Saturday, May 30, 2009

"Arcadia" on the brain

Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia has been on my brain a lot lately. Well, considering that it has a permanent spot on my list of Favorite Plays Ever Written, it's never far from my thoughts, but this week it's been especially prevalent. Here's why:
  • As I blogged last weekend, I just reread Possession, and Arcadia is sort of its theatrical analogue.
  • It's getting produced in Washington DC, and I just read Terry Teachout's review of it. I think he's right that Hannah and Thomasina are the most important characters, and they're probably one reason it speaks to me--two intellectual women in one play!
  • It's also getting its first London revival, and here's the interview the Financial Times conducted with Stoppard in honor of that.
  • Finally, this week there was a post on the New York Times' "The Wild Side" blog that strangely recalls the themes of Arcadia. Its attempt to find the differential equations that describe the ebb and flow of a love affair reminded me of Thomasina's attempts to find equations that can describe the form of a leaf or a cloud. Like Arcadia, it invokes Isaac Newton, and acknowledges that Newton's concept of an orderly mathematical universe actually conceals "the seeds of chaos." And its intellectual geeking-out, its whimsy, and its focus on romantic relationships are all very Arcadiaesque.
And one unrelated link: apropos of my last blog post about what I'm learning at my job, I actually felt a thrill when reading "The Financial Page" in the latest issue of The New Yorker--it's all about corporate governance and what makes a good board of directors. "I know what he's talking about! This is what I do all day!" I thought.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

In Which I Get Institutionalized

There are certain things that occupy significant portions of my brain, but that I don't tend to write about here. One of them is my day job, which I've kept basically off-limits, not only for the sake of privacy, but also because I don't have much to say about it, especially not on a theater/books/arts blog. Another thing I don't really comment on, even though this is a theater blog, is the ongoing conversation about how to improve the American Theater--ensuring better pay for artists, cutting down on bureaucratic bloat and unimaginative programming, etc. I enjoy following this topic on other blogs, but I usually don't have much to contribute to the discussion. Unlike these other bloggers, I'm not really out in the world making theater. I absorb and consider what they say, but I rarely come to any conclusions, and even more rarely share them. (I also don't want to say anything that might jeopardize my future career!)

But when I saw a certain headline on Parabasis a few days ago, I knew I'd be breaking my silence. The post that caught my eye was called "Should Theater Artists Encourage Shareholder Activism?"

See, okay, the company where I've been working since October is in the shareholder and proxy voting industry. We make voting recommendations on corporate shareholder meetings for the benefit of big institutional investors, who want to know how best to cast their ballot (and can actually make an impact in a way that individual investors can't). In this job I've learned stuff I never expected to learn, about corporate governance, the stock market, etc. But none of it seemed to have any relation to anything I'd learned about before, or to my ultimate goal of working in the theater.

So I never, ever, expected to see, on one of my favorite theater blogs, a post that mentioned the words "shareholder activism" and "proxy voting rights," drawing an analogy between how activist shareholders can attempt to influence a corporation and how donors to a theater company might influence its board of directors.

I was fascinated by how the post introduced me to Saul Alinsky's concept of shareholder activism (I frequently deal with Shareholder Proposals in the course of my job, but I think that's a little different from what Alinsky was doing), and actually laughed out loud at the sentence "Companies try to limit the influence of their shareholders by doing things like holding conferences in strange locations and not publicizing them that well." Don't I know it, and isn't that what makes my job difficult sometimes! But, more importantly, this post allowed me to see that there is a connection between my current job and my theatrical aspirations. Corporations are institutions. Theaters are institutions. And much of the blog conversation about improving the American Theater is about how to cut down on the institution's "institutional-ness"--how to make sure that it's always about the art and the artists, and not just about building up the theater company's prestige or constructing a snazzy new theater space.

