August 2007

It seems like this spring was rather mild in terms of the amount of severe weather that we got around these parts, but the past week or so has made up for things with an astounding blast of late summer storms. Monday night, we had massive gusts of wind that downed tree branches throughout the neighborhood, along with heavy rain and a portion of pea-sized hail. Last night, a massive, low-flying dark cloud turned things almost instantly from day to night when it rolled by, and I stood out in the backyard with a camera trying to capture the swirling edge of it with a camera as cracking lightning and instant downpours threatened.

Fortunately, the hail was not damaging to our garden or our property in general, and after a long three weeks of super-hot temperatures, everything seems to be going through a last-gasp of lush green before the heat tapers off and we head into fall (my favorite season).

the leading edge of the storm

Underworld by Haruki MurakamiTo some, it would probably be a bit odd that the first book I’ve read by Haruki Murakami is his only non-fiction work, but that’s exactly the route I’ve now taken. While my wife has managed to read a good portion of his fiction work, I’ve continued on my non-fiction binge that started last year and shows no sign of letting up. Oddly enough, Underground was at least partially inspired by the work of Studs Terkel, and finds Murakami interviewing survivors of the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks that took place in 1995.

At the time that the attacks took place, I was in my spring semester of college. I remember reading about them quite a bit at the time (on the fledging internet and in newspapers), but didn’t have any real personal stake in them other than wondering how large the Aum cult was within the Japanese society and whether there would be more attacks like it.

Because the context of the book was so specific and horrific, it seemed like an interesting (and probably quite sad) book to read, but I was nonetheless drawn to it. Although the different accounts get a bit repetitive at times, Underground is an absolutely fascinating book in terms of a look at a society. There are people who have survivor guilt, others who seem to have forgiven all the perpetrators, and others who obviously (and for good reason) still harbor a lot of hard feelings about the attack. In an odd way, I also felt like I got a slightly better idea for at least a small slice of Japanese society.

Although he adds his own thoughts in places, Murakami largely stays in the background, allowing the victims (and even a few members of the Aum cult, who had no direct ties to the subway plot) tell their stories. As mentioned above, it’s not exactly an uplifting read, but at the same time is one of those books that gives you a bit of hope for humankind.

American Dreams: Lost And Found by Studs TerkelAs is probably completely apparent by now, I’m a really big fan of Studs Terkel. Over the course of the past couple years, I’ve read just about every book of his collected interviews that he has released to date. Of these, I would have to say that Working, Race, and The Good War were easily my favorites, although there were certainly inspiring and even essential parts to everything else he’s written as well.

Unfortunately, American Dreams: Lost And Found is probably the weakest volume of Terkel’s that I’ve read to date. As with his other books, there were a lot of individual stories that were worth reading, and a couple quotes or observations that made me feel like I wasn’t wasting my time, but at the same time it was really the only book of his that I’ve read that felt like a chore at times. Perhaps it’s because the guiding principle of the book itself is a little more subjective than some of his others, but other than some of the more historical stories I didn’t feel like I was getting as much substance as I usually do out of one of his books.

The most interesting part of the book were interviews with two people, both of whom have taken completely different routes over the course of the past nearly three decades; Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Dennis Kucinich. The interviews were conducted in 1979, and in the former you can picture a star-struck young immigrant still enamored with his new country and the possiblities that it holds for him, while the latter finds a young politician close to the end of his first term as mayor of Cleveland (he wasn’t re-elected, but it’s easy to glimpse the ideas that he’s become known for today).

Even the Terkel books that don’t hold my interest quite as much still have some noteworthy stuff in them. Really, that’s more than you can say for most.