Finding Oneself Abroad

American Fuji, by Sara Backer

An American's son, a foreign exchange student, dies in an accident in Japan and his father goes there seeking answers. He gets way more than he bargained for. His counterpart and eventual love interest, Sara, has been in Japan going on five years and so is able to clue him in – and he really needs it. The set-up gives first-time novelist Backer, who taught English at a university in the conservative Japanese city of Shizuoka, an excuse to introduce all sorts of Japanese idiosyncrasies to Western readers, most of which are, from our point of view, hilarious. 

Sometimes the plot borders on unbelievable, as the characters become involved with yakuza, a “bad” Buddhist priest makes trouble, etc., but it is all in such good fun that it hardly matters. The novel will especially delight those who have lived in Japan, and it may become required reading for those thinking of going there to stay awhile, but anyone will find it an entertaining and informative read. It's very hard on the Japanese, though, and some readers have panned it for that. 

Audrey Hepburn's Neck, by Alan Brown

It is one thing for a Westerner to write about how it is to be a foreigner in Japan. Such accounts, usually fictionalized, are often funny and revealing. But it is even more of an accomplishment for a Westerner to write about foreigners in Japan from the Japanese point of view. This is what Alan Brown so admirably does.

Not being Japanese, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the Japanese viewpoint in this novel, but it certainly has the ring of authenticity. The story involves Toshi, a young man raised in Hokkaido who, now in his 20s, lives in Tokyo. It switches back and forth between Toshi's lonely childhood and his life as a young working man. Toshi has been fascinated by Western women all of his life, ever since, as a child, he saw Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday with his mother. He has never, in fact, had a Japanese girlfriend. But he finds himself in over his head with the American English teacher, Jane, who soon reveals herself to be less than sane.

Brown is clearly a gifted novelist. His control of his material is evident from the first page. I highly recommend this unusual look a Japanese struggling to come to grips with the secrets of his childhood at the same time as he confronts his obsession with foreignness – and finds common ground in the two obsessions.

Country of Origin by Don Lee

This well-crafted and thoughtful detective novel uses Japan as the background for a story of belonging and not belonging. The main characters, mostly foreigners but including one Japanese as well, are outsiders – whether because of cultural or personal differences from those surrounding them – and how they come to terms with their differentness makes this novel one to think about long after finishing it. The characters act out their efforts to find themselves, with the Japanese sex industry and the diplomatic community as the settings. This book is a good read, serious without taking itself too seriously, and will especially be of interest for those who have lived in Japan or think they might want to do so. 

First Light: Flight from Fear, by Alicia Adams

Alicia is an old friend and I read this book because I wanted to know about her journey to India with her now deceased husband, who sought healing not available in the US for a rare type of cancer.  But what I got was a lot more.  Alicia describes India with abundant detail:  As I read, I also heard and saw and especially smelled India and witnessed the kindness of the people as Alicia tried to wend her way in very foreign territory while caring for her very ill husband.  The story morphs more and more into a spiritual journey as, toward the end, Alicia and her husband Craig end up at the ashram of HWL Poonja ("Papaji" to those who have been his students). 

But the book also interweaves Alicia's current life with her subsequent husband, mostly in New Mexico, drawing parallels between her struggles in India and those aspects of herself that still seeks to understand in her life now.  She calls on the wisdom of "Our Teachers" -- spiritual beings from another world who help her understand the meaning of her life's journey.

But you don't have to believe in beings from another world, or, if you believe in such beings, they don't have to be in the form they are in Alicia's life in order to enjoy and also learn from this book. The author means her story to illuminate the whole of her life story and perhaps also be an example of how to do this for one's own life.  I certainly found it to be so.  As a writer, I especially appreciated the way she constantly revises her story to more accurately reflect how she sees it now.  Memory isn't infallible, she seems implicitly to be saying.  Far from it. Memory is just a starting point.  Experience is ten percent of who we are; the way we interpret that experience the other ninety percent.  

I also enjoyed the quality production of the book.  The editing is excellent, with fewer editing errors than are found in books from major publishers these days, and the pictures add a personal touch.