I feel like an idiot for stating something so obvious, but the Parabasis post made me understand that institutions are everywhere. The company where I work--an institution. The corporations we report on--bigger, more complicated institutions. Our clients--"institutional investors." The place I spent four years of my life--"an institution of higher learning." And if you are familiar with the workings of one kind of institution, you can draw parallels between it and another kind of institution. In short, there are broader lessons to be learned from my job than I had ever before considered. I do like how working in this industry has given me a close-up perspective on the financial crisis--that is, the failure of some of America's largest economic institutions--so does that lead to new ideas about tackling the problems of other American institutions, like, say, the theater?

I still haven't reached any conclusions. But this has given me a new perspective on my job and what I can take from it. I know I'll be pondering this in the office tomorrow...

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Year Without a Desk

It was exactly a year ago today that I graduated from college. So naturally, I'm engaged in a bit of self-reflection about what it means to have spent a year in "the real world." Or, more particularly, a year in the real world without really writing anything. (And before you say "Marissa, you've published over a hundred blog posts during that time!"--well, yes, I know. And I wonder if my blog is distracting me from what I should be doing, which is playwriting. It is a year since I've really written anything in the medium that I consider my primary medium, and that's a problem.) I can count up what I have accomplished--successfully moving to California, finding two apartments on Craigslist, being one of the few people in this entire country to get hired during October 2008--but I still feel uneasy.

I skipped first grade, as some of you know, so I was young for a college graduate, and am still pretty young now. My mother, with her trademark common sense, has therefore often said to me, "Just think, Marissa, you were supposed to graduate with the class of '09, instead of '08. So it's like you've got a whole extra year in your life that your classmates don't have. A year you can waste, no consequences--and you'll still be ahead of the game."

I told this to some friends of mine a few weeks ago (it was part of a long conversation about how to get me writing plays again) and they said "A year to waste? Don't you know that everyone in the world has about ten wasted years after college?" And I kind of see their point. But at the same time, I don't want to fall into the stereotype of the aimless college grad who takes years to figure out what they want to do in life, spends years puttering around. I am not a patient person, frankly. I'm too impatient with myself to do that.

But instead of thinking of this past year as my Wasted Year, which is too depressing, I am going to christen it with a different name: The Year Without a Desk.

If you'd asked me, before this year, what piece of furniture was most essential to make me a happy girl (excluding the obvious thing that all human beings need--a bed), I'd probably have said "Bookshelves." If I had one physical possession of which I was overweeningly proud, it was my book collection at home in Oregon. And I felt positively insulted by the fact that Vassar dorm rooms didn't come equipped with any kind of bookcase. How did they expect us to learn?

But, you know, I am a big reader, but I am not only a reader. I am someone who engages with what I read, who thinks about and responds to it, who writes. I get a kick out of displaying my book collection on a nice shelf, but frankly, probably nobody else cares about that. But I do think that other people care about my writing. And so, more than a bookshelf, I need a place in my life where I can feel like a writer. I need a desk.

And now--exactly a year after my college graduation, and just over nine months since moving to San Francisco--I finally have one.

For the foreseeable future, marissabidilla will be coming to you live from this desk right here. And yes, this is probably the least messy it will ever be.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Great Ventriloquist: "Possession" by A.S. Byatt

A. S. Byatt has a new novel, The Children's Book, out in the U.K. (it will be published in the U.S. in October, I believe) and reading the reviews of it got me so anticipatory that the only thing to do was to reread Possession.

I remember I was halfway through Possession when I arrived on campus for my freshman year of college. I'd picked it up because I'd heard it was what Arcadia would be if it were a novel instead of a play, and I love love love Arcadia. Possession turned out to be a terrifically apt choice for my going-off-to-college book--and not only because it's the best book I know of for making libraries and research and scholarship seem sexy and exciting. More than that, as fate would have it, my freshman-year faculty advisor was a professor of English who specializes in mythology, fairy tales, and nineteenth-century British poetry. She reminds me of Professor Trelawney from Harry Potter, all draped tunics and amethyst jewelry and iron-gray hair, and says the most delightfully idiosyncratic things in her intimate whispery little voice. In short, she could be a character in Possession, and I was pleased that I could tell her so. (I meant it as a compliment, and fortunately she took it as one--even though the two American characters in Possession are quite obnoxious, aren't they?)

