Category: special series

75 Books in 2015 – IV (The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918)

Alright, we’re not even half a month into this challenge, and we’re bangin’ on all cylinders. My fourth completed book of the year is The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918, by A.J.P. Taylor.

Now, I’m the sort of person who can’t help but feel a fondness for the Habsburgs, but I don’t feel confident that I know enough about them, so this book was a good step in correcting that. Well, somewhat, at least – because it focuses on 1809 onwards, much of it only covers one Habsburg, Franz Joseph, who reigned from 1848-1916. Furthermore, the book is actually fairly depressing, as it covers the decline and fall of the Austrian empire. There are very few triumphs here, and there’s a lot of muddling along and compromising, trying to hold the empire together for as long as possible, yet knowing that things cannot go on forever. Indeed, if the empire hadn’t been necessary to maintain stability in this part of Europe and thus been handled with kid-gloves by its neighbours, it may well have collapsed earlier than it did. As Taylor put it, “Austria was preserved to suit the convenience of others, not by her own strength. A Great Power becomes a European necessity only when it is in decline; the truly great do not need to justify their existence.”

Taylor isn’t afraid to state his own opinion on the people and policies he covers, and the vast majority of his judgements are negative. When an Italian war seemed possible in the early Twentieth Century, for example, he writes, “A war against Italy would have given even the Habsburg Monarchy the tonic of victory; for Italy was a ridiculous imitation of a Great Power, impressive only to professional diplomats and literary visitors.” This is fine with me, though some people might find his constant negativity grating, and he does get carried away at least once, when discussing Franz Joseph’s son, Rudolph: “[H]e intended to save the Empire by a more violent dose of German liberalism, and would have paired well with Frederick III, who had similar projects for Germany. Fortunately for himself and for others, Rudolph committed suicide.”

Overall, though, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone interested in European history. I likely will supplement it with another book covering an earlier era of the Habsburg monarchy, to see how the situation covered here arose in the first place.

Next up is more graphic novel fun (most likely either Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin or A Bride’s Story), then Tanizuki Junichiro’s In Praise of Shadows.…

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75 Books in 2015 – II and III (Spice & Wolf)

When was the last time I managed to post on consecutive days? For that matter, when was the last time I posted on consecutive weeks?

Also, how should I format post titles? Heck if I know.

Anyway, I can knock out graphic novels pretty quickly, as evidenced by getting through volumes nine and ten of Koume Keito’s adaptation of Spice & Wolf. The first thing I noticed about these volumes is that I had totally forgotten what was going on in the plot at this point; such are the dangers of letting so much time pass between reading installments of an ongoing story. Confusing things further is that it seems to be a little past where I am in the original novels (vol. 6), but Koume also makes a few changes here and there.

In any case, once I got my bearings, it’s a pleasant enough story, though I’d only recommend it to people who are already big fans of either the novels or the anime adaptation. The artwork is decent enough, but it’s not really worth getting excited about, either. It makes for an enjoyable break between longer, denser books (like Iron Kingdom and The Habsburg Monarchy, in my case), and that’s about it.…

Read More 75 Books in 2015 – II and III (Spice & Wolf)

75 Books in 2015 – I (Iron Kingdom)

As I mentioned in the 2014 year-end post, I’m going to make an attempt at this challenge at LibraryThing to read 75 books in 2015. You can find my specific thread here, but I’ll also be sharing my progress on this weblog and use the thread mostly as a means of “officially” entering the challenge and to talk with any other LibraryThing members who care to stop by. I won’t be doing full reviews of these books; in most cases I’ll probably just share a few things I liked or didn’t, maybe a notable passage or two, and whether I recommend it or not.

I don’t have a particular strategy going in, and honestly have no idea how many books I typically read in a year. It generally takes longer than I’d like to get through prose books, which lowers my books-per-year average, but I also read a fair number of graphic novels, which typically don’t take me very long.

I probably will try to pick a few “themes” to focus my reading somewhat; with Mishima Yukio last year, I simply alternated between one of his novels and something, anything else, ending with a biography about him. So, I was able to make some progress on just one author, since every other book I read was by or about him, but didn’t get burned out, since I had several other things mixed in. This year, my first goal is to get through the stack of books I got for my birthday and Christmas; after that, I’ll probably focus on either reading more of William Shakespeare, or an array of political writers or philosophers (e.g., Joseph de Maistre and Julius Evola). We’ll see.

In any case, I finished book #1 today, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark. Recently I’ve felt that I need to deepen my knowledge of history, and I’ve seen recommendations for this one, so it seemed like a good start for that project. Clark’s writing is clear, and I appreciate that he doesn’t appear to have an axe to grind, even though Prussian history can get especially controversial around the issue of Prussian “militarism.” He says in the introduction, “The polarized judgments that abound in contemporary debate (and in parts of the historical literature) are problematic, not just because they impoverish the complexity of the Prussian experience, but also because they compress its history into a national teleology of German guilt.”

I also appreciate that he distributes his attention mostly equally across the entire time period covered by the book, rather than giving disproportionate space to, say, just the modern era. He does jump over a few subjects quickly, which is unavoidable in a one-volume history covering several centuries; there’s less about Wilhelm I and II than I’d like, for example. One small thing that annoyed me is that he uses typically uses anglicised names, so “Friedrich” is “Frederick,” “Wilhelm” is “William,” and so on.

So, that’s one book down, seventy-four to go. Next up I’ll knock out a couple graphic novels that I’ve had sitting around, then move on to a related subject with A.J.P. Taylor’s The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918.…

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Uncle Walt-a-thon: The Jungle Book

<- Uncle Walt-a-thon: Sword in the Stone

It gives me a little sense of pride that mine must be one of the few blogs that can post a review of The Jungle Book right after a post on Doctor Zhivago, and it’s not even out-of-place.

