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[748] 84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

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” If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much. ” (94)

This book, just under a hundred pages, is Helene Hanff’s memoir that unfolds through transatlantic letters, dated from 1949 to 1969, between Helene and the employees of Marks & Co., a bookstore specializes in antiquarian and second-hand books in London. In all begins when Helene spots and responds to the books store’s ad in the Saturday Review of Literature, inquiring about several out-of-print and rare books. What ensues is a correspondence spanning twenty years between a literary camaraderie.

Apropos of a booklover’s haven, Marks & Co. is “the loveliest old shop straight out of Dickens,” (28) redolent of must and dust, with “shelves going on forever, up to the ceiling.” The primary correspondent is Frank Doel, a man in his late thirties who is extremely well-read and knowledgeable. He sends Helene old books of soft vellum and heavy cream colored pages, which she stores in orange crate bookcases in her cramped New York City apartment. In turn, Helene sends her literary friends parcels, including egg powder and a whole ham, as food is rationed in postwar England.

I personally cannot think of anything less sarosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book. (54)

The pages move quickly with Helen’s eclectic requests made to the bookseller. But what makes this slim collection of letters so powerful and captivating is the comradely touch. Business formality over time wears away, and Helene become like friends and family with the bookstore staff. Adding to the literary exchange are recipes for Yorshire pudding, personal photos, and handcrafted linen tablecloths.

Elaborated from these letters is her preference of eclectic taste. She prefers nonfiction over fiction, and it’s only to the strong recommendation that she gingerly tries Jane Austen. She has penchant for English non-fiction from the 17th- and 18th-century and memoirs. She dreams of traveling to the UK where she hopes to find “the England of English literature” and pays a personal visit to the endeared staff at the bookshop.

This gem of a book illustrates the love of books with a passion that overcomes social and physical distance. It also makes us question the current state of instant communication through texting. It is a celebration of written word, a common bond of humanity, which connects us all from generation to generation.

97 pp. Penguin Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[656] Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin

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” He said that Nineteen Eigty-Four is banned in Burma because it can be read as a criticism of how the country is being run and the ruling generals do not like criticism. As a result, he told me, I would be unlikely to meet many people in Burma who had actually read the novel. ‘Why do they need to read it?’ he said. ‘They are already living inside Nineteen Eighty-Four in their daily lives. ” (1: Mandalay, p.11)

In the 1920s George Orwell (then Eric Blair) spent years working in Burma as an imperial policeman at various posts, including Mandalay and Rangoon. He has formed strong opinions against colonialism and taken rather jaundiced view of the colonial society that would endure throughout the rest of his life. In 2002, traveling under the pseudonym Emma Larkin, the author, an American journalist, followed Orwell’s footsteps in Burma, where visitors were allowed to explore the country only on its terms, to recreate his experience. Finding George Orwell in Burma, employing Orwell’s sojourn and experiences as a template, is part memoir, part biography, part social history and part travelogue. Larkin reveals the cultural and political landscape of a country, one of the most mysterious in Southeast Asia, where a military regime has been in place for over 40 years, sealing off Burma from the outside world.

We historians must keep our mouths tightly shut. We are scared. As Burmese people, we are not free to talk about what we want. We are not free to walk where we want. We are not even free t die: we must die according to their wishes. (5: Katha, p.256)

Government surveillance is in fact responsible for the society’s “normal” façade. Events taking place inside Burma are carefully controlled and orchestrated. people are conditioned to obey and to submit to government’s measures. Indeed this fear of the authorities is a constant refrain from the people Larkin spoke to in Burma, including students, drivers, tour guides, policemen, dissidents and historians. They are cowed into submission because they know the reprisal is high for the only one real crime, and that is to act against the government or in defiance of its interests.

The Burmese landscape, both mental and physical, has long been loaded with prophecies, and Orwell’s trilogy is only one among many texts in which you can read the future or the past in Burma. (5: Katha, p.261)

Writing with such suppleness and understatement, Larkin reports that Orwell is known as a prophet in Burma, so closely do Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four (now I regretted reading too young to even understand their implication) reflect what has happened in the tragically oppressed land afflicted by a streak of authoritarianism. Larkin also seeks to get to the bottom of what might have provoked Orwell to write with remarkable precision on oppression. She believes Orwell was witness to many oppression, even in the colonial age, along with his work as an imperial policeman had greatly contributed to his ability to write about oppression in a chilling dystopian land. The book is a plainsong to Burma; it’s a tribute to Orwell; and it’s a rare piece of journalism. In pursuing the young Orwell’s life, she has reimagined his experiences that help shape his political outlook. Finding George Orwell in Burma is a mournful, meditative, idiosyncratic and contemplative book.

