Category: literature

Welcome to the NHK (Novel)

In his mostly autobiographical comic Disappearance Diary, Azuma Hideo notes that in order to maintain an optimistic outlook on life, he’d removed as much realism as possible from his book. Azuma’s dry humour and cartoony art style make what should be a depressing story about a man running away from his responsibilities and living homeless seem rather light-hearted and funny.

Author Takimoto Tatsuhiko, in the afterword to his novel Welcome to the NHK, notes that his book also has a fair amount of autobiography. NHK also has a depressing subject, a twenty-two year old college drop out living as a shut-in (Japanese: hikikimori). Like Disappearance Diary, there’s a dry sense of humour, but here it serves to sharpen, rather than dull, the story’s edge, and though well-written, that edge makes it a sometimes difficult book to read.…

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

Last summer, I decided to brush up my knowledge of Classical literature by reading a few Greek authors. Last week I decided to read The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is older by around a millenium, because I always like to go one step beyond.

I read Maureen Gallery Kovacs’s translation, and she provides a lot of supplementary material, including an introduction to the composition and history of the text, a glossary of proper names, many footnotes, and summaries of each “tablet.” The annotations and summaries come in handy, because as the introduction explains, much of the Epic is lost. In fact, Kovacs uses a few different versions of the Epic to fill in gaps in the “Standard Version.” Now, Kovacs’s translation was published in 1989, so perhaps newer editions have more of the work restored. Either way, though, these gaps generally do not create a serious obstacle to understanding. Kovacs is able to provide a probable description of what happens in the lacunae. More often they’re simply nuisances. For example, when Gilgamesh confronts the demon Humbaba, we get the initial threats, dialogue, and some of the action, but then suddenly Gilgamesh has captured Humbaba. How did he accomplish this, exactly? There’s no way to know.…

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More Bibliophilia

Though I haven’t mentioned it recently, I’ve long suffered from bibliophilia. I say ‘suffer’ because it is something of a disease. Though I do occasionally sell a handful of books, I buy far more than I sell, and significantly more than I can even read. I’ve got three completely full bookcases, have taken over a couple other shelves in other parts of the house, and also have a stack on my floor.

Lately, though, I have tried to buckle down and start getting through some of my backlog. So far, I’ve made some progress. Here’s a highlight reel:…

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Early January Highlight Reel – Books

My writing has slowed down lately, but that’s because holy crap have I been consuming a lot of media. Here are the highlights of what I’ve read in the last couple weeks:

Akira – by Otomo Katsuhiro. I wrote about this a couple posts back, and the remainder of the series did not disappoint. The artwork was excellent throughout, the story kept me on my toes, and the plot kept up a breakneck pace which made a set of very long books feel much shorter.

History of the English-Speaking Peoples – by Winston Churchill. I finished volume two, but don’t have three, which I’m afraid seems to have gone out of print in the edition I have (I have vols. 1, 2, and 4). I’ve long felt like I should improve my grasp of English history, and I’ve certainly done that. Churchill, for the most part, does a good job avoiding taking sides in his presentation, though he assumes that readers know their British geography, so I had to get out my atlas at a couple points.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces – by Joseph Campbell. Cripes, this was disappointing. Campbell asserts, but doesn’t really prove, that mythology and dream analysis are connected, and spends a large portion of the book discussing psychoanalysis and the similarity between the meaning of symbols found in dreams and the symbols of mythology. His idea of the “monomyth” is already so broad that it’s a bit suspect, but I could accept his outline of the archetypes that connect world mythologies. Adding in the psychoanalysis stuff was too much.

More than that, though, I object to some of his ideas about the importance of mythology. I’d agree that myths are important to society and that every culture has and needs them. I’d even say that men generally learn better allegorically than by reason. However, he also says, referring especially to Christianity, that it doesn’t particularly matter whether these myths are true, and that all religions and mythologies teach fundamentally the same things. Unless I misunderstood the point Campbell was making, the latter idea is plainly false. As for the former, though I agree that “mere” symbolism can be quite powerful, and a story needn’t be true to have meaning, surely a story is all the more powerful if it is literally true…

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Impressions of ‘The Iliad’

Just this afternoon I finally finished Homer’s The Iliad, translated by Robert Fitzgerald. “Finally,” partly because I should probably have read it years ago, and partly because it took me a solid two months to get through – slow going, even at the more relaxed reading pace I’ve adopted since graduating university.

So, I thought I’d share a few impressions from the epic. For one, like The Odyssey, it began in media res, in the ninth year of the Trojan War. Unlike The Odyssey, it also ended in media res. I thought that may happen as I neared the end, since there were several events I know happen during the war that there simply wasn’t room for in the volume I held, but I didn’t expect it to just… stop.

Akhileus struck me as mopier than I expected. One of the most famous heroes in Western literature spends the vast majority of the poem moping in his tent. I’ve heard enough synopses of The Iliad to know that Akhileus was a moody one, but I expected to see more of the poem’s best-known character. He did make up for it when he finally did emerge to fight, and seemingly single-handedly turned back the Trojan army.

