Sunday, July 01, 2007

Reading List 

Well, it's that season--time again for the local library's summer reading club (the theme this year is "Discover a Galaxy of Books"). Adults (i.e., college students & up) who finish six books can get a library and tote bag, which I thought would be handy for the volume of books I tend to ferry to and from the library. So I've managed to finish six books. (A couple of them are books I finished while in Japan, but during the dates of the reading club, so I figured they counted.) Go Go Gadget mini-review system!

1. Three Kingdoms (vol.3), by Luo Guanzhong (trans. Moss Roberts). Three Kingdoms (sometimes known as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the inspiration for the long-running Koei game series of the same name) is one of the "four great novels" of Chinese literature. Ancient Chinese is a very compact language--extremely compact--and a copy of Three Kingdoms can be crammed into about 500 pages in Chinese if you want to (the text does get small, though). Moss Roberts' translation runs to significantly more than 2,000 pages in four volumes. It's not his fault--English is just that much more verbose.

Well, this is volume 3. This massive epic begins with one of the most famous incidents in Asian literature--Liu Bei, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu swear fealty to each other in the peach garden, vowing to support the declining Han dynasty. By volume 3, most of the heroes who began the novel are dead and the new generation has come to the fore (not unlike the second "part" of the Tale of Genji). The book is certainly not for everyone. I continue to be mystified as to why I am enjoying it (I started it several times and failed miserably before starting it yet again earlier this year and suddenly loving it). I choose not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but all I can say is to approach with caution. But apparently, the right kind of person can enjoy it.

Moss Roberts' translation is decent. It is clearly the product of a scholar, but it's readable. I haven't yet read the other major translation, the older C.H. Brewitt-Taylor version, so I can't compare much. Roberts' translation has the benefit of the translator's copious (sometimes to the point of being overwhelming) notes, which explain the timeline, give background on major events and characters, and often cite the commentary of Mao Zonggang, whose edition of Three Kingdoms Roberts is translating. (The other major pasttime of the notes is to remark upon differences between Mao's version and other editions of the novel; it's an interesting window into the role of politics and personal bias in ancient editing.)

The one thing to watch out for is that the edition cited above, published by Beijing's Foreign Languages Press, seems to have been copyedited by someone who doesn't speak English (and this may not be too far from the truth). Typos abound, sometimes simply transposing a letter to create a word that doesn't exist, sometimes causing the name of one character to become the name of another because so many of them (and there are a lot of them) have such similar names. If you can get past that, you might enjoy the book. Again, I recommend a cautious-but-hopeful approach.

2. The Haiku Handbook, by William J. Higginson. Subtitled "How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku," Higginson's handbook is probably as comprehensive an introduction to haiku as has been prepared in English. It delivers essentially what it promises, and in a readable, friendly style that should feel fairly kind to new would-be haiku writers. One of Higgison's major concerns is breaking through the notion, indoctrinated in so many of us by well-meaning English teachers, that a haiku must have 5-7-5 syllables and be about nature. He stresses that haiku can be about almost anything and can take a wide variety of forms. The point is that these forms are always brief, focused, and use images to communicate emotions.

The book is not perfect: published in the late '80s, Higginson's list of haiku magazines could probably stand a new edition, and the materials on teaching, while helpful, feel somewhat sparse (just a couple of chapters). But anyone wanting to find out just what a haiku is, and what it means to write one, should find this book rewarding.

3. 美しい町・上, by Kaneko Misuzu. The title is Utsukushii Machi - jyou (Beautiful Town, Part 1), and is a collection of poems by the 20th-century poetess Kaneko Misuzu. It's the first in a series of six books prepared in honor of her 100th birthday in 2003; three handwritten notebooks containing all of her poetry in her own hand were discovered, and have been broken down into six volumes.

Kaneko Misuzu is an interesting story. She died at about 27 years old. She had divorced her husband, who had contracted a sexual disease in the pleasure quarters, and demanded custody of their daughter. He refused, and Misuzu killed herself as an act of protest. She managed to write pretty prolifically in that short lifetime--this series, her complete works, contains something like 500 poems. And the poems are fascinating. Misuzu referred to them as "children's rhymes"; the language is usually fairly simple, and the poems are usually based in one simple image or event. (Often these images are drawn from Misuzu's own childhood, which was spent in a small fishing village.) And yet many of the poems show a depth and profundity that can surprise even an adult.