294 pp. Penguin Books. Paper (2004) [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[560] Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey – Fiona, The Countess of Carnarvon

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” She had no qualms about spending prodigious amounts of money to get things done. Most of us come up against the frustration of having ideas and aims with insufficient resources to fulfil them. By virtue of her doting and incredibly generous father, a lack of funds was never an obstacle so she ‘thought big’ in life and, whilst her first husband was alive, certainly succeeded. ” (Epilogue, 288)

During the filming of Downton Abbey‘s first season, the current Countess of Carnarvon takes up the interest of one of the Highclere castle’s legacies, one of its most famous former inhabitants, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, Almina Carnarvon née Wombwell. An extremely wealthy heiress of industrialist Alfred de Rothschild, the then nineteen-year-old Almina was contracted in marriage to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon in 1895. Although her paternity was dubious, since she was illegitimate child of her mother, the enormous marriage settlement bestowed on her by her father was a turning point in the Carnarvon family’s fortunes, as debts were cleared and the estate put on a much sounder footing.

Almina arrived at Highclere as an outsider, but an enormous sense of excitement and self-confidence. How could she not, when recent events suggested that she had finally managed to combine the social prestige brought by her marriage with the fabulous wealth of her father? . . . But she was only nineteen and this role, this title, was so much bigger than she was. She was the Countess . . . (Ch.4, p.43)

Indeed, her combined social prestige and wealth soon secured her place in high society, something that was barred from her due to her dubious rearing. Fairly soon Lady Almina becomes the hostess of the most extravagant parties and soirées. Entertained under the ceiling of Highclere are dignitaries, intellectuals, social stars, and royalties. She’s also keen on the rules governing the interactions below stairs that are at least as elaborate as those that prevailed upstairs. The first third of the book captures Almina’s propulsion to Ladyship as well as the hierarchy structure of servants in Highclere.

This was an era before public healthcare, when all hospitals were funded by wealthy individuals or charitable organisations. Women like Almina and the other Society ladies who stopped in to help with the huge numbers of war wounded were not just on some vainglorious mission; they were fulfilling a need that wouldn’t have been met without their actions. (Ch.11, p.143)

During the First World War, lady Almina devoted an extraordinary amount of energy and effort to helping others, with no thought for the cost in terms of money and time. Transforming Highclere into a hospital with an erudite staff and the latest equipment, and later moving the entire operation to London, she helped save countless lives. But the middle section of the book concerning the hospital is also bogged down by tedium of the war, which I trudge through with confusion. Her meticulous nursing of her husband saved his life for a few occasions; they long and happy marriage gave him the opportunity to continue working out in Egypt to pursue his passion. Lord Carnarvon’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun is still the only Ancient Egyptian royal burial site ever found intact. But as interesting these accounts were, they didn’t take place in Highclere Castle.

So maybe the book is really about Almina when she was still the Countess of Carnarvon. After her husband passed, her son become the 6th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife the new Countess. The book is interesting to read and the first half that delves into the upstairs/downstairs life around Highclere is engrossing. The many picture inserts also show how a grand house was run. But Fiona Carnarvon obviously fawns on her subject. Under her pen Almina is a candidate for sainthood who has done no wrong. She downplays on the high-profile court case between her new husband and his ex-wife. So there you have it, an incomplete, sanitized story of this woman who lived for another 40 years after she ceased to be the Countess.