Readers should be warned that this is the first book of a trilogy and it ends on an indefinite note. Although I couldn't quite fathom why the author chooses to end volume one when she does, reading the beginning of the second book may clarify that.

All told, whether or not you have been to India or intend to go, this book has much to recommend it, especially for those on a spiritual path.

The Language of Blood by Jane Jeong Trenka

This is a heartfelt memoir by a woman adopted from Korea to Minnesota. Virtually every adoptee wants to know his or her origin, but Trenka's urge was especially strong. A poignant moment in her childhood comes when she wonders how a mother can give up her child. What had she done to deserve such abandonment? How was she not good enough? She talks about how adoptive parents always stress that their children are “chosen” but says that what adopted children hear in this word is that they are like goods bought in a department store: if they aren't suitable, they can be returned. Trenka always felt she needed to be perfect or she might be abandoned again.

As it turned out, Trenka's birth mother was looking for her, and wrote to her when she found her –  Trenka was still a child at the time. When she becomes an adult, she travels back to Korea to reunite with the mother who had given her up as an infant due to economic necessity and an abusive husband. There she also discovers her Korean siblings and extended family.

Throughout the book, Trenka ponders whether she is really Korean or American. In so many ways she is American, she knows, yet she feels the blood bond with her Korean family. She looks like them and this means a lot to a young Asian who grew up where everyone was white and tall and mostly of blue-eyed German and Norwegian stock -- where she was made fun of at school for being different and never truly felt she belonged. She finally feels at home in this land she was taken from before she had even formed a memory of it.

Trenka's adoptive parents, though, do not take well to this new bond with her birth family that their daughter has formed. In fact, Jane and her adoptive parents don't speak for a couple of years. But Jane does forgive them finally. Her journey has been hard but by the end of the book, she has reached peace.

My only quibble is that Trenka doesn't seem to realize that people who are not adopted often have the same feelings – for example, feeling not good enough when they have parents who are too demanding. And many people, despite growing up with their birth families, feel like they don't belong. Jane did, after all, have a sister who was adopted by the same couple at the same time Jane was but seems not to have identified much with her Korean heritage. So much of what we are comes from our individual personality as it responds to circumstances, not just from the circumstances themselves. This is not to deny what Trenka went through, only to give it a bit of perspective.

I do highly recommend this book to those who are adopted or just want to understand how it feels, and especially, to anyone who has adopted internationally. It will open your mind.


by Andrew Sean Greer 

The narrative arts are particularly suited to the subjects of the passage of time and death. Time can be telescoped, and even if the novel or play takes place on a single day, there is inevitably flashback, as the characters remember their lives when they were younger. This remembrance is often quite poignant, as it is in LESS.

The stopped clock at the beginning of the story signifies protagonist Arthur Less' unwillingness to accept the passage of time. And this is partly because he conceives himself to be a failure: he must not get old until he has accomplished something worthwhile. It doesn't help that a prominent gay writer has called Less a "bad gay" because his writing he doesn't always celebrate gayness. He hopes his new novel, finished and awaiting feedback from his publisher, will be one such accomplishment. Surely people will rave: “Less's new novel, a serious investigation of the human soul . . . .”

Meanwhile, Arthur needs to get out of San Francisco to avoid the dilemma of whether to attend the wedding of his former lover, Freddy. Ironically, when he was actually with Freddy, he never expected the relationship to be permanent or even serious. He felt Freddy wasn't his type, and he urged his much younger lover to find satisfaction elsewhere. And yet, now that Freddy has done so, it isn't so okay at all.

He did have a permanent relationship previously, to the renowned poet Robert Brownburn (amalgam of Browning and Burns?), begun when he was in his early 20's and Brownburn was already in his 40s, but in the end it got stale and both partners moved on.

So Arthur patches together an around the world trip which will take him to New York, where he used to live, then Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, and Japan, entertaining the reader with all his mishaps along the way. For example, he has always imagined himself fluent in German, but in fact, he makes a fool of himself when he speaks. And then there is his teal blue suit, which he feels exemplifies him to a tee, and which he tries to always wear for important occasions – until – .

