Category: 75 Book Challenge 2015

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin v. 6-7 (75 Books – XXXI and XXXII)

The sixth volume of Yasuhiko Yoshikazu’s Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin picks up where the fifth left off with Char and Sayla’s backstory, but this and the seventh volume expand to include other major characters on the Zeon side, as well, going up to the start of events in the main storyline in the first volume. This gives the series an unusual structure where roughly the first four volumes proceed from what now seems to be the middle of the story, then the next three volumes cover the beginning. Now that the backstory has caught up to the beginning of the series, I assume that the eighth volume will jump to where the fourth left off. I’d be interested to know why Yasuhiko decided to structure the story this way; perhaps he wanted to make sure his adaptation began the same way as the original TV anime before going off on a different path, similar to how the first Rebuild of Evangelion film started mostly the same as its predecessor and only made major changes in the second film.

There’s also an interesting effect in how the reader reacts to the Zeon characters in this approach. Since the first part is primarily from the Federation characters’ point of view, Zeon forces are clearly the “bad guys,” though of course it’s not totally simplistic in this. However, Yasuhiko then reverses the good guy/bad guy dynamic by treating Char as the protagonist for almost as long as Amuro had been the focus in the first part of the plot. I especially like his treatment of the members of House Zabi, and one of my favourite scenes comes when Dozle reflects on how they used to be a better family, and tells his wife “I don’t ever want you to regret marrying into House Zabi.”

I’m apparently a few volumes behind at this point (the tenth volume will be released later this month), but I’ll need to get caught up because it keeps getting better with every volume.…

Read More Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin v. 6-7 (75 Books – XXXI and XXXII)

Robert E. Lee (75 Books – XXX)

Ever since I first took an interest in history back in middle or high school, I’ve occasionally gone to the local library or bookstore and there confirm something that is, unfortunately, unsurprising: most American’s aren’t interested. A look at the shelves would turn up a few things on Greece or Rome, maybe the Cold War or China, and if you wanted to know about, say, the unification of Italy, you’re totally out of luck.

There are, however, a few exceptions. It’s easy to find Americans knowledgeable and passionate about the Kennedy assassination, and the Second World War certainly receives plenty of attention, to the extent that back when the History Channel had any history at all it was basically the “World War II Channel.” The one other major event of broad interest, especially in the South, is the War Between the States, and deservedly so, since this was such a pivotal moment in the American narrative. However, I don’t know as much about the events and people involved as I probably should, beyond what I remember from high school (which was, fortunately, better than many high school history courses) and Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln.

Of course, one problem with all history books is determining which historians are trustworthy. One can have a passionate but reasonable argument about, say, who bears responsibility for starting the First World War; suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was less than a saintly martyr or more than a despicable tyrant, well, those are fightin’ words in many quarters. I don’t really expect authors to be completely free of bias; in fact, I generally trust those who are open about their opinions more than those who claim a distant objectivity. My general approach, then, is going to be to read a small handful of well-known modern historians, provided they don’t go full retard on whatever their ideological opinions are, but to stick primarily to primary sources when I can.

So, to begin this project, I read Noah Andre Trudeau’s biography Robert E. Lee. This is a fairly short (214 pages) overview of Lee’s life, with most of the book focusing on the war years; unsurprisingly, it’s about as much military history as biography. While I don’t value strict disinterestedness as much as many readers do, I do think that Trudeau does a good job treating his subject even-handedly; he obviously respects Lee, but avoids hagiography. He also avoids editorialising on the causes of the war or who was right or wrong. Rather, he focuses on what Lee himself said and did. In this, it reminds me of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, which I read recently, and which also avoided the temptation to signal ideological approval or disapproval (with a few exceptions), but instead approached the subject like a craftsman evaluating a peer’s work.

The book is short and straightforward, more of a sketch than a portrait, so those who have already read a good deal about the war or Lee himself can probably safely skip it, but it does serve as a decent introduction to the topic. That’s fine with me, of course, since this is basically an appetiser for the main course. Next, I’ll read Shelby Foote’s popular three-volume history to get an overview of the war as a whole, then I’ll try to stick to primary sources. I do have a recommendation for Raphael Semmes’s memoir. Of course, I’ll also continue to read other things between books on this subject.…

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Gyo (75 Books – XXIX)

If you enjoyed Uzumaki but didn’t think it was gross enough, have I got a comic for you. Whereas in Uzumaki artist Ito Junji only gradually ratcheted up the grotesque horror, in Gyo we encounter a rotting fish whose mechanical legs are powered by farts (not in those exact words, but it’s gas released from the animal’s orifices) within the first several pages. Really, most of what I have to say about Gyo is the same as what I thought of some of the later chapters of Uzumaki.