Anyway, I already wrote up a closer for this series, but I did want to include The Jungle Book since it was the last film Disney worked on (though he passed away while it was still in production). Also, it was likely my favourite film as a child. I couldn’t even guess how many times I watched this movie before I turned ten, but it was enough that, even though I haven’t seen it in a solid decade-and-a-half, I could still remember every scene, almost every line, even. Only Robin Hood and Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day are even in the same ballpark for my favourite and most-watched childhood films.…

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An Uncle Walt-a-thon Round-Up

I’ve already covered each major Walt Disney film individually as part of my Uncle Walt-a-thon project (except The Jungle Book, but he died during the production of that one and Netflix doesn’t have it, so I’m skipping it), but it occurs to me that I haven’t yet shared any thoughts of the project as a whole. So, here are some general impressions and a highlight reel.

Overall, there weren’t any surprises. Based on my childhood memories of these films, I expected a bunch of well-animated children’s films, and that’s what I got. The stories are fairly standard fare for family films, so what interested me most going in was to see how animation improved or changed over time.

Well, the animation quality did improve somewhat from one film to another, but Alice in Wonderland was the last one that was especially striking, visually, though there was a change in style with 101 Dalmatians. There are just a few highlights for fans of animation as such: Snow White, the “Pink Elephants on Parade” in Dumbo, much of Fantasia, Alice in Wonderland, and perhaps 101 Dalmatians. If I were teaching a class on animation, I suppose those five films would be the ones I’d include.

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Uncle Walt-a-thon: Sword in the Stone

<– Uncle Walt-a-thon: 101 Dalmatians

Besides the English setting, Sword in the Stone has another common Disney trope in that it opens with a picture of a book with some narration. This may have had some novelty value the first time they did this, and I understand that they’re trying to create a certain feeling for the story, but setting up the story with straight narration like this is very easy, and having seen it multiple times now it also feels cheap. Was it just obligatory at this point?

At least the opening narration was partly sung and rhymed this time.…

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Uncle Walt-a-thon: 101 Dalmatians

<- Uncle Walt-a-thon: Sleeping Beauty

It’s another dog story set in London. This does allow some cameos from Lady and the Tramp side characters, but between these two films and Peter Pan, part of me wonders whether it’s just a coincidence that Disney chose to adapt three works all set in England so shortly after each other (more than that if one includes Alice in Wonderland and Sword in the Stone). Just a fondness for the setting?

Anyway, I watched 101 Dalmatians many, many times as a child, but one thing I didn’t remember is that the art style here really feels hand-drawn. Obviously every film has been produced prior to CG animation, but look at this frame, for example:

dalmatians2

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Maynguh Memories of Japanese Japanese Comics

clampSo, say you’ve started taking Japanese classes. What do you want to do, especially if you’re a bibliophile like me? Start reading, right? Novels and poetry are pretty tough, though, so you go to the next best thing – comics, which you’ve just discovered are not mayn-guhs but manga. I mean, hey, they’ve got pictures and stuff to help you out, so they’ll be easy, right?

I won’t say “wrong,” but they’re not really “easy,” either. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, it depends on which series you have the fortune (or misfortune) of picking out. My experience with Japanese comics in the original language started inauspiciously with the first two volumes of CLAMP’s X, which I found at a Half Price Books. It may as well have been printed in Mandalay, for all I could get out of it; a few years later I got an English edition, which only improved matters slightly but did show me that the density is not a bug but a feature, so I needn’t feel too bad about getting totally lost in the Japanese volume.

As a general point, though, already knowing the story does help immensely in following these comics. I fared much better with another CLAMP series, Cardcaptor Sakura, which I’d read in English not too long before. Being written at a generally lower level helps, too.…

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Uncle Walt-a-thon: Sleeping Beauty

<- Uncle Walt-a-thon: Lady and the Tramp

In some ways, Sleeping Beauty is a revised version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, since both adapt fairly simple fairy tales that don’t seem to lend themselves to a feature-length film. Disney has covered wide variety of subjects in his films so far, so it’s sometimes difficult to compare them, but these two lend themselves to comparison.

Of course, Sleeping Beauty does offer better animation than its predecessor. The backgrounds are gorgeously detailed, and the first part of the film has an unusual, flat look to it from the lack of shading, making it reminiscent of simple storybook illustrations. Snow White is also visually appealing, but the extra two decades of refinement shows in the newer work.

The main difference between them, though, is in how they attempt to fill out an eighty-five minute run time. Snow White did so mostly with music. This kept the film entertaining without trying to pad out a very simple plot, but does have some drawbacks. We know next-to-nothing about the world outside the dwarves’ cottage; all we know about the prince, for example, is that he’s handsome, has a good singing voice, and isn’t afraid to kiss a girl while she’s asleep.…

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Uncle Walt-a-thon: Lady and the Tramp

<- Uncle Walt-a-thon: Peter Pan

Maybe I should’ve saved that “still better than Cinderella” line for Lady and the Tramp instead of using it with Peter Pan. After all, Peter Pan is a different kind of story; it’s an adventure story, whereas Cinderella and Lady are “watch the characters not do much of anything except [in Lady‘s case] eat spaghetti and chase a rat” stories.

Now, I’ll willingly grant that perhaps I’m not being entirely fair; perhaps it is largely my fault for being bored because there’s not enough action. As I’ve said before, my main interest in animation is animation, and with a few exceptions I don’t have much patience for works that don’t play to the strength of their medium. Besides, I’m outside the target audience for these films, and I did like Lady and the Tramp alright as a child. I certainly can’t fault the quality of the animation, and there’s nothing major wrong with the plot, it’s just not interesting to me as an adult.…

Read More Uncle Walt-a-thon: Lady and the Tramp