Meanwhile, his publisher contacts him, under-impressed with what Less thought was his brilliant novel. 

There is a mysterious narrator who is only revealed at the end of the story. This narrative choice allows us to be in close third person and yet step back from Less over and over to see the larger picture. Without this device, it's hard to see how the novel could have worked so well: we need to see Less' foibles and also how others see him.

The story is episodic; the lack of the usual narrative arc makes it sag a bit in the middle. But just when one wonders if it is ever going to get deeper – bang – we are in the midst of the real dilemma that has driven Less to wander the world. His old lover, Robert, now 75 and has had a stroke, and Less contacts him through internet conferencing. Robert's ex-wife is with him, too, and at first, Less doesn't recognize either of them. And then he remembers this scene at the end of Proust's opus: Marcel goes to a cocktail party and sees people he knew long ago. At first he thinks it must be a costume party because everyone has donned a white wig and is stooped and wrinkled. But no: these are the people from his past; age has caught up with every one of them.

Arthur has spent his entire around-the-world trip bemoaning the fact that he has turned fifty, but the appearance of Robert and his ex-wife is the evidence that no one escapes this age thing. He has to quit pretending he will not grow old and start living. Robert, who can hardly talk, admonishes him that, at fifty, he still has plenty of time to live.

Now he realizes that his publisher was right: the book he wrote was trash. He is meant to write not in the vein of ULYSSES – a gay man wandering around the city in a single day – but of REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST -- a man who discovers the value of life as he accepts the passage of time. Meanwhile, the blue suit, emblematic of the Less who never changes, is gone and he finds himself wearing the more appropriate gray. He has learned that life is to be lived now, in the present, and he finds his reward for his lesson learned when he returns home.

Mango Elephants in the Sun: How Life in an African Village Let me Be in My Skin
by Susana Herrera

I cannot praise this book too highly. It is one of the best books of any kind I have read, and the best memoir. What is good about it? First of all, it's incredibly poetic. The very first page captured me, first with a poem and then prose that was just as poetic. The entire memoir is beautifully written.

A young woman goes to Africa in the Peace Corps and has unbelievable adventures as her soul heals from abuse in her childhood. And yet, while the inner journey is important, the outer journey is no less so. I never dreamed that the Peace Corps just sent people out and let them flounder, but that is apparently the case. The types of things Herrera had to deal with – on her own – are unbelievable. Yet she heroically perseveres. Only a person with an extremely flexible personality could make it through. Meanwhile, she learns lessons about the universality of human beings and about survival on the most basic level.

Even if you don't read memoirs, read this one!

I wish I knew what happened to this author. According to the book jacket, she taught at a school in Watsonville, California at the time the book was published (1999). A few years ago she wrote a book in Spanish. I can't find anything else about her. I'd love to know what she is doing now and what she has made of her considerable gifts as a writer since the publication of Mango Elephants.
Surviving Paradise:  One Year on a Disappearing Island
by Peter Rudiak-Gould

When Rudiak-Gould decided to go to the Marshall Islands to teach English for a year, he asked to be sent to a remote island, away from the capital city. He was hoping for a pristine wilderness, untouched by civilization. What he found was quite different.

The Marshalls have the dubious virtue of being strategically important, and, having been a battleground in World War II and subsequently the site of American nuclear testing, they are anything but pristine. Of course, Rudiak-Gould lived quite a distance from Bikini, but all of the Marshall Islanders are beneficiaries of the American aid that comes from a unilateral decision to use the islands for American military advantage. Thus, the planeloads of food that now regularly arrive on the islands mean that no one starves. They also means that, on the island where the author lived, the average number of births per woman is seven and a half – a number sustainable only because most of the children eventually emigrate to the capital on another island. The men do still fish and much of the protein in the diet comes from fishing, but the food supplements mean a very different kind of life than the ancestors lived.

