Monday, March 8, 2010

Record of a community destroyed

Book review and author interview from The Daily Yomiuri,  October 23, 2005

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Dec. 7, 1941, is a day that will live in infamy for more than just the attack on Pearl Harbor. The events of that day, coupled with racist sentiments long existing in U.S. society, led to a dark chapter in that nation's history: The internment of an entire community of U.S. citizens for no other reason than their ancestry.

David Neiwert's Strawberry Days (Palgrave Macmillan, 280 pp, 29.95 dollars) is an examination of the internment of Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent on the U.S. West Coast. In the book, Neiwert combines extensive historical research--hundreds of primary and secondary source documents and broad-ranging interviews with numerous internees--to trace the history of the Japanese-American community in the town of Bellevue, Wash., a former farming community that is now a suburb of Seattle.

In an e-mail exchange with The Daily Yomiuri, Neiwert explained that Strawberry Days grew out a series of articles he wrote as news editor of the Bellevue Journal-American on the long-term effects of the internment on the local Japanese community.

Strawberry Days is really three books in one: A detailed historical chronicle of the whos, whats, wheres, whens and hows of the internment and the events leading up to it; a series of personal anecdotes and emotional reminiscences from internees and those who knew them; and an insightful, well-reasoned analysis of why the internment happened and what its ramifications are.

Neiwert tracks the history of Japanese immigration to the United States beginning in 1884, just two years after Chinese immigrants had been barred. The first came mostly to work in the Hawaiian sugar industry, later moving to work on rail gangs and in sawmills and canneries in places like Washington. The number of Japanese living in the United States swelled rapidly from about 2,000 in 1890 to more than 24,000 in 1910, according to census figures quoted in the book.

Most of the Japanese immigrants came from rural prefectures, and by the turn of the century many were working in local farm fields. In some areas, including Bellevue, issei and nisei leased or even bought land that they cleared and started truck farms on.

Just as with the Chinese decades earlier, the Japanese immigrants became the target of racist campaigns up and down the coast, led in the Seattle area by Miller Freeman, a publisher and businessman who later became a key figure in Bellevue. Neiwert catalogues various anti-Japanese campaigns including a 1906 move by the San Francisco school board which, under pressure from the Asiatic Exclusion League, ordered all Japanese students to attend the city's Chinese-only school, a slight that led to U.S.-Japanese saber-rattling that resulted in a de facto ban on immigration from Japan.

Miller's role in whipping up anti-Japanese sentiment dated back to as early as 1904 as a proponent of the "Yellow Peril" conspiracy theory, which held that Japanese immigrants had been sent to the United States as secret shock troops and spies for a coming invasion, a theory that was given much credence by those calling for internment years later. Miller continued to lead his Anti-Japanese League, wielding significant political clout in Seattle and pressing successfully for anti-Japanese legislation.

"These groups were really as mainstream as could be. White supremacism was part of the cultural air that Americans breathed back then. The campaigns emanated from the core of power politics, i.e., both the moneyed and the working classes. And there was a clear connection between those campaigns and the internment; many of the same figures emerged to promote internment--Miller Freeman being a classic case--and nearly identical arguments were heard throughout, especially those that painted a portrait of Japanese-Americans as likely traitors," Neiwert told The Daily Yomiuri.

Despite all this, Bellevue's Japanese community thrived. Specializing in strawberries, they were so successful that by the 1930s Bellevue's annual June strawberry festival was attracting 15,000 visitors to the town of fewer than 2,000 residents. The Japanese truck farmers there formed a very successful farming cooperative and community association and their berries were shipped all over the country from their own rail siding. Times were good.

With the coming of war, all this changed. Japanese-Americans were hounded from jobs and constantly suspected of espionage in the wave of hysteria following Pearl Harbor. Worse followed in the actions and attitude of Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, commander of the West Coast defenses who called for Japanese, citizens and immigrants alike, to be removed from the region. In May 1942, Bellevue's entire Japanese population--about 60 families comprising more than 300 people--were evacuated and interned along with about 120,000 other nisei, more than two-thirds of them U.S. citizens by birth. Most lost any personal possessions they couldn't carry.

Strawberry Days most harrowing chapters deal with internees' personal experiences of the evacuation and early period of internment. The most heartbreaking deal with their return after the war to find the farms they had been forced to abandon overgrown or sold for development. In Bellevue, one of the major developers was Freeman.

In one wrenching anecdote, Neiwert relates the story of Kiyo Yabuki, a Bellevue native who volunteered for the U.S. Army while interned and was badly wounded in France serving with the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team during the nisei unit's famous rescue of the so-called Lost Battalion. After spending most of a year in Vancouver, Wash., hospital, Yabuki took his army uniform to a Bellevue laundry for dry-cleaning. The shop refused to serve him because he was Japanese.

To Neiwert, the historical issue is still a timely one for a number of reasons: "First is the overarching lesson of the internment: That Americans, in times of great national stress, were willing to completely discard the rights of our fellow citizens--so long as it wasn't us. We also were willing to assume that race or ethnicity itself was cause to suspect others of treason. I don't think these propensities have gone away; in fact, they've been resurfacing a lot since 9/11...[the internment] gave the military the precedent it sought to enable it to arrest and detain civilians in a non-battlefield situation without any recourse to the courts. That precedent has come back to us in the form of military tribunals and 'enemy combatant status' instituted by the Bush administration since 9/11."

When the U.S. Supreme Court gave the constitutional seal of approval to the internment in its notorious Korematsu vs United States decision (in which U.S. citizen Fred Korematsu unsuccessfully appealed his conviction for the "crime" of refusing to leave his home), Justice Robert Jackson wrote in dissent that the precedent was "a loaded gun" that could be turned on the rest of the populace at any time.

"That warning, " says Neiwert, "has now come home to roost."

