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"Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells" by Pico Iyer

"Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells" by Pico Iyer (Knopf)

"Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells" by Pico Iyer; Knopf (231 pages, $25.95)

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Thirty years ago, travel writer Pico Iyer went to Japan seeking a life of solitude, a copy of Thoreau in his suitcase. "I went to Japan to learn how to live with less hurry and fear of time," he writes, "Walden"-style. To live simply and alone.

What he found was an endlessly fascinating culture perpetually at the crossroads of ancient and now. He also found a wife, and he ended up moving to Japan permanently, splitting his year between California and the sleepy Japanese town of Nara, where "I take my watch off the minute I arrive."

"Autumn Light" is Iyer's late-life accounting of what's been learned from this experiment of a lifetime, and autumn is an apt metaphor. The universal season of transition and mortality is a truly spectacular experience in Japan, and the book is a sensory feast alive with blaze-red maples, "yuzu-colored" light, haunting temple bells, smoke from fires lighting the paths of the spirit world and the firefly-like winking of lantern-lit graveyards.

His insights, shared via broad journal-like observations about the Japanese, or through more personal stories of love and loss, center on the wisdom and grace - and difficulty - of accepting the reality of impermanence: "Dying is the art we have to master ... not death."

It's likely no coincidence that this book hits the shelves in spring, when all is born again. The potent, passing beauty of autumn in Japan sends a clear message to embrace each new day as there is no time to waste. The leaves "teach us how to die," Iyer says, quoting the master, Thoreau, from his deathbed as he prepared what would be his last lecture, "Autumn Tints."

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