Book Reviews

East Wind Melts the Ice: A Memoir through the Seasons by Lisa Dalby

University of California Press, USA; Vintage Books, UK

Liza Dalby, the author of Geisha, has written a beautiful book, a major departure from the other books she has published. This book is beautiful in many ways. It is wonderully designed, it feels good to hold, it is printed on beautiful paper, the fonts are well chosen to complement the texts, and the illustrations and symbols are subtle, but most of all, it is written in lyrical prose that has a meditative quality. You get it. I love this book! Here’s why…

East Wind Melts the Ice is a series of expressions that reflect ancient Chinese and Japanese cultures. It’s also a contemplation on gardening and the four seasons. The Chinese divided the year into 72 stages with a name for each of the five-day units. For example, "east wind melts the ice" is the first unit at the beginning of spring; "little frogs peep" indicates the beginning of summer. Fall starts as "cool wind arrives" and winter when "water begins to freeze." Included are diagrams on how the Chinese ritual year is divided. From a gardener’s perspective, it all makes total sense. The Japanese also pay a great deal of attention to the detail of the seasons and the natural world. As Dalby points out, "the entire Japanese poetic tradition is grounded in the observance of the passing of the seasons…" So here we have a book that covers three specific aspects: ancient Chinese and Japanese cultures and a North American sensibility towards the natural world.

As a gardener and a Japanese scholar, Liza Dalby writes an astonishing diary and memoir based in these somewhat esoteric cultural references. Each chapter begins with the name of the natural divisions of the Chinese ritual year with a brief explanation, followed by a journal-style essay written in clean, clear prose. Essay is perhaps not the correct word to use here; rather it fits in to the Japanese word saijiki which means a year’s journal. The book is also written in the zuihitsu-style, which in Japanese means following one’s inspiration and taking it where it leads rather than reaching a conclusion to an idea, which is what we generally expect from an essay.

Spiced throughout with lovely and relevant haiku and other wonderful poems by some of the ancient masters, the book, which looks so simple on first glance, is a complex and rich cultural history. In many ways it’s a union of realism and poetry and reveals an elegance of literary style. It’s a bit like a modern On Walden Pond with a wider reach.

Dalby is a bit of an eccentric character. She is forthright but graceful in her telling of her life as writer, scholar, wife and mother. The stories she tells are often funny, sometimes poignant, but eminently readable. In East Wind Melts the Ice, Liza Dalby is not heavy handed; she makes us realize, in the gentlest way, that sometimes we need to stop and be more contemplative about nature. This is a compulsive and timeless read and would make a wonderful gift for any reader, although gardeners will likely hold it in a special place.

Reviewed by Alma Lee