A Year in Search of Wa

Karin Muller

Rodale: 308 pp. $23.95

AT 21, sighs Karin Muller, her career was "already starting to look like the scurrying tracks of a plover being chased by the waves." She joined the Peace Corps, worked for a consulting firm, started her own company, then shucked it all for eight years to travel around the world.

By 34, Muller found herself back in Washington, D.C., working on a National Geographic documentary and studying judo. "I learned six languages and forgot three," she writes ruefully in her new book, "Japanland."

Muller's interest in judo, which "lasted longer than any boyfriend," inspired her to live in Japan. Her instructors made it clear that "you would never master the sport until you understood the philosophy behind it. And for that, they told me, you have to understand Japan," to understand the principles of "focus," "harmony" and "wa."

What makes "Japanland" unusual is Muller's refusal to romanticize Japanese culture and traditions, particularly certain aspects of women's lives, such as the "sell-by" date that seems to be stamped on women's heads ("a product that plummets in value if not sold by the twenty-fifth") or the power of shame that keeps them isolated.

In the end, however, the author comes to see conformity to the system as "a sign of great inner strength." "Commit!" says an ancient sensei, her judo teacher, after throwing her on the ground with the force of a "ten-ton truck at forty miles per hour." "Believe."


In Case We're Separated

Connected Stories

Alice Mattison

William Morrow: 230 pp., $23.95

ALICE MATTISON writes well about secrets, the kind that are kept for generations despite dedicated, relentless prying by friends and family. As a young writer, she was the undisputed queen of wackiness, but with "In Case We're Separated," Mattison has matured into the kind of writer that makes you laugh nervously.

The first of these 13 stories, beginning in 1954 Brooklyn with a determined but slightly naive young woman named Bobbie Kaplowitz, branches out into the others, pieces of a puzzle, each an explanation, each describing a sinew that holds this extended family together.

You will choose your own favorite character and wait for his or her appearances throughout, but my favorite is Lillian, sister of Ruth. Lillian has always wanted to kill herself but has never succeeded: "Figuring out a good way to die," she says in typical Mattison style, "is like using the q on a Triple Word Score."


What Happened Here

Bush Chronicles

Eliot Weinberger

New Directions: 184 pp., $13.95 paper

IN "What Happened Here," Eliot Weinberger writes that "George W. Bush is the least qualified person ever to become President."

"He does not read books, go to the movies, watch television, or listen to music of any kind," the author and journalist writes in this collection of essays from the days, weeks, months and years following Sept. 11. One essay was written on Sept. 12, 2001, from Weinberger's apartment a mile north of the World Trade Centers. Another was written four weeks later, when the United States bombed Afghanistan, and another when 150,000 U.S. troops invaded Iraq.

Bush doesn't travel, Weinberger goes on; he takes naps and always carries his "beloved" pillow with him. He eats peanut butter sandwiches and plays Video Golf.

Weinberger's incredulity continues and provides, in many ways, the lightest note in a highly critical collection written to appall and awaken his readers.

In "Republicans: A Prose Poem," Weinberger contends that "Mickey Mouse is a Republican," that "Republicans like large bombs," even that "Republicans do not like children."

"Republicans like ice cream" but only, he stipulates, if it is not made by Ben & Jerry's.

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