If Akhileus came across as too moody for my taste, though, the other heroes carried the epic brilliantly. The poem is more action-heavy than I expected Рin fact, most of the book describes combat, and Homer spares no detail in describing who killed whom and how. Homer uses (and Fitzgerald translates) his language beautifully. His metaphors were always vivid, though perhaps a bit repetitive with some imagery. He describes men as  lions and cattle, for example, several times.

I also liked the multitude of speeches, though I did find it hard to imagine how some of these men found time to stand and talk during battle. I also noticed that apparently when a Greek wanted to propose something, he first had to set forward his credentials by giving his family history, and acknowledge the credentials of his fellows. An inefficient mode of speech, perhaps, but impressive nonetheless.

Overall, I really enjoyed the epic, though I do prefer The Odyssey. It’s something I needed to read eventually, but I’m always glad to read a classic and see immediately why it’s held in such high esteem.…

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I Still Have Too Many Books

It occured to me about a week ago that I didn’t have enough literature on my shelves. Though my bookshelves groan under the weight of my books, novels and poetry make up less than a third of them. Non-fiction makes up about a third, and the most represented genre are the graphic novels, though the number of volumes per series gives that contingent an unfair advantage.

Anyway, I wanted to read some good fiction or poetry, so off I went, and have set myself even more hopelessly behind in my reading backlog. I found good stuff, and for cheap too (they were all used), but I look at this list of books I got and despair. I list only those books I’ve purchased in the last seven days.

From Half-Price Books:

The Iliad, by Homer (trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh,

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

La Vita Nuova, by Dante (trans. Dante Gabriel Rossetti), which I just finished reading today, all 48 pages of it.

I had actually wanted to pick up Les Miserables, but HPB didn’t have any copies except for one abridged edition. They did have eight or nine copies of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, oddly enough.

I also picked up On Duties, by Cicero, while there.

From a neighbourhood garage sale:

Bullfinch’s Mythology, ed. Edmund Fuller

The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury

The Gulag Archipelago, by Solzhenitsyn again. I got One Day because it was shorter at HPB, but at garage sale prices I couldn’t resist. I also got a non-fiction book here, Searching for Your Ancestors, by Gilbert Doane.

From a local comic-book store:

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill.…

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On Learning Japanese

If any doubted it, let me clarify: learning a foreign language is a pain. Yet, I consider having a working knowledge of a second language essential for an educated person. So, for the last few years I’ve been attempting to learn Japanese.

Luckily, I was able to take two years of it at my university (one of the few educational benefits my school provided), so I do have a good feel for basic grammar and vocabulary. After graduation, though, I came upon the problem of expanding on and maintaining what I’ve learned. As anyone who’s taken a foreign language class knows, language is very much a ‘Use it or lose it’ proposition. Even over the course of summer break after year one, I lost enough that my reaction to seeing the next semester’s review was something like ‘It’s bloody Chinese!’

Anyway, half the endeavour depends on continuing to review daily. I’ve done pretty well with that. However, my learning has been haphazard at best. Mainly, I’ve just tried to read whatever I can get my hands on, often from or whatever random volumes happen to turn up at Half Price Books (like volume eight of Death Note, and volumes eleven and seventeen of Oh, My Goddess!). Yotsubato! is written at about my level, which makes me very happy. I can read Japanese better now than a year ago, but obviously that approach is generally slow and, again, haphazard.

So, for the sake of adding some kind of structure to my study, I bought a copy of James Heisig’s oft-recommended Remembering the Kanji. Mr. Heisig’s unique approach to learning kanji, the bane of every Japanese language student’s existence, involves focusing just on how to write the characters and remembering a single keyword meaning for the first two thousand or so kanji, then remembering complex kanji by creating mnemonic stories based on the simpler components many caracters are composed of. It sounds a bit gimmicky, but so far has worked very well for me (I’ve done the first 550 or so characters), especially coupled with the flash card programme Anki and the new official RtK iPhone app.

So, onward I go. Someday, someday, I’ll be able to read serious business Japanese literature. It’s a goal, at least.…

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I Have Too Many Books

…but I can’t stop buying the things. I’m like a crack addict or a hoarder when it comes to books (well, maybe not a hoarder). Literally, it can take months, even a few years, before I get to some of the books I buy.

In the past, I’ve always juggled multiple books at once. Typically, I’d have a couple things I was reading for a class, and at least one other for leisure on top of that, usually with the leisure reading taking priority, of course. Add to that graphic novels, which, fortunately, I can knock out quick enough that they don’t add to the backlog too much. Now, there’s no reason for me to do that, but for whatever reason I’m still juggling.

Anyway, enough of my eccentricities. Here’s what’s on the plate now:

A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Sir Winston Churchill. I have mixed feelings about Churchill as a leader, but I do like his writing. I’ve been wanting to get a better feel for English history, and the scope of this work (in four volumes) also appealed to me.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, trans. Ivan Morris. More Japanese stuff, this time from the Heian period. A collection of anecdotes, observations, lists, and whatnot from a court attendant. It’s best in small doses, but I’m impressed enough to consider renaming this blog ‘The Pillow Blog’, since my idea for ‘Everything is OK!’ seems similar to how Shonagon went about the Pillow Book.

Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas is my patron saint, and I’ve read many of the articles in the Summa before, but I’ve decided to finally read the whole thing. It’s an epic project, so I’m just going a few questions at a time.

Dragonball, Toriyama Akira. Popular series hurt my indie cred (*ahem*), but I liked the first volume and bought the box set, which came in a nice box with a poster, booklet, and all sixteen volumes. Seven volumes down, and so far I’d say DB deserves the popularity.

Ranma 1/2, Takahashi Rumiko. What’d I say about popular series? Well, I’ve really liked the first ten volumes, so whatever. The main criticism I’ve seen of Ranma 1/2 is that the jokes get very repetitive. There’s definitely a pattern to them so far, and there’s still over twenty volumes to go…

I’ve also just finished Economics for Helen, by Hilaire Belloc, which a friend of mine highly recommended. I’d also highly recommend it to anyone.…

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Mishima’s ‘Sun and Steel’

Mishima Yukio has quickly become one of my favourite authors. The hardest part of writing a post about him, though, is probably deciding just what to focus on, as he was tremendously prolific. In his 20-year career, he averaged at least one full novel a year, one full play a year, several short plays and short stories, as well as some essays and poems. I suppose the best place to start would be Sun and Steel, where he explains the philosophy and aesthetic that underlies his novels.

The central problem Mishima confronts is how to reconcile words, which I understand as analagous to mind or spirit, with the body, the physical world which does not depend on words and which words often cannot describe. The former he felt he mastered at a young age. After all, he made his living as a novelist, read widely, and was naturally introverted as a child.

The body he began to understand only gradually, through a handful of experiences. He relates how, as a child, he would watch religious processions of young men carrying mikoshi (portable shrines) through town, and noticed that they all looked up toward the sky as though experiencing an epiphany. He wondered what they saw and thought. Years later, he took part in such a procession, and as he felt the weight of the mikoshi on his shoulders and began marching in step with the other young men, he realised what they had all been thinking: nothing at all. They were merely gazing at the sun.

When I first read that story, it struck me as anticlimactic. However, I think it relates partly to an older Japanese tradition. Famed swordfighter Miyamoto Musashi noted (in his Book of the Five Rings) that a skilled warrior does not consciously plan his moves, but acts and reacts to an opponent by a kind of instinct. Miyamoto and Mishima refer to a kind of knowledge that does not rely on the intellect, and which words cannot quite adequately describe. While many philosophies (e.g., Confucianism) urge cultivation of the intellect, they often neglect this physical knowledge which, according to Mishima properly forms fully half of human experience.

So, to be a full man, one must cultivate both the body and the intellect. After a man’s gotten a library card and gym membership, though, what should he do next? Is there a way to reconcile these two types of knowledge? The question persists through several of his novels to varying extents. See, for example, Runaway Horses, the second book in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. The story takes place in pre-World War II Japan, and the protaganist, Iinuma Isao, has mastered control of his body through kendo, and has also kept his spirit completely pure. This purity leads him to decide that he must, somehow, serve the emperor by protecting him from the corrupted politicians and capitalists who control Japan. His purity gives him the will and his body gives him the ability to act, and his solution is to gather like-minded comrades and then assassinate certain key figures, then commit suicide after accomplishing that mission. They hoped that their own dramatic action would inspire the rest of the nation to demand a restoration of imperial authority.

One could also relate this, of course, to Mishima’s own decision to commit suicide, and in spectacular fashion at that. Along with a few followers, he took over a military office, demanded the restoration of imperial power, and then committed suicide. His inspiration came from words, his action from the body.


(image taken from Wikimedia Commons)

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Summer Reading List 2010

I wonder a bit at the utility of making a Summer Reading List. Last year, though I read a lot, what I read only about half resembled the list. Perhaps such an activity is less about a plan than a general goal: “I want to read roughly this amount, and what I read will likely include several of the following.”

Alternatively, making lists is just fun. So, here goes.

Paradiso – Dante (trans. Allen Mandelbaum). I’ve already started this one, actually. Having finished and greatly enjoyed Inferno and Purgatorio, Paradiso is obligatory. Reading a parallel-text edition only makes it more fun.

Spring Snow РYukio Mishima (trans.  Michael Gallagher).

The Cantos – Ezra Pound.

The Pillow Book – Sei Shounagon (trans. Ivan Morris).

Caritas in Veritate – Pope Benedict XVI. Actually, I intend to read several papal encyclicals, but this is the largest of them, and my highest priority.

A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy – ed. Wing-Tsit Chan. I’m mostly interested in the Confucians, but it should be an enjoyable book.

I also plan on reading several comics, but I tend to choose those even more arbitrarily than prose. Series I’ve already started and will finish, though, include Masami Tsuda’s Kare Kano, and Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack and Ode to Kirihito.…

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