Book review of Zaido, by Yukari Chikura, Wednesday, December 9, 3:02 p.m., liveblogging now:
Gray slipcase, pleasantly soft to the touch. Thin cardstock. I must be careful not to damage it.
It is difficult to remove the book from the slipcase. I try holding the book in the air and shaking it gently up and down it to encourage the binding of the book to slide out a bit so I can pull it further, but no luck. Perhaps this is not a slipcover but fancy packaging materials? Am I supposed to tear the gray paper?
I examine again the surfaces of the slipcover, looking for some indication of how to proceed. I see no tabs, no “open here” instructions. The sides are blank and the back is all but blank, save for the ISBN, the IPC scan bar and the text “Printed in Germany by Steidl.”
Just as I’m wondering how to get the book back in this slipcover if I ever do get it out, it slips free and slides out, almost under its own locomotion.
The book is free now, the experience begins. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect correspondence of the blue of the cover’s bookcloth set against the blues of the cover photo. It just glows. The beauty of the cover alone will sell many books, I suspect.
I open the cover and, unexpectedly, something is waiting for me inside. Tucked between the endpapers…and just then, also unexpectedly, my iPad (on which I’m writing this) warns me that I am almost out of power. Since I am working on the deck out back I get the long, yellow extension cord out of the garage and plug the iPad in, slightly diminishing the ambiance of the moment.
Back to the book. The surprise waiting for me inside as I turned the cover is a glassine envelope, inside of which looks to be a map or a picture of tiny leaves, with another image inset. The first item I pull out is indeed a map, printed on a semi-transparent material. It appears to show a peninsula, a vaguely boot-like shape with the “foot” pointing off to the right. I can’t read the language of the map’s text—it looks to be in Japanese—but I suspect that this is where the story of the book will take place. There are small colored ovals on the map, which I took at first to be indicators of trees, but which I now see are colored, each subsection of the map having its own color, each area bounded by a black border line, each oval featuring tiny writing. The upper part of the map has many of these ovals, the bottom third has one or two.
There is another item in the glassine envelope, a square booklet, printed on beautifully pure looking white paper, soft and inviting to the touch. The booklet cover’s illustration appears to show a small shrine, in the snow with more snow falling. Inside the booklet is a story entitled “The Tale of Danbury-Chōja” and in parenthesis, “The Dragon Millionaire.”
I’m suddenly forced to lift my head in annoyance. Two houses away to my right a gas-powered leaf blower has started. I despise the noise these machines make, wish them outlawed. As if responding to some invisible signal, another starts a few houses to my left. Probably from the same work group, splitting up to serve two customers.
I’m halfway through the text of the story, a parable about a young woman who finds life after grief by following a (literal) dream and now I can smell the damn leaf blower. I can smell the burned grass smell, the machine closer now, all hope of concentration lost. There may be two of them now, to the right. It is there now, just beyond the fence. I can see, for just a moment, the baseball-style cap of the operator bobbing above the wooden fence. The leaf blower moves away, toward the street, and then it is silent. The chirping of the birds all around me suddenly seems so much louder.
O.K., I’ve managed to finish the text of the booklet without further disturbance, I’m getting back into the book again. I won’t spoil it for you but the text serves as a nice introduction to the book, sets the stage. You should read it before venturing on into the book, I think, if you want to experience the book as the author intended it to be experienced. Of course, if you really wanted to experience the book as the author experienced then you wouldn’t be reading this review.
The next several pages are printed on paper with a silvery sheen. I thought, when I first took the cellophane off of the book, that the slipcase had a silvery sheen but then I wasn’t sure. These are the title pages and although they have little or nothing printed on them they set a certain mood. Just past silvery pages is a black and white landscape of a mountain in snow, looking initially faded as if through fog or seen in a dream. Utilizing a nice bookmaking effect with translucent pages, the scene becomes ever clearer. A delightful effect.
Then another delightful effect follows immediately after. There is a blank white page. Turn the page and we come to the first actual photo on the book—but hold that thought, I haven’t even looked at the photo yet. What caught my eye is that there are fuzzy-edged white shapes on the back side of the white page, what looks to be snow. The snowflakes seem illuminated in some way, the white snowflakes glowing on the white page. At first I thought the paper had been thinned to cause the snowflake effect and I actually looked back at the blank side and held it up, wondering if I had missed the snowflakes there. But they are only visible after the blank page has been turned. What the designers appear to have done is to print a very faint blue-white over the entire back of the page, leaving the snowflake areas unprinted and thus whiter and more transparent. The page is unprinted and white on one side, fainting printed with a subtle overall blue on the other with unprinted areas where the snowflakes are. Peaking ahead, that trick continues throughout the book. Nice.
