|Reading: Summer 2003|
8/31/03 -- Finished The Emperor and the Wolf. The book really isn't a biography; it's more of an annotated history of the films of Kurosawa and Mifune. It's a pretty dense read as a result, though it's not really 848 pages of text (see below), as it has a long filmography at the end. It's actually around 650 pages of text. I enjoyed reading about some of the films, but it's hard to get really excited reading about the details of the making of a movie after you've been told that Mifune only did it to make some quick cash, and it's never been released in the West, for instance. I would have liked to hear more about the lives of the two principals, but the book only talks about their lives insofar as they affect the film-making. Still, it's a great reference, and it roused my interest enough that I ordered DVD copies of some of the great Kurosawa movies -- Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo.
8/24/03 -- Started reading The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, by Stuart Galbraith IV. This was given to me by Rob Dillon, a theater professor who is a big Kurosawa fan. I like Kurosawa too -- Dersu Uzala was one of my favorite movies when I was in college. A friend of mine and I used to yell "Dersuuuuu!" "Capeetannnn!" at each other across the campus at U. of Az. Yes, we were geeks. Anyway, it's a big ol' book -- 848 pages. The author made it a dual biography because the two careers were so intertwined -- all of Mifune's great movies were directed by Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai, for instance), and Mifune starred in some of Kurosawa's greatest films. It's an interesting book so far, but it's pretty dense; the author attempts to make it a reference work for students of their films, so he has included plot synopses, cast names, etc. for every film either of them made. Still, if you can wade through all that, it's a fascinating look at the development of the movie industry in Japan, especially during rebuilding after WWII. More on this one later.
8/23/03 -- Finished reading Pope Joan. This was a novel about the life of the legendary female pope of the middle ages; the author, in a final note, argues that she was real, although I don't think very convincingly. Maybe so, but it really doesn't matter for the purposes of the book as a novel. It was readable, and actually something of a page-turner. The writing was okay if not remarkable, except in the passages involving sex and love, which read like a poor quality gothic romance. I actually gave this book to my daughter Hannah on her birthday, and she read it first. We agreed that the main failing of the book was the way that Joan had every brilliant idea that has ever been conceived, while everyone else in the book was an idiot. She single-handedly invents (or rediscovers) scientific medical practice, judicial reasoning, the theological problem of evil, and maybe flush toilets -- I was skimming in spots and could have missed it. Furthermore, everyone in the book who has strong religious conviction is portrayed as an ignorant, superstitious zealot. All those books that she was reading were preserved by monks, and not because they were hoping to bring about the Enlightenment -- you'd think a few of them might have been both religious and intellectual, but who knows. Basically, the author constructs Joan as a modern feminist transposed to 9th century Europe, and proceeds to judge all of her contemporaries by modern standards. Although actual historical events of the time are incorporated into the book, and I found that interesting, the one-dimensional characterizations did nothing to bring medieval people to life. The book also has some questions for book group discussion at the end, which appeared suitable for a junior high English class.
8/21/03 -- At home again, I've just finished reading The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. It's the story of a single mother and her genius son, whom she educates mainly by giving in when he insists on learning things. So he winds up having read books in about a dozen languages by the age of 11. His burning desire, though, is to find his father; or more properly to find a suitable father. He seeks such a man, modeling the search on the tactics used in Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. It's an amazing book on many levels, not least for the snippets of numerous languages, branches of science, and mathematical ideas that pop up every other page. It's also an indictment of our educational system, as if it needed one. We do have a curious way of ruining all branches of knowledge for our children. I strongly recommend this one.
or so -- Somewhere in there, after I got home, I read another book by
The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove. I
wonder if this title is intentionally reminiscent of The Shy
Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek, a book both my wife and I loved as kids.
Needless to say, this one is a bit racier. Also exceedingly funny
and well written. At one point he describes the cigarette ash
falling on a bartender's blouse as being like "the smoking turds of tiny
ghost poodles," a turn of phrase that is worth the price of the book
just in itself.
8/15/03 -- So, having finished the book I took to Madison for entertainment, I cast about for something else. I was visiting my daughter there (while attending a conference), and she had Dave Barry's new novel Tricky Business. I liked the previous one, Big Trouble, so I read this one. It was much like the other -- funny, fast-paced, and leavened with occasional glimmers of social commentary about my exceedingly weird home state. I also read about half of a book on promoting discussion in on-line courses, but I'll write about that when I've finished it.
8/14/03 -- Finished reading Christopher Moore's Fluke. Moore has written several novels, most of which are essentially science fiction, though his wit and literary skill transcend the genre. But that makes me one of those people who deny that anything well-written is actually science fiction, and then complain that science fiction is all so poorly written. So, fine, it's science fiction. Fluke is about whale researchers who discover a rather amazing and improbable deception. It's very funny and a great read. It also has some surprisingly insightful peeks into the life of a scientist, much of which consists of mind-numbing boredom collecting mounds of data that one secretly doubts will be worth anything to anyone. When occasionally something actually appears to be leading somewhere, it's hard to find time to eat or sleep while you work on it.
8/11/03 -- Finished the third volume of The Civil War. As various wits have mentioned to me, you probably already know how it comes out. It's an interesting question what would have happened had Lincoln not been assassinated. Johnson, of course, wasn't radical enough for the republicans, and was eventually impeached, though not convicted. Lincoln was a much more astute politician, and might have managed a better compromise between the radical and conservative forms of reconstruction. In any case, former slaves were dispossessed of all the wealth they had generated in the South, and the consequences are still with us. The generals on both sides come off much more nobly than the politicians -- and Grant himself was much better as one of the former than the latter.
|7/27/03 -- Finished the
second volume of The Civil War and started on the third. It's
amazing how much more war is still ahead, although it seems that the
outcome was obvious by this point. After the fall of Vicksburg
opened the Mississippi to the Union, and the fall of Chattanooga opened
the Southern interior to invasion, there could have been little doubt.
7/14/03 -- I finished the
first volume of
The Civil War
and started on the second.
Shelby Foote is one of the best writers of history for a lay audience in
the world. I can't say enough about this great book. What can
I say? I guess one thing that sticks in my mind is how the conduct
of war has changed since then. I've just finished reading about
Fredericksburg, during which Burnside repeatedly had various units of
Union troops charge across an open plain toward a line of hills, on top of
which Lee's men had entrenched cannon. The Union troops were
slaughtered, of course. It's hard to imagine modern soldiers
actually obeying such an order; not that they're not brave or disciplined
enough, but it seems that the enthusiasm for "just following orders"
has been damaged irreparably by the experiences of the twentieth century.
Oh, yeah, somewhere in here I read most of Groovitude, which is a compilation of two Get Fuzzy cartoon books by Darby Conley. This is the only comic strip currently going that routinely causes me to laugh out loud.
6/29 -- Finished reading
the new Harry Potter. I enjoyed it a lot; my daughters (who are
plenty old enough to know better) were traumatized by the ending, but I'd
heard enough from them about it that I wasn't too surprised. I think
that Rowling is doing a good job of letting the material mature along with
the characters, so that the plots and people are becoming more complex. In
this sense I'm reminded a bit of The Once and Future King, by
T.H. White. The first volume,
The Sword in the Stone, is
about King Arthur's childhood, and it's basically a children's book.
By the third volume, which deals with his cuckoldry by his best friend and
his death at the hands of his illegitimate son, it's definitely a book for
adults. Not that Rowling's series is anything like the literary
achievement of White's but it's very readable and entertaining.
Next up: back to The Civil War.
|6/26 -- Finished reading
The Impending Crisis. Next, of course, is the new Harry
Potter. Yes, I'm going from David Potter to Harry Potter, for what
|6/19 -- I'm about halfway
through The Impending Crisis. Actually I cheated a bit
and read about the first hundred pages of the first volume of The Civil
War, because I accidentally left The Impending Crisis at work
on Friday. Right now John Brown has just massacred several
pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, and both the Whig and Democratic parties
are falling apart due to sectionalism. This is a very good book, and
I think Potter is very balanced in his approach, and he is careful to point out the abuses and propagandizing by both sides. The major point that clearly comes through to me, though, is that slavery was undoubtedly the central issue that caused the war. I have heard it argued, and Potter discusses the views, that the causes were economic or cultural differences, but at best this is just another way of saying the same thing. The South had a distinctive economy and culture prior to the Civil War, but that economy and culture were fundamentally dependent on slavery. There was an uneasy mood of mutual toleration between north and south after the Missouri Compromise in 1820, and it lasted until the Mexican war brought us essentially the whole of the western U.S. This vast territory had to be organized, and the South wanted slavery to expand into it, while the North did not. To the South, excluding slavery was excluding Southerners, because their entire way of life relied on slaves to prop it up. Certainly there were plenty of southerners who owned no slaves, but they had little or no political power, and furthermore to the extent that they had anything beyond subsistence, they were part of the slave economy.
6/13 -- Started re-reading David M. Potter's The Impending Crisis. It's a history of the United States from 1848 to 1861, exploring the causes and personalities in the events leading up to the Civil War. I read it a couple of years ago, and it's worth a second look. As usual in the summer, I've started reading Civil War history. This has become sort of a tradition for me -- sometime during the summer I'll probably be re-reading Shelby Foote's three-volume The Civil War, and also James McPherson's one-volume history, Battle Cry of Freedom. So I guess I'm one of those people obsessed by the Civil War, though I do wear modern underwear (see below).
6/12 or so... A grad student in the department loaned me her copy of Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz. Horwitz is a reporter for the New York Times who traveled through the South talking to people who are, in various ways, obsessed with the Civil War. He bivouacs with "hardcore" Civil War reenactors (who prefer to be called "living historians", and wear authentic 1860s clothes down to the underwear, eat only 1860s-authentic food, etc. while pursuing their hobby). He visits biker bars with rebel flags on the walls, covers the trial of a young black man accused of shooting a white man who drove by with a Confederate flag flying from his pickup, etc. Horwitz' writing style is so engaging, and his careful evocation of the characters he meets is so balanced, that this book is one of the most readable works of non-fiction I've ever picked up.
6/10 or 6/11 (Writing this from memory, it's a bit vague) I just got Kage Baker's Sky Coyote. This is the second in her series about The Company, a group that, by using time travel to recruit people from the past and using futuristic medicine to make them immortal, has built up a cadre of agents who collect "lost" treasures of the past just before their destruction and put them away for the future owners to recover. The first book, The Garden of Iden, was a good read and fairly entertaining. This one was also, though it took an awfully long time to get going -- odd for the second volume in a series, where you'd think most of the exposition had already been covered. It did seem to me that a lot of the events in the book, while entertaining, didn't really go anywhere. They're collecting an entire village of Native Americans in 17th century California before they are despoiled by missionaries, colonists, etc. A prophet from a neighboring tribe sneaks in and seems about to derail the whole process by converting the villagers to his monotheistic faith... and then the agent in charge manages to get him out of the village, and nothing comes of it. With all the buildup this event had, it seems unfinished for it not to have any lasting repercussions. Maybe in the next volume, Mendoza in Hollywood. Anyway, I liked the book fairly well -- Baker's writing isn't particularly high-culture or finely crafted, but she tells a story well, and there's nothing really grating about her style. This may seem like faint praise, but so much science fiction/fantasy is so abominably written that I just can't finish a chapter, that it's worthy of note that an author doesn't annoy me.