So, again, the art is detailed and could be gorgeous if it weren’t depicting so many rotting fish (and later, other animals).

The plot is intriguingly absurd, centering around masses of dead fish with mechanical legs coming ashore. Obviously, Ito isn’t taking himself too seriously, but there’s no winking at the audience, and I’m impressed at his ability to create a full graphic novel out of such off-the-wall concepts. One thing Ito doesn’t do in his stories, though, is explain much of anything. Where did these fish come from? There’s a hint, but nothing at all in the way of a full answer. This also holds for the two short stories included in Viz’s (very nice) omnibus edition, though whether this is a problem or not is largely a matter of personal preference.

My main criticism is that Gyo just isn’t very scary. It’s certainly gross, and does have some tense moments that make it serviceable as a horror story, but if you’re interested in reading Ito’s work I’d definitely start with Uzumaki and only move on to this if you really feel like you need more.…

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Notes on the Third Reich (75 Books – XXVIII)

As one can easily guess, Notes on the Third Reich is Julius Evola’s follow-up to Fascism Viewed from the Right. Both books are similar in their structure and approach, and though both are well worth reading I think only the earlier one is really essential, because it’s more thorough and touches more on the general principles that define the Right. Evola’s criticisms of National Socialism are similar to those he made of Fascism, e.g. its populism, totalitarianism, and racialism, though each of these is much greater in Nazism than its Italian cousin. In fact, one notable difference between the books is the tone; Evola was moderately supportive of Fascism, finding several things to praise, albeit with multiple reservations. Here, though, he is relentlessly critical.

A large part of this criticism is due to Hitler’s obsession with race. Evola clearly does believe that race is real and significant, and comments that “even from the point of view of the Right, a certain balanced consciousness and dignity of ‘race’ can be considered as salutary.” However, he qualifies this by saying that this is “on the condition that we do not excessively emphasise the biological aspect in this ideal, but only if we particularly stress the ‘race of the spirit.’” National Socialism, though, focused almost entirely on the biological aspect of race and never really developed a fully formed worldview, despite some attempts, especially from Himmler and the SS, to do so. On anti-Semitism specifically, while Evola recognises that Jews are well-represented among anti-traditional thinkers and activists, he says that “this activity would never have been possible, unless the terrain had been prepared for quite some time, not by Jews, but by ‘Aryans,’ and often in irreversible terms.”

Related to this is Evola’s criticism of Hitler’s populism. The racial aspect of National Socialism made anyone and everyone who happened to be German out to be an elite of some sort, deservedly or not. This brought about a sense of levelling all Germans of whatever status. While he does praise some aspects of Nazism’s concern for the common man, especially in its protections for small landowners, he also writes, “The presence of a proletarian aspect in Nazism is undeniable, as in the figure of Hitler himself, who had none of the traits of a ‘gentleman,’ of an aristocratic type di razza. This proletarian aspect and even vulgarity of National Socialism was often noticed, especially in Austria after its annexation to the Reich and after the phase of a rash ‘national’ infatuation of Austrians for ‘Greater Germany.’”

Before this turns into another post where I mostly just quote Evola, I’ll just say to go read Fascism Viewed from the Right, then read this. Both books are fairly short and are best read together.…

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Oh My Goddess! v. 47 (75 Books – XXVII)

This series is going to end with a whimper, isn’t it?

I’ve been down on Oh My Goddess for a long time now; the series basically lost me way back in volume 41, and I’ve basically just been stewing in a fairly mediocre arc for three years waiting for it to end already. Things have improved somewhat in the last couple volumes, I suppose; Fujishima Kosuke is better at drawing motorcycle racing than he is any other sort of action, and the character art is still nice enough. The end is also in sight – this is the penultimate volume, and after two decades and change it does feel like the story’s wrapping up. Encouragingly, with this action-oriented story arc done the final volume should go back to a type of storytelling that Fujishima’s good at.

At least, I’m hopeful. Once it’s over, or perhaps shortly before the final volume, I may need to go back and re-read some of the early volumes, because it’s been so long since I’ve read anything interesting from the series that I’ve started to wonder why I liked it so much to begin with.

Blowing through forty-some volumes of graphic novels would also be a good way to lock up this seventy-five books project, but maybe that would be cheating……

Read More Oh My Goddess! v. 47 (75 Books – XXVII)

Fascism Viewed from the Right (75 Books – XXVI)

The American “Right” is a strange beast. The more one looks outside the bubble of the United States of the past five minutes, the stranger it looks, because what Americans usually call the “Right” is simply the Republican Party, an incoherent coalition of neoconservatives, social conservatives, Tea Partiers, and right-libertarians. What these groups have in common besides opposition to the various groups that make up the Democratic Party’s coalition isn’t at all clear to me. Indeed, it’s not at all clear how most of these are meaningfully “right-wing” at all, except in the relativistic sense of “less liberal than the faculty of Harvard.”