An Amazon search on Misuzu's name fails to turn up any English volumes of her verse, so for the time being English readers are denied this lovely work. But anyone who can read Japanese owes it to themselves to explore this woman's work.

4. Spring Essence, by Ho Xuan Hong (trans. John Balaban). This is a collection of poems by the Vietnamese poetess Ho Xuan Hong. She broke convention by writing poems that challenged the largely male establishment. In addition, many of her poems played on the complex tone system of the Vietnamese language to contain a "second" poem along with the surface meaning; these poems were usually lewd in nature. Balaban does his best to replicate this effect in English. It does work in cases where the play is on a suggestive image, but when it's in the form of a word play (often two words that can be put in reverse order to make a crude meaning), it usually gets lost in translation. Balaban includes these cases in his endnotes. Some of the double-entendre poems are actually pretty amusing, although sometimes I felt like a high-schooler for laughing at them. But often, Ho will leave off the overt sex jokes for a subtle image from daily life (sometimes bound with a subtle sexual implication for yuks), and those are some of her most powerful poems. In one poem, she asks why we struggle so much, concluding that "Nirvana is here / nine times out of ten."

5. A Marginal Jew, Vol. I, by John P. Meier. Subtitled "The Roots of the Problem and the Person", this is the first part of John Meier's massive, landmark study of the historical Jesus. The "historical Jesus" refers to the man, Jesus of Nazareth, as distinct from the image of him as Son of God and Savior of the World, which is known among scholars as the "Jesus of faith." In this volume, Meier introduces us to the tools and methods used in "searching" for the historical Jesus, then delves into issues of sources, and later begins attempting to put together a picture of what we can and do know about Jesus. Topics include his family life, what languages he did or didn't speak, and so on.

John Meier is a very well-known name in the field of New Testament studies, and it's easy to see why: his scholarship is some of the most thorough-going out there. The main text of the book is written for a general readership, and is remarkably approachable, but each chapter also contains voluminous endnotes that give much greater detail on certain subjects for the interested. The word for Meier's process is transparent, because he shows you his thoughts every step of the way, no wondering how he got from Point A to Conclusion B.

This book is long and takes dedication to get through--though Meier consciously writes for a lay audience, this is by no means light reading. But it's also extremely rewarding and fascinating, as Meier presents his own theories and analyses (and often dismantles) those of his peers on solid, scholarly grounds. The so-called quest of the historical Jesus is often a challenging one for Christians, who must each decide what the "Jesus of history" means to their own faith. But anyone with an open mind and a seeking heart should find this book worth the time and effort.

6. Dave Barry Does Japan, by Dave Barry. As fine a piece of satire on Japan as has ever been written, Dave Barry Does Japan seems to get funnier every time I read it. The more you know about Japan, the more you see that Barry--despite his claims to the contrary--either understands Japan better than he says, or has a lot of accidental insight. No student of Japan can fail to chuckle in recognition as Barry skews the Japanese writing system, or translates the Japanese word "yes" as the English word "no." In its way, Barry's book--which is naturally devoid of the prentension that often haunts these gaijin-goes-east travelogues--is more informative about what you'll actually find in Japan than many books on the subject. Anyone with an interest in Japan needs to read this book.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

All Things New 

Tried to get back here while in Japan...but Japanese Blogger wouldn't play nice with me for some reason. Seems to be working fine now that I'm back in the States. I'm not promising I'm actually coming back to blogging or anything, I'm just testing it out...storing it up against future potentials, one might say.



Friday, August 11, 2006

A Few Randoms 

It's now eight days (!) until I get on a plane to Beijing. Z. got us tickets to see a performance of Peking Opera on August 27th. I'm really excited--it looks so interesting.

I've been making lists--lists of necessities, books I'd prospectively like to take along, and the e-mail addresses of people I want to send e-mail updates to. (My prospects for seriously keeping up this blog while in Japan are, well...not high. Right now I'm not making any promises about anything, to anyone.)

IES (the study-abroad organization) finally got me my COE (the thing I need to get a visa), so today my dad & I ran up into the city (not literally) to apply for my visa. The guy at the consulate thinks we'll have it by Tuesday. We hope so.

