rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
[personal profile] nineweaving reminded me that I wanted to read this. (And I am now vaguely wondering how much Beerbohm has influenced her own style.)

It's a collection of short pieces, each written in a parody of the style of a famous author of Beerbohm's day (the book came out in 1912). Each author is writing a Christmas story.

The whole thing is a work of sheer, desperate genius. Even if you aren't familiar with the writer being skewered, Beerbohm's style is so illuminatingly bitchy that you know perfectly well what mode of thing the original must have been. You can also tell, sometimes, that the original must have been good, which doesn't take out the sting at all. The writers I was familiar with-- Kipling, Conrad, Henry James, a few others-- well, it's the sort of parody that makes you shake your head ruefully and say, yes, I have to admit that that is true, even though I may like the work.

Here, for instance, is Beerbohm's Henry James:

It was with the sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it. But just where the deuce had he left it? The consciousness of dubiety was, for our friend, not, this morning, quite yet clean-cut enough to outline the figures on what she had called his "horizon," between which and himself the twilight was indeed of a quality somewhat intimidating.

I have to admit, this has always been pretty much my experience of reading Henry James. The protagonist of this story is a small child lying in bed and trying to figure out whether his sister has peeped into her Christmas stocking early, although it took me some work to determine that.

A couple of these, mind you, stand entirely on their own account, as stories, and can just be read that way. The Arnold Bennett, for example, is both a scathing indictment of the novel of manners and a silly little romance conducted entirely through idiosyncratic customs native to the town in which the characters live. The Maurice Hewlett is a crossdressing theatrical misunderstanding set in Edwardian times (that is, modern to Beerbohm) but told in every way as though it were a medieval romance, with the highest pseudo-Malory language imaginable. The Edmund Gosse is a piece of inveterate namedropping in which the protagonist claims to have gotten Browning and Ibsen into the same room of a Venetian palazzo at Christmas-- they hated each other, of course, hilariously, and the protagonist works five or seven other famous names into his explanations about why.

And the Hilaire Belloc I kind of want to frame and put up on the wall, if only for the following poetic interlude: Cut for length. )

That is, at one and the same time, the type-pattern of a certain kind of folksong I ran into often among sincere people in my youth, and of a certain kind of folksong produced by a certain kind of writer who would like to have become famous among those sincere people, and of a certain kind of fantasy novel which I have also encountered rather more often than seems entirely reasonable. And yet at the same time it has actual rhythm hovering around the edges, because Beerbohm would like you to know that he can if he wants to, he just doesn't want to. I would cheerfully read an entire novel's worth of that. Probably hurt myself laughing.

At any rate, if you like this sort of thing, and I hope the excerpts tell you whether you do, this is the sort of thing you would like, and should not be put off from by not getting the references. This is after all the era in which you can look them all up in thirty seconds in another tab as you read the book on Project Gutenberg anyway, she says, now that she knows who in hell G.S. Street was. I enjoyed this profoundly and dramatically. I mean, you should see the H.G. Wells piece, in which Wells cites himself, with footnotes, eight separate times. Comedy gold.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Borrowed from [personal profile] dorothean.

This anthology from 1962 is a bit catch as catch can. Apparently Fadiman had done an anthology of Things Involving Math previously, which did surprisingly well, so he put together this second one, which consequently has a great many random components.

I mean, there's a section of sheet music.

It opens with a chunk of science fiction shorts which use math in some way in their plots, moves through comedic pieces, takes a brief detour into the aforementioned sheet music (the lyrics are about math), and has a sizable quantity of poetry, anecdotes, and aphorisms, all of this interspersed with occasional cartoons.

This means that you get Clarke's immortal 'The Nine Billion Names of God', along with a hunk of Lewis Carroll's not quite so immortal Sylvie and Bruno, along with Bertrand Russell giving a surprisingly numinous description of a mathematician's nightmare in which he is personally introduced to all the numbers, along with a murder mystery in which the solution is arrived at through a simplified version of Boolean algebra. Very much a curate's egg of a book-- the verse is almost uniformly terrible, and I think the cartoons may depend on concepts I do not understand (except a truly brilliant one about the meeting of parallel lines, which I will not attempt to describe). The SF stories depend a bit much on Golden Age conceptions of The Fourth Dimension (cue theremin, please).

But then you get things like the Bertrand Russell. I hadn't known he wrote an entire book of accounts of nightmares that various types of people might have. Based on this sample, it must be truly delightful. And there is, of course, an excerpt from The Phantom Tollbooth, which makes me remember that I haven't reread that this year. (For those who may have missed it: the A.V. Club's recent interview with Norton Juster, still alive, still working, still made of total awesome.)

And I like the concept, the approach which says 'I will throw everything I can possibly think of that is Popular Art Associated With Mathematics into this book and we will see what happens'. People are not usually this gonzo about anthology-assembling; I wish they were. It would be interesting.

That said, I only wish the songs were, you know, any good. And apparently we did not have women in 1962, let alone people of color; this is the sort of book in which persons who are not WASP males have not been invented yet, except for occasional WASP females, who are condescended at; you know, that sort of book, the kind which will be vastly surprised in the mid-sixties when it is informed that persons demographically unlike its authors have been present all along and sometimes read things. Still, I liked rather more than half the book, which is a fair average for an anthology, and, as I said, conceptually pleasant.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
A book about how the simple goal of trying to go to Tuva with Richard Feynman inexorably leads to organizing the largest museum exhibit to travel between the USSR and the United States. No, really.

In the late 1970s, Leighton, a longtime friend of Feynman's, was at his house for dinner; the conversation worked around to the question of what happened to Tannu Tuva, a nation at that time mostly known to stamp collectors because of the beautiful and unique stamps it put out in the 1930s. The answer is that it became part of the USSR and is currently still kind of part of Russia, although China and Mongolia also have claims and it would rather like to be independent again. It is known nowadays primarily for Tuvian throatsinging, a technique in which a single person is able to sing more than one note at the same time. (If I could find it, I'd upload you a Tuvian throatsinging cover of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. Maybe it's better for everyone that I appear to have mislaid it.)