Rereading Possession, I think I found the academic satire more amusing than I did the first time, now that I'd actually spent four years on a liberal arts campus encountering the types of people and reading the types of literary criticism that Byatt parodies. Perhaps as a function of being more grown-up, I also had less difficulty with the poetry (even though I didn't actively study much poetry in college). During these intervening years, I also read Byatt's Frederica Potter Quartet and turned into a total fan--and now I can see repeated themes and motifs between the Quartet and Possession.

The Quartet might just be Byatt's most important work, and there is a lot of terrific stuff in it, but it can also be overwhelming--a huge cast of characters, multiple and weirdly intersecting plotlines, some baggy or boggy patches. Possession is overwhelming too, but for different reasons: it overwhelms with its passion and its precision. The plot is perfectly calibrated. It uses the old-fashioned forms of Romance and Quest and Pursuit, critiquing them in a postmodern way while exploiting their old-fashioned ability to get you emotionally invested in the story. Because the plot is so involving, I can sort of understand why they thought it was a good idea to make a movie out of it--but this is really a story that can only exist in its original medium. Half the fun of Possession is how it tells the story through written documents--letters and diaries and poems--not only through narration.

One of the (fictitious) Victorian poets in Possession, Randolph Henry Ash, is known for writing dramatic monologues--the way that Robert Browning did in real life. Therefore, Ash's biography is titled The Great Ventriloquist. But the joke is that Byatt, in Possession, is ventriloquizing to an even greater degree than Ash did--producing pastiches of all kinds. She writes in the voices of two very different Victorian poets, three very different Victorian female diarists, several contemporary academics and scholars. Not only that, but she writes pretty good dialogue for her modern characters; you can hear the differences in their voices, from spiteful Val to tremulous Beatrice Nest. (I don't think Mortimer Cropper sounds convincingly American, however.)

So, while I hate to evaluate a novel as though I were merely running down a checklist of the elements of fiction, I must say that Possession is a winner on every count. Plot? Check. Dialogue? Check. Characterization? Check. (Some of the characterizations are very broad, but they're amusing, and Byatt is especially wonderful at making the Victorian characters come to life.) Imagery? Check: the patterns of images and symbols are amazingly dense, and memorable. The atmosphere of the book--its green-and-golden quality--stuck with me even more than the events of the plot did! Significance? Check: as I said, this is a great novel for making you excited about the written word, and for exploring the personalities of cerebral, scholarly types. The complex philosophical passages about language, etc., fortunately arise out of the story and the (overeducated) characters, and fit into the overall scheme. Add in some bonus points because this is a story that would only work as a novel, and some more because it rewards rereading and contemplation, and you've got yourself a towering accomplishment. Though there will probably always be novels about literary sleuths, Possession seems to me like the apotheosis of the form; it is difficult to imagine anyone* working this terrain better than Byatt does.

*Unless indeed it is Stoppard, in Arcadia. But at any rate, that's a play, not a novel. And that's a post for another day.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Oh Anthony Lane, If That Really Is Your Name

Many readers of The New Yorker, I'm sure, can remember the first time they howled with laughter at one of Anthony Lane's film reviews. For me, this happened as I read his review of The Da Vinci Code while waiting for a table at a popular Ashland brunch spot--and was giggling by the end of the first sentence. In retrospect, I don't know why it took me so long to notice Lane--maybe it's because before that day in the café, I mostly read The New Yorker in my college library, not an environment conducive to fits of hysterical mirth. Or maybe it's because I'd actually read The Da Vinci Code and knew whereof he spoke.