But while this book tells of the evolution of the Marshalls and how the people have forged a life based on a curious mixture of ancestral and Western ways, it also tells of the author's evolution from idealistic young man to, a year later, one who can see a bit more clearly and realistically but who nevertheless has learned to love the people and the place he called home for a year. Despite aspects of Marshallese life that he never reconciled himself to – a lack of interest in education and parenting that violates every premise of the modern Western model, to name but two – he also came to value the many virtues of living in a close community where people take care of each other. And, as he learned to deal with unexpected difficulties, he found he had the psychological resources to meet the challenges.

The subtitle is a bit misleading. Rudiak-Gould returned to his island three years later and found the ecology changed – the sea encroaching while the islanders were in denial. This half-square-mile is going to sink into the sea, without any doubt. But while he was living there, this wasn't at all the focus of his life. Rather, it is the story of how a young man has his dream shattered and gains something perhaps more valuable – an appreciation of things as they are.

Vatican Waltz
by Roland Merullo 

After Breakfast with Buddha, Lunch with Buddha, and numerous other novels, now Roland Merullo has returned to his birth religion as source material.  Vatican Waltz is narrated by a 22-year-old woman still living with her widowed father.  She has always felt different from her peers, having no interest in the normal activities of young adults, and especially no interest in romance. She's had spells or visions since she was young and when she finds a sympathetic priest, she finally is bold enough to talk to him about them.  She construes the visions to mean that she is to become a Catholic priest.  But first, of course, she must find a way to bring about change in the Church policy of all-male clergy.

She travels to Rome for this purpose and finds that all is not well within the Vatican.  Not well at all.  There is a lot of intrigue and back-stabbing and fear of change.  And it is more than hinted that those opposed to any kind of change will not stop even at murder.

I have to admit that, had another author written this book, I wouldn't have picked it up.  But Merullo is a master at his craft. He writes beautifully, and from the first page I believed in this young narrator, and I wanted her to succeed.  And there was just enough intrigue to keep the reader wondering if she would come to harm along the way.  I did find it hard to believe that the Catholic hierarchy is as corrupt as portrayed here, but I'm not Catholic and have never been anywhere near the Vatican, so I have no idea if these plot elements are a stretch.

My only real objection to this book was the ending.  And it is a big objection. I don't feel that it's playing fair to insert what some would call magical realism and others would call a miracle at the end of an otherwise realistic novel.  And such an ending calls up numerous issues in terms of Christian doctrine.  One, of course, would be whether Jesus was really the long-awaited Redeemer after all.  I won't say more here for fear of spoiling the experience for those who haven't read it yet, but I'd be curious whether those who have read it have thoughts about this.

Publishers Weekly called this book the best religious novel of the year 2013.  Catholics will enjoy it especially but it will be worthwhile as well for those more generally interested in spirituality and in what it means to feel one has a calling in life.

Read my interview with Mr. Merullo here:


A True Story of Three lives, Three Cultures, and the Search for Heaven on Earth

 by Annette McGivney 

This is such an unusual book that it's hard to describe it succinctly. It starts out as a search for answers to a grizzly murder that took place in the Grand Canyon -- a place dear to the heart of the author -- and evolves into a memoir as the author comes to understand how her own buried past caused her to become fascinated with this murder in the first place. At the same time, PURE LAND is a story of three cultures -- Native American, Japanese, and Anglo-American -- and how they informed the events in the book.

McGivney is a nature writer who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, and often hikes in the Grand Canyon. So when she heard that an adventurous young Japanese woman, hiking alone, was murdered by a Native American belonging to a tribe living in the Grand Canyon, she felt she had to dig deeper. That the Japanese -- Tomomi Hanamure -- loved Native American culture and wanted to learn as much about it as possible makes the crime both ironic and tragic.

McGivney alternates chapters focused on the three subjects: the accused killer and his background, Tomomi and her many treks through the States until the final one that resulted in her death, and McGivney's own childhood. I must confess that I didn't see the relevance of McGivney's family's history at the beginning, and I don't suppose the reader is supposed to. But McGivney is a skilled enough writer that I was willing to follow her where she led me, without knowing where that would be.