Of course, nowadays one can find out a great deal about Tuva simply by Googling, and I suspect it is difficult but not ridiculously hard to get there. But Leighton and Feynman, who were intrigued by the entire question of where the stamps came from, were working before the internet and before cell phones and in the days of Soviet bureaucracy, specifically Intourist, whose job was basically to keep tourists from going off the beaten path. Finding anything about Tuva at all involved trawling research libraries, spending large amounts of time with Tuvan-Russian and Russian-English dictionaries, and writing letters to a staggering number of scholars. Actually trying to go to Tuva involved trying to figure out an excuse: since Tuva did not have an Intourist office, going as a tourist was not possible. Thus the museum; Leighton figured that after bringing to the US a massive display of Tuvan and Scythian and Kazakh artifacts, which had already toured Sweden, they could get into Tuva as associates of whatever museum agreed to host the exhibit.

Which is how you get a high school geography teacher and a Nobel laureate in physics as the beginning liaisons between, among other institutions, the Smithsonian, and the Soviets. In the middle 1980s.

As a book qua book, this is not amazing; Leighton's prose is rather lackluster, his organizational schema is peculiar, and he has an attitude towards life that can best be summarized as 'enthusiastically endorsing those Esalen people', which should tell you. He also hero-worships Feynman amazingly, which is probably fair, but does not make for nuanced descriptions of the man. However, as a story about what can happen to a person, given careful research, incredible stubbornness, and a willingness to network and ask for what one wants, it is amazing and continuously unpredictable. As a snapshot of how much the world has changed in the last couple of decades, it's also quite impressive. I remember trying to research some geography questions that were very much less obscure for a contest when I was about eleven, pre-internet. A helpful librarian and I spent quite a while ransacking the three floors of the largest library near me, and got precisely nothing. I would have had to go to a larger city and repeat the whole process. Nowadays-- well, I'm not joking, I used to have a copy of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' as covered by Tuvian throatsingers, and there's a Mongolian rock band I occasionally pay attention to on Myspace.

This is a book that I can see handing to kids in the future and explaining about how there used to be this thing called the Soviet Union, and you used to have to string wire from place to place to make a phone call, and this is the kind of story that you get out of the coinciding of those historical facts.

It's also pretty damn entertaining, but then I like obsessive people.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
I really like this trend lately where people put out Very Nice editions of manga. PictureBox has done an amazing job on this; the full-color cover painting beneath the dust jacket is spectacular.

Garden-- huh. It's more of a conceptual art project than a narrative. Yokoyama is using narrative only as a device to teach you how to visually parse some of his more complex images, and I get the impression he is annoyed about needing it for that reason.

The images he would like you to decode are Surrealist (capital letter intentional) meditations on architecture. The book begins with a group of people who want to look at a garden being told that the garden is closed. Finding a break in the wall around it, they climb in anyway. The rest of the book is their walk through the garden. None of them look human-- they have scales, or odd coloration, or protruding cones instead of eyes, or are metallic, or made of umbrellas, in a very flat abstracted style that makes them appear friendly but depersonalized. There are probably several hundred in the group, but they have no difficulty hiding when garden staff are patrolling.

The garden is full of geographic features that start as relatively normal, physically possible things and become stranger and stranger. Nothing is what it initially looks like. The properties of the objects and landscape formations are described and probed by the group of people in mildly curious, emotionally flat language ('There are curtains of falling water.' 'They are thin curtains' is a typical dialogue exchange). Each section of the garden, for a while, seems to be a riff on a kind of object: here is a mountain made of glass, here is a two-tone mountain, here a three-tone, here one made of rubber, here one made of hair, one made of trees, one made of houses, one made of beach balls, this one is bolted down...

The types of object the garden contains refract endlessly. Just as we will have a mountain made of houses, so we will have a house made of mountains. Several portions of the garden seem to me to be possible nods to Borges; there is a segment that is an infinite library, where the books contain portraits of all the other things in the garden, including the people reading them, and also a segment where airplanes drop photographs which when pieced together would become a map of the garden the size of the garden itself (a sea of photographs, which become briefly the medium through which everyone walks, photos of mountains piled into mountains made of photos, pictures of one person's face plastered onto another person's face by the wind).

Eventually the images of the people become part of the complexifying forms. There is an area where automated cameras take their pictures and project them onto nearby surfaces such as mountains and waterfalls. The water bubbles and shapes itself into different contortions, keeping the projections, distorting and changing them. There is an area where 3-D holographic projections of the entire rest of the garden can be summoned, projections which contain the area with the water bubbling under the projected faces, so that you get watching faces seen through projections of water-distorted projected faces--

this is about the point at which you realize that what you are looking at is functionally an abstract, that the only reason you can make anything representational out of these incredibly convoluted yet stark black-and-white lines is the careful and deliberate narrative buildup, and even then the pages flicker in and out of meaning in a way I cannot really describe, an optical illusion of meaning, now you see it and now you don't, but the whole thing has been an optical illusion of meaning from page one because these have always been black lines on white paper--

if you're looking for narrative, that is the story you are going to get. I think it's worth it. It ends when it cannot go one iota farther (well, it fractures, actually, and ends in several different nearly-impossible directions), and it never ceases to be beautiful.

It's also so far removed from anything else I have ever seen attempted in comics that I have to applaud it just for that. It's like comics as approached from an alternate universe. It is a peculiar combination of boring, breathlessly entertaining, exhausting, incomprehensible, and joyous. It feels like a place, as the title tells us, rather than like a book, and like a place made of the edges of human visual perception. It will make you ponder limits that you did not know you had. It is amazement.
rushthatspeaks: (platypus)
The best way to describe the reading experience I had with this book is to say that it resembled what might happen to a perfectly innocent person who does not know much about history while looking up newspaper headlines from 1880s London. Which is to say, there you are researching away, doing nothing particularly ominous, and suddenly all of the scholarship on Jack the Ripper lurches out of its cabinet and starts gnawing on your leg. Up becomes down, dogs and cats start living together, the definitive works on the subject are written by people who do not have a personal interest so much as a personal ideological obsession, and otherwise perfectly rational researchers start yelling at one another "WHAT PART OF PH'NGLUI MGLW'NAFH WGAH'NAGHL CTHULHU FHTAGN DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?"

Except weirder. This was weirder.

