Category: 75 Book Challenge 2015

Saint Paul (75 Books LVIII)

In 2008 and 2009 Pope Benedict XVI devoted a series of General Audiences to discussing St. Paul, which have been collected in this book titled, with admirable straightforwardness, Saint Paul. Over the course of twenty chapters he gives an overview of the Apostle’s life and teaching.

Pope Benedict has a reputation for having a professorial demeanour, and it’s easy to understand why when reading this. Much of the book reads like a good university lecture, and for a short book aimed at a wide audience His Holiness spends a fair amount of time discussing the background of St. Paul’s life, cross-referencing scripture, and even includes some etymology. Though he does attempt to make this material “relatable,” it’s clear that he doesn’t just want to give a motivational speech, but actually wants to teach the reader something. Even the tone of the book reminds me of some of my better professors, raising and answering questions and introducing each topic like a class.

The main problem with the book is that it’s too short to go into much detail. In each chapter, His Holiness is only able to sketch out the topic at hand, so those wanting an in-depth discussion of St. Paul’s writing will have to look elsewhere.…

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Joan (75 Books LV – LVII)

Now we move on to an older, shorter work from the mid-1990’s by Yasuhiko Yoshikazu, Joan. It’s a work of historical fiction, about a young woman named Emil who’d been raised as a man near the end of the Hundred Years War, who sees visions of Joan of Arc urging her to follow in her footsteps and serve the French king. I can’t say how historically accurate the work is overall, aside from the fictional Emil, but the last volume includes a short essay by Chojun Otani, a scholar of French literature, who says that Yasuhiko came to him for help in his research, so he’d apparently made at least some effort in keeping the work as accurate as the story allows.

In any case, the story gets off to a slow start, as Yasuhiko spends a lot of the first volume setting up backstory and just getting Emil into the king’s army. Once it gets going, though, it’s very good. As in Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, he does an excellent job quickly establishing each character’s personality and motives, which is important in a work that’s only three volumes long. Though Emil is the protagonist, St. Joan does the most to advance the story. It’s Emil’s visions of her that motivate almost everything she does, and Emil’s resemblance to Joan tends to remind everyone she meets about their own relationship with her. Yasuhiko takes an interesting approach, really – like many people, the artist is clearly fascinated and inspired by Joan’s life, so one could easily see him just writing a work about Joan herself. Instead, he takes an indirect route, and besides Emil’s visions we get to know the saint entirely by second-hand accounts. Though unusual, this method was very effective; somehow, there’s a feeling of loss from every character so powerful that by the end, I started admiring Joan myself, even though she only appears a few times.

The events of the plot occasionally feel disconnected from each other. In particular, most of the second volume, adding up to a large part of the whole work, focuses on Gilles de Rais. He is a fascinating character and fits right in thematically, but the overall story and Emil’s development would hardly change at all if this part were radically shortened or, perhaps, even excised entirely.

I mentioned in my reviews of Gundam: The Origin that Yasuhiko’s art is excellent, especially the watercolour pages. I was pleasantly surprised to find, then, that the entirety of Joan is in colour, which is unusual for Japanese comics. As in Origin, many pages have a dominant colour, while certain characters or some other focal point will be a strong contrasting colour. 

Joan is out of print, since it was published by the now-defunct ComicsOne. It doesn’t seem too hard to find online, though you should definitely check the condition. My copies looked worn and the second volume’s spine detached while I was reading it, even though they didn’t seem too roughly handled. That said, it’s well worth checking out.…

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Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin v. 8-10 (75 Books LII – LIV)

So, I’ve already talked about Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin twice before, so I think I just have a few things to add. The eighth volume does pick up where the fourth left off, having finished Char and Sayla’s backstory. Yasuhiko Yoshikazu’s art is still excellent, and I especially like the colour pages with the watercolours. He also continues to be very good at characterising Gundam‘s large cast, even those who are only around for a chapter or two.

I will say that reading almost all of this comic in the same year was the right move, even though I hadn’t planned to do it that way. I always have a hard time following serialised work, whether as it updates or via the compilation volumes like these. When so much time passes between relatively short updates in the story, the pacing gets completely screwed, and one tends to forget events and characters from early parts in the story, which also makes it more difficult to tie together any themes or motifs that the author may have intended. The last volume comes out in December, so I may well finish the series this year.

On a side note, each volume features a short essay or comic by a special contributor, where the writer or artist talks about what Gundam or Yasuhiko’s works generally mean to him. For the ninth volume, this was done by Shinkai Makoto, the director of Voices of a Distant Star, 5 Centimeters per Second, etc. If you know anything about Shinkai’s work, you expect him to talk about clouds, and he does not disappoint – most of his essay gushes over Yasuhiko’s landscapes with a special mention of “the intricate expressions of the clouds.”

