Category: 75 Book Challenge 2015

Seraphim 266613336 Wings (75 Books – XLII)

There are three notable things about Seraphim 266613336 Wings. One is that it has the most unwieldy three-word title I’ve ever encountered. The second is that it’s another Kon Satoshi comic, but one he did with Oshii Mamoru (of Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor fame). The third is that, like the other Kon comic I’ve read this year, it’s unfinished.

Now, the story is an interesting one – the premise is that the world is plagued by a disease called “seraphim,” which causes its victims to hallucinate and to gradually grow wings out of their back. Much of the world is already dead (and Japan was apparently wiped out entirely), so the WHO sends out two men and a dog called the Magi to escort a girl, Sera, who seems to be immune to the disease and possibly the key to finding a cure, back to her homeland in central Asia. It’s fairly wordy, which is something that Oshii is known for, but everything does move at a quick pace with some action thrown in.

The main problem, of course, is that the comic just stops halfway through. In Opus, we at least have some idea of how the story was going to end, since it was almost done. Here, I have no idea, and that’s why I’m not going into a lot of depth here – I could only really recommend Seraphim to people who are big fans of the authors. Otherwise, you’re in for the frustrating experience of half of a story. A very good story, admittedly, but it’s not a satisfying experience.

Dark Horse’s edition does include two essays at the end of the book. One is just a page by Watanabe Takashi, editor at Animage when that magazine originally serialised Seraphim in 1994 and 1995, which gives some background on how the comic was originally conceived and why it was discontinued. The other is by Carl Gustav Horn, editor of the English edition, which is just under thirty pages and gives a lot of background on the creators, the publisher, the setting, and so on. It’s well-written and certainly interesting to anyone who’d like to know about the manga publishing industry, Oshii and Kon, or some points about the work itself, but it feels like overkill for a half-finished graphic novel.

In any case, if you’re a Kon or Oshii completist or just don’t mind never finishing a story, Seraphim is worth checking out. Otherwise, you’re perfectly safe sticking to their better-known, finished works.…

Read More Seraphim 266613336 Wings (75 Books – XLII)

De Laicis (75 Books – XLI)

The best Catholic writers tend to be the ones who divide the world into Catholics, schismatics, heretics, Jews, and pagans, with no “separated brethren” nonsense. St. Robert Bellarmine takes just this approach in De Laicis, in which he discusses the nature and scope of political power and its relationship to the Church. His answers tend to be orthodox by the standard of the time and the book isn’t very long, but it’s an excellent and uncompromising primer to a traditional Catholic understanding of the state.

Now, most of the book was written in answer to objections to Christians holding political power raised by various Protestant groups at the time, but much of it reads like a response to the modern Christian Libertarian crowd. For example, some Anabaptists apparently believed that while kings were given to the Jews, Christians should not have secular rulers. Bellarmine responds, in part:

But the contrary is true, for in the beginning the Prophets predicted that all the kings of the earth would serve Christ and the Church, which could not come to pass unless there were kings in the Church. “And now, O ye kings, understand; receive instruction, you that judge the earth; embrace discipline,” according to the Hebrew Naschechubar, “embrace ye the Son”, whom in the same Psalm the Scriptures call the Messias… And, “Kings shall be Thy nursing fathers and queens Thy nurses: they shall worship Thee with their faces towards the earth and they shall kick up the dust of Thy feet.” We have certainly seen this fulfilled in the cases of Constantine, Theodosius, Charlemagne, and others who venerated the tombs of the Apostles and Martyrs, and endowed and protected churches.

