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'Kokoro' by Natsume Soseki

Also reviewed: 'The Man Who Ate His Boots' by Anthony Brandt; 'The Hollywood Economist' by Edward Jay Epstein; 'Dreams in a Time of War' by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

March 07, 2010|By Susan Salter Reynolds

Kokoro

Natsume Soseki, translated from the Japanese by Meredith McKinney

Penguin Classics: 238 pp., $15 paper

This elegant novel of the Meiji period captures the opening in Japanese Confucian culture and the 250-year-old Tokugawa shogunate to the West and Western culture. It was published in 1914, two years before Natsume Soseki's death. "Kokoro," which means "heart," is the story of a friendship between the young narrator and a wise elder -- "sensei" -- who is like a "great gingko tree," a man full of beauty, love and haunting memories. Both characters, one at the end and one at the beginning of their lives, struggle to understand their destinies -- burdened by culture and memory. They swim, they walk, they argue. They watch Japan change before their eyes. The flowering cherries, the pomegranate trees -- the novel suffuses the reader with a sense of old Japan.

The Man Who

Ate His Boots

The Tragic History

of the Search for

the Northwest Passage

Anthony Brandt

Alfred A. Knopf: 448 pp., $28.95

Growing up in New England, we read writers like Kenneth Roberts and dreamed about explorers. The Northwest Passage held a special allure because hero after 19th century hero hurled himself into the Arctic wilderness searching for it. Body parts were eaten, urine was drunk, skeletons were left to weather leaving only sinews and clues.

Today, as global warming opens the passage a little more each year and ice becomes a thing of the past -- an artifact -- the stories left by those expeditions become as exotic and thrilling as the skeletal remains. History, fate, delusion and hope play out in the story of John Franklin, in particular during his last expedition to find the passage and map the Arctic in 1845. It's one of those books that can keep a reader inside for an entire weekend.

The Hollywood

Economist

The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies

Edward Jay Epstein

Melville House: 80 pp., $16.95

Why is it that popular movies fail to make enough money to cover production costs? Edward Jay Epstein tells us the stories we love to hear, the truly appalling and bizarre machinations of moviemaking: the tax dodging, lying to investors, byzantine foreign rights, filming in odd locations. From the studio founders ("self-made and self-educated Jewish immigrants") to the post- World War II age of moguls and stars, to the rise of television and the studio system -- the creation of "tailor-made audiences for each and every movie," as advertising costs for a single movie climb above $40 million. It is a story of the manipulation of American culture. Epstein may or may not have realized the effect of this little book on a lay reader -- something like books about slaughterhouses and chicken farms. You lose your appetite.

Dreams in a Time

of War

A Childhood Memoir

Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Pantheon: 256 pp., $23

Ngugi was born in 1938 in Kenya, one of several dozen children and many mothers. His grandfather was Masai. With World War II and British colonial rule in the background, Ngugi played and studied in the courtyard of huts that formed his father's compound. Beyond the huts and the goat and sheep pens was the forest, the railway line, the town, the city of Nairobi and the world. Who owned the land? Who caused the famines? "Why does one recall some events and characters vividly and others not at all?" Ngugi's story unfolds, "a jigsaw puzzle with some pieces missing," comes into focus as he becomes an adult.

Like "Kokoro," the book gives its readers an unforgettable sense of another time, a country and a continent in the middle of change. A small child learns to hold onto his dreams, even in a time of war.

Salter Reynolds is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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