At any rate, that review made me an Anthony Lane devotee, so I recently spent an inordinate amount of time wondering whether The New Yorker could persuade him to take one for the team and review Angels & Demons. Yes, it would probably give him an ulcer, but what's an ulcer compared to the delight his review would bring to thousands of New Yorker readers like myself?

Alas, 'twas not to be, and David Denby provides a humorless, perfunctory review of Angels & Demons in this week's issue. (I also got my hopes up for A.O. Scott's New York Times review of the film, which begins with some great zingers, but disappointingly, pulls its punches at the end.)

At least there are still plenty of mediocre movies for Lane to skewer on a biweekly basis. Most recently, his Star Trek review made me laugh with a digression that disparages the recent trend for movies to show the hero's "long-range backstory":
I lost patience with [...] Batman Begins from the moment that mini-Bruce tumbled into a well full of bats. What's wrong with "Batman Is"? In all narratives, there is a beauty to the merely given, as the narrator does us the honor of trusting that we will take it for granted. Conversely, there is something offensive in the implication that we might resent that pact, and, like plaintive children, demand to have everything explained. Shakespeare could have kicked off with a flashback in which the infant Hamlet is seen wailing with indecision as to which of Gertrude’s breasts he should latch onto, but would it really have helped us to grasp the dithering prince?
And because paragraphs like these make life better, I've been reading Lane's book Nobody's Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker for the past three weeks. This is like the Platonic ideal of a book to keep on your bedside table and read a little of each night. That's unusual for me to do: I tend to voraciously devour any piece of writing that interests me. But this one is worth savoring. And at 720 densely printed pages, it's lasting me a good long time. The first half of the compilation consists of film reviews; the second half (which I have not yet reached) contains longer profiles and critical essays.

Lane started at The New Yorker in 1993, and this book came out in 2002, meaning that it covers an odd selection of films--not old enough to be classics, but (by and large) not recent enough for me to have seen them when they opened. But I'm not reading the book to get ideas for DVDs to rent; more to stimulate my own writing skills and critical faculties, to delight in some very clever prose, and to fall asleep in a guaranteed good mood.

You get a different perspective on a critic by reading him in a concentrated dose like this, rather than fortnightly--you see more layers. By popular renown, Anthony Lane is the Great Eviscerator, scourge of brainless blockbusters, spinning out witty riffs about disposable movies. But that doesn't take into account the real moral indignation in some of his reviews, the anger at the Tarantino-ish trend of playing violence for laughs. And his reputation as a cultured Englishman writing cultured prose for a cultured magazine hides the fact that he has a thoroughly dirty mind. If you want a reviewer who'll always tell you if a movie has sex scenes and whether they're any good, Lane's your man. (Though perhaps all film critics would do this if they could--if they wrote for cultured magazines like The New Yorker rather than for "family newspapers.")

Lane's pans of movies like Watchmen or Star Trek lead some people to dismiss him as a cranky curmudgeon. But I don't get that from his writing at all: instead, the puns, the sex jokes, the breezy allusions to Shakespeare and other classic authors, remind me of a precocious boarding-school boy. (He was barely in his thirties when he started at The New Yorker.) And despite his erudition and his high standards, I wouldn't call him pretentious, either. If he's a little self-conscious about his love for a lowbrow movie like Speed, he still loves it no less than he does Before Sunrise. Besides, laughter is the world's best antidote to pretentiousness--and there are a whole lot of laughs in this book.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Is it a race or a parade?

Today was Bay to Breakers day in S.F.--one of this city's most beloved civic events, even if it does snarl up public transportation for most of the day. I didn't make plans to run it with anybody, so I just strolled to Golden Gate Park and watched the panoply go by. (It's just as well I didn't run/walk it--the weather was blazingly hot today and I got a slight sunburn from sitting and watching the race for twenty or thirty minutes, so imagine how lobster-red I'd be if I'd walked the entire 7-mile course!)