Many of the arguments draw from Scripture or the Church Fathers, as one would expect of a book primarily addressing a conflict between Christians. While writing about Dante’s Monarchia, I mentioned that many of the poet’s arguments draw as much from Aristotle or simple reason as Scripture. Bellarmine, however, caters his argument entirely towards fellow Christians, and uses Scripture and the Church Fathers as his primary authorities. Non-Christian readers may still agree with some of his conclusions, but not how he arrives at them. For example, he addresses an early version of the “social contract” theory, which drew from Cicero and stated that at one time men “wandered about in the manner of beasts,” but were later persuaded to live together in society. Bellarmine then says, “But that state of affairs never existed, nor could it have existed at any time. For Adam was a very wise man, and without doubt did not allow men to wander about like beasts, and Cain, his son, even built a material city; before Cain and Adam, man did not exist.” Non-Christian Rightists would certainly agree that this proto-social contract theory is nonsense, but certainly not for this reason!

A few of Bellarmine’s positions are not as reactionary as one might expect. While discussing sovereignty, for example, he states, “Divine law gives this power to no particular man, therefore Divine law gives this power to the collected body. Furthermore, in the absence of positive law, there is no good reason why, in a multitude of equals, one rather than another should dominate.” So, while he certainly does not object to monarchy, he does not consider it inherently better than an aristocracy or republic. Sir Robert Filmer would directly address some of Bellarmine’s arguments in his work (and John Locke, in turn, would respond directly to Filmer), though it may be worth pointing out that Bellarmine here follows Aristotle, who supported a mixed form of government, more closely than some of the philosopher’s Medieval, monarchist students, like St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante, who did argue that monarchy is best in tune with natural law.

Not that Bellarmine is, by any means, a soft-hearted man. After introducing the idea that a nation ought to allow freedom of belief, he writes:

But this error is most harmful, and without doubt Christian rulers are in duty bound not to allow freedom of belief to their subjects, but to afford opportunity that that faith may be preserved which the Catholic Church, and especially the supreme Pontiff, says should be held. It is proved first from Scripture, “the king, that sitteth on the throne of judgment, scattereth away all evil with his look.” And likewise, “A wise king scattereth the wicked.” Indeed, it cannot be denied that heretics are impious. And the same is said, “And now, O ye kings, understand, receive instruction, you that judge the earth. Serve ye the Lord with fear.”

He spends more time on this question than any other, understandably so since this was such a major issue at the time. What he believes should be done in a state that already has a large number of heretics, though, he doesn’t say. Interestingly, he doesn’t object to tolerating Jews, because their scriptures contain the prophecies that the New Testament fulfills, because they’re clearly not Christians (as opposed to heretics, who are wolves in sheeps’ clothing), and because they do not proseletyze anyway.

In any case, while one may disagree with some of Bellarmine’s conclusions (for example, in today’s world it seems wise to work with Protestants where possible), De Laicis makes for good reading if only as a reminder of a time when the Church’s bishops appeared absolutely confident in what the Church teaches, and were unafraid of speaking boldly against error.…

Read More De Laicis (75 Books – XLI)

The Monarchia Controversy (75 Books – XL)

After finishing Dante’s Monarchia, I decided to look for some of the various commentaries and related works that editor Prue Shaw referred to in my Cambridge University Press edition. Several of these aren’t easily available, at least not in English, but I did find The Monarchia Controversy, edited by Anthony Cassell and published by the Catholic University of America Press. This includes Monarchia, Guido Vernani’s Refutation of the “Monarchia” Composed by Dante, and Pope John XXII’s bull Si fratrum, as well as Cassell’s own introduction and annotations.

Starting from the end of the book, Si fratrum is the document that sparked the controversy around the relationship between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor and whether one was subordinate to the other, though this controversy had been brewing for many years. It’s nice to have, then, for historical interest, but at only four pages it doesn’t develop any arguments, but simply proclaims that the pope is the legitimate ruler of the Empire when the office of emperor is vacant, and that it is his prerogative to approve of the election of the next emperor.