Okay, so. In 1920, the diary of Opal Whiteley was published, first in serial form in Atlantic magazine and then as a book. Opal was born in 1897, and the beginnings of the diary are (possibly, we'll get into that) from 1904 or so. The diary features extensive description of the landscape around her family's home in rural Oregon, and centers around her interactions with the many, many animals she cared for, observed, kept as pets, and gave extremely long classical names. It became very popular very fast, there was something of a media blitz, and Opal, in her twenties, was accused of having written the whole thing at a later age as a hoax. The book then fell out of print.

Benjamin Hoff, author of such works as The Tao of Pooh, picked it up randomly at a library in the 1980s and devoted himself to getting it back into print-- and to insistently debunking the idea that it is anything other than what it claims to be. He wrote a biography of Whiteley as front matter, edited the punctuation and spelling for publication, and attempted repeatedly to see her in the mental institution in England where she had resided since the end of WWII. (He failed at that; the institution kept throwing him out, and she died in 1992.)

The thing is, Benjamin Hoff is not a historian. He also has a rescue complex about Whiteley the size of a moderate skyscraper. Huge chunks of his biography and afterword are insistences that if only people had not been so nasty to her and doubted the diary, she might have written more books. He quotes extensively from sources who agree with him and says nasty things about the ones who don't. He also has a lovely habit of saying things like 'a friend of mine told me this biography would not be popular in feminist circles because it is written by a man'. I don't doubt the factual things he found-- the birth date, the exact geography, the course of her life after the whole diary publication, the photographs he includes. But the picture he gives is one so imbued with his white-knighting that that alone makes me look at it skeptically, and the amount of data he could not locate draws a portrait of a situation that desperately wants painstaking, objective information gathering and analysis from somebody who has no ax to grind.

Which is exactly what it isn't getting at the moment (saith the internet) and hasn't gotten. Why?

Well, because Opal Whiteley was... well. Upon reading her diary, which I did before reading the biographical preface (always read prefaces after the main body; this rule will take you far in life), I got a portrait of an incredibly intelligent little girl who had spent time in France with loving, caring relatives of some variety, who taught her some French, some Catholicism, and a great deal about the history of Europe, focused around names, dates, and the accomplishments of the great. This little girl wound up living in rural Oregon, forbidden to keep up her French, and under the care of an abusive and insensitive mother. Towards the end of the diary, she says that the French relatives were her real parents, that this is part of the reason for her mother's behavior.

The thing is, as far as anyone can tell she was born in Oregon to the people who raised her. Over the course of her later life, she became more and more convinced that she was French and that she was the orphaned daughter of a particular great French naturalist of the late nineteenth century. This is part of what caused people to wonder whether the diary was a hoax: she insisted so repeatedly that her parents weren't her parents. The belief in herself as French does not seem to have done much harm during a couple of decades of popular nature lecturing and travel in obscure regions of India, but by the 1940s she could no longer support herself writing or in any other way, and was institutionalized after the Blitz because she was found starving in her own apartment and incapable of discussing any subject other than French history.

Hoff believes her to have been schizophrenic, a diagnosis also produced by the institution in which she lived. There are therefore the following currently believed theories out there about the diary of Opal Whiteley:

1) she wrote it as a child and is telling the truth about her family situation and was never psychotic, just not able to cope with the logistics of taking care of herself
2) she wrote it in her twenties but ditto ditto
3) she wrote it as a child, revised it in her twenties, and ditto ditto
4) she was delusional from a very young age, which was also when she wrote the diary, and the delusions intensified
5) delusional from young age, wrote it in twenties
6) delusional from young age, revised it in twenties
7) never delusional but actively escaping into a fantasy life and family because of being a bright child in abusive circumstances; see above re: permutations of when she might have written it and whether she had mental problems later
8) the whole thing came to her as a child because of her status as a religious mystic/person with psychic powers no really that is out there.

And you will find people arguing any of those plus debating the various diagnoses she might have had, if any-- some think autism or something else on that spectrum instead of schizophrenia.

MY KINGDOM FOR A GODDAMN REPUTABLE HISTORIAN. (I told you, this is the sort of thing where people start screaming at each other. See how I just did?)

Of course, the whole thing would be infinitely less complicated if it were possible to prove or disprove any of this IN ANY WAY from the text of the diary itself. )
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Exactly what it says it is: seventy hand gestures used in Japan, ranging from common to rare and from polite to extremely rude, with explanatory photographs, the Japanese phrase for the gesture, the circumstances in which it is used, and a jab at placing the relative politeness level of each one.

I had picked up a surprising number of these from various manga, anime, and films, including-- and this surprised me-- some I had not known I had picked up. There were a couple I just looked at and went 'well of course that means that what else would it mean'. Including the one for indicating not-terribly-politely that somebody is gay, which I am not sure how to feel about subliminally knowing. (I am not going to attempt to describe it because it's one of those gestures where I could write a very detailed description which would not help one tenth as much as a good photo; I don't think it's obvious what it means unless you know, though.) Now I am wondering how I learned it.

These are well explained and well photographed. This could be a very useful book for a tourist, especially since it has the gesture that people will use when they don't speak the tourist's language/don't know something-- an upright hand shaken near the mouth, with the thumb closest to the face, sometimes with the head shaking in the opposite direction. I did manage to figure this one out when I was a tourist, but I think it was a little embarrassing for everybody until I did, because it really does mean 'this person does not want to talk to you and you should go bother somebody else'.

So a fun little book, which also seems to do pretty well on telling you whether a given gesture is too rude to use, really too rude to use, or Right Out. If you need information on Japanese gestures, this is a good place to find it.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
This is a brief coffee-table-ish sort of book about various proposals for U.S. states that for one reason or another failed to happen, such as Texlahoma, which is exactly what it sounds like (part of Texas and part of Oklahoma configured to make three more regular state shapes instead of the current two messy ones), or the times that Boston, Chicago, and Long Island have tried to establish themselves as full states. Some of them are perfectly sensible ideas, such as breaking off the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, giving it part of Wisconsin, and using the natural geographical barriers of the area such as the lake to draw the boundaries. Some of them are fairly silly-- there have been several attempts to establish states for publicity or tourist reasons, and the U.S. was never going to manage to buy Iceland after WWII, sorry. And some of them sound pretty sensible and then turn out to be a bad idea; there is a reason that planners tended to draw state boundaries so as to include at least one major city in most of them, and this is why for instance Chicago did not get to become a state, because then you would have a giant urban voting bloc entirely dependent on resources it did not legislate and a smaller rural bloc unable to tap city money for state uses ever.

