Books / Reviews | THE YEAR IN BOOKS

Seasonality, internal awareness

by David Burleigh

“Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature and the Arts” (Columbia University Press) by Haruo Shirane. The whole seasonal consciousness of Japan, so meticulously considered and observed, is an intangible cultural tradition, though it has a certain physical embodiment in saijiki, the almanacs used by haiku poets, which explain all the subtleties of seasonal reference, with examples of their use in poems. Like Kubla Khan’s palace, it is a miracle of rare device, a fabrication of sublime refinement whose origins and meaning professor Shirane admirably expounds in this illuminating scholarly account.

“Japan’s Master Gardens: Lessons in Space and Environment” (Tuttle) by Stephen Mansfield. One of the main sites from which refined seasonal awareness emerged was the aristocratic or temple garden, which is why Japan’s public parks are often so aesthetically pleasing: that is what many of them were. I often long for time to visit the beautiful gardens Mansfield describes in his columns. Here he selects and introduces (occasionally quoting haiku) some of the best gardens, out of 850 scattered throughout the country, including a favorite in Kamakura.

“The Man Within My Head: Graham Greene, My Father and Me” (Knopf) by Pico Iyer. I don’t who first said that the poetry of departure has now become the poetry of departure lounges, but the restless travel writer Pico Iyer has joyfully embraced this life of constant movement in the global nowhere. He is also haunted by the work of another writer, Graham Greene, whose 1955 novel about the war in Vietnam, “The Quiet American,” a subject he repeatedly returns to, acquired startling new relevance when the present century began.

David Burleigh comes from the north of Ireland, teaches and writes, and has lived in Tokyo for more than 30 years.