Steely Dan do it again for opening

Feature from The Daily Yomiuri, Aug. 11, 2007

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

To mark the opening of the their chain of clubs, the bookers for Billboard have scored something of a coup: a series of club dates by Steely Dan. The original hypercool jazzy rockers have already sold out their opening week at the Tokyo venue and tickets for their multinight stands in Osaka and Fukuoka are going fast as Daniacs rush to take advantage of the chance to revel in the smooth, sharp sounds of Steely Dan in such an intimate setting.
The 2007 Heavy Rollers tour--the band's most extensive ever--features Steely Dan's original creative locus of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen backed by a 10-piece band, including a full horn section. Set lists on the tour thus far have reportedly leaned on material from their best-known album, 1977's Aja, and its 1980 follow-up, Gaucho, with a smattering of earlier hits and songs from their most recent two albums.
Reports from the road have it that Fagen is in excellent voice and is performing early hits, such as "Chain Lighting" and "Bad Sneakers," with polish and verve. Becker has shouldered the bulk of the guitar duties, with the aid of the formidable Everything Must Go and Two Against Nature contributor Jon Hernington. Uncharacteristically, Becker also has been seen singing often on the tour.
In their original heyday in the 1970s, Steely Dan rarely played live. The technology available at the time simply could not do the band justice in a live setting and Becker and Fagen were more interested in practicing their studio wizardry than performing in front of an audience. Nor was Steely Dan a band in the traditional sense. The lineup of performers varied widely after the first few years, not only from album to album, but from song to song.
Keyboard player and later singer Fagen and bassist/guitarist Becker, the creative bright lights around which the original band clustered, had originally met in 1967 at Bard College in New York. United by their love of black humor and soul music, the two played in various pickup bands in New York before joining established mainstream pop band Jay and the Americans in 1970. Their brief tenure with the band, which had scored a few hits in the early '60s but were clearly on their way out, resulted in a job as contract songwriters for ABC records.
Becker and Fagen saved their best songs for themselves, rehearsing the original band in their office after working hours. Naming themselves after a sexual prosthesis from William Burroughs' controversial novel Naked Lunch, their 1972 debut Can't Buy A Thrill established the band's reputation for top-notch musicianship, subversive sardonic humor and intelligent jazz-tinged rock.
Breaking up the original group after 1974, Becker and Fagen parked themselves in the studio for the rest of the decade, earning a reputation for being incredibly choosy about sound and performances. They were notorious for trying out as many as 20 guitar players from among the cream of the crop of Los Angeles' studio jazz and rock aces for a single guitar solo and recording over 50 snare drum sounds before settling on one for a single track. They also pioneered the use of digital technology in recording.
Their discerning perseverance paid off with seven platinum albums between 1972 and 1980. After a 10-year hiatus in the '80s, sound technology had caught up, and Becker and Fagan assembled a touring company that circled the globe repeatedly in the '90s. Inspired and creatively reinvigorated by the the live experience, they returned to the studio late in the decade, eventually emerging with 2000's Two Against Nature, that year's Grammy winner for album of the year. Their 2003 follow up Everything Must Go also earned critical praise.

Long live the Queen

Feature interview from The Daily Yomiuri Jul. 14, 2007

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Her Majesty refuses to act her age.

Now nearly 80, an age when most people slow down if they haven't stopped altogether, Koko Taylor, the undisputed Queen of the Blues, still performs more than 100 shows a year.

She has just released a new record, aptly titled Old School, that some critics are calling her best work ever. Chatting over the phone from her home in Chicago, her regal poise notwithstanding, she sounds as energetic, playful and almost flirtatious as a woman a third her age.

This week, fresh from tour stops in Quebec and Albany, N.Y., she will be playing shows in Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo with fellow Chicagoan Lurrie Bell, the guitarist son of blues harp great Carey Bell. Their Japan tour culminates in the Japan Blues and Soul Carnival at Hibiya Yagai Ongakudo in Tokyo's Hibiya Park. Then she's off to Spain to play another music festival at the end of the month.

"Well, I don't play Japan every day, but I've been there a couple of times and I always enjoy every moment of it," Taylor says . "The only difference is I can't speak their language, but the people there seem to understand me fine when I'm singing."

It's all a long way from the little town outside of Memphis where she was born and grew up.

Taylor is one of the last of the old school of blues musicians, people such as Muddy Waters, Magic Slim, Howlin' Wolf and Buddy Guy, who grew up poor in the rural South before the civil rights movement and came to Chicago to find a new life and eventually a new career in music.

Taylor talks fondly about the trip north with her late husband, guitarist Robert "Pops" Taylor in 1951, famously arriving in the Windy City "with 35 cents in our pockets and a box of Ritz crackers" according to her official bio.

Her husband drove a truck and Koko found work as domestic servant for 5 dollars a day. It wasn't easy, but it was better than sharecropping with her family back on the farm. Recalls Taylor: "It was tough down there when I was young...we used to cut on the farm...we didn't have nothing."

On Saturday nights, Mr. and Mrs. Taylor would make the rounds of the blues clubs on the South and West side of town. In the liner notes from Old School Taylor recalls: "We didn't go to no clubs playing that fancy music. Everywhere we went was a blues club. Nothing fancy, nothing beautiful. It was just a hole in the wall where a bunch of us was in there listening to the blues, dancing, drinking, talking loud, doing everything else. It wasn't a place you had to sit up and look pretty, be cute and use a certain language and say something a certain way."

It wasn't long before both Pops and Koko were sitting in with the bands and eventually Koko caught the attention of the legendary bluesman Willie Dixon, who helped her land a recording contract at Chess Records. She had her biggest hit in 1966 with Dixon's song "Wang Dang Doodle"--still her signature tune.

"We used to practice in [Willie Dixon's] basement...we'd play for hours, sometimes all night... with his wife bringing us down food," she remembers.

Taylor says the constant travel is a bit wearing after 40 years, but she wouldn't have it any other way.

"My favorite place in the world is where the people is there and enjoying what I do. It don't matter where you go, people is people and I love people."

She's performed almost everywhere, been on television and in movies, won Grammys and has more Blues Music Awards (25) than any other performer has ever won. Asked if she had any professional ambitions still left unfulfilled, she laughs.

"Nothing but to keep on singing the blues. I've gone too far to turn around now. I'm 79 years old--Why would I try to turn around now and try to do something new?"

Old School, released last month in Japan by P-Vine Records, shows the Queen in peak form. Even after all these years, her voice still has enough raw power to knock down a wall. While she admits it is a chore, she is still writing songs too, having penned five of the dozen tracks. Old School is hardcore blues that sounds like it could have been recorded back in her days at Chess. There are no jazz arrangements or pop orchestration to smooth the rough edges and sharp corners, just power, warmth and foot-stomping shake-your-moneymaker beats. Taylor's authoritative voice reaches out and grabs you and doesn't let go. Her passion and genuine joy in what she is doing shine through in every note.