So there's a lot of interesting trivia here.

Unfortunately, that's about all there is, because this is a coffee-table book, and he gets one page of text and a map per state. Which is not remotely enough to go into anything like the complexities you get from, oh, any attempts at white colonization in the Western U.S..

Which leads me to the other problem with this book.

It just came out. It's... I guess not as bad as it could be, but this is 2011. The author freely admits that several proposals for states failed because elements in Congress didn't want states with majority non-white populations, for instance. And he freely admits that Native Americans did not get listened to in the process of the current borders being drawn, and that the U.S. did nasty things around the Mexican border. But. He just... look, I did not think one referred to Native American men as 'braves' in this day and age. He is assuming his audience to be from the U.S., which he says explicitly once and implicitly over and over, and he is assuming them to be white. This is a book that is full of mentions of, say, 'your fourth-grade history class', and 'you' is not the people he is saying 'you' learned about there, such as, oh, Native Americans. This is full of things like him saying that xyz Civil War battle was 'one of the most important in history', where if you look at the entirety of human history, not so much, and so by history he means American history, but he doesn't say so. If you see how this sort of (probably unconscious) rhetoric works. And there are some things he says about Puerto Rico that make me want to throw things, and. Aargh.

I know it is not possible to shoehorn all the issues into a couple hundred words of text per entry. But it is, or should be, possible to write about this without being so WASP-centered in terms of assumed audience, and without saying things every so often that actively move into offensive.

Even if you are writing a funny little book without much substance, you have that power.

But it did have a lot of historical trivia I'd never heard before. Basically this served to really whet my appetite for a serious book about the process of the formation of state boundaries over the course of American history. Because there is a lot of fascinating politicking and racial stuff and media stuff and water-rights stuff and road-building stuff and the flow of money and I have a degree in urban planning, remember, this sort of thing makes my eyes start shining and my piles of books growing ever upwards. Does anyone know whether the serious book exists? Because this one, I do not recommend, but it made me hypothesize a whole new kind of book I do want.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
In 1937 or so, when Terence Hanbury White had published a book about hunting and fishing and general outdoorsiness that had gotten him some acclaim and some income, he quit his job as a schoolmaster at Stowe, rented a gamekeeper's cottage seven miles from the nearest main road, and ordered a goshawk from Germany.

He was in his early thirties and he hated everybody. Perhaps hatred is too strong a word. He despaired of everybody, especially in aggregate, except that that is also how he loved human beings the most, in groups making things, building things, working. He definitely despaired of himself, except when he was engaged in some great enterprise, doing something he considered both difficult and worthwhile. To some extent the more difficult the more worthwhile; he was exactly the sort of person who does things merely because they are nearly impossible, and who knows on some level that he is making things infinitely more difficult for himself, and can't and won't stop.

Falconry was out of fashion. He had never met a falconer. He had corresponded with one or two, who were mostly in far and inaccessible regions such as Bavaria or the Isle of Wight, and whose letters would come to him six months late, mis-spelt, covered in birdshit and usually in a language he didn't speak. He had one and a half books on falconry, and the one was Bert's Treatise on Hawks and Hawking, printed in 1619. And the goshawk is renowned as the most difficult of hawks, the moody one, the crazy one, the one you can never, ever actually be sure of. (I told you that he liked to make his enterprises nearly impossible.)

He only knew one method of training a goshawk, the one from that 1619 manual. You cannot use most methods on a hawk. They will die rather than give in to a human. So an austringer (this is the correct word for a person flying a goshawk, which is not after all a falcon) must pit human will against the bird's in a way such that the bird does not know it is happening. The way to do this, in 1619, is by 'watching' it, which is to say preventing it from sleeping for three days and nights together, so that it becomes so exhausted it is willing to sleep on a human fist, and then after that will consider that fist a place of safety. Of course the human cannot sleep at all either, and must have the bird on an arm all that time, the arm at a right angle, the leather glove on the hand...

... and the notebook on the other knee, for White had decided to get his living by hawking: not only by keeping himself and the bird, eventually, on what he caught, but by writing a book about the entire process, and selling it, and thereby paying for things like rent and eventually other hawks. He conceived it as a way of removing himself from the entirety of human existence, because he would be with his birds as much as one has to, which is to say, ninety percent of the time, outdoors in all weathers; the book is his concession to the practicalities, which will tell you something.

It is such a terrible idea all around that I cannot help but love him for it.

And he did write the book with the hawk on his other hand, and it is a good one. There is White, with his desperate self-hatred and his aggravation at us (whoever we are), and his prejudices that come from being an English gentleman born in 1906, and his total inability to deal with, well, anything, and his indomitable and unbreakable will and determination: and there is the mad free silence of the goshawk. This is one of the few books I have seen that talk about patience as a practice, as something to be voluntarily learned, because the goshawk can interpret even an upset expression on your face. In the nights without sleep and the fourteen-hour days of the bird flying directly at him and the endless whistling to try to get it to learn its call, you can see him wrestle even his anger and brokenness into his love and his love into that infinite unyielding patience. It is a thing to watch. He spends himself and spends himself and spends himself, and the hawk comes to his hand one day, and he smashes a glass of champagne in the fire. I have never seen anyone happier, in some of this book, or less, in other parts.

Because falconry will not in the end leave you heart-whole. He did learn the art (and that there have been advances, since 1619, and one no longer has to go without that much sleep), but this was not the book with which he made his fortune (again). The next year he would write The Sword in the Stone, with its scenes in the mews-- those are all birds he knew, birds he owned and loved and worked with-- and make himself immortal. He would publish The Goshawk reluctantly, in the 1950s, reluctantly because it said too much about him. It has drifted in and out of print. The New York Review of Books has brought it out most recently, which is how I have it.

And it is bitter, and sometimes surprisingly funny, and very beautiful, and well worth reading.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
I suppose it has been a while since I read a really terrible book. It is probably good for the karma.

Seriously, though, Thurber wrote The 13 Clocks, which is one of the greatest fantasy novels for children ever written, and could someone kindly tell me whether I should read anything else the man wrote? Because 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' is all an incredibly famous story which I hate, and the essays everyone says are funny aren't, and this, look.

