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Japan: A Traveler’s Literary Companion

Wearing straw sandals, a land surveyor foots through a forest near the towering Mt. Bandai. He passes mountain hamlets and bamboo meadows. Sometimes the ground seems to ripple with movement. He encounters a mysterious old woman who chants: Go Back. Go Back. You will be in danger. But the man continues his journey toward his fate.

The surveyor is a fictional character in a tale about the historic 1888 volcanic eruption of Mt. Bandai. It’s one of the stories collected in Japan: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press), which illuminates the beauty and mysteries of the country’s major geographical regions through the translated works of popular Japanese authors.

J. Thomas Rimer, a Pitt professor emeritus of Japanese literature, theater, and art, is one of the book’s two editors. He, too, has traveled at the foot of Mt. Bandai on Honshu, Japan’s largest island. Rimer backpacked through the region about 35 years ago, or, as he jokes, “when I had hair.”

On his morning hikes, fog misted over the pristine alpine lakes. He passed remote farmhouses, walked along open meadows, and encountered many local characters on his own journey of cross-cultural understanding. Readers, too, will find new facets of this world.
—Cara J. Hayden

Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate

Behind the counter of a hotel in Yellowstone National Park, a clerk toils efficiently. He answers the phone, makes reservations on the computer, and checks visitors in and out.

To break the monotony of routine tasks, he converses with as many tourists as possible.

The clerk is Michael D. Yates, a longtime economics professor at the Pitt-Johnstown campus. When he chose early retirement, Yates (A&S ’76G) and his wife, Karen, gave away most of their possessions and built a new life of perpetual travel in blue-collar style.

Living primarily out of a Dodge minivan, the two stayed at inexpensive motels, worked at low-paying jobs, and pursued authentic American experiences in the country’s small towns, cities, and national parks.

Along the way, Yates wrote Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue (Monthly Review Press), which offers perspectives on socioeconomic inequality, environmental destruction, and political folly as the author brings his economist’s eye to his own newfound experiences. Yates’ on-the-road observations create a grassroots view of the divide between the nation’s haves and have-nots.

The couple is still on the road, and Yates offers this travel advice: “Don’t just be an ordinary tourist.” There’s a lot more to notice beyond typical sightseeing.
—Audra Sorman (A&S ’07)

American Poetry Now

Near the stacks in a West Virginia library, author Ed Ochester sits among a rapt, elderly crowd. They’re all listening to an author read poems aloud. Most of those in the audience are regular folks without much, if any, literary training. Some probably are here at this reading just to get out of the house. But they clap loudly after the final stanza. One gray-haired gent leans over to Ochester and hoots, “I never read poetry, but this is wonderful!”

Ochester encounters enthusiastic responses again and again at readings, whether from a dozen students at a neighborhood cafe or hundreds of people at poetry gatherings. A poet, Pitt professor emeritus of English, and former director of the English department’s writing program, Ochester believes that readers, too, will feel the same potent connection with poems from an anthology he edited, American Poetry Now (University of Pittsburgh Press). The works are drawn from the prestigious Pitt Poetry Series, which is
celebrating its 40th anniversary and Ochester’s 30th year of editorship.

“For those who think they don’t like poetry or think they know what poetry is, they might spend some time taking a look at this anthology,” says Ochester, who expects that the book’s diverse cross-section of contemporary poems will widen many people’s poetic horizons. Readers might just be hootin’, too.
—Paul Ruggiero

Stealing History

Julie Williamson is the new director of a Maine historical society and museum. One of her first tasks is to appraise a letter signed in a scrawled, looping hand by Abraham Lincoln. The inventory card reads: “very valuable; locked in vault.” She gently removes the “L” box from the vault. She barely breathes as she leafs through pages of history. Her eyes scan each document. No Lincoln signature. She checks and rechecks the box—the letter is missing. Her heart sinks.

Initially, the young museum director is privy only to the unsettling reality that she’s facing a setback at her new job. She nervously flicks her red hair and considers her options. She suspects the letter was stolen. Who else has access to the vault? It’s impossible to ignore the suspicious behavior of the museum’s eccentric trustees.

Williamson is the fictional heroine of William D. Andrews’ novel Stealing History (Islandport Press). The author is a former president of Westbrook College in Portland, Me., and a past trustee of the Bethel Historical Society in Maine. Andrews (A&S ’66) drew inspiration for his book from real-life thefts that targeted historical societies throughout New England. Like many thrillers, the novel entails mystery...and murder.

Days of Valor

Braced against a burned-out military tank, a captain shouts orders. He and his troops are locked in a night battle near Ho Nai village in Vietnam. He can see the enemy in the distance, aglow in the eerie light cast by grenade-sparked fires. Suddenly, an enemy soldier pops out of the brush and shoots a round from his machine gun. As the captain and his men dive for cover, bullets ricochet off the armored tank.

Robert Tonsetic (A&S ’64) documents that battle—part of the 1968 Tet Offensive—and others in his book Days of Valor (Casemate), subtitled “an inside account of the bloodiest six months of the Vietnam war.” He describes the action from his own experiences, along with insights from military reports and interviews with fellow soldiers who fought with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, a temporary, fast-action response force created from three pedigreed infantry battalions. Its work done, the 199th was deactivated as a unit in 1970, tallying a loss of 754 soldiers killed and nearly 5,000 wounded.

Tonsetic wasn’t hit when that enemy soldier fired on him at close range. Even today, he feels lucky, and he’s grateful to be able to tell the stories of a heroic, vanished brigade.
—David Perkins (CGS ’02)

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