"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Cloud of Sparrows by Takashi Matsuoka

"Cloud of Sparrows" is Takashi Matsuoka's first novel, an ambitious tale set in Japan in the 1860's, as the country is being forcibly opened by "outsiders" and the era of the Shogun and samurai moves toward an end.

The plot involves a trio of American missionaries who go to Japan to set up their church, and the fate of the Tokumichi samurai clan from Akaoka.

The central character is Lord Genji, a minor lord and somewhat of a dilletante of a samurai, more concerned with poetry and lovemaking than swordsmanship. He also happens to have the family curse of seeing visions of the future.

The story of full of plots within plots, characters who are more than they appear to be, and plenty of action. There is subterfuge, counter-plotting, revenge and romance.

In addition to Genji, the other primary characters are Heiko, the most lovely geisha in all Japan, Emily, a beautiful young American perceived as ugly in Japan, and Matthew Stark, a gunfighter seeking revenge on a man who has fled to Japan and become a Buddhist monk. Important sub-characters include Genji's uncle Shigeru, who has horrific visions of a WWII era and overpopulated future Japan. There are also a trio of Genji's captains, Saiki, Kudo and Sohaku, who may or may not be plotting against their lord. Throw in the treacherous Kawakami, the Shogun's chief of secret police, as well as Kuma the Bear, the deadliest ninja in Japan, and Genji has plenty of antagonists.

The story was intriguing, and the plot moved along quickly, with rarely a dull moment. It's a page-turning read. I enjoyed the comparison/contrast of Japan and outside cultures, and Matsuoka went to considerable detail on clothing. Genji is a likable protaganist, who faces a number of challenges, and exhibits some character arc by the end of the story. He makes some unexpected decisions. Emily also grows in the story, and has to make some difficult choices as well.

Finally, the novel is very graphically violent. Especially involving children. So if you are sensitive to that type of thing, beware.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I am so glad I have at last read Dracula. I liked it much more than I thought I would. I especially liked how Stoker tells the story through a fascinating mix of letters, diary entries, ship logs and occasional newspaper clippings. Of course I have seen several version of the Dracula story on old movies on TV. The book has a lot of Gothic Horror cliches but that is just because the book created the cliches in the first place.

Once I began to read the book it was as though I was meeting old friends. There is the good Professor Abraham Van Helsing learned in vampire lore who is at first reluctant to voice his thoughts for fear he will seem deranged. There is the beautiful young virginal Lucy with the mysterious bites who has fallen into a mysterious coma like state. We meet the disgusting insect eating Renfield who I for sure recall from the movies. We meet the required attorney who travels to Transylvania to visit Count Dracula at his sinister castle deep in the Carpathian mountains. At first the attorney is intimidated by the seemingly great wealth and culture of the Count, but he quickly realizes something is badly wrong. Why does the wealthy Count Dracula have no servants? Who are the three very evil looking women he encounters in the castle? Where does Dracula disappear to during the day time and in a great scene he wonders how he can seemingly climb the interior walls of the castle. I cannot see Dracula as any body but Bella Lugosi.

Even though I pretty much knew what was going to happen Stoker does such a great job with the narration that I was kept very interested throughout. Stoker does a wonderful job in creating the atmosphere. The sea voyages to and from England to continental Europe are really wonderful. You can feel the terror on the ships.