It's not just that this has been visited by the Sexism Fairy. It has been visited by, like, the Sexism Reissues Of All Of Andrew Lang, or the Sexism Cast Of Iolanthe, and no matter how far I overextend this metaphor (too far already) it is not going to tell you how aggravating I find Thurber on the topic of, specifically, wives. Because as far as I can tell he is psychically channeling Ernest Hemingway at his worst and that is all there is to it. A wife is an accoutrement who bothers a man and why do men put up with them anyway, is the gist here.

Anyway these are little fables or reworked fairytales from The New Yorker, and while I do actually appreciate the one in which the little girl takes out an automatic and shoots the wolf at twenty paces because it is incredibly easy to tell a wolf apart from your grandmother, the rest of them read like Dorothy Parker on a particularly self-hating hangover day, except that Parker would actually be funny. The moral of ninety percent of them, explicitly spelled out, is 'WOMEN SUCK AMIRITE?'

The illustrations, by Thurber, are perfectly lovely, and have in many cases nothing to do with the subject matter. A lot of the poems that he illustrates in the latter half of the book are not poems I like, but the illos are very fun anyway, especially for the one about how curfew must not ring tonight, which has an amazing cartoon of Our Heroine wrapped desperately around the tongue of a giant bell and swinging out into space over the churchyard. Also, if you have ever felt a need in your life for James Thurber illustrating 'Lochinvar', here you go, and I have to say I think it would make a nice little kid's book in excerpt.

But as for the rest, well. Desperately as I love The 13 Clocks, I think it is significant that Our Heroine spends the entire book enchanted to be able to say only one word and there are no other female characters. I would require serious persuasion to pick up any more Thurber at this point, unless we are talking a collection of drawings.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
As those of you who have been reading this blog for more than five minutes may have had cause to notice, I am going through something of a Derek Jarman phase at the moment, but seriously, this man's brain. I spent parts of my adolescence reading about the philosophy of art, as one does as a teenager trying to sort out the world, and Jarman is the only artist I've seen applying some of the things that struck me the most from those days. (This is where I leave out an entire tangent on the Situationists and Guy Debord.)

So this is his last book, his book about color.

If there were a genre this fit into, I would almost call it a commonplace book, a collection of quotations and relevant anecdotes tied together through stream-of-consciousness interludes, but while very quote-heavy it is more organized than I am accustomed to commonplace books being. It is whatever genre is typified by Pascal's Pensées.

He intersperses chapters about specific colors with chapters about theories of color, and the history of the way color has been thought about in the Western painting tradition. He also detours into alchemy. His erudition is wide and free-floating; I have no idea who half the people he quotes are, but the quotes are consistently interesting.

This is not a book to read if you are looking for narrative, or for a thesis statement, or any kind of actual argument. It is a book that is a jumping-off place for thinking. Jarman asks: why is it that color theorists don't seem to write about brown? What is brown, anyway, and what is its relationship to yellow? How is it that violet is the only color named, in English, after a flower? And then he'll be off on an anecdote about soap-bubbles or road-mending or Leonardo da Vinci, or descriptions of the paintings he's seen that are the most blue, the most gold, the most beige while still working as paintings. He riffs on and lists historical and emotional associations of the colors, spins paragraphs about unlikely interactions of different objects of the same color, goes into (not half-bad) poetry on occasion.

It is an idiosyncratic book. Pink and purple are in the same chapter, for some reason. Orange gets less than a page. I disagree totally with everything he says about grey, everything, including his spelling of the word-- well, maybe he's right about gray, but I know what I think about grey. He thinks of gray as a nothing-color, a color of defeat and loss and totalitarianism and awfulness, and he loves beige, and for me those two are precisely reversed. He is not wrong about silver the same way, but he doesn't say enough about it, it has about a paragraph. Iridescence gets a chapter, so does translucence; I was happy to see that, as they are, of course, colors, but many books would not have.

I don't know whether he wrote the chapter about blue before or after the script for his film Blue, but for him blue is the color of the infinite, of death and timelessness and resurrection, and so it is the chapter where he talks about dying, which he was actively engaged in at the time of writing (it was a long process), and the blue writings are understated and burning and accepting but never resigned.

I have no way of knowing whether to recommend this to anybody. I enjoyed it. It's the kind of book that I am always marginally amazed to see published, because it feels so different from what people usually think of as a book. Things in it are actively in dialogue with other things I've been reading and with the contents of my head in general, and if you don't have that set of mental circumstances, it would probably be neither enjoyable nor intelligible, and that is dependent on luck as much as anything (resonating with what I've been reading lately is definitely luck). If you're interested in painting, or in the ways that color can be used to provoke emotion in the viewer, you could find this useful. If you're a person who reads the Pensées or the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon for pleasure, you could find this friendly. But it is all so context-dependent that I cannot say whether any given person, or the aggregate of people in general, would find it worthwhile: I can only say that I did.
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This is an early Moomin picture book, notable for two reasons: its divergences from the way people are in the novels (the Hemulen loves housecleaning and the Fillyjonk is kind of creepy, which is brainbreaking), and its absolutely amazing use of cutwork and holes in the book.

You don't have to like the Moomins or know who these people are to appreciate the illustrations. The simple story involves Moomintroll looking for Little My, whom everyone believes is lost; he and the Mymble travel through forests, mountains, and caves, and each double-page spread has a different set of cutouts in the paper. All of the cutouts work both with the page after and with the page before. Some of them go down multiple layers.

So you'll get a spread of a dark forest path, in which the spaces between two trees are cutouts that show the next page, which is the meadow just outside the forest-- you can see the space outside the forest through the trees just as you would in real life. And there's a further cutout you can see just a part of, going down a second page, which gives you just one ray of sunshine.

Flip the page, and you get the meadow; the tree cutouts are now looking back into the picture of the dark forest we just left, and the full extent of the sun cutout is revealed, so we can see the whole meadow bathed in sunlight.

Every single illustration in the book is that well planned, or better. The compositions are arranged such that bits of the picture you didn't know were significant pop into relief in the cutout the second you flip the page.

It is such a tour de force that it almost feels petty to mention that the translated text is terribly rhymed and scanned, and also doesn't make very much sense. Honestly, I'd ignore it entirely-- you can follow what plot there is perfectly well from the pictures. And should. This is one of those picture books everyone can examine and be dazzled by.
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Michèle Sacquin is the curator at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. She also likes cats.

