New York Times Book Review

May 13, 2007

 Brief Histories of Time

Dana Goodyear


A Memoir Through the Seasons.

By Liza Dalby.

Illustrated. 318 pp. University of California Press. $24.95.

In Berkeley, Calif., where Liza Dalby lives, the traditional notion of four seasons, each constituting a quarter of the year, is falsified daily. Dalby is an anthropologist — her first book chronicled her experience, in the mid-1970s, inside the “flower and willow world” of the Kyoto geisha (remarkably, she became one herself) — and here she adapts an ancient Chinese almanac whose division of the year into 72 five-day periods has influenced not only the Japanese concept of time but also her own. In 72 short essays, with lowercase titles like “dormant creatures start to twitch,” “chrysanthemums are tinged yellow” and “magpies nest,” Dalby meditates on the changes under way in her garden, tells stories from her years in the field and contemplates etymologies and linguistic puzzles.

Dalby, by her own description, cuts an eccentric figure. To attend a conference in honor of a new translation of “The Tale of Genji” by the 11th-century author Murasaki Shikibu, about whom Dalby has written her own novel, she dyes her dark-brown hair purple because “murasaki” is the word for that color in Japanese. When she tours for the novel, she stains her teeth black, the fashion in Shikibu’s day. She reveals herself to be a keeper of crickets and pugs and canaries, and a person who once left a bottle of Chanel No. 5 at Shikibu’s grave. When she makes plans with a friend, it isn’t for, say, the 20th of March but “the day of the spring equinox.” Confusion ensues.

As a writer, Dalby makes similarly improbable and attention-getting choices. “I would rather skin a dead raccoon than shove a sharp hook up the anus of a pitifully thrashing Lumbricus terrestris,” she writes, when what she means to communicate is that she dislikes using worms when she’s fishing. Which is not to say that she doesn’t occasionally practice home taxidermy with pleasure. “Nothing in the world is as soft as mole fur,” she writes. “Venetian silk velvet perhaps comes closest. I take a sharp knife and skin the pelts off the tiny bodies of the moles murdered by the cats.”

Anthropologists, Dalby notes, don’t usually spend much time with the literature of their subject culture. She is an exception, frequently referring to Matsuo Basho’s haiku and Sei Shonagon’s “Pillow Book,” and even writing poems of her own. In one endearing episode, she describes the struggle to keep up her end of a correspondence in classical poetry with a professor of Heian architecture and culture. She triumphs by punning flatteringly on the professor’s last name.

The impulse to pun, perfectly fitting in that context, strikes Dalby perplexingly often; it’s unfortunate that these gags, perhaps left over from the essays she wrote in Japanese on the same subjects, weren’t left untranslated. It deflates a reader’s mood to finish a well-wrought piece about goldfish and koi and the hazards of keeping fish in the garden and arrive at the sentence “Raccoons may be clever, but the goldfish remain coy.”

The structure of the almanac supports the eclecticism of Dalby’s interests. She triangulates among the cultures and weathers of Berkeley, China and Japan, and presents a wealth of information: antlers, signifying fertility, were an essential part of an upper-class Chinese woman’s trousseau; inari sushi, named for the fox spirit, Inari, is made from rice tucked into deep-fried, marinated tofu skins that resemble fox ears; “a swallow nesting on a curtain” is a way, in both Chinese and Japanese, of expressing instability. Throughout, she demonstrates a principle well known to literary scavengers: one culture’s givens and clichés are another’s poetry.

Dana Goodyear is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “Honey and Junk,” a collection of poems.