Guido Vernani’s Refutation is also relatively short, under thirty pages, and of mixed quality. Some of his arguments are disingenuous, as Cassell points out fairly often in his introduction and annotations. Also, while Dante kept a neutral tone throughout most of his work and portrayed himself as almost a third-party to the disputes, Vernani is sometimes outright abusive. Before introducing one of his last arguments, for example, he writes, “Here the wretch [Dante] reached the heights of his delirium: as he raised his mouth to heaven, his tongue lolled along the ground.” There’s nothing wrong with a polemical tone, and Dante isn’t subtle in calling some of his opponents sons of Satan, but in works dealing mostly in formal logic, theology, and history, this sort of attack stands out as mean-spirited and unworthy of formal debate.

That said, Vernani does raise some valid points. For example, he argues, quite reasonably, that only Christ could realistically have all of the virtues that Dante attributes to his vision of the universal monarch. He also points out that Dante’s interpretation of Roman history, with its heroism, nobility, and miracles, is very different from one of Dante’s own sources, St. Augustine, as well as several other authorities, who portray these same events in a very negative light.

I only skimmed through the Monarchia itself, but it seems readable enough. Of course, I’m not competent to judge the accuracy of one translation over another.

Over half the book is composed of Cassell’s annotations and his 100-page introduction, which is about three times longer than Prue Shaw’s in the CUP edition. Whether it’s three times more valuable depends on how much depth you want; both give an outline and some historical context, but Cassell goes into much more depth, especially on the reaction to Dante’s work, which Shaw only briefly mentions, and in analysing the method and substance of both Dante’s and Vernani’s arguments. This is all interesting to students of Medieval or philosophical history, but much of it isn’t really necessary to understanding either author. The annotations, which unfortunately are endnotes rather than footnotes, are also more thorough in Cassell’s edition, though not by a wide margin.

Now, I highly recommend reading Dante’s Monarchia, but which edition to read depends largely on what you’re interested in getting. If you just want the Monarchia itself with just enough additional explanation to understand the context and have a starting point for further study, then Shaw’s is perfect. If you’re interested in Medieval intellectual history and would like something more thorough, then Cassell’s is worth the extra cost – it’s fairly expensive new (over $70), but finding used copies isn’t difficult.…

Read More The Monarchia Controversy (75 Books – XL)

The 10,000 Year Explosion (75 Books – XXXIX)

I should probably begin with a disclaimer that I’m very much a layman when it comes to biology and genetics; my experience in the field is limited to a couple college classes. That said, I read and greatly enjoyed The 10,000 Year Explosion, by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, which covers recent human evolution, essentially from the development of agriculture on. The authors accomplish a difficult task of explaining a fairly complex topic in terms that the average, non-specialist reader can understand, while still covering the topic adequately and not coming across as condescending. In fact, the tone is fairly light throughout, reminding me of some of my better college professors who took an almost conversational tone during lectures, with occasional touches of humour. In discussing how genes spread between populations, for example, they drily note, “Sailors and barmaids, like traveling salesmen and farmers’ daughters, have played a crucial role in recent human evolution.”

Besides fairly abstract discussions of the technicalities of how human genetics and natural selection work, they also have a number of interesting illustrations of recent evolution. For example, while going over changes in skeletal structure, they provide a recent study from England:

English researchers recently compared skulls from people who died in the Black Death (≈650 years ago), from the crew of the Mary Rose, a ship that sank in Tudor times (≈450 years ago), and from our contemporaries. The shape of the skull changed noticeably over that brief period—which is particularly interesting because we know there has been no massive population replacement in England over the past 700 years. The height of the cranial vault of our contemporaries was about 15 percent larger than that of the earlier populations, and the part of the skull containing the frontal lobes was thus larger.

The 10,000 Year Explosion reminds me of Nicholas Wade’s book from last year, A Troublesome Inheritance, which covers biological racial differences, and which I’d also recommend reading for those interested in the topic. Both works are interesting in themselves, of course, but those of us more invested in politics than science will find it noteworthy that they were published at all. Wade addresses the racial angle head-on, though not polemically, but Cochran and Harpending take a different approach. They only mention the “controversy” around the topic a few times, and always dismissively. In the concluding chapter, for example, they say, “Evolutionary stasis requires a static environment, whereas behavioral modernity is all about innovation and change. Stability is exactly what we have not had. This should be obvious, but instead the human sciences have labored under the strange idea that evolution stopped 40,000 years ago.”