This is a set of drawings, engravings, and illustrations depicting cats, from the library's collections. There's also text, which talks about the role of the cat in culture and literature and its importance to painters and writers and its association with children sometimes and women sometimes and sex sometimes, but honestly we have all seen that sort of thing before repeatedly; what makes this book, the reason I sat down with it after flipping through it, is the images.

Victor Hugo's doodles of cats down the side of the manuscript of Les Misérables. A portrait of Huysmans, staring at you round-eyed, black cat around his neck like a scarf as it bats at the white marble statue of the Virgin on the mantel. An ukiyo-e print of a sleeping courtesan whose kimono has been disarranged by a stretching cat, which had evidently been curled up in an area that suggests the Japanese have some of the same puns English does (and indeed the text confirms that). An inexpressibly lovely Berthe Morisot drypoint sketch of her daughter, Julie Manet, with kitten, which Renoir would later paint but not as well. A page from the manuscript sketches for a twelfth-century physiology book, tangles of the human body in several positions, studies of various insects and plants in neat clear outline, and at the bottom one carefully limned cat in one of those improbable washing-oneself knotworks. A Mughal lady trailing the end of her scarf for a cat that looks more like a lion to pounce on.

There's just about every sort of art on paper here but paintings. Sacquin doesn't think people paint cats very well.

She does reasonably with the historical notes, too. I was fascinated by the brief account of the siege of Arras (the one of which Cyrano de Bergerac was a veteran)-- the Spanish put on the city gate 'When the Spanish surrender the town of Arras, rats will defeat and capture cats', and after the French took the city, they changed it slightly, so that it read 'When the Spanish defend the town of Arras...'. And sure enough there is a finely wrought copperplate engraving, made by a Frenchman, showing the dashingly dressed and well-combed rats relieving a rather effete-looking army of Spaniard cats of their swords. It is definitely the first time I have seen patriotic propaganda in which a country depicted themselves as an army of rats. I really can't imagine that that's happened very often.

The book is not terribly well-organized (honestly it is not perceptibly organized at all), I would have liked even more detail about the provenance of some of the drawings than was provided, and the attempts at analysis of the cat in literature do not go beyond the 'people like to write about cats sometimes for some reason' level. But if you want a really adorable and unusual art book full of pictures one can't find on the internet (I've been trying to find some to link to, and no), this will give you a fascinating half-hour.
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This is today's book, so I am now officially caught up, yay.

When I was six years old, I saved up a lot of birthday and Christmas money and bought a teddy bear, for sixty dollars. It was the most money I'd ever had, and the most I'd ever spent on anything, and my parents were not happy about it but allowed themselves to be talked into it. I had not at that point read Michael Bond's Paddington Bear books, but the bear is a Paddington, at the time I bought him taller than I was; I could wear his duffel coat. Twenty-three years later, he's lost his coat, hat, boots and label but he is on my bed where he's always been. I don't travel with him much anymore now that he's old enough to vote, but he's the first thing-that-can't-move-by-itself that I'd grab in a fire.

I didn't read the books for several years after that, actually, I'm not even sure I knew about them, so my history with the Bond version of Paddington is that I consider the books good fun but the personality of Paddington in them definitely non-canonical as the author had not met my bear.

I found out as an adult that Paddington is considered one of the most impressive instances of successful toy merchandising of all time, and I have to say that from personal experience that does seem to be the case. I don't know why I had to have that particular bear, so much as to save up for months, but I did have to. This book is a history of the writing of the original books by Bond (who was apparently a BBC cameraman at the time, who knew), but also a history of the merchandising and spin-offs-- there were stop-motion animated films made, and of course the basic stuffed bear had happened not long after the books, but the animated films cost so much that Bond started licensing all sorts of other Paddington things in an effort to pay for them, and then the whole thing hit Japan and now Bond is basically running his own industry. The sheer number of Paddington objects out there is really kind of frightening.

As with any official corporate history, this is slightly more adulatory than one might really desire, and does not wish to go into any of the messiness that might exist between people-- various reconfigurations of business partnerships are presented with a great insistence that everyone has always been happy about all of it, at all times. And of course there are directions in which it does not wish to talk about money, such as, for instance, how much of that might be involved in a general sort of way.

But as a look at how really successful business licensing works, it's mildly interesting, and I had no idea the animated films even existed and am now rather curious about them. So not a waste of time, and pleasant for me personally as it explains some things about how and why my bear might have got to the store in which I bought him. I do suspect this of not being a book of general interest, however. It's too official-biography for that.
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A reference book B. had lying around.

This is decidedly not the reference book you want if you want to learn anything about Freemasonry. It is an unredeemable disaster.

It is, however, moderately entertaining if you enjoy unredeemable disasters. The question, of course, is in what direction the book will be terrible next. Will there be yet another uncaught typo? An inappropriate and uncaptioned illustration? A myth presented as unequivocal fact? A paragraph (or several) spun from the words 'it seems likely that', extrapolated upon so wildly that by the end of the page nothing seems less likely? The usual answer is, in fact, all of the above at once. I can't remember the last time I saw a book presented as fact that cited its sources less. There is no bibliography. There is no works cited page. There is no index. There is no list of photo credits, for crying out loud.

And the book states that it actually believes that the Masons were both literally descendants of the builders of Solomon's Temple and founded/carried on by the Knights Templar.

This is the sort of book where I would want to fact-check it if it were to tell me that two plus two is four.

It isn't even a good source for the usual conspiracy theories, because the writing isn't good enough to present them comprehensibly if you don't know what they are already.

I had a good time wincing and laughing, but in general: avoid avoid avoid.
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Antonio Beccadelli's Hermaphrodite (1425-6) is pretty much the most scandalous book of the Italian Renaissance. Bernardino da Siena held book burnings, and so did a lot of other people; several popes threatened to excommunicate people found reading it.

