Category: special series

Genshiken Second Season v. 6-7 (75 Books LXII – LXIII)

Kio Shimoku’s Genshiken: Second Season is a tough comic for me to review, because I can’t help comparing it to the original run of Genshiken. Part of what I liked so much about the original, though, was that I could relate to it back in college. Since then, though, not only has the comic changed significantly, but I’ve changed as well.

I first read Genshiken early in college, and loved it right away. The setting, a college anime club, doesn’t sound all that exciting, but it has a few things going for it. At the time, anime was just starting to take over as my primary hobby, and I was also getting very involved in one of the student organisations at my university. Furthermore, I could see a lot of myself in two of the main characters, Sasahara and Madarame, and the whole cast seemed like a group I could see myself hanging out with.

Now, Genshiken is rather open-ended, and doesn’t really have an overarching story, and since it’s basically about the club it could conceivably just go on forever, with new characters being introduced at the beginning of each school year. However, it started with Sasahara at the beginning of his freshman year, and we follow him over the next four years as he grows from a being a socially awkward nerd not quite comfortable with his own hobby to him graduating having become fairly self-confident and getting a job within the comics industry. It sounds simple, but I can’t help but think back on my university years while thinking about it, the people I met, how I changed over those four years, and the Genshiken cast feels like they were a part of it. Beginning and ending with Sasahara lets us see a full “generation” of members, giving it a feeling of closure and mirroring the experience one has with a real university club, where by the time one graduates it’s a mostly different group of people from one’s freshman year.

However, a few years after Genshiken ended, Kio decided to continue the comic, picking up where the original run ended. At this point, he could either basically do the same comic again, or take it in a new direction. The former would probably be enjoyable but a bit pointless, so he changed it. That’s probably for the best since otaku culture has changed, and it makes sense for a comic about that scene to change with it. For me, though, this presents a couple of problems. First, I’m several years out of college by now, and secondly my interest in anime and that whole fandom has severely dwindled. Furthermore, the Genshiken members are now almost all women, which is in keeping with trends in both Japan and the United States, but makes for a completely different dynamic, and one that’s much more difficult for me to relate to.

So already, from a purely subjective standpoint, this is no longer the comic I enjoyed back at college. There are also a few changes in tone, I think. Previously, especially after the first volume or two, the characters were relatively realistic; I could see most of these guys existing in the real world. Now there are two major characters, Sue and Kuchiki, who come across as much more off-the-wall than anyone else. They were introduced late in the original run, but receive much more attention now. The plot has also, as of these two volumes, taken a turn where Madarame, the nerdiest nerd of all of them, has built up a small harem. Now, Genshiken as a harem comedy isn’t totally out of left field, I suppose; Madarame isn’t really more implausible of a chick magnet than a lot of harem protagonists, and Kio is doubtlessly aware of this and knows what he’s doing. It’s just an odd development.

Honestly, Madarame is almost the only reason I’m still following Genshiken. The comic is fine, I suppose, but not a must-read at this point, and I just don’t care about any of the new characters. Besides, I’ve been following this story for so long now that the sunk-cost fallacy has taken hold, so I suppose I’ll just keep tagging along for as long as Kio wants to keep writing it.…

Read More Genshiken Second Season v. 6-7 (75 Books LXII – LXIII)

The Man in the High Castle (75 Books LXI)

I first read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle back in college, and at the time I loved it. The recent hype around Amazon’s adaptation of the novel made me think of it again, and I decided to re-read it to see how it holds up.

Overall, it’s still very good. The setting is 1962 with an obvious alternate history premise where the Axis Powers won the Second World War, with Germany occupying the Eastern United States, Japan the Western, with a more-or-less autonomous zone between them. How this apparently came about is plausible enough, though I must say that some of the things the Nazis have been up to are rather far-fetched. They apparently have a space programme going to Mars, have drained the Mediterranean, and have wiped out most of Africa (though something apparently went wrong with this project, but details are never explained). They’ve only just invented television, though, so reality has the advantage in idiot box technology.

Anyway, most of the story takes place in Japan-occupied San Francisco. Dick could’ve turned this into a propaganda novel and made it an outright dystopia, but the main problem for white Americans is the loss of confidence accompanying being an occupied nation; blacks and Jews do, however, have bigger problems, though much less so in Japanese territory than German. One sees this most in Robert Childan, who runs a shop selling American antiques and collectibles to Japanese clients. He’s constantly fretting about how to deal with his customers, how to show proper respect, and so on, and at one point feels guilty for selling his country’s art as curiosities to foreigners. In one interesting scene, he goes to visit a prospective client, and even speaks in a noticeably Japanified manner. When he offers this customer and his wife a gift, for example, he says, “Bagatelle for you. To display fragment of the relaxation and enjoyment I feel in being here.” This sounds like a student’s understandable-but-awkward attempts at conversing in a new language, not the speech of a native-born American.

One major theme of the book is uncertainty about what’s real and what’s not, which Dick also covered in other works like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” but it’s more fully developed here. Childan discovers that many of his products are counterfeits, two different characters have secret identities, not counting a Jewish character who’s had surgery and a name change to pass as white, and most importantly the ending, which I won’t spoil, calls the reality of everything else in the novel into question in an extremely metafictional way.

It was that ending that really sold me on the novel back in college, though it’s so out of left field that it’s more clever than satisfying as a conclusion to the story. In fact, one possible criticism of the novel is that this conclusion is only known to one character, Juliana, and the story could probably have starred only her. If Dick had written the story only about Juliana, completely writing out the other characters except for some references to her ex-husband, the story would still be complete and thematically coherent. I’m glad the other characters are there because I enjoy their stories a lot and they do expand on the themes, but strictly speaking they could be considered almost as an “expanded universe” for the novel. I don’t consider this a problem, really, it just means that the plot isn’t as tightly constructed as it could be. The only other problem is that I don’t buy Juliana’s behaviour near the climax of the novel with Joe Cinnadella, but this is only one scene in an otherwise-excellent book.

So, High Castle is just solid, A-level fiction, and it’s still one of my favourite novels. Even if you’re not generally interested in alternate history stories, this one is well worth the time to read.…

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Best Supplements for Men’s Health, Strength, and Virility (75 Books LX)

Alright, one more foray into the world of fitness blogs with another short book by P.D. Mangan, Best Supplements for Men’s Health, Strength, and Virility. It comes as-advertised, first explaining why one should consider taking supplements, then devoting a chapter each to discussing why, creatine, zinc and magnesium, vitamin D, testosterone and aromatose inhibitors, omega-3 fats, resveratrol, vitamin C, and N-acetylcysteine. He then closes the book with a chapter on diet, fasting, and exercise.

As in Muscle Up, Mangan’s writing style is direct and he does a good job summarising a number of studies in layman’s terms. He goes over the benefits of each supplement, potential problems, and recommendations on when and how much to take. There are also occasional suggestions on where to buy them. Most of these are easily available at, say, a CVS in some form, though sometimes it may be easier to look online. For example, my local drug store had magnesium oxide, but no magnesium citrate, which is apparently the type that’s most easily absorbed by the body and the lowest toxicity profile.

In any case, the book makes a good, well, supplement to Muscle Up, and is well worth looking into for anyone who’d like some guidance in the sometimes confusing world of health supplements.…

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Ideas Have Consequences (75 Books LIX)

I probably should’ve learned my lesson from reading Evola and Boethius that trying to read anything particularly sophisticated as an e-book, especially since this usually means just reading during lunch break at work, is a bad idea. However, that’s the format I owned Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences in, so that’s what I did. As with Evola and Boethius, I’ll need to re-read this someday in a dead-tree version, because I had a hard time following some of Weaver’s arguments, and I’m sure that’s my own fault.

In any case, Consequences is an ambitious work that traces the origins of Liberalism to William of Occam’s idea of nominalism, and then proceeds to demonstrate the consequences of that idea in modern art, work, property rights, and many other things. There are a couple possible dangers to this sort of broad approach to tracing the genealogy of Liberalism. The first is that one can oversimplify the problems one’s society faces, and start to think that one can fix it with “one weird trick” by striking at one underlying issue. The other is that Rightists sometimes turn this into almost a parlour game or a competition of “Rightier than thou” by tracing the origin of Liberalism back farther and farther, until one starts to wonder if perhaps the Code of Hammurabi is what ruined everything. Fortunately, Weaver avoids both of these potential problems.

Though he wrote this in 1948, both the general thesis and Weaver’s specific examples are still very much relevant. While discussing education, for example, he writes:

[Americans] have built numberless high schools, lavish in equipment, only to see them, under the prevailing scheme of values, turned into social centers and institutions for improving the personality, where teachers, living in fear of constituents, dare not enforce scholarship. They have built colleges on an equal scale, only to see them turned into playgrounds for grown-up children or centers of vocationalism and professionalism. Finally, they have seen pragmatists, as if in peculiar spite against the very idea of hierarchy, endeavoring to turn classes into democratic forums, where the teacher is only a moderator, and no one offends by presuming to speak with superior knowledge.

This is still true today, and has only gotten worse in the decades since Weaver wrote. When writing about journalism, he makes an observation familiar to anyone used to seeing mainstream journalists compare anyone and anything vaguely Right-wing to National Socialism: “I have felt that the way in which newspapers raked over every aspect of Adolf Hitler’s life and personality since the end of the war shows that they really have missed him; they now have no one to play anti-Christ against the bourgeois righteousness they represent.”

Consequences is one of those books that one can quote almost in its entirety, but it’s most effective, of course, read together. So, I’ll just say that it’s deservedly one of the relatively few classics of the American Right, and one of the best books I’ve read this year.…

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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.…

Read More Joan (75 Books LV – LVII)

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.…

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

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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