Anyway, the series is a fairly significant investment, with twelve volumes at about $20 and change each. However, Vertical’s editions are excellently done, and so far this has been one of the best comics I’ve ever read and worth every dollar.…

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Leviathan (75 Books – LI)

I’ve found that a strong majority of books reputed to be classics do indeed live up to their reputation, both in fiction and non-fiction. Once in a while, though, I’ll finish one and think, “That’s it?” Unfortunately, that was my reaction to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan.

Now, I’ll be conservative in judging the book. It could be that I’m the problem – intellectual hubris is one of modernity’s characteristic vices, and I don’t want to fall into that if I can help it. Besides, the book certainly does have some good material. For example, while discussing things that harm a commonwealth, Hobbes compares the idea of dividing sovereignty among multiple branches to a Siamese twin, which is an apt analogy. Elsewhere, he writes that “Leasure is the mother of Philosophy; and Common-wealth, the mother of Peace, and Leasure. Where first were great and flourishing Cities, there was first the study of Philosophy.” The best artistic and intellectual work has often been done or sponsored by those with leisure, i.e. the nobility. Furthermore, the advance of philosophy depends upon peace, which seems like an obvious point but moderns often shy away from measures that help ensure peace and take civilisation for granted.

However, Leviathan does have some problems. It seems far too wide-ranging, for one thing. The most famous portion of the work is that on civil government, but this is only the middle part. Before that Hobbes discusses the senses, the nature of language, memory, and other topics that seem rather too basic as a starting-point. The last part concerns “a Christian Common-wealth,” and is essentially a work of theology or moral philosophy, and a good deal of Protestant apologetics. He spends most of one chapter, for example, attempting to refute a work by St. Robert Bellarmine on papal authority, though since I haven’t read the book in question I don’t know if he succeeded or not. His arguments in this part vary widely in quality, but frankly a course in Protestant theology is not at all what I signed up for, so to speak, though I’ll admit that may be unfair on my part.

I read the edition published by Cambridge University Press and edited by Richard Tuck. CUP’s books tend to be about as nice as paperbacks come, plain covers aside, and I appreciate that it retained Hobbes’s spelling and marginal notes, which serve essentially as a running outline of the work. Tuck also provides a helpful introduction and footnotes that point out variances in the early editions of Leviathan, though these tend to be so minor that only the most devoted students will likely be interested.

Should one read Leviathan, then? It’s hard to say “no,” simply because the work is so well-known and respected that anyone who takes political science seriously ought to have some familiarity with it. For myself, I found Sir Robert Filmer’s short commentary on Leviathan more interesting than the original work, as Filmer strikes at Hobbes’s first principles and assumptions. In any case, go ahead and give it a read, then check out Filmer afterward.…

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Muscle Up (75 Books – L)

I recently started working out again, so I picked up the recently released e-book Muscle Up!, written by P.D. Mangan, who runs the blog Rogue Health and Fitness. The book primarily covers the benefits of strength training in itself and in comparison to aerobic exercises like running, and includes some tips on how to go about setting up a workout routine and answering some common beginner’s questions.

Mangan begins with some observations on how people often go about exercise, i.e. most don’t seem to take it as seriously as they should. “If you’re not grunting and groaning,” he writes, “or at least actively stifling your desire to do so – you’re not training hard enough.” He then spends the next several chapters on why one should work harder, and the specific benefits of weightlifting – it decreases one’s risk of getting cancer, improves cardiovascular and metabolic health, fights aging, and increases testosterone in men.

Interestingly, aerobic exercise isn’t enough for many of these benefits, and he devotes an entire chapter to the drawbacks of aerobic exercises. Surprisingly to me, running is more likely to result in injury than weightlifting, though a moment’s thought gives some clues as to why. E.g., the constant pounding on one’s joints when running tends to break them down, whereas lifting weights, especially if one makes sure to use good form and doesn’t try to lift too much weight, is fairly safe. Of course, this is aside from hazards like traffic and stray dogs that any runner, myself included, has had to contend with.

The penultimate chapter addresses high intensity training, which does have benefits comparable to strength training. Finally, the last chapter gives advice on how to begin a strength training program. For those who’ve already decided to start weightlifting, which is likely most of the book’s audience, this chapter is probably the most useful.

Mangan’s writing style is clear and straightforward; he includes a lot of references to scholarly research, but does a good job explaining and summarising the main points of the papers he cites. My one nitpick is that he can get a little repetitive, but that’s very much a minor flaw. In any case, the book was helpful enough that I’ll probably check out some of Mangan’s other work.…

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The Consolation of Philosophy (75 Books – XLIX)

The Consolation of Philosophy is one of those books that’s difficult to discuss without doing a full analysis, so I’ll be a lot briefer than the book deserves. Boethius covers the problem of evil, the nature of happiness, and a couple related topics, in the form of a dialogue in prison between himself and Lady Philosophy. It does have some more poignancy than most works of philosophy, because Boethius was in fact in prison awaiting trial for an alleged crime of treason, of which he was innocent, while writing the book. Boethius and Lady Philosophy also end or begin each part of the book with poetry, which no other philosopher I’m aware of does and which adds some aesthetic value, though strictly speaking the poetry didn’t seem necessary on my first read-through.