It's a collection of Latin epigrammatic poetry, based on the idea that the ancient authors, such as Catullus, Martial, Pliny, etc. often wrote bawdy or scurrilous poetry, even those among them who were famous for having virtuous personal lives, and that therefore writing extremely well-done filthy verse is a way of righteously following the ancient examples. Beccadelli was a young man when he wrote it, not thirty yet, but it became his most famous and controversial book for two reasons:

1) it's really, really filthy. Latin, as a language, has several registers of obscenity that English doesn't. Beccadelli, who had access to all of the rich and varied vocabulary of Catullus, Juvenal, and Lucan, coined his own obscene neologisms because the older ones weren't precise and nasty enough. There is something to offend everybody in here. Everybody. I don't care who you are. That said, he's generally pleasant and rollicking, equally kind and unkind to both sexes and devoted to everyone having a good time-- it's just, this is a level of graphic that is really amazingly condensed. His poems are epigrams, and therefore manage to pack what in English would be entire paragraphs of technically descriptive language into single words and short sentences. I don't think I can write a sentence in English with the sheer connotative bawdiness of one of his. I am not sure it is linguistically possible. The only author I have seen with a similar degree of obscenity is Martial; Beccadelli has comprehensively outdone Catullus in this particular direction.

2) it's really, really good. He has a couple of issues based on the fact that Italian Latin at this point had no codified rules for how to use the reflexive, but Virgil would be happy about his word order, and his meter and assonances are just ludicrously brilliant. He's actually as good as he thinks he is, and he thinks he's immortal. He mostly only uses one form, the epigram, but I defy you to find better ones on a sheerly technical level. They are certainly and obviously head and shoulders above the standard of Latin epigrammatical composition at the time.

The combination of these two traits made his contemporaries, and in fact most readers since, completely unable to cope. He was too good to be banned, too filthy to be admired, too over-the-top to be imitated, too brilliant not to be an inspiration. In a late edition of the Hermaphrodite, Beccadelli included between the book's halves a letter from Poggio Bracciolini (a renowned manuscript-finder and academic), which can be summarized very neatly as follows: OH GOD IT'S GENIUS WON'T YOU PLEASE STOP IT. Beccadelli's response to Poggio, at the end of the book, was that everyone was confusing his life with his art (probably true) and that his poems should not be taken to reflect anything other than a deep love of the same authors everyone around him also loved; that if Plato could write about sex, so could he, and that people should stop treating him like a moral degenerate because after all Homer never invaded Troy. This helped nothing. His later career would include a long and distinguished stint as poet laureate to the Emperor Sigismund, an academic slapfight with Lorenzo Valla that included copious lawsuits and accusations on both sides of poisoning and sodomy, and the founding of the Academia Neapolitana, which is still there today. His most famous book would always be his first, the book which in my edition a prefatory quote from a reputable historian claims helped cause the French Revolution, or, worse, the Reformation. This is probably overestimation, but you see how critics are still failing to deal.

Unsurprisingly, most editions of the Hermaphrodite have been relentlessly expurgated. The new edition from Harvard's I Tatti series of Italian Renaissance literature definitely isn't, and includes not only a biographical essay and copious notes but a series of relevant letters, poems, epigraphs, and legal papers by Beccadelli and others surrounding the controversy. It gives a good portrait of why the book was important, how people reacted to it at the time, and what its legacy was, although I would have liked a deeper look at the book's history between the fifteenth century and this one.

But I cannot recommend it if you don't read Latin. I'm sorry. It's a literal translation and it will do you no good whatsoever in realizing how good a poet Beccadelli was. It gets (some of) the obscenity and none of the elegance. It gets the matter but not the means. A fine English poet was required to get this work across and that did not happen here. If you are using the translation as a crib to read the actual text, it is totally usable for that, and this is a book you should go out and read immediately because it is interesting and worthy. If not, let us hope an English poet decides to do it in the not-too-distant future-- one could totally use this edition as a scholarly apparatus for it.

I may attempt it myself someday, if I ever have the hubris to think I could live up to it, and if I can get over the fact that he consistently and with malice aforethought makes me blush at his sheer filthiness, which, seriously, not many things can do that to me.

Some quotations, for those of you who are interested and read Latin. )
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This is the sort of book I read when I'm tired because I think it's hilarious, but your mileage may vary.

Allow me to quote the title page: "By the Same Author-- The Eleusinian Mysteries-- Masonic Legends and Traditions-- Robert Burns and Freemasonry-- Roman Catholicism and Freemasonry, Woman and Freemasonry, etc., etc." Copyright 1924. If that gives you an idea.

Unfortunately, this is mostly a compilation of essays written by the author as speeches to be delivered on public occasions which wanted a Masonic speaker, which means that the essays are written for an audience of the world in general and consequently are a lot less cryptically allusive than one might want, although they are still pretty cryptic. The joy in this sort of thing is in watching the writer insist that the Masons are a) older than Christianity b) more universal than all religions c) totally not incompatible with and not a threat to Christianity and d) not to be considered a religion. Sometimes he insists all of these within the same paragraph. I got the strong general impression at some points in this book that the author did not wish Freemasonry to be considered a religion because it serves a Higher and More Moral Truth (than religion), which causes me to go hey wait a minute are you actually following your own rhetoric and do you understand your own train of thought?

Probably not. Bad rhetoric is a marvelous thing. Again, quotation here is the better part of valor:

"Freemasonry can never grow old. It is ever young. We relegate antiques to the show case and never make use of them, fearing to risk the possibility of damaging or destroying them. We gaze upon them with awe and admiration, but they are for ornament, not for use. We look at the warming pan, but we make use of the hot-water bottle, even preferring the modern India rubber variety to its older stone predecessor. Such is the tendency of life."

My personal hot-water bottle of obscurantist speechifying, whether made of the most modern India-rubber or not, was, I hope, punctured long ago by, as Sarah Caudwell puts it, the secateurs of a keen intellect.*

If most of the book were like this, I would actively recommend it, but the author does not often rise to these heights. Most of the book is simply a series of exhortations to read more, study more, be nicer to other Masons, not act like members of an elite secret society in public unless you have been specifically asked to do so on an occasion such as giving a speech, etcetera. There is a lovely sequence on the wartime classifications of men as fit for service or not and how this can be extended as a metaphor to cover, well, everything else in life; the author's tendency to draw illuminating anecdotes from pseudo-Buddhism and obscure Biblical corners does not blend well with his insistence that everyone be an A-1 man. But this segment lasts only five pages.

