting in more detail, to try to figure out exactly what is so affecting about it.

First, a little background. In the early years of the fourteenth century, Enrico degli Scrovegni commissioned a church to be built on his property in Padua, to serve as a worship and burial space for his family. From a banking family, Scrovegni was concerned about his and his family’s place in the afterlife, very much aware of how usury, money-lending with a high interest rate, was regarded back then (in fact, Dante placed Scrovegni’s father Reginaldo in the seventh circle of Hell in his Inferno for this very reason). Commissioning art for churches was a very common way for financially well-off people to “earn” their way into Heaven through good works. Read more

Nick Cave’s Influences

An article at the always-interesting Brain Pickings website caught my attention a few days ago. It shows us a list drawn up by musician and author Nick Cave of important influences on his work. I have to admit that I’ve only heard a little of Cave’s music, although I really liked The Proposition, the very violent quasi-Western film set in Australia for which he wrote the screenplay (and music). But after looking at this list of influences, clearly I need to become more familiar with his work!

Haruki Murakami: Underground

Haruki Murakami
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
Translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel
(2001, Vintage International, 366 pages)

On Monday, March 20, 1995, a cool, clear spring morning, five members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult broke open plastic containers of sarin in several cars of the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway. Thirteen people were killed, dozens severely injured, and over 5,000 injured in an attack that shook the Japanese nation.

Perhaps Japan’s best-known novelist, Haruki Murakami was not in Tokyo that day but closely followed the news of the attack, as did people throughout the country and around the world. Angry at the extensive coverage by the Japanese media that focused on the perpetrators of the attack, Murakami felt a desire to draw attention to the victims. In Underground, Murakami, employing the method of oral historians like Studs Terkel, talks to victims of the attack. Only some of those interviews are included in this English version of what was a much longer Japanese original. In the subsequent The Place That Was Promised (included as part of the English edition of Underground), Murakami also spoke to some of the perpetrators.

Working systematically, Murakami was able to track down 140 survivors, only 40% of whom would be interviewed (many simply wanted to forget about the incident, or were fearful of retribution from Aum Shinrikyo members). Most of the profiles take the same shape – a short biographical sketch by Murakami, followed by a description by the person of her/his normal routine, details of what happened that day, any long-term effects they experienced, and occasionally some remarks on why this might have happened, what in Japanese society specifically or humankind generally could have lead to an event like this. Murakami states that he wanted “to recognize that each person on the subway that morning had a face, a life, a family, hopes and fears, contradictions and dilemmas – that that all these factors had a place in the drama.” Read more

Sunday Salon 4-1-12

Happy Sunday, all! Just to make it clear from the start, I know what day it is, but this edition of the Salon won’t include any April Fools jokes or pranks (the only April Fool to be found here is your humble author). It was a pretty good week in terms of ideas, but far from my most productive in terms of actual writing. I have just about finished my review of Haruki Murakami’s Underground, which should be appearing tomorrow, a mere four months after I actually finished the book!

Wandering at random online, I found myself getting interested in the famous Scrovegni (or Arena) Chapel in Padua, the interior of which is covered with fresco paintings by Giotto. Among the amazing paintings in the Chapel is one that has often been singled out as a masterwork and which particularly moved me, The Lamentation. With Easter Sunday coming up, I thought it would be interesting (so I hope, anyway) to do a fairly detailed look at this painting and why it has the effect it does on so many viewers. That should be coming later this week.

Scoping out future reading, I’m about halfway through A Brief History of Ireland by Paul F. State, which, despite the parade of unfamiliar names, places and events, has been very interesting. Once that’s done, I think I’ll be returning briefly to the subject of Van Gogh (on which I spent a few months while reading and writing about Naifeh and Smith’s Van Gogh: The Life), with Martin Gayford’s The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence. After that, my stack of Japanese novels is calling again, especially Shusaku Endo’s Silence (the story of which, the persecution of Christians in sixteenth and early seventeenth century Japan, is already familiar to me through Masahiro Shinoda’s excellent film of the novel), and others by Murakami, Yasunari Kawabata, Natsume Soseki, and Jun’ichiro Tanizaki.

That’s enough ambition for one Sunday!