When Stone Bridge Press publicist Michael Palmer sent me the advance ready copy of The Fourth String, he told me it wasn't quite like the other books he has sent me in the past, and he wasn't sure it was my cup of tea, but that I would find it interesting.
I've only communicated with Michael via e-mail for maybe 4+ years, and while I do know something about his personal life, he knows me quite well from having read my blog... though I should temper that by stating that when I write about myself in this blog, I am writing about myself 25 years ago through my present-day eye.
Time, like my vision, sometimes gets blurry.
The Fourth String - from the outside, is about a young American woman teaching English in Japan and somehow finds herself taking shamisen lessons.
A shamisen, looks like a three-string slender, long-necked guitar, and is one of those old, Japanese instruments that has seemingly never evolved along with its never-evolving music.
The American woman is the book's author Janet Pocorobba, and yes, when I read the whole title of the book: The Fourth String - A Memoir of Sensei and Me, I was a bit worried that I was going to find the book boring.
Fourth string? A Shamisen has three... oh... so is she, Janet, feeling like a spare wheel... an extra string?
Been there. In fact, every foreigner to Japan who has lived in the country probably has to some extent. This book examines how Janet fits or doesn't fit into that mold.
For reference, I taught piano and clarinet, and can play any brass, woodwind or keyboard instrument tossed in front of me. I prefer the baritone saxophone, but am better on the clarinet. The baritone sax had always appeared to me to be a more manly instrument than the tiny clarinet, but through wiser eyes, I see that that was a stupid thing to have thought when I was a teenager.
My uncle Harold, he was the conductor of the New Delhi Symphony and the Indian Army, and was a collector of folk songs of India, along with having composed his own folk songs, a few of which I suppose I own the copyright to.
My uncle was one of those rare, interesting people who can feel music. I never could. It was just notes I read on a piece of paper that I could convert into a semblance of noise.
|An example of a singer (left) and shamisen musician - notice the sitting position, the huge yellow "pick", the costuming... it's all part of playing this instrument. Photo by https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Rdsmith4|
It was Janet's love story with Japan.
That's what my blog is about... especially those times I write about my personal past in Japan.
Janet also talks about her interpersonal love affairs with other people, I did, too. My descriptions may have been more intimate in detail, but different strokes...
Then again, Janet's love affairs were much different from my own.
While there were men, Janet's love affair revolves around her shamisen teacher (called Sensei throughout the book), the love of cultural Japanese music (the shamisen, taiko drums, dance), the Japanese culture (tabi socks, kimono, the language, etc.), and surprisingly, herself... or maybe its a hate for herself. On occasion.
Janet is a wonderful writer. She drew me right in and held me there... and I found that the more I read, the more I wanted to read, and the more I wanted to find out how her story in Japan ended.
I know how mine did - not with a bang, but a whimper... and yes, I did find out how her story ends, and let me tell you... I'm not telling you a damn thing. Suffice to say that endings for love stories are never as fulfilling as you hope they will be. Things end... or rather, things change.
The Fourth String - A Memoir of Sensei and Me is quite a good read. The Japanese is not over-used, and when present, it is explained or at least defined.
I did find one error in the book - something about when Admiral Perry arrived in Japan, but as the author says, the mistakes are her own... and we've all been there. No big whoop. No one who is writing a dissertation on Admiral Perry is getting information from this book.
Janet describes the shamisen as often having a life of its own... implying it is a difficult beast to tame... and despite her best intentions, she and the shamisen appear to have an agreement with one another... and taming it doesn't seem to be part of the equation. Sorta.
When I took of kyudo (Japanese archery), I could probably have picked up the bow, slotted and arrow and fired the damn thing into a target's center without too much difficulty. But to actually perform kyudo is to perform it under a strict set of rules that can not be buggered with... if you don't hold the arrow a certain way in your hand before slotting it, or walk to your place of action properly, then you have failed to perform the ritual that is kyudo - even if you bury the arrow right in the center of the target.
It's not about hitting the target. It's about all the little things that make it a Japanese thing.
|1870s-era geisha playing the shamisen.|
We ask why? Japan has no answer for that, just an explanation that this is the way it is.
This is Janet's discovery of that - and much more. But ultimately, it's Janet no longer asking why, but just doing.
She did quite well.
I heartily recommend you buy a copy of The Fourth String - A Memoir of Sensei And Me written by Janet Pocorobba and published by Stone Bridge Press. The book is 224 pages in total, is a paperback, and will be on sale March 12, 2019 for US$16.95.
In the book, Janet thanks the coolest publicist ever, Michael Palmer, so let me do the same. Thanks for allowing me to read this book, Michael. Let me know when you are in town.