"God has been good to me. I'm doing what I love to do most of all," she says, before summing up hercareer: "I just do what I do and hope people like it."

Long may she reign.

Koko Taylor will play the Japan Blues and Soul Carnival along with Lurrie Bell, Mitsuyoshi Azuma and the Swinging Boppers, Jun Nagami and others on July 22, 3:45 p.m. at Hibiya Yagai Ongakudo in Tokyo, (03) 5453-8899. Taylor will also play with Bell on July 18, 7 p.m. at Namba Hatch in Osaka, (06) 6362-7301; July 19, 7 p.m. at Bottom Line in Nagoya. (052) 741-1620; and without Bell on July 20, 7 p.m. at Duo Music Exchange in Shibuya, Tokyo. (03) 5453-8899; Bell will play on July 21, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. at Blues Alley in Meguro, Tokyo, (03) 5740-6041.

(The Daily Yomiuri Jul. 14, 2007)

Murder among the Frozen Chosen

Book review from The Daily Yomiuri, July 16, 2007

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 411 pages, 26.95 dollars

A hard-drinking, broken-down-but-tough-as-nails detective investigating the murder of a junkie in a fleabag hotel soon finds there is more to the case than meets the eye. With just his .45, a few wisecracks and lot of stubbornness, the tarnished hero unravels a conspiracy that reaches from the mean streets to the corridors of power.

Michael Chabon's latest novel has everything a good hard-boiled detective story needs, right down to the sexy redheaded dame, the loyal sidekick and sinister crime lord. Except the soundtrack is klezmer instead of smoky jazz, the dame is the detective's ex-wife and boss, the sidekick is a Jewish Tlingit Indian, the crime lord is a Hasidic rabbi and the seedy, sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles have been replaced by the icy snow-covered sidewalks of the soon-to-be-defunct Jewish enclave of Sitka, Alaska.

Homicide cop Meyer Landsman has "the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket."

Landsman's beat is the Yiddish-speaking patch of frigid coast that the Alaskan Settlement Act of 1940 opened up to Europe's persecuted Jews. (On top of being a classic detective tale, this is also a work of alternate history.) The demise of the state of Israel after only three months in 1948 sent another wave of Jews to Sitka, already jammed with war refugees, and the U.S. Congress decided to limit their tenancy of "Jewlaska" to 60 years.

Now the 3.5 million "Frozen Chosen" are facing eviction, and everyone is scrambling to find a safe haven of their own, all except the Hasidic Verbovers, a closed sect that controls most of the crime in the enclave.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union marks the latest step in Chabon's journey from critically esteemed author of literary fiction such as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys to a teller of two-fisted tales of adventure.

In addition to editing McSweeny's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and McSweeny's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, Chabon helped write the script for the film Spider-Man 2, and authored a series of comic books based on characters from his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

This latest novel, with its oddball premise and use of genre conventions, seems more in the latter camp, but the quality of Chabon's prose makes genre irrelevant--whether one prefers The New Yorker or comic books, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is an engrossing and original story told with craft, verve and style, to say nothing of the percussive poetry of the Alaskan shtetl.
Chabon captures the cadences and richness of Yiddish, with the Jewish lingua franca spread as thick as a schmear of sour cream on a latke.

In fact, the biggest speculation here is not historical, but literary, as Chabon seems to have asked himself, "What if Sam Spade had been created by Jackie Mason?"

The steady stream of Yiddish is a little arresting at first, but like any work written in a particular vernacular--think of Roddy Doyle or Irvine Welsh--once your mental ear becomes accustomed, it transports you into the world of the novel.

Not to be a noodge, but you'd have to be meshuga not to enjoy this book--it is so good, you'll plotz.
(The Daily Yomiuri Jul. 14, 2007)

Suburban thriller worth more than 'Just One Look'

Book review from The Daily Yomiuri, July 27, 2004

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer 

Just One Look
By Harlen Coben
Dutton, 384 pp, 25.95 dollars

It is said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but what about amnesiacs?
The protagonist of Harlan Coben's Just One Look, suburban soccer mom and painter Grace Lawson, has been missing a small chunk of her memory since she was trampled nearly to death in a rock concert stampede 15 years ago. In addition to the small hole in her past, the horrifying experience has left her with a permanent limp and the friendship of a mob boss whose son was killed in the concert crush.
When a strange photo of a group of people turns up in a packet of newly developed pictures, Grace doesn't give it much thought, but her husband Jack disappears with it after just one look. Grace's search for him takes her down a spiraling path crossed by an former football player, a sociopathic bleach-blond North Korean assassin, a fading Indian femme fatale, an exhibitionist neighbor, her husband's estranged family, a former rock star and the man who started the deadly stampede at his concert.
Thrillers and mystery novels tend to fall into obvious categories: Agatha Christie-style locked room murders; hard-boiled detective stories; police procedurals; suspenseful espionage capers; hunts for psychopathic serial killers; thinly disguised action movie scripts and many others. The worst are formulaic cliche-ridden trash, the best, like the work of Raymond Chandler, rise above genre to become great literature.
Trying to pigeonhole Harlan Coben within the thriller genre is like trying to pick up a blob of mercury. In terms of subgenre, file Just One Look under "other." In terms of quality, Coben may not have reached the literary peaks, but he is certainly blazing a trail up from the foothills.
Despite a plot that seems to stagger in six different directions at once and surprise the reader at every turn, Coben never once resorts to stereotypes or shallow characters. He spends a considerable number of words, often pages, breathing life into the most minor characters. His suburban New Jersey setting is realistic and populated with bored, uncooperative cops, frustrated housewives and nosy neighbors.
One of the keys to Coben's appeal is that his characters are believable, often unremarkable, people who act in believable ways when confronted with remarkable situations. One character outwits a professional killer by respecting her own limitations and purposely doing the exact opposite of what the standard brainless movie heroine would. These are not the usual hard-boiled heroes with nothing to lose, these are people with kids, mortgages and minivans who get scared, hurt and lonesome.
The downside of all this character development is that Coben provides much of it by telling us directly about characters rather than letting their actions and thoughts show their motivations and personality quirks. Whenever a character is introduced the reader knows a detailed biography is soon to follow.
Throughout the novel's many twists, turns and numerous false endings, Coben does an excellent job of pacing and captures Grace Lawson's growing, barely contained sense of panic in a variety of subtle ways. He has the ability to surprise with the familiar and add unexpected, but perfectly reasonable boomerang curves to the storyline.
Coben's novel is worth more attention than its title suggests.
Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun

'The Meaning of Ichiro' and the meanness of yakyu

Book review from The Daily Yomiuri, July 18, 2004

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer 

The Meaning of Ichiro
By Robert Whiting
Warner Books, 318 pp, 25.95 dollars 

A new star rose in the east in 2000. New at least to North American fans of major league baseball.
In his first year in the majors, this virtual unknown won the American League batting title by hitting .350, with a league-leading 242 hits, 59 of them infield trips to first. He led the league in runs scored with 127 and bases stolen with 56 and pushed his team to a league record for victories, earning Gold Glove, rookie of the year and most valuable player honors along the way.
Most Japanese had certainly heard of Ichiro Suzuki, even if the Giants-centric television coverage of Japanese pro baseball meant most fans rarely got to see him play. While he had won seven batting titles in a row in Japan, the appearance of such a phenomenon took most MLB fans by complete surprise.
Fans of America's national pastime wondering how to make sense of this sudden domination of their game by a player who is the product of what was long supposed to be an inferior game would do well to pick up Robert Whiting's The Meaning of Ichiro.
Whiting is the premier English-language writer on Japanese baseball. His first two books, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat (1977) and You Gotta Have Wa (1989), are considered the standard texts on the subject and the latter is often found on reading lists for courses on Japanese culture.
While these books, along with a third, Slugging It Out in Japan (1991), cowritten with Major League Baseball and Yomiuri Giants slugger Warren Cromartie, focus on the experiences of foreign players in Japan, The Meaning of Ichiro chronicles the impact and adventures of Japanese players in MLB.
Written with a North American audience in mind, The Meaning of Ichiro, in part, recaps the history of besuboru from the 1880s advent of seishin yakyu or spiritual baseball at The First Higher School of Tokyo, known in Japanese as Ichiko, up to the present day. In particular, Whiting traces the Japanese approach to baseball as an extension of martial arts that stresses endless repetition to achieve perfection of form and emphasis on building fighting spirit and mental toughness. "A team motto urged participants to practice so hard that they urinated blood, while another team rule forbade complaining of injury or pain," writes Whiting of Ichiko.
From such roots comes the more modern 1,000-fungo drill, 200-pitch practice sessions and year-round training techniques employed by Japanese professional baseball.
Whiting's examination of the institutionalized harshness of yakyu may help to explain players' willingness to put up with the conditions of indentured servitude that go hand in hand with a pro career. A major part of the book deals with the efforts of team owners and management to discourage players from jumping leagues.
Much credit is given here to pitcher Hideo Nomo, the second Japanese major leaguer, and the first in more than 30 years, for his courage in standing up to an unfair system. Credit also goes to "the most hated man in Japanese baseball," Don Nomura, who found the contract loophole that allowed Nomo to begin the exodus of stars to MLB. Whiting shines a light into the dark corners of the Japanese game with his descriptions of the selfish and often sinister machinations of team owners.
Biographical sketches of Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, Kazuo Matsui, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Kazuhiro Sasaki and others illustrate Whiting's case that while Japanese players are more disciplined and more highly trained than MLB players, it takes a sort of personality rarely found in the pro yakyu ranks to make the leap to the majors.
The discipline and devotion to the game evidenced in the early years of Ichiro's life are unparalleled in MLB. From the age of 3, he trained six or more hours a day with the focus of a Zen acolyte. Whiting quotes a passage from a school essay the future star wrote when he was 12 years old:
"My dream when I grow up is to be a first-class professional baseball player...I have the confidence necessary to reach that goal. I started practicing from age 3. From the age of 9 I have practiced 360 out of 365 days a year and I practice hard. I only had five or six hours (in a year) to play with my friends. That's how much I practiced. So I think I can surely become a pro."
The constant thread in The Meaning of Ichiro, aside from Whiting's clean, straightforward, anecdotal style, is that Japanese pro baseball and Japanese players, while different in many important respects from their North American MLB counterparts, are by no means inferior. Whiting presents a persuasive case for the need for both baseball cultures to learn from each other.
Whiting's contention seems to be the Japanese game needs to respect individual players more and leave the "practice until you collapse and then practice more" approach in the 19th century where it belongs and loosen up a little. MLB, on the other hand, had better learn to expect a little competition, shape up, and remember the hit-and-run days before steroid-enhanced power hitters and pampered superstars.

In your ear - Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, Doc and Merle Watson,

Music review column from The Daily Yomiuri,  May 27, 2004

In Your Ear

By Kevin Wood/Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Jerry Garcia and David Grisman
Been All Around This World
Vivid, 2,625 yen

When people talk about Jerry Garcia it is usually in the context of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene and his long strange trip with the Grateful Dead. He's probably more famous as a countercultural icon than as a musician. But forget everything you think you know about Garcia and lend an ear to Been All Around This World and you will hear a master folk singer and acoustic guitar picker par excellence.

The king of the 20-minute psychedelic electric guitar solo got his start playing the squarest of traditional folk and bluegrass songs on banjo and guitar in the very early 1960s and never really left it behind, working on and off over the years with his longtime partner in acoustic wizardry, mandolin virtuoso David Grisman.

In the end it's Grisman we have to thank for Been All Around This World. The creator of the bluegrass-jazz fusion dubbed "dawg music" had the presence of mind to insist on recording hours of his informal jams with Garcia in the early '90s, resulting in a number of brilliant collaborative albums that include So What, Shady Grove and The Pizza Tapes (with guitarist Tony Rice). Grisman hints in the liner notes that Been All Around This World is likely to be the last in the series, but it is hardly the bottom of the barrel.