310 pp. Broadway Books. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[543] Love In A Dark Time – Colm Tóibín

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Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar

” This, then, is a book in the main about gay figures for whom being gay seemed to come second in their public lives, either by choice or by necessity. But in their private lives, in their own spirit, the laws of desire changed everything for them and made all the difference. The struggle for gay sensibility began as an intensely private one, and slowly then, if the gay man or woman was a writer, or a painter or a filmmaker or a reformer, it seeped into language and images and politics in ways which were strange and fascinating. ” (Introduction, p.3)

Colm Tóibín, whose fictional works I have read and admired, may once have been uneasy about his sexuality, but this collection of essays suggests his critical faculties have always been assured. Love in a Dark Time is not a memoir, not is it polemics; and, to my relief, it is not a prescription of another queer theory. The figures who interest Tóibín are not gay writers whose works had “done so much to clear the air and make things easier for gay people,” but those from an earlier time, whose legacy was ambiguous, either by choice or by necessity.

Rather it is dictated by a narrative that is predetermined: any biography of a homosexual man who made no attempt to hide his sexuality must dwell at length on the untidiness of his personal life and the drama of his relationships. (Francis Bacon, p.146)

These essays, though in varying strengths in terms of details and profundity, while considering the influence of their sexuality, leaves readers a better understanding of these artists. Tóibín makes no secret of his fondness for Elizabeth Bishop and James Baldwin and his admiration of their works. He compares Bishop to Hemingway for her fierce simplicity: “A use of words in which the emotion appears to be hidden, to lurk mysteriously in the space between the words.” (Elizabeth Bishop, p.177) The calm surface of her poetry gives little indication that her life was troubled. Her literary métier became an outlet that allowed her to triumph over such familiar demons as emotional insecurity and alcoholism. Of Baldwin he also highly praises. Tóibín nails the root of the aura of intensity and seriousness that is James Baldwin. Not only the drama of his own life often echoed against the public drama, his being black and gay and an imaginative writer was such the triple burden he had to bear in that dark time. Only when he was full-hilt in the civil rights movement did he realize that the privilege did not extend to the gays. But like Tóibín notes, the adversity did not stop him. His works delve into the subject of flesh and sexual longing, and how the truth of the body differs from the lies of the mind.

His intelligence, the energy of his wit and his longing for love hit up against history and the hardness of the world, hit up against the prejudices which people had about a man who was black and a man who was gay. (James Baldwin, p.212)

The collection also touches upon painter Francis Bacon, who put off any interview irrelevant to his art work; Thomas Mann, who sublimated his homosexual desires at his desk; Roger Casement, whose homosexuality antagonized him to the consular service; Mark Doty, who wrote poems about AIDS without naming the disease, and Oscar Wilde, who went to jail for sodomy. Love in a Dark Time is highly readable and important, for it is only when homosexuality is removed from the margins and placed at the very heart of the cultural canon that society shall be free of discrimination. The progression of these pieces shows we are heading the right direction at the least, though the battle is still a long one.

278 pp. Picador UK. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Biography

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There are so many crappy biographies … would you rather read a poorly-written biography of a fascinating life, OR an exquisitely well-written, wonderful read of one of a not-so-interesting life?

This is definitely not my usual genre, although I dabble in the ones that concern a favorite author or musician. To answer the question, I would prefer the latter—an exquisitely well-written, wonderful read of a not-so-interesting life, because I simply cannot stand bad writing, something put together in a haste, or a book that reads like Hollywood tabloids. Unfortunately, most biographies are opportunistic liaisons that are riding on the crucial moments in time and the limelight of the subjects. What I mean by poorly written biographies consists of two kinds of bad bios: the “authorized” or kiss-ass ones and the ones filled with sleazy rumors or outright lies that simply exist to push a writer’s agenda and sell books with no interest in any insight. I can live without these fluffs that are grinding on the ax for cash. A good biography attempts to be balanced and not reveal the author’s feelings on the subject too brazenly. Even if the life is not super exciting, the biographer is free of blame, as long as the writing does the life’s justice. That said, I do enjoy The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings profusely. It’s like having the best of two worlds. The strength of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham lies in Hastings’ ability to establish the link between Maugham’s private lives and his works. Hastings adopts a structure of the book that emphasizes on how Maugham, a playwright, an intellectual agent, a novelist, a traveler, a lover, and an observer, transposes real people he encountered into characters to whom he meted out his often satirical and caricatured treatment. Hastings has also published a biography of Evelyn Waugh, which is on my reading list.