The author is looking for a deeper truth than the revelation of who committed the murder, or even, from a legal viewpoint, why he might have done it. She wants the psychological truth, and that involves some deep digging into the culture of the Havasupai Tribe to which he belonged. Cultural background and psychological history cannot be separated, and McGivney has to explore one to explain the other.

The book is called PURE LAND first and most literally because Tomomi's family belonged to the Pure Land sect of Buddhism. The rituals required at the time of death were not adhered to because of the circumstances of the death and this was traumatic to Tomomi's father. But PURE LAND also refers to the desire for each of the main people in the story to find a world free from pain and struggle, a world that, according to Pure Land belief, is to be found after death for all who are true believers.

But the end of the book is the biggest surprise not only for readers but for McGivney herself as she comes to realize why she was obsessed with this story for several years -- even to the extent of traveling to Japan to meet with Tomomi's family and friends. She leaves no stone unturned in her quest for answers. When she is finally overwhelmed and feels she is having a breakdown, the truth comes to her, but it takes her time to learn the ramifications of it all.

More and more we find writers -- especially female writers -- exploring new forms of narrative. Maybe this is "New Journalism" -- which isn't so new anymore -- but it has a different flavor to it from the old male version of Mailer or Wolfe. Here, the reporter isn't just in the story but the story is partly about her, and comes to focus more and more on her as it progresses. After all, isn't it really true that we, as writers, are attracted to stories because they reflect something in ourselves? This is a truth not often uttered, and McGivney should be given credit for her courage in speaking it..

When the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Good-Bye

by Marie Mutsuki Mockett 

When I first picked up WHEN THE DEAD PAUSE AND THE JAPANESE SAY GOOD-BYE by Marie Mutsuki Mockett, I assumed it was about the 2011 tsunami and its effects on survivors. It is certainly about that, but not only -- or even principally -- that. It is a book about grieving, and learning how the Japanese handle grief.

Mockett is half-Japanese (her father was American) and grew up in California. But as a child she returned to Japan yearly with her mother. So she not only speaks the language but knows a lot of the customs. In addition, members of her mother's family own a Zen temple not far from the tsunami area. When her father and grandparents died one after the other, she felt a deep grief, and hoped she might learn something about how to accept it from the Japanese Buddhism she inherited through her family.

The book covers several visits to Japan and jumps back and forth between them, so that the chapters are more thematic than chronological. Sometimes, she visits a certain temple, for example, but comes back again on another trip. She is treated as a foreigner, which she is since she didn't grow up there, but when she tells her various hosts that her family has a Zen temple, the priests and others in charge of the various spiritual sites she visits change their attitude and become more welcoming. They see that she isn't just a tourist but a serious seeker.

Although I myself lived in Japan for two years and practiced Buddhism at two different temples, I did not know many of the customs and practices Mockett describes in her book. This may be because I was considered completely foreign since I have no family affiliation in Japan, and also because my Japanese was not as fluent as hers. (I was quasi-fluent, which means I missed a lot when Japanese were speaking among themselves.)

Mockett's sojourns take her to Buddhist temples of various sects But she is also interested in sites of the more ancient, matriarchal spirituality (from which Shinto is derived), which has a sometimes uneasy coexistence with Buddhism. For example, there is one Buddhist temple where the itako, or traditional female fortune tellers, return once a year. Now there are only two left. When Mockett said she wanted to visit one and asked how to make arrangements, she was advised that it was really better to see a Buddhist priest at that temple, rather than an itako.

Mockett also delves into the realm of spirits and ghosts and the rich Japanese tradition of contact with the “other world.” She visits several festivals, such as O'Bon, where the dead are welcomed home or sent back to the other world. At one point, it seems that her young son, whom she brings with her on the last journey, experiences contact with a ghost.

Nothing dramatic happens but many, many small things happen and all of these experiences turn Mockett's grief into a felt understanding that what she experiences is universal to all.