What follows then, is a series of photographs depicting a ritual taking place in an ethereally-blue mountain setting (see story in booklet), all save two in this first sequence are printed on the right-hand page with the magic snow-printing on the left when the images are color images and blank white facing pages when the images are black and white (in my current lighting looking slightly green-tinted). In the two exceptions, one is a separate photo on the left page, the other is a landscape image that crosses through the book’s gutter. The pages are thick and substantial feeling.
Then the pages turn black, a black with a sheen like enamel, with a photo of a barely dressed man kneeling on a mat in the snow, the darkness lit by a light source near the camera, perhaps indicating that it is night.
Two pages later the format changes. Whereas before the photographs were generally on the right with a generous border and the facing page blank (save for the snow effect on some pages) now the images are printed full-bleed, images printed right to the edges. These are photographs taken at night and the enamel-sheen of the black ink adds wonderfully to the feeling of depth in the images.
And then we come to some sort of divider, a white piece of card stock inserted but not bound into the book. Sensing that this is a good place to pause—the sun has gone behind the clouds as it nears sunset and it is growing chilly—I stop for the day.
It’s 1:37 in the afternoon, Thursday the 10th of December. It’s 58 degrees here and I thought maybe too cold to sit on the deck and look at a book. Then I thought of the images in Zaido—mountains, snow, ice—and I thought the chilled air would be perfect to set the mood. I put on an insulating layer and a jacket and I’m here again on my deck. The Sun has just come out, the cloud layer has burned away, and the sky is blue. There are birds on all of my bird feeders and everything is good.
Back to the book.
I left off yesterday at a page with a white cardstock divider, signifying to me that the book was changing in some way. A wind has begun to blow intermittently. I’m glad for my warm clothes.
Hiding behind the white cardstock is a full-bleed photo of a fence and inserted into it are dozens of pieces of paper with writing on them. These are Japanese fortunes, little notes of well-wishes and good luck. There is a real one attached to the center of the page. Though I took part of a semester of Japanese in college I can’t read a thing—I had to drop the class, partly due to the difficulty of the language (I’m terrible with foreign languages for some reason) but mostly due to the difficulty of a data structures class I was also taking.
I’m drifting off in my head, back to those years, but I turn again to the book, trying to refocus.
The next page is a double-page spread—has there been one of these before in the book?—showing wires with birds upon them, strung across the page, echoing the fence photograph with the birds now the fortunes. I don’t know what symbolism the birds hold for Shintoism in particular or for the Japanese in general. What follows is a series of black and white landscape images, the snow silently falling and everywhere at once. A photo of a shrine looks, after seeing the others, black and white, but there is color, a pale painted green along the roof and faded browns in the wood of the structure. There is no color in the trees or plants which poke out of the snow.
We are back to the ritual again, men walking through the snow, wearing green robes, colorful headpieces that look like strips of cloth sewn together to mimic hair. The plants show green here as does the skin of the men. They walk in a line, and there are people behind them, arcing along some path.
There is a child with a hat and the hat has a red ribbon folded in the same way as the fortunes on the fence. There are the hats again, people bent over, arms raised. An image of a stage upon which two people perform some play or ritual, the people intentionally divided by the gutter of the book, which is a noble attempt to make use of the book’s gutter but nevertheless is an unfortunate design decision.
The ritual continues, the costumes and masks ever more elaborate. An alarm has gone off in a house a few doors down, a fire alarm, I think, both times quickly silenced. Now I hear a passenger jet lumbering far above and a smaller propeller plane from the Half Moon Bay airport, buzzing down low to my left. Some days the hobbyist pilots will circle and circle the area, part of their flight path directly above my house as they practice “touch and goes” for hours on end.
The pages transition to dark again, the ceremony seems to have moved outside, into the night. More images of the ceremony follow, although I’m finding my attention wavering a bit, having little idea of the nature of the actual ceremony. A well-timed shift brings me back.
