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December 22, 1985|ALEX RAKSIN

Tokugawa Religion: The Cultural Roots of Modern Japan, Robert Bellah (Free Press: $9.95) was unusually far-sighted and even-handed when it first appeared in 1957. At a time when most U.S. social scientists thought America would brightly glow in the future as a beacon for all world nations, Bellah was arguing that the Japanese were more than superb imitators. In the native doctrines of Buddhism, Confucianism and Shinto during the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), he found unique forms of logic and understanding essential for economic development. Now, in a 1985 preface to this book, Bellah takes another step away from the mainstream of American social science, questioning the faith of his former teacher, Talcott Parsons, in the Enlightenment ideal of progress. That ideal can be thwarted, Bellah now acknowledges, affirming European social theories from the 1930s and '40s, by such modern tragedies as fascism. And while Japanese religion might appear to embody democratic ideals, Bellah writes, its emphasis on the individual is primarily symbolic, an escape from "the pressures of achievement and group loyalty." If religious ethics were indeed incorporated into modern Japanese life, Bellah asks, "would the landscape be so ravaged? Would the dignity of the individual person be so easily sacrificed to the needs of the group? Would compassion for all beings rank so low and the accumulation of wealth and power so high as motives for the essential social action?" Bellah retains his 1957 conviction that Japanese society is fundamentally harmonious and humanitarian, but now, he believes, cracks are appearing in the foundations of democracy.

Too Young to Die: Youth and Suicide, Francine Klagsbrun (Pocket: $3.50). Youth suicides have risen 300% since the 1950s, and, today, Francine Klagsbrun estimates, the number of suicide attempts is approaching 500,000 yearly, although most of these attempts fail. While psychologists and social workers remain puzzled by the rise, Klagsbrun is convinced that at least one cause--public misinformation about suicide--is curable. Most of the case histories chronicled here defy popular conceptions. Suicide, for instance, strikes equally among rich and poor, and the rate of attempts actually decreases during gloomy weather, down in December and January and up in April and May.

Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich (Bantam: $6.95). Living on and around a North Dakota Indian reservation from 1934 to 1984, the two Indian families profiled here--the Kashpaws and the Lamartines--weather through even the most cruel and somber of times because of strength of will, the binds of blood and the endurability of love. Lipsha Morrissey cares for her grandmother--"I run my fingers up the maps of those rivers of veins . . . and the medicine flows out of me"--even though she is afraid of her grandfather: "He just smiled into the air, trapped in the seams of his mind." Lulu Lamartine, meanwhile, never loses her keen awareness of how the green leaves glow or the wind rustles and rolls "like the far-off sound of waterfalls": "I'd sit there with my eyes closed on beauty until it was time to make the pickle brine." This first novel by Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, won the 1985 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

The Arabs, Peter Mansfield (Penguin: $6.95). The contrasts between heaven and hell in the Koran are dramatic: Sinners spin between a hell of fire and an abyss of boiling water while angels torture them by continually replacing layers of burned skin. The Faithful, meanwhile, recline on silken couches by flowing rivers, enjoying hearty food and drink served to them by eternally youthful boys circulating among them "like hidden pearls." Peter Mansfield clearly made the right choice in opening this book with stories about Mohammed and the Koran, for they go a long way toward explaining American images of Arabs as fanatical devotees. Yet Mansfield, a British journalist, takes readers well beyond stereotypes formed from oil embargoes and airline hijackings. Without distortion, he dramatizes Arab history as a story of gradual isolation over 13 centuries: first, from Christianity and Judaism (a rift against which Mohammed struggled); then, from invading European powers. This isolation helps explain the battles today, Mansfield concludes, because the Arabs believe it has stripped them of status and dignity. The "prime motive force of Arab political life," thus, has been to reverse what the Arabs see as "a long period of humiliation at the hands of superior Western power."

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