The Way Around: 

Finding My Mother and Myself Among the Yanomami

 by David Good

I took an anthropology survey course as an undergraduate that greatly affected me. The professor had done his field work in the Amazon and his affection for the tribe he lived with and studied was contagious. On the other hand, as part of the class, we were assigned several monographs – studies of cultures written in the objective style required of the discipline – which put me to sleep. These writings had no life in them.

The same cannot be said for THE WAY AROUND, and maybe that is because the author, while the son of an anthropologist, is not one himself and thus not constrained by the requirements of the discipline. Rather, this book is so heartfelt and so unique that it is hard to recommend it too highly.

The author's father, Kenneth Good, went to the Amazon to study the Yanomami tribe in the 1970s. The tribe was not entirely uncontacted – there had been missionaries in the area for some time – but they still lived their traditional life, uninfluenced by the cultural patterns of the “outside” world.

Kenneth Good, as it happened, fell in love with a Yanomami girl, married her, and took her back to New Jersey, where he was still working on his doctorate. They had three children together, but in the end, she was unhappy with North American life, and, on a trip back to the Amazon, she refused to leave and return to the States with her husband and children. The author, the eldest of the three children, was five at the time, and he wasn't to see his mother again for another twenty years.

In the intervening years, he tried his best, understandably, to deny his jungle roots and the mother who, he felt, had rejected him. He invented a story that his mother had been killed in a car crash. But as he grew up, more and more alienated from himself and his origins, he finally realized he had to go back to the jungle he knew only from a visit as a young child and find his mother. This book is the story of that reunion.

The success of most memoirs depends more on the way the story is told than on the story itself. This one is different: it would be hard to imagine how this fascinating story could be ruined by poor telling. In fact, though, Good does succeed in arranging the complicated elements of his story in an intriguing and engaging way. Although the explanations he gives for some events don't seem quite complete or satisfactory, mostly these are minor events.

One of the myths most Westerners believe is that once indigenous people come in contact with our culture, they succumb. So it was interesting and heartening (even though her children paid a price) to learn that Good's mother wanted to go back to jungle life – that the simple life she knew was where she thrived. And yet, reading the last chapter of Good's book puts this idea in perspective. Good tells us that his mother's village is one of the most traditional ones left, and that many young Yanomami, like indigenous people everywhere surrounded by a very different, dominant culture, feel alienated and inferior.

I remember my anthropology professor saying, “If you want to go to the Amazon, go now,” because he knew that the hitherto uncontacted tribes were being contacted more and more, and that their cultures were changing. This is shown to be only too true. And it is ironic that Good himself, as a “half-breed,” is both a product of and a manifestation of this infiltration. But the purity of the life he describes should give all of us pause. He reflects:

“The best illustration of this [simplicity] is probably the clearheaded way I would wake up each morning while I was in the jungle. [W]ith the jungle mind-set, what was there to think about, really? If I was hungry, I went off in search for food. If I was tired, I rested. If I was exposed to the elements, I built a shelter. If I ran out of firewood, I went out and collected some more.”
Life, he seems to say, really can be simple and pure – and that people can know happiness without all the trappings of civilization.

Memory's Last Breath: Field Notes on my Dementia

by Gerda Saunders

This unique book is a successful attempt by a woman developing dementia to describe her experience. The book tells the story of Sanders' interesting life, but the tale is interspersed with italicized sections that describe increasing difficulty in handling everyday events and responsibilities. Saunders discovers that even though she has trouble remembering how to do simple tasks, she is still articulate and thus able to write out her thoughts and experience. She had been a professor and surmises that she hasn't lost these verbal abilities because they have become so habitual.

Saunders' youth in South Africa is interesting for those from other countries who may know little about life for the Afrikaners. Sometimes it's hard to figure out how all of these earlier events are tied into the story about dementia, but sometimes it is clear -- such as when she asks her siblings about an event that happened in childhood in order to compare her memories with theirs.

This examination of memory causes one to ask what a human being actually is. Saunders is secular and her answer is that we are, in the end, stardust. It's a conclusion that satisfies her enough to accept what will eventually become of her individually.


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