The dialogue reminds me of Plato’s Republic, and the method of Lady Philosophy’s discussion is similar to Socrates in that she will often question Boethius and draw out ideas, or at least starting points, from him. Boethius is more direct than Plato, though, as Philosophy tends to lay out a logical case for the point under discussion in a more-or-less direct fashion after Boethius’s initial answers to her questions.

I read the e-book edition published by Ignatius and translated by Scott Goins and Barbara Wyman. I can’t vouch for the accuracy, of course, but the English was easy to follow and about as natural as a philosophical dialogue can sound. The poetry, though not bad, struck me as a bit plain. However, that may just be carried over from the original, and may have simply been a stylistic choice.

In any case, the book is, of course, a must-read for anyone interested in the subject, and one can easily see why Boethius was so respected for centuries after his death.…

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Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited (75 Books – XLVIII)

When reviewing Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets, I mentioned that although it’s a good book and well worth reading, Jones did not go into a lot of detail, but focused on the big picture and a handful of people and dramatic events. Those who enjoy getting into the nitty-gritty of archaeology, academic studies, and the like, though, will appreciate this book on medieval history, Emmet Scott’s Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited.

Scott examines the question of what, exactly, terminated Classical, Roman civilisation. Though the fall of the Western Roman Empire is typically dated at 474, it’s not clear when Classical civilisation gave way to what we would recognise as Medieval Europe. The standard view has been that it was a slow decline into the Dark Ages brought about by the Barbarian invasions in the centuries leading up to 474 or so, but Scott defends and updates a theory put forward by Henri Pirenne in his 1937 book Mohammed & Charlemagne, that Classical Civilisation continued until it was quickly destroyed by the Moslem conquests in the early-mid Seventh Century.

Scott spends much of the book examining archaeological evidence that indicates that recognisably Roman architecture and lifestyles continued throughout most of what had been Roman lands up to the Moslem invasions of the Near East, North Africa, and Spain. Rather than destroying Latin culture, the Germanic barbarian invaders had apparently been largely absorbed into it. This is why, for example, Spanish, French, and other Romance languages have little trace of Germanic syntax, whereas English, from one of the few places where Classical civilisation was undone by invading barbarians, is a Germanic language.

Now, the Arabs are often credited with preserving much of Greek philosophy and learning, but Scott demonstrates that men in the so-called “Dark Ages” actually were familiar with the Classics. They were only lost in Europe after the Arab conquest of Egypt, which was the major source of papyrus that Western scribes used, and Arab piracy and slave-raiding made much of the Mediterranean effectively uninhabitable and inhospitable to trade. Scott writes, “even the short periods of official peace [from Arab wars of conquest] were disturbed by the ‘unofficial’ activities of privateers and slave-traders. For centuries, Muslim pirates based in North Africa made large parts of the Mediterranean shore-line uninhabitable, and it is estimated that between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries alone they captured and enslaved something in excess of a million Europeans.”

As for the fate of the Classics in Moslem lands, Scott is not impressed by their supposed respect for learning. He points out that many of the scholars active in Moslem countries were not themselves Moslem, but Christians and Jews living under Moslem rule. Furthermore, while they did preserve and foster a good deal of science, they were only interested in fields with practical applications, like medicine or physics. Scott is very harsh in his judgement, writing, “the very fact that knowledge has to plead its usefulness in order to be permitted to survive at all speaks volumes in itself. Is not this an infallible mark of barbarism? And we should note that even the utilitarian learning which the earliest Caliphs fostered was soon to be snuffed out under the weight of an Islamic theocracy (promulgated by Al-Ghazali in the eleventh century) which regarded the very concept of scientific laws as an affront to Allah and an infringement of his freedom to act.”

Scott does a fine job presenting all of his evidence in an approachable manner, without ever dumbing-down or oversimplifying things for a popular audience. If you’ve any interest at all in this period of history, I’d highly recommend checking it out.…

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Battle Angel Alita: Last Order Omnibus 3-5 (75 Books – XLV-XLVII)

I was a fan of Kishiro Yukito’s original Battle Angel Alita, which I finished at about the time the omnibus edition of the sequel, Battle Angel Alita: Last Order began, but I fell behind on the Last Order release for a long time. However, I figured there’s no better time to knock out a few graphic novels in a row than when you’re supposed to read seventy-five books in a year and it’s September and you’ve only got forty-three.