The disc leans heavily on country and bluegrass repertoire with songs by Merle Travis, Mel Tillis, George Jones, and Jimmie Rogers, with a few odd digressions--notably Jimmie Cliff's "Sitting Here in Limbo" and James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy." The performances are built around Garcia's heartfelt, rough-hewn tenor and Grisman's expressive mandolin breaks and fills. The tempos are mostly relaxed, and the two talented players stretch out for long, melodic solos that lack the demonic intensity of some of their other duets, but are no less tasty for the laid-back, sunny, Sunday afternoon feel. The sessions were some of Garcia's last, and while he strains to pull off the vocals on the aforementioned James Brown number, he's at his plaintive best on "Limbo" and Travis's "Dark as a Dungeon."

All in all an excellent introduction for those new to bluegrass and the acoustic phenomenon of Garcia and Grisman.

Doc and Merle Watson
Sittin' Here Pickin' the Blues
Rounder, 2,519 yen

A remastered reissue of Doc and Merle's 1985 album Pickin' the Blues with an additional eight tracks from their early '80s recordings for Flying Fish Records. Arthel "Doc" Watson and Merle Watson were undeniably the finest father-son team in music--bluegrass or otherwise. Doc's high-speed flatpicking and unadorned, warm baritone paired with son Merle's fluid slide and finger-style guitar were a potent combination unmatched since Merle's 1985 death in a tractor accident.

Even for folk and bluegrass, this music is so down-from-the-mountains square it has corners. However, even as cornpone as some of the songs may be, these performances by two monster guitarists render them indisputably hip. Merle's slide playing on "Taking to Casey" will make any rock fan forget Duane Allman's name.

In addition to the guitar pyrotechnics, the other real joy on this album is Doc Watson's simple, straightahead singing. His cover of "Stormy Weather" is the perfect antidote for the stale vocal gymnastics of the so-called pop divas, and his "How Long Blues" and "Honey Babe Blues" prove that a white man can sing the blues without trying to sound black and still have plenty of soul. Guest appearances by the likes of star blues harp player Charlie Musselwhite and bluegrass stringman Sam Bush provide the last unneeded push into the stratosphere of must-have recordings.

Bad boy novel rings true

Book review from The Daily Yomiuri, May 26, 2004

The Very Man
By Chris Binchy
Pan MacMillan
361 Pages

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Chris Binchy's sharply written story of a young man on a downward spiral in Dublin on some level has the same appeal as those trash television programs with titles like "America's Most Horrific Power Tool Accidents" and "Grizzly Bear Attacks Caught On Video." You know something bloody and awful is going to happen to someone, but you just can't look away.

In Binchy's perceptive first novel, we see everything through the eyes of Rory, a 30-year-old who has clawed his way up the advertising ladder in New York over the last half-dozen years and has now returned to his native Dublin to attend his mother's funeral. Reacquainting himself with friends and family underscores the emptiness of his New York life, and he decides to stay.

The flash New York job has left him with the money for a fancy apartment in the city's Temple Bar neighborhood and the credentials to land a good job in his field at the height of the Celtic Tiger economic boom. His new girlfriend moves in with him a few months later and it looks like Rory has the world by the tail.

But looks can be deceiving. Rory's center cannot hold and things fall apart. Rory can't seem to decide if he loves or hates Dublin for not being like New York. Sure the pace is slower, the people more genuine and the city has become more modern, but after working in Manhattan, the Dublin advertising scene seems like the bush leagues to him and the restaurants and clubs are painfully out of style. Alternately cocky and insecure, Rory leads himself astray through an inability to be satisfied with his life. He drinks too much, lies too much, starts to cheat on his girlfriend and deceive his boss. It bring to mind the scene in every cheesy, gory slasher movie where one of the minor characters hears a noise and tells his friends to wait while goes to investigate.

The reader watches while Rory loads the gun, cocks it, aims it at his foot, pulls the trigger and then blames everyone around him for the results. We want to tell Rory to get out of the way of the train of consequences that is rushing down the track of his selfish irresponsibility. His lack of empathy, his self-centeredness and his utter inability to take responsibility for his actions should make Rory an unsympathetic character, but aside from wanting to give him swift kick, ultimately we feel sorry him as he loses his job, his girlfriend, his apartment, and finally his dignity.

Binchy has been likened by more than one critic to Nick Hornby, but a more apt comparison might be Tony Parsons. Like Parsons' Man and Boy, and its sequel Man and Wife, The Very Man has the confessional, moralistic ring of a cautionary tale. This mini-genre seems to be intended to warn men that it's time to grow up and learn to appreciate what you have, and that living out your fantasy of picking up that hot young thing in the bar will only screw up your life and turn your happy home into a smoking crater.

Though the ending seems a bit abrupt, The Very Man is a promising piece of writing from a new author with a flair for realistic dialogue and a clear, flowing style.

'Bad Business' a good read

Book review from The Daily Yomiuri,  April 12, 2004

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Bad Business
By Robert B. Parker
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 320 pp, 24.95 dollars

Readers still don't know his first name, but after 29 books we know just about everything else we need to know about Robert B. Parker's private eye hero Spenser.

The latest installment in the Spenser saga, Bad Business, sees the Boston sleuth take on wife-swapping corporate scammers. He is aided, as usual, by his psychologist soul mate Susan Silverman; Hawk, the world's most honorable thug; and the usual cast of trustworthy cops, charming criminal defense lawyers and friendly hit men.

Approached by the annoying Marlene Rowley to get the goods on her cheating executive husband Trent, Spenser keeps tripping over other private eyes tailing everyone connected to the Rowleys and Trent's energy trading firm, Kinergy. When Trent is murdered at his desk, Spenser suspects more than infidelity is involved.

While Parker is very good at painting detailed portraits of even the most minor characters, they tend to be strictly friends or enemies. Those who are Spenser's friends are willing to do almost anything for him and rarely have anything but the most minor of character flaws or weaknesses. The criminal careers of Hawk and hit man Vinnie Morris seem like minor eccentricities, while the vulgar yuppies central to the case seem like the worst people in the world every time they open their mouths.

The humor of Spenser's smart-aleck streak and his banter with Hawk have always helped put the series a cut above the average hard-boiled detective hero, and Parker manages enough levity to keep the story entertaining.