I don't have any pictures for you of the revelry, though I'm sure they're being posted all over other San Franciscans' blogs this evening. There were the expected wacky costumes--bright wigs and tutus, a huge troupe of Elvis impersonators, and of course the occasional nudist--but I ended up most interested in the topical, 2009-appropriate costumes. There were two very popular ones this year, both in shades of pink, so that the race, from a distance, must have looked like a veritable Rose Parade.

The first was to dress up as Swine Flu--as a pig, in pink clothes, with a snout and a little pipe-cleaner tail, and carry a box labeled "TAMIFLU."

The other option was to metaphorically comment on this recession by wearing a Pink Slip--an especially striking costume when chosen by a man. I saw so many of these that I am sure that every San Francisco thrift store must be completely sold out of pink slips today.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Wee Thomas's Army

This week I went out to Berkeley Rep to see their production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Even though I love Martin McDonagh, I wasn't originally planning to see this show, until a friend invited me on the spur of the moment. I'd already seen Lieutenant of Inishmore when it was on Broadway, and in general I'd rather spend my money to see a play I've never seen before, than to see a second production of a play I'm already familiar with. Especially when it's a play that doesn't vary a lot in the interpretation, as McDonagh's works tend not to--I mean, any Shakespeare play allows for multiple good stagings that do not resemble one another in the least, but I would think that all good productions of Lieutenant of Inishmore would basically resemble one another.

One reason it was good to see Lieutenant of Inishmore again is because I wasn't an ideal audience member when I saw it the first time. That was in the summer of 2006, on a day when I had flown to New York on a red-eye from Portland that morning, met a whole lot of new people (my fellow winners of the Young Playwright's contest, plus the contest's organizers), run around the city all day... So as I sat up in the balcony of the Lyceum Theater that night, watching the play, I alternated between thinking "This is fecking amazing!" and "I can barely keep my eyes open!" Yes, even though Lieutenant has a lot of stuff to rivet your attention--a tight plot and structure, McDonagh's great dialogue, plenty of gunfire and gore--I missed parts of it due to my own tiredness. And I appreciated getting to experience it as a complete work of art at the Berkeley Rep on Tuesday.

As I said, I think all good productions of this play are going to substantially resemble one another--but that's not to fault it as a work of art. In fact, it made me realize again the control that McDonagh has over his material, and his skill at creating memorable images as well as memorable dialogue--when the lights come up to reveal a shirtless James hanging upside-down by his ankles, for instance, or the visual contrast of the girl with short hair and the boy with long hair.

One major difference I noticed between the two productions was in the character of Davey, the aforementioned boy with long hair. Davey is none too bright and none too brave, and a lot of the laughs in the play come at his expense. On Broadway, he was portrayed by the tall and gangly Domhnall Gleeson, who "reads" as several years older than Adam Farabee, who played the role in Berkeley. Gleeson's Davey came across as being maybe 20 years old--close to Padraic's age, and certainly older than his 16-year-old sister, Mairead. He also wore an intentionally silly costume that included a Motörhead T-shirt and a ridiculous headband. The effect of all of this was to make Davey a real moron--a character whom it was easy to laugh at, but hard to identify with. Farabee, though, comes across as being about 15 years old--thus, Mairead's put-upon kid brother rather than her stupid older brother. And while his red wig was decidedly silly, he had no headband and wore a plain white T-shirt, the better to show the eventual bloodstains. Therefore, while Davey was still pretty dumb (I mean, you're never going to get around the fact that he loves the smell of shoe polish), his stupidity was more forgivable, because you saw that he was just a terrified 15-year-old kid underneath, rather than a too-dumb-to-live 20-year-old. I just can't decide what's the better approach to his character, now: to give him this more rounded and human dimension, or to make him into a mocking caricature like many of the other inhabitants of McDonagh-land?