Admittedly, part of this confusion comes from American history (a “Conservative” wants to preserve his country’s traditions, American traditions stem largely from the Founding generation, but the Founding Fathers were Liberal revolutionaries). However, a similar confusion over what exactly constitutes a “right-wing” position seems to exist throughout the Western world. So, how does one figure out a definition of the Right more coherent than “yesteryear’s liberal?” One good method would be reading through Julius Evola’s short book Fascism Viewed from the Right.

Now, obviously the main focus of Evola’s work is an analysis of fascism, which is absurdly, but often, used as a shorthand for the Right as a whole. Since this assumption that the Right simply is fascism is so common, I would strongly recommend reading this just so one can clear up any confusion about what exactly fascism is. Nonetheless, Evola examines Mussolini’s speeches and policies, especially from his twenty years in power, to determine what the fascists did right and wrong from a Rightist perspective (and for those curious, he does occasionally comment on National Socialism, but covers that more thoroughly in another book, Notes on the Third Reich). Evola is difficult to summarise, so I’ll try to give an idea of the work by sharing a few excerpts.…

Read More Fascism Viewed from the Right (75 Books – XXVI)

Limit v. 3-6 (75 Books – XXII-XXV)

I talked about the first two volumes of Suenobu Keiko’s comic Limit way back in March 2013 in a Bibliophile’s Journal post, and only this week have I gotten around to reading the other four volumes, which I read in a single sitting.

Now, that may make it sound like this is a real page-turner and I couldn’t put it down. Unfortunately, I blew through the books so fast because, well, there’s not really much to them. The story’s moderately entertaining, if a little overwrought, but as I mentioned in that previous post, it’s just Lord of the Flies but less plausible and without any of the symbolism. The characters come across as panicky and drama-prone, but only one of the characters is given a backstory reason for acting this way, and her story is a clichéd one. Perhaps my expectations of teenage maturity are too high, but I expect them to be able to spend a few nights in the woods without turning into, well, Lord of the Flies; even Lord of the Flies didn’t descend into Lord of the Flies this quickly.

Even a mediocre story is forgivable in a comic, though, if the art can make up for it. Here too, though, Limit is insubstantial. It’s decent, but not particularly creative, detailed, or eye-catching.

So overall, unless manga is your only hobby and you consume a lot of it, you’re perfectly safe skipping this one.…

Read More Limit v. 3-6 (75 Books – XXII-XXV)

Diplomacy (75 Books – XXI)

Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, published in 1994, looks at diplomatic history from Richelieu up to the early 1990’s, focusing on Europe and the United States and especially on the Cold War era. Overall, the book is excellent, and very useful to anyone looking for an introduction to how diplomacy is, and generally ought to be, conducted. Kissinger takes a point of view that reminds me of a craftsman looking at his peers’ work; he avoids moralising for the most part, and instead focuses on whether a particular policy worked or not, and why. For example, while discussing Joseph Stalin, he does mention the enormous death toll of his purges, but is primarily concerned with his relations with the Western powers and analysing his personality and domestic terror only insofar as it affected his foreign policy.

Now, as great as the book is, at 836 pages it’s also a project to get through. By far the best chapters are those covering events up through the Second World War, especially the first few that cover the basic theories of how nations ought to conduct foreign policy, with Richelieu and Bismarck’s Realpolitik and how this compares to Wilsonianism, and the three dealing with the Vietnam War. Of course, Kissinger was personally involved with some of the events he describes, and some of the personal anecdotes he provides are interesting in themselves. The rest of the book isn’t bad, but by then most of the basic conceptual points have been made and illustrated, and how interesting one finds these chapters depends largely on how interested one is in the history of the Cold War.

I should also mention that those of us who prefer a generally non-interventionist style of foreign policy may be annoyed at Kissinger’s occasional implicit and explicit dismissals of that position, mainly by his obvious admiration for Franklin Roosevelt. There are also a few comments that strike me as flattering his mostly American audience by seemingly approving of American Messianism, even though in the other places he criticises this attitude and clearly favours a more realistic approach to foreign policy based primarily in national interest, as was practiced by Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. For instance, at the end of his final chapter on Vietnam where he says, “[T]he sadness of the memories of Indochina should serve to remind us that American unity is both a duty and the hope of the world.”