[335] Sal Mineo – Michael Gregg Michaud

” Juggling two different personas, that of a straight man in public and homosexual in private, Sal compartmentalized his life and friends. His personal battle with image versus reality resulted in a certain amount of emotional chaos. ” [25:225]

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) has long been an American classic when I watched it in mid 1990s. James Dean’s death compounded the fame and credential. I was not aware of the name of the boy who played Plato, as my attention riveted at Dean and Wood. Something very sexually sublime about that movie that captured me right away. I am most impressed with lover-father blurring of attraction between Plato and Jim. The scene at the beginning of the film in the high school when Plato, sultry-eyed, dark-haired, gazes at Jim Stark in his locker mirror. This young actor’s performance as one sensitive, lonely rich boy with an unspoken crush on Dean was unforgettable, earning him a Best Supporting Oscar nomination—all this has only been made known to me through Michaud’s book.

Just nineteen, he was straddling the fence between youth and adulthood. It was difficult for casting agents to know what to do with him. [13:130]

Early success of Sal as a child star, who was born into a working class Italian-American family in Bronx, rendered his career later unfulfilled. Sal’s convincing portrayals of juvenile delinquent and willingness to expound upon teenage issues in times of great calling become the barrier to landing adult roles. Since Hollywood’s attitude about sex was oddly (and absurdly) guarded, like most gay men and women in the entertainment business, Sal lived his private life under the radar for fear and professional recriminations. Along with homophobia, pigeonholding, rumors of homosexuality, and Sal’s own naivete about practical issues, all contribute to Mineo’s later disappointments, as homosexuality was disingenuously disavowed.

Sal knew that outing himself, declaring his sexuality, would destroy what little was left of his career. Though Sal never publicly came out in a conventional manner, there was a subliminal coming-out that began years before. He wanted his lifestyle and his choices to be accepted. He wanted a normalcy and legitimacy in his life. [36:349]

The biography, the most accurate one up-to-date, is a product of a decade’s writing. Michaud spent three years researching Sal’s life and sifting through relevant papers, seeking the help and support of Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr, whose collaboration in telling the story of the remarkable but overlooked actor’s life also gives weight to the book’s credibility. As Mr. Burr has pointed out in Mr. Michaud’s book event, Sal was not fully in touch with his sexuality when he and Jill Haworth, who was his romantic interest in Exodus (1960), began an intimate relationship. To say Mineo was unaware of his attraction to men until he met someone like Bobby Sherman (who used Sal to advance his career), as some critics claim, is unfair. Who is anyone to judge one’s own coming to terms with his own sexuality, let alone for someone who doesn’t connect his jockey brief fetish to male intimacy? Unlike most of his west coast native contemporaries, Mineo is not predisposed to political and sexual intrigues of Hollywood.

The point is that one does not have to be involved to understand. That’s what the homosexual is crying for, not sympathy, but simple understanding. [29:263]

Really. Even Sal’s own family never understood his choices. Even America today doesn’t understand. Supporters of California Proposition 8 don’t understand. It calls for the norm of marriage as we know it to be relegated to houses of worship or institutions of faith not a governmental issue make it the personal choice of each person. Full of details and previously undisclosed anecdotes, the biography captures a career of ups and downs and a private life of sexual impulses.

421 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[299] The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham – Selina Hastings

” The truth was rather different: in fact Maugham was remarkably unchanged by his success, although inevitably his level-headed manner struck some observers as a form of vanity. He was pleased by the acclaim, of course, but he had worked hard through ten long years to achieve it and he saw very clearly the nature of that achievement: he has discovered a knack, a facility for writing light comedy that audiences found amusing; it was an ability he rated very highly, nor did he see himself continuing with it for very long . . . ” [5:118]

For many years after the passing of at one time the most famous writer in the world, W. Somerset Maugham’s life story has not been fully told. In his late years not only did he destroy all letters of correspondence with friends, he also issued mandatory notices to literary executors that no biography should be authorized. Throughout his life an appearance of conventionality was of profound importance to Maugham. For the first time a definitive account of the celebrated literary figure’s extraordinary life is made possible, in literary excellence that the subject probably would approve, by Selina Hastings. Granted unprecedented access to Maugham’s most personal correspondence, Hastings portrays the secret lives, passion, and betrayal—the great deal out of his outwardly respectable life that he was determined to conceal.