Anyway, as much as I liked the original, I’m not a big fan of this one, and during the fourth omnibus volume, which is entirely taken up by extremely long backstory material, considered dropping it. It’s not a bad comic, really. The art is still solid, the action is still very enjoyable, and I like most of the characters. However, Kishiro is very self-indulgent now. So, he’ll do things like switching to a cartoony, almost chibi art style in the middle of an otherwise serious scene, give Alita a cat’s tail for no reason that I can discern, and though the original had plenty of over-the-top character designs and some silly moments, he really takes these up to eleven in these volumes. These things can be enjoyable in small doses, but it can give a reader whiplash as we move from one mood to another, often in between panels, and as a result the whole thing is much less coherent than the original. It seems like he needed his editor to rein in some of these ideas to make a more consistent product.

There are a few other problems, but they’re difficult to discuss without giving away too many spoilers. Two major characters are killed off-screen, for example, but only one of the other characters ever mentions this and no one seems particularly bothered by it. One of the most notable features of the world of Alita is the violence and casual cruelty, but in the first comic there was some gravity attached at least to deaths of main characters that Alita interacted with, so the violence actually had some effect on the audience. Here, it’s just something that happens, like the two were just inconvenient to the story so Kishiro just wrote them out.

In any case, I’d highly recommend the original Alita to anyone interested in graphic novels, assuming one has a high tolerance for violence. Last Order is probably worth reading if you’re a big Alita fan, but otherwise, unless it improves significantly in the second half, you’re probably going to be safe skipping this and just sticking to the original.…

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The Plantagenets (75 Books – XLIV)

Doing some reading and writing on Dante has piqued my interest in Medieval history in general, so while looking for a new e-book I picked up (er, downloaded) Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets, which I remember hearing good things about. Even those who don’t know much about the history of the Middle Ages will recognise many of the kings and queens Jones discusses – Richard the Lionheart, John, Edward Longshanks, and Eleanor of Aquitaine are some of the most famous people in European history.

Jones’s writing style is more novelistic than, say, Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom or most other histories that I’ve read this year. That is, he focuses on the personalities of the kings and other figures he discusses, especially on the most dramatic events of their reigns, and never goes into much detail on battles, economic matters, and the like. It’s still a fine introduction, I think, and I never felt like he was dumbing down or oversimplifying the topic, but he’s clearly writing for a general audience and not for historians or even, necessarily, fans of history. So, people looking for a good story will be satisfied, people looking for an in-depth analysis of Plantagenet rule may not be.

He also occasionally engages in a “must have” type of narrative. For example, speaking of Henry II’s relationship with Thomas Becket, he writes, “[Henry] was known to ride into the chancellor’s dinner hall, jump from his horse, and sit down to eat. The experience must have grated on Becket as much as it amused the king.” It probably did grate on Becket, but this phrasing tells me that Jones probably doesn’t have a source of him saying so, so it’s speculation phrased as though it’s a fact. This isn’t a major problem, but is a nuisance for those who like their histories to stick as closely to established facts as possible.

The dramatic presentation and relative lack of details aside, though, there is enough material to detect some general trends in English history during this time. Famously, the Magna Charta was signed during King John’s rule, and the origins of parliamentary rule were laid over the next several reigns. However, the nobility only began to really assert itself through parliament in reaction to the worst kings of the dynasty. So, would parliamentary rule have developed in England at all if, say, Richard had lived longer and had an heir, meaning that John never became king? What if John, Henry III, and Edward II had just been wiser and more willing to compromise?

In any case, The Plantagenets serves as a good, readable introduction to a period of history that most people don’t know enough about. If you’ve any interest in the topic and don’t mind a novelistic presentation, check it out.…

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ToraDora vol. 7 (75 Books – XLIII)

I wrote about the first two volumes of Zekkyo’s comic adaptation of ToraDora way back in July 2011, and volume three a few months later. Since then, each volume has continued to follow the anime fairly closely (I haven’t read the original novels, so I can’t make a comparison there), and my opinion of it has remained consistent from volume to volume. The character art is good, the jokes generally work, the drama is, perhaps, a bit melodramatic at times, but that’s just part of the style. It does have a high school setting, which I almost always dislike, but I’ll give it a pass since I’ve been following the story for so long.

The things I’ve complained about previously are still around; background art is rather plain, it’s a bit wordy, and there are a few annoying localisation choices. Too much saying “like” and “totally,” and using kaicho instead of “class president,” which is especially distracting because one moment you have a character talking like a stereotypical valley girl, then they’ll throw in the obviously Japanese kaicho. Again, though, it’s not too bad, and the translation does a decent job overall at giving each character a distinct voice.

So overall, it is a solid enough adaptation. The fact that I’m seven volumes in, four years after starting the series, is proof enough that Zekkyo’s doing something right. The strength of the original story shines through, so while it’s not a must-read by any means, if you’re a fan of the anime and want more of this story, by all means check it out.…

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