Those criticisms aside, though, Diplomacy is essential reading for anyone who wants to comment intelligently on foreign policy issues.…

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The Castle (75 Books – XX)

Is it fair to criticise a book that the author left unfinished at his death? Well, it was published, so I suppose so.

Most of Franz Kafka’s The Castle doesn’t really feel unfinished, anyway. There are a few spots that could use some editing, I suppose, but I wouldn’t have guessed that the author died before completing it until the book stops. That’s probably the main problem, really, which is hardly Kafka’s fault – though there is a note at the end of my audiobook edition about how Kafka intended the novel to end, the manuscript we have just stops in the middle. I sense that the story was likely nearing a conclusion, but obviously it’s still frustrating to have a story just stop with no conclusion at all.

Not that I mind the novel ending soon, so much; it started getting tedious to listen through well before the stop. The majority of the novel consists of the protagonist, K., going from conversation to conversation trying to sort out his position in this town where he was summoned to work as a land surveyor, only to find that this was likely a mistake. One problem is that most of these dialogues take the same basic form; one character relates some event, interprets it, the other says, essentially, “Ah, that’s what you think it means, but actually it means this…” Conveying the tedium of K.’s efforts is part of the intended effect, but unfortunately Kafka may have succeeded a little too well.

Also, I may have missed something here, but it’s not entirely clear to me why K. can’t just leave the town, aside from stubbornness. He talks about the difficult journey to get there, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he’s not going to be able to work as a land surveyor, and as far as I can tell there’s nothing keeping him there. I’d assumed early on that he must have a hidden reason for wanting to stay, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Perhaps Kafka planned to add some explanation later, but I can only take the novel as it is now.

I listened to this in an edition published by Naxos Audiobooks, and read by Allan Corduner, who does a fine job narrating. He’s actually the first narrator I’ve encountered whose work I’d listen to just because he’s the narrator. My only problem, and this is very much a minor issue, is that the main character’s name (or initial, I suppose) is pronounced with the German name for the letter, “kah,” instead of the English “kay,” so it took me a while to figure out what his “name” actually is. Everything else is fine, though, and the narration was probably the highlight of the book.…

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Propaganda (75 Books – XIX)

So, take a look at this passage:

Who are the men who, without our realizing it, give us our ideas, tell us whom to admire and whom to despise, what to believe about the ownership of public utilities, about the tariff, about the price of rubber, about the Dawes Plan, about immigration; who tell us how our houses should be designed, what furniture we should put in them, what menus we should serve at our table, what kind of shirts we must wear, what sports we should indulge in,what plays we should see, what charities we should support, what pictures we should admire, what slang we should affect, what jokes we should laugh at?

If we set out to make a list of the men and women who, because of their position in public life, might fairly be called the molders of public opinion, we could quickly arrive at an extended list of persons mentioned in “Who’s Who.” […]

Such a list would comprise several thousand persons. But it is well known that many of these leaders are themselves led, sometimes by persons whose names are known to few. Many a congressman, in framing his platform, follows the suggestions of a district boss whom few persons outside the political machines have ever heard of. Eloquent divines may have great influence in their communities, but often take their doctrines from a higher ecclesiastical authority. The presidents of chambers of commerce mold the thought of local business men concerning public issues, but the opinions which they promulgate are usually derived from some national authority. A presidential candidate may be “drafted” in response to “overwhelming popular demand,” but it is well known that his name may be decided upon by half a dozen men sitting around a table in a hotel room.

In its insistence that Americans’ opinions are largely controlled by only “several thousand persons,” it sounds like something from the patriot movement. It’s not quite conspiratorial, though, so perhaps it was written by some other part of the Right, or even certain parts of the Left? However, the tone is not at all polemical, or even critical of what it describes. Indeed, elsewhere the author considers this propaganda to be a positive thing.

The passage comes from Propaganda, written in 1928 by Edward Bernays, a public relations counsel who worked for a number of corporations, as well as for the U.S. Committee on Public Information during the First World War (he was also a nephew of Sigmund Freud; make of that what you will). Throughout the book, Bernays details what propaganda is, how it works, who uses it, and who creates it. Now, in 1928 the term “propaganda” had only relatively recently acquired its negative connotation, and Bernays uses it in a neutral sense throughout; at one point he explains “propaganda is simply the establishing of reciprocal understanding between an individual and a group.” At a glance, this definition seems reasonable, and this is certainly Bernays’s idea of what propaganda ought to be, but despite the author’s attempt to portray the practice in a neutral light, the actual content of the book clearly describes subtly manipulating public opinions, often in ways that appear rather insidious.…

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