The irony was that he himself never experienced what he described as ‘the bliss of requited love.’ Expert at covering his tracks, Maugham left little documentary evidence of specific attachments; nevertheless there are numerous signs—references casually made in letters, fictional versions lightly disguised—of his love affairs and of an emotional neediness only partly hidden behind the reserve. [5:115]

For a man who from childhood had been wholly deprived of love and emotional security, financial stability became a vital substitute. But in other personal facets, he succumbed to an acute emotional vulnerability to which adolescent trauma predisposed him. Behind the social and career triumphs, which placed him among political and literary illuminaries, his marriage to Syrie Wellcome, a manipulative society woman who ensnared him with pregnancy, was a disaster.

The frequent scenes Syrie staged, the endless reproaches, the daily testing, and questioning of Maugham’s feelings for her, maddening to him . . . The fact that she was in love made her desperate for any show of affection. It also made her physically demanding . . . [8:238]

Behind this painted veil of a marriage (which existed merely on paper since Maugham was always on the leave to travel), despite the lack of felicity and harmony, Maugham was able to cultivate many affairs with men, including his great love and soul mate Gerald Haxton, who albeit being an alcoholic cad, had the sheer power to unlock a door inside the novelist’s shut-away secret wall. Not only did he give full rein to a sensuality and subversiveness that Maugham held in check, he also dominated him mentally. The struggle between maintaining his marriage in public and nourishing the intimate affair forays into his major novels—Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, and Cakes and Ale, in the form of recurring themes like masochistic sexual obsession, ill-matched marriage, sexual passion, meaning of love, the mores of society and the nature of goodness.

And with admirable detachment he analyzes his own strengths and weakness as a practitioner of the art to which he had dedicated his life. ‘I am a made writer,’ he states unequivocally. ‘I do not write as I want to; I write as I can . . . I have had small power of imagination . . . no lyrical quality . . . little gift of metaphor . . . [but] I had an acute power of observation and it seemed to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed. [13:422]

Indeed, as Hastings has repeatedly pointed out, in citing letters of correspondence between Maugham and his contemporaries, that Maugham understood the range of his engagement. It wasn’t the big picture that appealed to his mind’s eye, but the small lives of unremarkable individuals struggling to create assurance in life out of an exotic environment. His extensive travel had fueled and furnished his stories with such characters, for he was a realist who needed actual people and events to work on. Although his stories are not remarkably profound and laden with symbolisms, metaphors, and subtexts, they are of absolute verisimilitude owing to his adherence to psychological truth. Not for once did he comment on the tottering British empire in The Gentleman in the Parlour, an account of his travel throughout colonial Burma, Malaysia and Singapore. Nor did he judge Kitty Fane in The Painted Veil, who was not aware of her selfish and shallow existence until her husband, on whom she cheated, succumbed to cholera and died unreconciled. His keen observation and perspective, which often penetrates to the nerve and fiber of his subjects, are what hold generations of readers in thrall.

The strength of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham lies in Hastings’ ability to establish the link between Maugham’s private lives and his works. Hastings adopts a structure of the book that emphasizes on how Maugham, a playwright, an intellectual agent, a novelist, a traveler, a lover, and an observer, transposes real people he encountered into characters to whom he meted out his often satirical and caricatured treatment. The biography demonstrates how closely his works mirror the temperament of his social circle as leading members of cultural establishment as well as his romantic flames alike were all tempting targets for the irreverent streak in Maugham’s nature. This volume is the perfect literary companion to Maugham’s works.

626 pp. 1st US Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Maugham and Me

I ran a gamut of emotion reading this passage from Selina Hastings’ biography of Somerset Maugham.

Apart from Kelly, Maugham told almost no one what had happened. Adept at concealment, he gave little sign of his disappointment, although in fact the loss of Sue Jones was a blow from which he took a long time to recover and never ceased regretting: even after many years, the mention of her name never failed to stir deep emotion. He had loved her truly, believing that he and she could have made a happy, if not wholly conventional, life together. Of course he would have strayed, and probably so would she, but still they might have made it work. The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, 6:159

Maugham’s psychological truth and emotional turmoil could be the reason that I’m instantly smitten with his works.

[I’ll attend to all your comments and resume blog reading now that the World Cup has come to a conclusion. Bravo Spain!]

Chasing Authors

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Have you ever been put off an author’s books after reading a biography of them? Or the reverse – a biography has made you love an author more?