Sadly, after a long run of Spenser books, Parker seems to be doing a lot of this by rote. We have the stock scenes of Spenser with Susan, Spenser being romantic yet manly and Susan drinking her glass of wine a milliliter at a time while delivering a detailed psychological analysis of all the players in the case, including Spenser. After using such set pieces in almost every Spenser novel, they begin to have the ring of formula.

Despite this, Parker continues to demonstrate his gift for creating crackling dialog and believable characters. He captures the archetype of the corporate good-ol'-boy in Kinergy CEO Bob Cooper and the radio talk show host and "corporate pimp" Darrin O'Mara is superbly smarmy and fluent in psychobabble.

While action takes a back seat to investigation this time around, Bad Business is still among the better installments in the series

Would you both just shut up and think?

Book review from The Daily Yomiuri, March 21, 2004

Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Dude, Where's My Country?
By Michael Moore
Warner Books, 249 pp, 24.95 dollars


Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN Are Subverting America
By Laura Ingraham
Regnery Publishing, 342 pp, 27.95 dollars

Liberal satirist and documentarian Michael Moore's Dude, Where's My Country? and conservative talk radio attack blonde Laura Ingraham's Shut Up & Sing are the literary equivalent of the sort of smug, self-satisfied invective and creative misinterpretation of the facts one would be disappointed to hear in a "did not!--did too!" argument between 7-year-olds. Taken together they are a one-two punch that make the reader long for the gentlemanly rhetoric and Wildean wit of pro wrestlers' pre-bout trash talk.

Ingraham graduated from the Ivy League bastion of Dartmouth, worked as a speechwriter in the final years of the administration of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and as law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, became a defense attorney for white-collar criminals and finally a political commentator for NBC. She currently hosts a popular syndicated radio talk show in the United States.

Michael Moore, a college dropout, magazine editor, writer and activist, made his first film,"Roger and Me" (1989) about his unsuccessful efforts to confront General Motors Chairman Roger Smith. In terms of objective journalism, it was one-sided, shallow, manipulative and unfair. As a satirical documentary, it was brilliantly funny, razor sharp and original. It won numerous awards and its rags-to-riches success story (Moore maxed out numerous credit cards and even organized bingo games to raise the money needed to make the film) made the director a progressive populist hero to many and launched his career as a professional gadfly.

"Roger and Me" and the recent Oscar-winner "Bowling for Columbine" are Moore at his funniest--shining his klieg lights on absurdity and hypocrisy in U.S. society by playing the bewildered everyman and bushwhacking corporate sleazeballs, gun nuts and assorted conservative ne'er-do-wells.

Dude is Moore preaching to the choir. He lists all the faults, real and imagined, of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush in an outraged rush. Unsurprisingly, Moore does not like or trust Bush, and considers him a lying weasel and corporate shill. Moore goes on to illustrate why he thinks this by quoting Bush and his inner circle and pointing to his well-known connections to the oil industry. Its all meticulously footnoted, but there is nothing new or especially interesting here, just Moore working himself into a frenzy of righteous indignation.

Humor, normally Moore's strong suit, gets short shrift, though his chapter on "How to Talk to Your Conservative Brother-in-Law" has a few good laughs and some sensible arguments and suggestions for helping convert orthodox Republicans back to the middle of the road. More strained however are his rhetorical questions for "George of Arabia" and his hinting at some sort of dark conspiracy between the Bush and bin Laden families.

Moore would be better advised to stick to comedy and leave the journalistic heavy lifting to guys like Greg Palast (The Best Democracy Money Can Buy), who are better equipped to handle it.

He makes a number of factual errors regarding the departure of bin Laden family members from the United States following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, U.S. aid to the Taliban, and the long since debunked myth about Wesley Clark being asked by the White House to use his position as a commentator on CNN to connect former Iraqi President Saddam Hussien to the 9/11 attacks.

While Moore is no poet and might make a better comedian than a journalist, Laura Ingraham makes him look like Edward R. Murrow, H. L. Mencken and Shakespeare rolled into one. Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics and the UN Are Subverting America is not a book, but 339 pages of incoherent paranoid ranting between hard covers.

Like most of her U.S. talk radio siblings, Ingraham is outraged about just about everything. In this instance she is writing to warn us all of a terrifying threat to the United States: celebrities. Ingraham says that the elites that make up the entertainment industry, the "ivory tower" of academe, the business world, the media, politics and international organization are poised to destroy the United States. Aiding them are miscellaneous elites including, but not limited to: "trial lawyers, multiculturalists, God-haters, and the race-relations mafia," college-educated professionals, feminists, city dwellers--essentially everyone but the banjo-playing inbred hillbilly kid in Deliverance. It's surprising she leaves the Freemasons, the Trilateral Commission and the Elders of Zion off the list.

"Elites are defined not so much by class or wealth or position as they are by a general outlook. Their core belief--embraced with a fervor that does not allow for rational debate--is that they are superior to We the People. They know better."

So does Ingraham. She tells us exactly how all elites think: "They hate America" and "They think we're stupid."

Ingraham takes Bush's "You're either with us or with the terrorists" rhetorical excess a step further--you are either with her or you probably have fangs, three eyes and eat babies

As opposed to Moore's relatively careful footnoting, Ingraham rarely backs up her claims with any sort of evidence or logic, instead engaging in obvious sophistry: For example, she claims H.G. Wells believed patriotism and religious belief caused war and was a "burning" anti-Semite and cites a passage from George Bernard Shaw that appears to favor scientific extermination of "the sort of people who do not fit in," and then goes on to try to tar all liberal intellectuals with the same brush.

Particular venom is reserved for entertainers who dare to comment on politics, especially Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Barbara Striesand--who should "shut up and sing." Most of a chapter is taken up attacking Michael Moore for making money and being fat. Moore may occasionally try to make two and two add up to five, but Ingraham seems more inclined to insist two is a million and that anyone who adds two and two and gets four is an "elite" who thinks they are smarter than everyone else.

A similar mixture of false logic, specious argument and misinformation that would make Joseph Goebbels turn green with envy is used to attack anyone opposing the mixing of church and state as being on a crusade against religion, and to prove that "Antiwar rallies are really hate rallies. Hate-America rallies, that is." Ingraham attacks the United Nations for trying to "control America" and opposing capital punishment; nongovernmental organizations for being "undemocratic"; Europe and especially France for disliking Bush.