There is an image of tire tracks in the snow, a nearly perfect set of four parallel tire tracks curve through the frame, bisected by straight tracks from corner to corner. There has been little indication that the book is anything more than a fantasy at this point, but now the intrusion of the automobile rests the tone. Two images later a line of men and women wait to begin, industrial rubber boots on instead of the traditional foot dress, a small white car parked in the background, others dimly perceived in the gloom, a cigarette dangles from the mouth of the man at the focal point of the image, behind him an older man looking checkout-line bored as he waits for someone to tell him what to do.
A pine siskin has just landed on my deck bird feeder. This is good. I have five bird feeders in my back yard, four purchased recently during the pandemic. The older one I fill with cracked corn in a futile effort to distract the family of squirrels. The silver-capped one I fill with whole black sunflower seeds, the yellow one with Nijer seeds, the green-capped one whole peanuts, and the one hanging off of my deck I fill with a seed, fruit, and nut mix. Only, that feeder hangs over the walkway below and the birds are discarding the seed shells all over the paving stones so I, just before sitting down with Zaido, switched the mixed feeder with the peanut feeder, hanging he peanut feeder off of the deck rail. I was worried that the birds wouldn’t like the new arrangement but the pine siskin seems happy and is pecking away.
The ceremony continues as six masked figures stand on a small table to stage, arms outstretched presenting short Japanese swords, tip upwards. The black and white costumes of the figures feature the same graphic—a hand fan with a solid ball of contrasting tone—as seen on the book’s slipcase. Below the level of the table sits an audience, one man warming his hands at a large space heater, its coils yellow hot behind its safety screen.
More photographs follow, showing the performers blurry in their motions, blurry as they exit the shrine, the shrine itself, the performance over, the snow still falling.
And the snow does keep falling, over several matte, unvarnished pages as eventually the snow itself fades out.
The book is over now, a coda offers the author’s background to the book, a brief primer on the ceremony documented in the preceding pages. Normally I don’t enjoy explanatory test within a book like this, a book that is meant to be an experience rather than a resource, but by putting her brief words here, unheralded at the end, she gives the reader (really, the viewer) a chance to go back through the book a second time, the first time to be experienced untainted by prior description, the second time to see it again with the added value of the author’s thoughts. Sadly, too many blurbs on this book (which is to say, all of them) put this background information first, use it as the primary selling point of the book. I get it—people need backstory, they need to be guided and told what to think. But that’s a shame since books like this can stand or fall on their own without any intervention of the copywriter’s art, and they should be given a chance to do just that.
Again, I’m writing a review and you are reading it, presumably to try to decide whether to buy the book or not. I see the problem.
I have a suggestion for the reader/viewer. Stop right there. Read the essay and then put the book away and come back to it when the time is right to go through it again, start to finish. Go through it again with the essay in mind and then, after you reach the essay and read it again, go forward.
I’ll tell you why, I just looked. Waiting for you on the very next pages are thumbnail images from the book next to captions, a paragraph each. This is the kind of thing you go through once the emotional appeal of the book is firmly implanted. There’s something to be said for aesthetic discipline—part of which is the discipline to resist the urge to gobble it all up at one time. So, go through the book, read the essay, go through it again, then look at the captions, matching the thumbnail with the matching page.
The book closes with several images that look at first to be from museum collections but may be work by the author—the copyright page lists her as creating “drawings and paintings” in the book as well as the photographs and the text.
Despite my precautions the cool air has chilled me, the Sun too weak to offer much encouragement.
I close the book, thinking about the expense of the book’s production, yes—having just gone through that process of course I’m thinking about what it must have cost!—but I’m also thinking about the snow and the feel of the essay’s paper against my fingertips, about the enamel-like black pages gleaming in the sunlight, about the weight of the book’s pages, the heft of them, heft without seeming thick or unwieldy. I’m thinking about the translucent mountain scene as it faded in at the beginning and the snowflakes in the night sequence as they faded out at the end, as well as the snowflakes on the “blank” pages, too, white balls glowing diffusely upon them, some magic trick of ink and paper.
I’m thinking now, sitting at my desk correcting typos and writing this closing paragraph, about what images I want to use for this review, about how I need to clean my office and how it’s almost time to go on our daily family hike on the mountain. I’m thinking about being tired and, more and more, too distracted, and I’m thinking about the weather getting cold and about my daughter flying now, in the airplane now, on her way to San Diego and that, despite my fear of flying, I’m not going to worry, these very words a diversion, and I’m thinking of all of this, all mixed together, and I’m thinking about how I want to end this review, what I want to say.
But mostly I’m thinking of the color blue.