Photo: James Carpenter as Donny and Adam Farabee as Davey. (credit:

Sunday, May 10, 2009

It's got a beat and you can dance to it

As an addendum to my previous post, where I expressed my wish that the Decemberists haven't lost their ability to knock out a good pop song or two... well, thankfully, they haven't. Last fall they released some singles to iTunes, and I didn't find out about/end up downloading them till recently, but they were a big help to me during a busy work week. They're largely upbeat and never ponderous--virtues that seem all the more precious after my disappointment with The Hazards of Love.

"Valerie Plame" is almost the Platonic ideal of the Decemberists in pop-song mode: whimsical take on current events (cf. "Sixteen Milit'ry Wives"), use of instruments that rock bands don't normally employ (I think there's a tuba oompahing along), juxtaposition of cleverly rhymed lyrics ("My Vespa became your chariot / From the Green Zone Marriott") with passages of wordless la-dee-dah-ing. "Days of Elaine" is almost as good--how can you not love a song that contains the lyrics "A lover like Alain Delon / She followed him blind from saloon to salon"? Also, before listening to this song, I'd been thinking about how there's a lot of death in Decemberists songs, and about 50% of the time it's death by drowning, and that they really needed to find some different ways of killing off their characters. And then I heard Colin Meloy gleefully sing "He got all strung up on the scaffolding!"--so the Decemberists have added death-by-hanging to their repertoire. Good for them. Meanwhile, "A Record Year for Rainfall" is quieter, less flashily rhymed, with a haunting loneliness--an anatomy of a failed relationship set against the Portland rain.

So I'm embarrassed now to call myself a Decemberists fan, not having heard these songs as soon as they came out (in my defense, I was very busy in the fall, and living with a bunch of people who listened to the new Britney single on repeat and would have been baffled, or worse, by the Decemberists). I'm grateful that the Decemberists are still writing and recording songs like these; but it's their labored sixty-minute rock opera that gets the marketing push and the media attention, and indeed these tracks were released under the title Always the Bridesmaid, which implies that the band considers them runners-up, second-class citizens...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Inner Sunset Moderne

San Francisco is such a beautiful, architecturally vibrant city that living here has made me a bit jaded. I was about to write that my neighborhood, the Inner Sunset, is not one of San Francisco's most architecturally interesting, when the truth is that by the standards of almost any other city in America, it's gorgeous! Only by San Francisco standards would it seem to lack anything--that's because it was developed a bit later than the rest of the city, and it was a working-class area, so it doesn't have as many ornate Victorian houses as do some of the other neighborhoods. But there are lots of cheerful brightly-colored stucco buildings with bay windows; as well as some Tudor-style wooden houses that look like they should be in a German village.

For my money, though, the most interesting building in the neighborhood has to be this vacant Streamline Moderne building at 320 Judah Street. I wish someone would rent it and fix it up--and I'd love to see what it's like on the inside! Here are some pictures of it I snapped while on a walk today. (Click on any image to enlarge.)

The right-hand side of the building, as viewed from across the street. Reminds me a bit of an Egyptian temple. (And of Michael Graves' Portland Building!)

The left-hand side of the building. Love the porthole-like clock set into the wall--now broken and rust-stained.

A closer view of the glass-brick walls and the fantastic wrought-iron gate (behind it is an ugly area where they keep the Dumpsters).

Closer view of the stainless-steel double doors and the Deco chandelier in the lobby (and my white jacket half-reflected in the glass).

The wonderful sunburst pattern inlaid in front of the building's doors.

I just learned online that this building was constructed in the 1930s to serve as the offices for an architect named Henry Doelger, whose best-known project is the Daly City tract homes--aka "little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky!" Strange to think that the man who designed such uninspiring buildings had his studio in such a sleek and interesting one...