It seems like Ingraham made a bet with fellow conservative pin-up and talk show rottweiller Ann Coulter (Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism) to see who could make the most outrageous claims and still get into print. So far it's a close race.

Dude may not be Moore's best effort, but its main sin is not being funny enough. Ingraham's poisonous diatribe makes it look like Pulitzer material. Shut Up & Sing is the kind of book critics read so that you won't have to.

Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun

Too much chatter means too little thought, Oe says

From The Daily Yomiuri, March 15, 2004

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

While Japanese cultural exports in the form of pop music, manga and anime may be gaining ground abroad, novelist and Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe says Japan's cultural power is waning as true critical thought drowns in a sea of polite conversation.

Oe argued in a March 5 speech in English at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Yurakucho, Tokyo, that the relentless growth in the publication of interviews, panel discussions and collections of speeches threatens to supplant written intellectual discourse and is leading to the cultural impoverishment of Japan.

A prolific novelist and noted activist, Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994 and is widely considered to be one of the leading intellectual figures in the nation.

In his speech, Oe referred to the work of U.S. scholars Edward Said and Masao Miyoshi in the early 1990s, when the two theorized that while bubble-era Japan was a dominant economic power, the nation's contemporary verbal culture was "austere, even impoverished, dominated by talk shows, comic books and relentless conferences and panel discussions."

Oe commented that while Japan's economic fortunes had since ebbed, Said and Miyoshi's comments on the state of the nation's culture were an accurate reflection on the present situation. He added that the current recession is casting a further shadow as companies cut back spending on cultural activities.

Japan, more than other nations, faces a crisis of written culture due to the relentless publication of ideas presented in a conversational mode. This conversational style of communication, which seeks compromise, conformity and consensus, is replacing real intellectual critical discourse, Oe said. He pointed out that there are no longer any national magazines catering to an intellectual audience, and that the remaining outlet for criticism--the newspaper book review--has become shorter and seems to include less and less analysis of theme, methodology and style.

"Japanese writing style has been undergoing a radical change lately, and whether the change is a cause or an effect, conversationalism is the dominant mode," Oe said. Where once writers felt the need to back up their assertions with facts and logical argument, he said, conversational writing assumes certain level of persuasive consensus. When confronted with disagreement in a conversation, one can apologize or ignore it, said Oe.

The superficiality and celebrity culture engendered by this conversationalism in publishing is beginning to infect other areas of culture and even politics, Oe contended, citing the "frantic support" enjoyed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi when he first took office on the basis of structural reform slogans that offered little substance.

The result of the "washing away" of Japan's intellectuals by this flood of conversation is that Japanese no longer give serious thought to how the world should be or to the creation of ideas. The kind of serious discourse that dominated Japanese intellectual life in the immediate postwar period has disappeared, Oe said, and it may never return.

Japan today is dependent on the West for cultural input, soaking up Western culture, but exerting little influence in return, he said. Japanese pop culture may be a leading export commodity, but Pokemon and Hikaru Utada are unlikely to change the way people around the world think, in the way Oe said critics such as Said and Noam Chomsky have.

Oe said the nation must nurture an intellectual leadership and an audience that will not circumvent the logicality of written discourse, if the current situation is to be rectified.

Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun

In Your Ear - Norah Jones, Brad Mehldau Trio

Music review column from The Daily Yomiuri, March 11, 2004


Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Norah Jones
Feels Like Home
Toshiba EMI, 2,427 yen

How do you follow up a debut album that wins eight Grammy awards and sells 5.1 million copies? Do you try to catch lightning in a bottle a second time or move in a different direction to avoid comparisons with the previous platinum standard?

With her sophomore effort, Feels Like Home, Norah Jones has done a bit of both.

All the things that made Come Away With Me a massive hit are here: The same simple, sparse, mid-tempo arrangements, warm jazz-inflected vocals, and relaxed, romantic atmosphere inform every track. While her debut album leaned heavily toward light jazz while giving a nod to folk and country with songs like "Lonestar" and Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart," Feels Like Home plants a foot firmly in the country while still demonstrating jazzy roots.

It's debatable whether an album that includes guest appearances by Dolly Parton and The Band's Levon Helm and Garth Hudson can really be called jazz, but what else can you call a cover of Duke Ellington's "Melancholia" (with lyrics added by Jones to become the 2 a.m. heartache torch song "Don't Miss You At All")?

If we reject such artificial pigeonholing in favor of Louis Armstrong's maxim that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad, Feels Like Home must unequivocally be considered good.

Top-notch guitar work by Adam Levy and Kevin Breit give a rootsy feel to tunes like "Toes" and "In the Morning," with Jones' piano spotlighted on "Carnival Town." Jones and her bandmates have clearly grown more confident as songwriters--of the 14 tracks on the album she had a hand in five and six were written by members of her band. Their compositions hold their own against the aforementioned Ellington adaptation, a catchy cover of Tom Waits' "The Long Way Home," and a country-blues version of Townes Van Zandt's "Be Here To Love Me."

This is truly adult contemporary music--not the tuneless schlock usually associated with the term. It has none of the tawdry, tacky, MTV-driven, image-making fluff and in-your-face attitude normally associated with the latest in pop music. It is tasteful, timeless, modern and mature music by and for grown-ups.

Brad Mehldau Trio
Anything Goes
Warner Music Japan, 2,520 yen

Anything Goes, a collection of straight-ahead instrumental jazz covers by the Brad Mehldau Trio--pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy--offers few surprises and breaks little new ground, but delivers 10 tracks of virtuoso playing by a trio so tightly coordinated they must be reading each others minds.

Mehldau is an outstanding technical player with a fast, fluid Charlie Parker-like ability to play twice as many notes as anyone else while never sounding busy.

The songs are mostly standards like the Cole Porter title track with a few curveballs --Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place" and a wonderfully nostalgic version of Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years"--thrown in for variety.