I'm listening to Guster. "Ganging Up on the Sun" is a great album, it really is, but there's something about the clean but smaller sound of "Keep It Together" that I just like.

In-studio showdown between Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on The Daily Show the night of 8/10: hilarious. "Apologize!"

Coming out soon in theaters: "The Descent", "Pulse", and probably others. I feel like we've had a steady flow of horror films in the last few years. I always thought of them as Halloween things. Were they always being released even in the summer? Because I feel like there's a glut these days. Did it start with "The Ring"?

Random translation of classical Japanese poetry:

The plovers crying as they pass
From Suma, to Awaji Isle--
O guardsman, do they wake you?
Many a sleepless night you've had!


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Powered by The Fray 

Today I downloaded (legally! on iTunes) The Fray's new "official bootleg," Live at the Electric Factory. It's your average live disc, and, unfortunately, doesn't shine as much as I was hoping it would.

The primary problem is that most of the songs sound about like they do on the album. The Fray only have one CD to date ("How to Save a Life"), which limits their song selection. I'm a little surprised that they apparently are not playing any of the songs from their "Reason" EP to add variety to the show. All seven tracks on that disc (lamentably, now difficult to find) are superb, and songs like "Some Trust" or "Without Reason" seem like they would make great concert pieces.

I think of Coldplay's main live album, "Coldplay Live 2003", on which most of the songs are familiar but something is usually just a little different (or, in the case of the eight-minute "sing-along" version of Everything's Not Lost, a lot different). Part of the fun of live albums is hearing a slightly different take on your favorite songs. "Live at the Electric Factory" suffers from not injecting very much of this variety.

There are a couple of exceptions, however. "Vienna" clearly shows that they've had the most time to develop it (it was on the "Reason" EP and also made the final cut for "How to Save a Life"), and it's simply superb. The slower, longer version on this live disc takes out some of the tension in the original cut and highlights the melancoly, sorrowful side of the tune. Even if you don't buy the full album, fans of The Fray should certainly download this track individually.

The other major exception is the closing track, "Trust Me". The 13-minute performance seems to aim for "epic" but is hindered by the fact that not much original happens in the extra time, and it ends up falling flat.

The disc is by no means "bad"--all the songs sound fine, and the recording quality is top-notch--but it doesn't differentiate itself much from the same songs on the album. I felt that the live versions on the bonus CD packed in with early copies of "How to Save a Life" showed ingenuity, and I was hoping for the same sort of take on all their songs with "Live at the Electric Factory". The album is not without merit, but will probably appeal mostly to a hard-core audience. With the exception of "Vienna", casual Fray fans should probably pass.


Sunday, August 06, 2006

A Story 

I know, it's been a long time since I blogged. I just haven't felt like it, and haven't had much to say. Here's a story to tide you over. (It's my telling, but the tale itself is traditional.)


Long ago in Japan, it was the practice that an itinerant monk, of which there were many, could stay a night at a temple if he could defeat the master of the temple, or his chosen proxy, in a theological debate.

Now, there was a particular temple which was overseen by two brothers. The elder was quick-witted and cunning, the second--who had only one eye from an accident sustained in his youth--was rather slower and naive. One night a traveling monk came to the temple seeking lodging.

The elder brother met him and asked him to wait in a small side garden while he arranged for the debate. The traveler agreed and went off. The head monk went to get his brother. "I want you to go to debate with that man," he told him, "but don't say a single word!"

So the younger brother went to the garden where the guest was waiting. He sat down across from his oppenent and with a mutual nod they began the debate. The guest went first; he held up one finger. Then the younger brother held up two fingers. The guest held up three fingers. Suddenly the younger brother made a fist and shook it in his opponent's face.

The traveler smiled, bowed, and left the garden. As he was leaving the temple he ran into the elder brother. "Tell me about the debate," the brother said.

"Well," the guest replied, "first I held up one finger, representing the Buddha. Then he held up two fingers, representing the Buddha and man. So I held up three fingers, representing the Buddha, man, and all the created order. Then he closed all five of his fingers, indicating that they all come from the same source! It was brilliant, and I conceded defeat."

"I see," the elder brother said, and let the man take his leave.

Not long after, the younger brother dashed into the courtyard, looking furious. "Where is that no-good monk!?" he shouted. "I'll clobber him!"