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"36 Views of Mount Fuji": Japanese Culture 101

As I blogged earlier, I'm planning a vacation to Japan, and I just finished reading Cathy Davidson's book 36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan in preparation. Davidson is an American university professor who first visited Japan in 1980 as part of a faculty-exchange program. The book is her story of her complex relationship with Japanese culture: she loves and respects and is often awed by it, but also tries to maintain the questioning perspective of an academic--digging below the surface and becoming aware of hidden flaws. (This is the same attitude that I sought to cultivate when I went to France. As I wrote on my application for the study-abroad program: "I realize that my love for France is still somewhat uninformed and shallow—it is an infatuation, I suppose. But I want my love to deepen and mature; that is, I want to be able to understand France’s complications and contradictions, so that I can love it in an informed way too.")

There were several things I liked about this book. First, Davidson was based in the region of southern Japan known as Kansai--centered around the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe--which is where I will be visiting. Also, the things that intrigue Davidson, when she visits a foreign country, align fairly well with my own concerns. Davidson is curious about women's place in society (she co-edited The Oxford Book of Women's Writing in the United States) and only thinly veils her scorn for the kind of male travel writers who spend several narcissistic pages describing their wild nights in the "Floating World" entertainment districts, but never consider what life is like for the women who work there.

Davidson does get to see some of the Floating World for herself--in a memorable scene, a male Japanese professor takes her to a bar where the revelers drink sake and make bawdy puns. Overall, I most liked the sections of the book where Davidson vividly describes the people she met, the events she participated in, and the conversations she had. This was more interesting to me than the abstract passages where she muses on ideas like "foreignness" or talks about how her experiences in Japan impacted her ability to deal with personal turmoil in her own life. I suppose this is mostly due to my reasons for picking up 36 Views of Mount Fuji in the first place: I read it because I wanted to gain an idea of what I will encounter in Japan--sights to see, cultural tips, information on how the Japanese treat foreigners and what they will expect of me. So the more conventionally memoir-ish parts of the book, the ones that are meant to be personal and emotionally moving, were not really what I was seeking.

36 Views of Mount Fuji made clear to me just how Japan differs from America: it may look like a modern Westernized country, but the attitudes that underpin its society are very different. It raises all sorts of questions in my mind. Like most Americans, I have a pretty individualistic attitude, and I've always had a nonconformist/ contrarian streak in me. So, had I been born Japanese, would I have strained against this culture that values homogeneity and lack of ego? Or would I have accepted it, knowing no other alternative? Nature or nurture, in other words? And, more applicable to my immediate situation--as a foreigner who doesn't speak any Japanese and will be in the country for only 10 days, how likely would I be to notice these fundamental differences between the cultures? I don't know that I would, immediately, because these differences are hidden beneath the surface of Japanese reticence and politesse. But having read Davidson, I'll know what to look out for.

Still, I would not put Davidson into the ranks of the great travel writers--her writing is serviceable, but hardly transcendent. There are a few too many sentences like "I am impressed by the beauty of the art, by the richness and distinctiveness of Okinawan culture"--sentences that sound lofty, but don't actually tell you anything, since similar sentences can be found in just about every travel memoir ever written! And, though Davidson has some funny stories to tell, she lacks the ability to write them up in a way that milks their humor.

I also wonder if the book remains accurate: after all, it was published in 1993, and the longest amount of time that Davidson spent in Japan was in 1980. While she emphasizes that the venerable Japanese culture resists change and seeks stability, I am curious if anything important is different, fifteen or thirty years later. I mean, this book was written before Japan's 1990s recession--before the Internet, for heaven's sake! And it seems to me that nowadays, people perceive Japan as split between two opposing tendencies, let's call them the Cherry Blossom and the Bullet Train. The former is traditional Japanese culture--communal and serene, sturdy but delicate. The latter is everything high-tech and fast-paced and shiny--the Japan of video games and anime. Davidson is naturally drawn to the Cherry Blossom side of Japan, and her mentions of the Bullet Train elements focus mostly on the downsides--the ugly buildings, workaholic culture, pressure to do well in school. But she doesn't give any sense that Japan has a youth culture, or acknowledge that modernization can be dazzling as well as detrimental.