Slower ballads such as Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You" counterbalance the barely contained exuberance of Thelonius Monk's "Skippy." The angular, outside, bop arrangement of Harold Arlen's "Get Happy" still manages to swing and the Charlie Chaplin chestnut "Smile" is rescued from sentimentality with Grenadier taking the melody line on bass while Mehldau holds down the bottom end with his left hand

In Your Ear - Ani DiFranco, The Asylum Street Spankers

Music review column from the Daily Yomiuri, Feb 26, 2004

In Your Ear 

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Educated Guess
Victor, 2,400 yen

The Little Punk Folkie That Did is back. After a decade of making albums with a backing band and producer, Ani DiFranco holed up alone in a New Orleans shotgun shack with an eight-track recorder and emerged with Educated Guess, a 14-track one-woman effort for which she did everything but personally stuff liner notes into CD cases.

Educated Guess marks a return to DiFranco's roots as a solo performer armed only with her acoustic guitar, her taut, airy, potent voice and lots of attitude, but also shows far a greater degree of musical and social sophistication and maturity than early albums.

The anger, militant feminism and strident liberalism of the early years is still there, but the bull in the china shop has become a matador, cloaking the sharpest lyrical steel in a velvet cape. She's still in your face, but you can never be sure whether it's to plant a kiss or an uppercut until the lyrical jolt has been delivered. Songs such as "Origami" and "Animal" demonstrate that DiFranco has not mellowed with age, she's just gotten craftier.

The layered, ringing guitar on Educated Guess shows off some impressive technique and compositional chops. DiFranco may not be the fastest or fanciest on the fretboard, but she is certainly one of the most original.

On first listening, the high-pitched chirps, wails and echoes of the backing vocals DiFranco has laid down seem superfluous, distracting and at times even grating, but repeated listenings show them to be the key to the deeper inner funkiness of "Bliss Like This" and an appropriate accent to the minor key mournfulness of "Bodily" and "You Each Time."

Three tracks are poetry recitations with accompanying soundscapes, ranging from the short personal "Platforms" to the longer sly broadside of "Grand Canyon."

DiFranco's all-too-brief tour of Japan--one show each in Tokyo and Osaka early next month--is not to be missed.

The Asylum Street Spankers
Buffalo Records, 2,099 yen

Hot on the heels of the release of their concert DVD Sideshow Fez late last year, the acoustic daredevils of The Asylum Street Spankers are back with Mercurial, a studio album of covers that have been a staple of their unbelievable live performances.

The band that has audiences on three continents asking "What the hell was that?" serves up smooth old jazz (Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby") and smoking traditional blues ("Got My Mojo Working") straight up, with a chaser of hard-to-believe covers of The Beastie Boys, The B-52s, Black Flag and Jazz Butcher. Gangsta rap meets the Grand Ole Opry on "Hick Hop" and kitsch meets cool on "Shine on Harvest Moon."

The Spankers are far more than a simple though deeply weird comedy or novelty act. Veteran jazzman Stanley Smith's cool clarinet accents and Nevada Newman's slide guitar solos alone more than establish the Spankers' music credibility. Singer Christina Marrs could make the pope kick a hole in a stained-glass window with her frankly erotic version of Bessie Smith's "Sugar in My Bowl," while the antic efforts of violinist and dobro player Korey Simone and singer, harmonica player and general ringmaster Wammo are best described as acid burlesque.

In the unlikely event that this album alone isn't enough to make you smile, during March, Buffalo Records is giving away copies of a 17-track CD label sampler (including tracks by the Spankers, Hot Club of Cowtown, Ryan Adams and String Cheese Incident among others) with the purchase of any of the roots label's CDs--while supplies last.

Vietnam War hero's platform lacks depth

Book review from The Daily Yomiuri, Feb. 24, 2004

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

A Call to Service: My Vision for a Better America

By John Kerry

Viking, 202 pp, 24.95 dollars

Written as a campaign book by the four-term senator from Massachusetts, A Call to Service is unlikely to win any awards for the quality of its prose. Simply put, this book is a short but dull read that seems to be compiled from fleshed-out campaign speeches. Imagine a 200-page campaign leaflet without any gaudy photos or distracting colors.

While it might be naive to assume that John Kerry's incessant mentions of his Vietnam service have nothing to do with comparing his impressive record (four years of combat duty, one of them commanding a 50-foot river patrol boat, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with combat V and three Purple Hearts) to the somewhat dubious wartime record of his Republican rival, it is clear from reading A Call to Service that Kerry's war service and subsequent time as a leader in the antiwar movement were the defining experiences of his life.

Those hoping to read the nitty-gritty details of Kerry's Vietnam exploits will be disappointed as the author only alludes, albeit often, to his adventures there. Policy wonks seeking a chance to examine the senator's proposals on education, health care, environmental protection, energy, defense and the economy also will come away virtually empty-handed. The second most frequently used phrase in the book--after "When I was in the Navy in Vietnam"--seems to be "While the proposal is too detailed to explain, let me give you the basics."

This is paraphrasing of course, but Kerry seems to start every explanation of his presidential platform by telling the reader that the proposal is very detailed and has been carefully worked out, but that we don't really need to know the details, just what the result will be.

On the surface, the proposals contained in A Call to Service seem reasonably progressive: increased funding for education while ensuring schools remain accountable, a return to legislation and budgeting to provide for the general welfare of the nation as opposed to aiding special interests, tying international trade treaties to human rights and environmental protection, and making the U.S. federal government's employee health insurance system accessible to uninsured citizens. The lack of nuts and bolts details provided is a little frustrating and makes it harder for Kerry to prove such policies are viable.

As mentioned earlier, Kerry constantly alludes to his service in Vietnam, but rarely dwells on it and never attempts to make it the basis for his credibility. It is simply that his service seems to be the crystal through which he views his life since then. Kerry says "when I was in Vietnam" much the way a newly arrived expatriate is apt to start sentences with a phrase like "back home" or a recent graduate might say "when I was in college."

An interesting aspect of the book is the number of times he stresses his personal friendship and good working relationship with former Republican presidential candidate and fellow Vietnam veteran, Arizona Sen. John McCain. The introduction to the book is such a ringing endorsement of McCain that it seems to belong at the front of McCain's Faith of Our Fathers instead of Kerry's campaign manifesto.

Such a lack of real substance is sadly typical of most campaign books, which seek to present an attractive picture of the candidate without providing too much detailed policy for opponents to attack. In this regard the book, like the candidate, is standard Washington issue.

Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun