"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Book of Tea & others

The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuz┼Ź

Written for a Western audience in 1906, The Book of Tea tries to explain the importance of tea in Japan, from a perspective of its history, philosophy, and ceremony. Kakuzo's writing is beautiful and clear and surprisingly political. His frustrations with the West are full-throated (if a little bit beside the point). He has interesting things to say about East/West cultural differences, about Taoism and Zen, about art and more particularly about living a life that is itself artful. I started this on a whim--while at an amazing tea shop near where I live where I buy loose leaf tea in bulk--but it's surprisingly absorbing. 

I'm far enough away from college that I'm starting to phase out some of my undergraduate habits. I almost never stay up past 10pm, even on weekends. I don't have time to play video games as much as I did as a student. 

And sometimes I'll have tea after work instead of a beer. It fills a lot of the same needs: it's a fussy, ancient ceremony meant to be enjoyed slowly; there are a range of flavors and styles to master and appreciate; I can be a big snob about it. 

Specialty drink-ware is a plus. 

Anyway, this book in very short and very good. There's a very nice-looking .pdf file available, if you're interested. Great for reading on your tablet.


The Leaf and the Cloud by Mary Oliver 

This is a book-length poem, organized into seven long sections. 

Good art, I think, is often able to come right up to the line of sentimentality without crossing over. Oliver's work is deeply concerned with nature, with the beauty of it. A lot of poetry is shares the subject, and a lot of it is very bad! But Oliver is as good as it gets for that genre. Of the seven sections, one spills over into sentimentality, two are ordinary, and two are absolutely breathtaking. Here's "Flare," and "Gravel," the poem's strongest sections. 

If you can't be bothered to click, here's a highlight:
It is our nature not only to see
that the world is beautiful
but to stand in the dark, under the stars,
or at noon, in the rainfall of light,
frenzied,wringing our hands,
half-mad, saying over and over:
what does it mean, that the world is beautiful—
what does it mean?

The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen

I like Franzen for the same reason that people seem to find him personally off-putting: his misanthropy, his pretension, his cocktail of arrogance and self-loathing. These personal essays are uneven, but the best ones are very good. "House for Sale," is about putting up the old family house after the death of his last parent, and it comes closest to the painful (but brilliant) familial intimacy of his fiction. "Two Ponies" (printed originally as "Comfort Zone" here), about Peanuts creator Charles Schultz, and "My Bird Problem," about Franzen's obsession with birding are the collection's other highlights. 

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