Also, while Wade does not directly address intelligence differences, Cochran and Harpending devote a chapter to exploring how Ashkenazi Jews came to have the highest average IQ in the world. In that chapter, they mention that there is a lot of controversy about the validity of IQ testing, but add, “These criticisms and dismissals, interestingly, hardly ever come from scientists working in the area of cognitive testing and its outcomes: There is little or no controversy within the field.” This correlates with comments by Wade and a few other people I’ve encountered who’ve studied the topic, and it’s interesting to me as an example of selective credentialism. How often do we see publications emphasise how widely theories of global warming are accepted by climatologists, almost always coupled with harsh criticism of the non-experts who question the scientists’ conclusions? Yet, the validity of intelligence testing is also widely accepted by experts, and is treated as if it’s highly controversial!

In any case, Cochran and Harpending’s topic is an important one, and I’d highly recommend that anyone at all interested give it a read.…

Read More The 10,000 Year Explosion (75 Books – XXXIX)

The Analects of Confucius (75 Books – XXXVIII)

Let me start by saying this: The Analects of Confucius is a strong contender for the greatest work of non-fiction ever written, and has been the single most influential book on how I think about society and politics. I’ve read seven translations of it (Legge, Waley, Leys, Lau, Pound, Huang, and Chan’s partial translation), some of them multiple times. My knowledge of the Chinese language is only barely non-zero, so I can’t really offer an opinion on which is the most accurate, but in terms of literary style, coherence, and intelligibility to the average Westerner, they’ve all been at least decent. When looking for a Kindle edition of the Analects, I came across Leonard Lyall’s translation from 1909, and since it was free (or at least cheap, I don’t remember) I thought I may as well give it a shot.

Unfortunately, Lyall gets the honour of being the first translation I’d specifically recommend avoiding.…

Read More The Analects of Confucius (75 Books – XXXVIII)

Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons (75 Books – XXXVII)

OConnor PhDAs a Southerner, Catholic, and fan of literature, one can easily guess that I’m a fan of Flannery O’Connor. If you haven’t read Wise Blood or her short stories, do yourself a favour and check them out. Her excellent collection of essays, Mystery and Manners, is also some of the best work I’ve read about literature.

When I heard about Fantagraphics Books releasing a collection of her cartoons, though, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Skill in one medium certainly doesn’t necessarily transfer to another, and most of these were originally published for her college’s student newspaper. Besides, there’s probably a reason she ultimately focused on writing rather than cartooning.

Ultimately, The Cartoons is pretty good for what it is. They’re certainly better than anything I saw in my university’s paper, at the very least. A lot of her subjects are topical to something from the particular issue a cartoon was published in, like a special art exhibit at the school or student government elections, but they’re mostly things that anyone who’s been to college can identify with. They’re not laugh-out-loud funny, but are enjoyable to read throughout.

O’Connor’s cartoons are almost all linoleum cuts, which makes the book unusual and interesting in itself, though the angular caricatures are a style you’ll probably either love or hate; I like it, personally.…

Read More Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons (75 Books – XXXVII)

De Monarchia (75 Books – XXXVI)

Dante begins this short book by telling his audience that he has an unpopular truth to share. “No one has attempted to elucidate it,” he says, “on account of its not leading directly to material gain,” but share it he must, because men are made to seek the truth, and he does not want to be accused by later generations of “hiding [his] talent.” So, he argues that the world ought to be ruled by a single absolute monarch, that the Roman Empire ruled the known world by right (which, presumably, is passed to its successor), and whose power is God-given, though not dependant on the Church.

Unsurprisingly, De Monarchia (or just Monarchy in Cambridge University Press’s edition) had few fans in the Fourteenth Century and has even fewer fans now. As for me, of course, I love it.

Now, it can be a tough read; Dante structures each of the three parts as a series of syllogisms, and though he does explain some principles of logic as he goes, the writing is dense and requires the reader’s full attention. If you’ve read, say, Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas you probably have a good idea of what to expect. He also writes primarily for a Christian audience; though he doesn’t rely on Scripture as much as, say, Sir Robert Filmer, he does make frequent reference to Biblical events, and one of his arguments in the second part, on whether the Romans ruled the world by right, is that they did because Christ gave an explicit approval of Roman authority. He also makes much use of pagan writers like Virgil or Cicero, and he draws from Aristotle about as much as the Bible, so non-Christian readers will still find a lot of material to consider, it just won’t be as convincing as it would to Dante’s intended audience.

The first part, on why a universal monarchy is needed, is the most interesting and relevant for modern readers. The second seems like a moot point; whether Rome ruled the known world by right is interesting for fans of that era of history, but who can plausibly claim to be “Roman” now? Even in Dante’s time, the Holy Roman Empire was only “Roman” in a very loose sense. I suppose Moscow is sometimes called the “Third Rome,” but I doubt that Dante would accept an Eastern Orthodox monarchy as a legitimate candidate for his universal empire. The third part considers whether a monarch depends on the papacy for legitimacy, and Dante argues forcefully that it does not, though papal approval can and should lend its support to monarchy.

Probably De Monarchia‘s main weakness is that it seems very theoretical. Once we accept that the Holy Roman Emperor (or some other suitable “Roman,” I suppose) has the right to rule the world, how do we arrive at that goal? Even Rome did not conquer the entire known world, much less the entirety of the seven continents. I suppose if the United Nations were turned monarchical and halfway effective we might be in the ballpark, but the UN is in no way Roman. Perhaps Dante must be content with the first step of convincing people that this is a goal worth working towards at all.

In any case, I’m reluctant to try summarising his arguments or even quoting at length, since his syllogisms are so interdependent that it’s difficult to find a snappy quote that stands apart. Besides, it’s only ninety-four pages, so really, if you have any interest at all in the subject, this is a must-read book.

On a final, somewhat tangential note, in my post on the appeal of Mishima Yukio I speculated on why Dante may have included Cato at the gates of Purgatory in the Divine Comedy. My theory was that even though Cato committed suicide, he did so not out of despair but out of zeal for the rule of law. Sure enough, in the second book Dante briefly discusses Cato and says, in part, “in order to set the world afire with love of freedom, [Cato] showed the value of freedom when he preferred to die a free man rather than remain alive without freedom.”…

Read More De Monarchia (75 Books – XXXVI)

Opus (75 Books – XXXV)

I imagine all of my readers already know Kon Satoshi, but if you haven’t seen his films (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika) and TV anime (Paranoia Agent), go watch them. Even if you’re not especially interested in anime, they’re excellent and worthwhile for anyone interested in film. Before he started working in animation, though, he did comics, including the unfinished Opus, published late last year by Dark Horse.

The story starts with an artist working on the climax of a comic he’s making, when a character he’s about to kill off manages to break out of the fictional world and drag him from the real world into the comic. From there, it goes back-and-forth between the two worlds, in a style similar to what Kon would later do in Millennium Actress. There are, of course, a lot of stories with similar premises about people finding themselves in the world of movies, games, or fiction generally, so while it’s not totally original, Kon’s treatment is solid throughout, and one gets the feeling that there really is a fully-developed world in both the real world and the comic world, or at least the parts of the comic that the protagonist, Nagai, got around to drawing. Kon uses similar themes in his later work, and though Opus isn’t as fully developed as his animation, it is interesting to see him start thinking about things that will later show up in Millennium Actress, Paprika, or Paranoia Agent.