"Tell me what happened during the debate," his brother said calmly.

"Well," the younger brother said, "first he held up one finger, insulting my one eye. I was angry, but he was our guest, so I held up two fingers to congratulate him on having two eyes. Then he held up three fingers, insinuating that we only have three eyes between us! I held up my fist and was about to pound his face in when he got up and walked away!"


Sunday, July 23, 2006

Opinionated Mini-Rants 

A little bit about my last six books.

1. Julius Caesar (by William Shakespeare). A story of conspiracy and the murder of a great ruler, and what happens after. Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" is reputedly one of his most disliked plays, because for quite some time it was taught alongside Caesar's own "De Bello Gallico" (The Gallic Wars) back when everyone had to learn Latin in high school. It's famous for being completely devoid of Shakespeare's usual bawdy humor, puns, and double-entendres.

"Julius Caesar" is, in fact, the first Shakespeare play I ever read. I read it in about eighth grade, in some edition that didn't have even a single note to any of the strange words and phrases. (I have no idea where I got that book.) But I really enjoyed. I feel that "Caesar" contains some of Shakespeare's most elegant language and moving speeches, a power that came through even when I didn't understand a lot of what was actually being said. Now I've come back, being able to actually read and understand Shakespeare (and reading a version with a healthy dose of notes--although I read the Pelican version and not the Folger Library edition linked above), and I still find it beautiful. It certainly is a play that will appeal more to people who appreciate the language (rather than, say, "Hamlet" or "Romeo and Juliet", which work perfectly well on just the level of story), but anyone who wants to learn about stirring oratory should study this text.

2. The Poem Behind the Poem: Translating Asian Poetry (by Frank Stewart, ed). Possibly my favorite of the six books on this list, "The Poem Behind the Poem" is a collection of essays meant to reveal to lay readers what many of them would never otherwise see--the process of translation. Specifically, the translation of Asian poetry.

When many readers hear the word "Asian," they may be inclined to think "China and Japan," and possibly also "Korea." But these essays remind us that there's much more to Asian than that--some of the translators in this collection translate poetry from Vietnamese, Khmer, and even Sanskrit (although one may notice that translators specializing in Chinese and Japanese poetry seem to make up the majority of the essays). Each essay is also followed by several poems from the author of the essay to give the reader a flavor for their work.

The essays vary in quality and relevance. Some are fascinating glimpses into the creative process of a given translator; in others, the authors expound on how translation is a magical process that takes place within their deepest being as they commune with the spirit of the poet across the gulf of ages. (Let it be known that my objection, for the most part, is not to the notion that translation may admit of some spiritual element, but rather that spending an entire essay patting yourself on the back about it is neither interesting nor informative, and moreover denies the fact that translation does involve cold, hard work at some point.)

If the essays are hit-and-miss, it is not a terrible flaw, as there are a great many of them. Most are no more than five to eight pages, which means that the best authors are able to make a bevy of interesting points and then conclude before they wear out their welcome (I confess to having a short attention span). Even so, some of the essays may be a little too technical for the completely uninitiated reader, but those willing to forge ahead and find essays that are interesting to them may get a perspective from this book that it's hard to glean anywhere else.

3. The Things They Carried (by Tim O'Brien). This is a book I read in my senior year of high school and really liked, and now I've come back to read it again. "The Things They Carried," a series of vignettes set in the Vietnam War, swear it's fiction, but acts like fact. The author includes a character with his own name in the stories, but then occasionally breaks character in other essays where he says he's mostly just making things up. His observations about what is "true" and what is "not true"--especially in the context of war stories--are insightful and sometimes almost startling. The stories weave back and forth through the book's internal timeline, visiting and revisiting certain events from different perspectives and introducing different ideas. It's an amazing, and haunting, book.

4. The Joy-Luck Club (by Amy Tan). Another collection of stories that coheres into a novel, "The Joy-Luck Club" revolves around a group of four mah-jongg playing Chinese mothers and their daughters. All of the former have come to America from China and all of the later were born in the States, and one of the major themes in the book is the conflict between "the Chinese way" and "the American way." The book has a strong set-up, and Amy Tan has a good sense of believable narration (all of the stories are told in the first person). If the book has a weakness, it is that it goes on just a little too long, and (perhaps the source of the first problem) many of the characters' situations began to run together in my mind. Sure, I might remember that Jing-Mei Woo is the woman whose mother, a founding member of the Joy-Luck Club, just died. And that Waverly Jong was a child-prodigy chess player. But the details of their present lives all seem the same: some type of marital issue, whether it's an ongoing divorce, a new husband-to-be, or just a relationship that seems dead in the water. It makes the younger women's stories (which also almost invariably include some kind of conflict/reconciliation with their mothers) a bit difficult to tell apart after a while.

That said, the novel also includes some touching moments as well as some sharply-drawn characters. Discovering the connections between the mothers as we read their stories adds an intriguing layer to the use of so many different persepctives (no less than seven women are involved in telling the different stories in the book). Even if it may get to seem long towards the middle, "The Joy-Luck Club" is worth its fine portrayals of family.

5. The Truth (with jokes) (by Al Franken). The comedian-cum-political commentator that conservatives love to hate (and liberals love to love) is back. In this sequel to his bestselling "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them", Al Franken updates us on the miasma of untruth that is suffocating Washington. He reveals, among other things, how the Bush administration deceived America into a war with Iraq, how the Bush administration deceived America about a Social Security crisis (hint: it involved calculating numbers over an infinite horizon, with an average lifespan of 150 and a retirement age of 65), and how the Bush administration has been deceiving itself the whole way along.

No one can argue that Franken is impartial. He has his own agenda to push. But even so, there are some things (such as the aforementioned Social Security calculations) that are just ridiculous. Everyone makes mistakes. There are also times when you mishear something, or misinterpret what you did hear, or say something wrong. And then there are times when you flat-out, knowingly lie through your teeth, and that's something the Republicans seem to have been doing a lot of lately. Any reader should be shocked by at least some of what they learn in this book.

If I have one particular complaint about this book, it's that it doesn't pack the humorous punch that "Lies" did. That's not to say it's not funny. There are some good jokes and a few genuine thigh-slappers. But the humor is, on the whole, more bitter and angry than it was in the last book. Maybe you can't blame Franken, clearly still smarting from the debacle that was the 2004 Bush-Kerry election race. But the whole cast of the book still feels a little darker (plus it could've done without the last chapter, a self-congratulatory "letter to his grandkids" in which Franken fantasizes that every Liberal dream has come true by the year 2015). Although the book is worth reading (albeit frustrating, in that you realize how helpless you are in the face of an administration that couldn't care less about telling the truth), the jokes, as indicated by the title, feel a little bit...well, parenthetical.

6. Naked Pictures of Famous People (by Jon Stewart). Again with the comedic commentators. Lately I've been re-reading The Daily Show's brilliant "America: The Book (A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction)," which is just killer funny (bonus mini-review!). So I thought I would check out Jon Stewart's previous book, "Naked Pictures of Famous People". It's a collection of brief essays in which Stewart skewers famous figures (and occasionally major religions). But I have to confess, I didn't find it nearly as attractive as "America".

For starters, many of the essays have very specific targets--the Kennedys, for instance, or Lenny Bruce. And if you aren't really familiar with those people, then the deeper humor of the essays is often lost on you. Meanwhile, many of the essays make their trade in bending, breaking, shattering the bounds of good taste, something that simply won't appeal to all readers. It makes me feel like Jon Stewart is trading in juvenile humor when we know he's capable of so much more (he even demonstrates as much in this very book; see essays like "The Devil and William Gates"). The essays, to their creidt, are extremely short, quick reads, so no one of them ever begins to drag. (The book as a whole is, similarly, an exceptionally brief read.)

Though Stewart's fans will find that there is some to love in this book ("Adolf Hitler: The Larry King Interview" is a twisted gem), it may not appeal to a more general readership, and even those introduced to Stewart's writing by "America: The Book" may find themselves disappointed.


Over and out.


Saturday, July 22, 2006

Reading List II 

Six more books. Meanwhile, I'm in the middle of, like, a thousand.

1. Julius Caesar (William Shakespeare)
2. The Poem Behind the Poem (Frank Stewart, ed.)
3. The Things They Carried (Tim O'Brien)
4. The Joy-Luck Club (Amy Tan)
5. The Truth (with jokes) (Al Franken)
6. Naked Pictures of Famous People (Jon Stewart)


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