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, let alone biographies. Biographies of celebrities I make a conscious effort to avoid. Although I have felt skeptical delving into lives of (my favorite) authors, because a certain admiring distance shall prevail, I have read biographies in order to gain knowledge of how a literary work is being conceived. Whereas setting of a book bespeaks a crucial time, the flow of novel, the plot, and the manner with which the layers are arranged are usually reflective of author’s life. Biographies are meant to be read as they are, and therefore other than the art of the writing style, it’s inappropriate to pass judgment on whether one likes or dislikes the works. Biographies are lives.

I read Dostoevsky: His Life and Work by Michael A. Minihan for graduate work and dissertation. Granted that Dostoevsky’s life was profoundly tragic, and that it was enveloped in vast solitude and loneliness; the book demonstrates the life and work of Dostoevsky are inseparable. He “lived in literature.” It was his life’s concern and his tragic fate. In all of his works he resolved the enigma of his personality; he spoke only of those things which he himself had personally experienced.

Biography of James Baldwin shows how he was indisputably a new voice in America. Baldwin’s prose is characterized by a style of beauty and telling power. His language seems deliberately chosen to shock and disturb, arouse, repel, and finally shake the reader out of complacency into a concerned state of action. His major themes are repeated: the terrible pull of love and hate between black and white Americans; the constant war in one possessed by inverted sexuality between guilt or shame and ecstatic abandon; and such moral, spiritual, and ethical values as purity of motive and inner wholeness, the gift of sharing and extending love, the charm of goodness versus evil.

Occasionally, knowing is harder than not knowing. What if you have bumped into prejudiced articles or writings of a favorite author? What if the one author whom you have respected and whose works you have enjoyed is not what you think he/she is? The truth is, at least for me, knowing the life of an author might incline me to read more of the works. Knowing is key to understand the authorial meaning in fiction. usually I would want to know more about an author if I have enjoyed the works.

[107] Sword and Blossom – Peter Pagnamenta & Momoko Williams

sword.jpgTears well up in my eyes and trickle down my face as I was about 30 pages to the end of this memoir.

If Author and Masa have to blame fate for tricking them, they might as well thank fate for allowing them to meet at the first place. Spanning over half a century, the memoir follows their enduring attempts to make a life together and chronicles inevitable social prejudices and snobbery they have encountered.

It began when a smoldering quarrel between Japan and Russia over their competing interests in the territory of their weaker neighbors, China and Korea, has flared up around the turn of the century in 1900 and might soon turn to war. That the Japanese appreciate the aesthetics of gardening lends a chance for the British officer to meet the young Masa Suzuki at the Tokyo Officer’s Club for peach blossom viewing. He is smitten immediately and continues to seek her out. That Masa has carried the stigma of divorce (from a pre-arranged marriage that favors the family’s fortune), and that Arthur has spent years stationing in isolated posts in India and South Africa help expedite their relationship. By the time they settle down in Shinjuku, in 1907, he is emotionally engaged with Masa and Japan. Overcoming periods of separation help their relationship move to new stage. For her part, Maza is being regarded as a person in her own right, for the first time in her life, by a man who wants to know her views and respect her opinion. She acts with Arthur in a way that Japanese men and women might find shockingly forward.

After the saddest and tensest parting in 1911, Arthur leaves for Europe to enlist into a battalion that escalates into what becomes of the Great War.  When frequent military movements put Authur out of touch with Masa, she for first time, despite her patience, begins to worry about how she will manage with a Western looking child as she stands out in the streets of Tokyo where conformity to the traditional values matter.

More than a love story, Sword and Blossom, which is made possible by the 800 some letters of correspondence between Aurthur and Masa, delineates one of the most political unstable and belligerent era of the 20th century. As both individuals strive to maintain contact and sustain the hope of reuniting with one another, their petty but intimate exchanges also reveal details of daily life during the 1918 flu pandemic, World War I, and the destructive earthquake that leveled half of Tokyo in 1923. Registered in between their words are poignant scenes of starvation, deaths, pestilence, and prospect of yet another war, as the Japanese launches a full attack on China on the eve of World War II. This book provides a very touching and private view of two individuals from completely different background and culture and their relationship against the backdrop of historic events.