One problem that emerges from mixing these two worlds is that the tone of the story shifts wildly from scene to scene. For example, near the climax there’s a joke when Nagai is speaking to the protagonist of his story, Satoko, about how he based her design off of his girlfriend. A few pages later, and we get to a scene in his comic about a child-murderer who kidnaps and molests (and quite likely worse – we don’t see everything he does) little girls. Part of the joke in this story is that Nagai is a stereotypical comic artist, slightly nerdy, not especially strong or brave, who doesn’t fit in at all with this dark, gritty setting he’s created. So, the tone goes back-and-forth throughout the book, but the whiplash from at least this moment is too much.

The art is decent, but nothing to write home about, really, and the panel layouts are mostly conventional. Those primarily interested in comics as a visual medium can safely skip this one.

I should also point out that Kon left Opus unfinished when he began work on Perfect Blue, and never did go back to complete it. Dark Horse did include his draft for what seems to be almost the final chapter, which is interesting because the story gets even more meta and goes right through the fourth wall, but there’s still no real conclusion, which makes the story frustrating to read. It’s still worthwhile, though, for those interested in this type of story, and a must-read for those interested in Kon’s work.…

Read More Opus (75 Books – XXXV)

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (75 Books – XXXIV)

One thing many people remember fondly about Nintendo Power magazine was that, besides just straight-up video game news, reviews, and the like, they’d occasionally serialise comics based on one of Nintendo’s popular game franchises. These could easily have been mailed in as cheap promotional material by C-grade artists, but to NP‘s credit they were actually genuinely pretty good. I remember a couple of these, but unfortunately they stopped doing this not long after I subscribed, so I missed out on most of them. As far as I’m aware, few or none of these were published elsewhere, so unless you have these now-ancient back issues of a discontinued magazine, there’s no way to own a physical copy of them.

However, there’s now at least one exception, since Viz has published Ishinomori Shotaro’s adaptation of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, which was originally serialised in twelve parts. Now, since Ishinomori had to condense a fairly long adventure into twelve relatively short parts, much of the game had to be cut out or changed. He also added a character and changed the roles of a few others to help the story flow better as a comic and to hold the interest of those who’ve already played the game, which would doubtless be most of Nintendo Power‘s readers, who would otherwise already know what was going to happen in the story. So, there’s less going back-and-forth from the Dark World, for example, and he added another adventurer named Roam to both help, and be something of a rival, for Link. None of this bothers me; the changes feel organic to the story when taken on its own merits, and a straight adaptation would’ve been impossible given the constraints of the medium and publication scenario. However, purists expecting a faithful adaptation or hoping to see some specific part of the game in comic format will doubtless find plenty to complain about.…

Read More The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (75 Books – XXXIV)

Short Breaks in Mordor (75 Books – XXXIII)

Reading e-books is, for me, an act of desperation. As I’ve written before, I love books as physical objects, and only resort to my Kindle if there’s no other feasible way to read something. So, this is how I read Short Breaks in Mordor, the newest book from Peter Hitchens, published exclusively in digital format.

His difficulty in finding a traditional publisher is unfortunate, because Short Breaks, which collects many of the author’s articles on his travels around the world, is well worth picking up and I’d love to have a physical copy of it. Destinations vary from Moscow, Russia to Moscow, Idaho, and in each place Hitchens speaks to as wide a variety of people as he can meet to give readers a good sketch of the people who live there.

For example, in Iran he does speak with the type of religious fundamentalists one expects the country to be full of based on its portrayal in Western media. However, he also finds several examples of quiet resistance to the Islamic Republic, and finds a wide variety of opinions on the West and on their own country, and the resulting articles give a much more complex idea of what the country is like. On Iran’s dress codes, for instance, he observes, “Clothes intended to be shapeless have been carefully nipped in and adapted to emphasize the waist, contrary to regulations. Headscarves are placed so far back on the head that they are barely there at all. Heels are high, and many walk and stand like Parisians. Every so often, squads of morality police still descend on the streets to try to enforce compulsory modesty. But the battle is undoubtedly lost. And that is important because it symbolizes the way in which the regime has failed to hold the hearts of the people in so many other ways as well.”…

Read More Short Breaks in Mordor (75 Books – XXXIII)