In short, I found the book entertaining, but not amazingly so, and it is sufficiently outdated that I suspect it does not have much to do with anything currently Masonic, besides being so cryptic and preachy that it shouldn't be used as an informational source anyhow. If like me you enjoy reading this sort of thing for the few magnificently terrible sentences sometimes provided, I still think you could do better elsewhere; but it gave me some interesting moments.

ETA: Oh, and I initially forgot to mention-- the title page also has an interesting and intricate line-drawing of a seal which features what I can only describe as beavers rampant. They are so well drawn that I know I am not mistaken: those are actually beavers. It's very impressive. They are supporting between them a shield and treading underfoot a motto, and they are looking rather bored.

* No, she actually does. See Thus Was Adonis Murdered, p. 1, if you haven't already; and there's your real book recommendation for the evening.
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This book gets an entry to itself because it needs one. I read it on the plane from Boston; it was another present from [personal profile] sovay, who says that I am the person she thought of upon seeing on the bookstore shelf a novel in verse that was, from the back cover, very obviously slash of Herakles and the monster cattle-herd Geryon, only updated into a contemporary setting.

I repeat: novel in verse. Mythological slash. The person I'd have thought of is [personal profile] lnhammer, but it was fair to think of me.

The thing is, Anne Carson is both a moderately well-known poet and a moderately well-known writer on the classics, whose Eros the Bittersweet I was assigned in college and whose translations of Sappho are Not The Way I'd Do Them but so very much so that they absolutely fascinate me because I just wouldn't have thought of it like that. So I went into this confidently expecting it not to suck, despite the novel-in-verse-ness, which I usually take as a warning sign.

I-- hmmm. I am going to have to reread this at some point, is the thing. It is very rare for me to look at a book and say that I just don't get it, that I can't even tell whether there is something to get but that I think there might be and I don't know what it is. Over my head at bird-height, this went. At least, the primary chunk of it did. There are several portions of this book, and the first oh five pages or so are brilliant and worthy. A large part of what we know of Geryon, who was killed by Herakles as part of that hero's tenth labor, comes from the fragments of a poem by Stesichorus, a poem we have in sketch and quotation but not entirety. Stesichorus is most well known as the author of the Palinode: he had written a poem insulting to Helen of Troy and from the aether she struck him blind. Knowing the cause, he sat down and wrote a very brief poem saying that none of it was true, that she had never been to the city of Troy, and she restored his sight. The Palinode is a perfect little piece. Carson's book, being about Geryon, begins with Stesichorus, and the first few pages are a metatextual meditation on the truth behind the story of the composition of the Palinode, a meditation so tangled that it intentionally bites itself in the small of the back, a dazzling piece of postmodernist rhetoric after which I wanted to applaud. It was witty and sweet and touching.

Then the rest of the book started. )
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People on Livejournal-- this is a manual crosspost of the DW post which went up last night here. For some reason or other, despite the fact that none of my settings have changed, it failed to crosspost. Does anyone have any idea why it might have done that?

This book does do what I wanted it to do, which is to sort out the mass of references to shinobi in accounts of the wars surrounding the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate into 'historically probable', 'historically possible', and 'totally and completely mythical'. (The vast majority fall into that last category.)

However, it's, well. There is not much material, period, about ninjas that isn't incredibly full of myth and speculation, and there certainly isn't much in English. The author has therefore resorted to printing the speculation-- it's pretty clearly marked, but he keeps doing a thing where he'll say 'the following could not possibly have happened' and then go on for three paragraphs about it. This would be more forgivable if he were telling the popular version, but sometimes he is clearly just going on about what it would have been cool to have a ninja do in the circumstances, which is both unnecessary and, to me personally at least, kind of boring. Also, the illustrations are incredibly sensationalistic, and he reprints a lot of plates from the seventeenth-century Bansen Shukai, a collection of ninja stuff, without ever talking much about what that collection is or whether it was intended to be factual; this makes me less inclined to trust him over the things he puts into the category of 'historically probable'.

You can't have it both ways, really. Either you can have a book about the nature of covert operations in Japanese warfare and how the idea of covert operations interacts with samurai ideology and how all the myths arose and where the Western ideas about ninjas came from, which is a book I would like to read very much, thank you, or you can have a book about how cool it would be if all those myths were historically true and wouldn't it have been awesome if Hattori Hanzo were as badass as everybody says he is in anime, and honestly I don't need that book as there is all this internet in the world. This book was trying to be both at once and therefore probably not succeeding at either to anyone's real satisfaction, because people who want to hear about Cool Stuff may well be annoyed at the author continually pointing out that none of the devices people have claimed ninjas used to walk on water actually, you know, work, and the rest of us can certainly be annoyed at the general tone.

Not recommended. Does anyone know a better reference work on the same topic?
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This book does do what I wanted it to do, which is to sort out the mass of references to shinobi in accounts of the wars surrounding the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate into 'historically probable', 'historically possible', and 'totally and completely mythical'. (The vast majority fall into that last category.)

However, it's, well. There is not much material, period, about ninjas that isn't incredibly full of myth and speculation, and there certainly isn't much in English. The author has therefore resorted to printing the speculation-- it's pretty clearly marked, but he keeps doing a thing where he'll say 'the following could not possibly have happened' and then go on for three paragraphs about it. This would be more forgivable if he were telling the popular version, but sometimes he is clearly just going on about what it would have been cool to have a ninja do in the circumstances, which is both unnecessary and, to me personally at least, kind of boring. Also, the illustrations are incredibly sensationalistic, and he reprints a lot of plates from the seventeenth-century Bansen Shukai, a collection of ninja stuff, without ever talking much about what that collection is or whether it was intended to be factual; this makes me less inclined to trust him over the things he puts into the category of 'historically probable'.

You can't have it both ways, really. Either you can have a book about the nature of covert operations in Japanese warfare and how the idea of covert operations interacts with samurai ideology and how all the myths arose and where the Western ideas about ninjas came from, which is a book I would like to read very much, thank you, or you can have a book about how cool it would be if all those myths were historically true and wouldn't it have been awesome if Hattori Hanzo were as badass as everybody says he is in anime, and honestly I don't need that book as there is all this internet in the world. This book was trying to be both at once and therefore probably not succeeding at either to anyone's real satisfaction, because people who want to hear about Cool Stuff may well be annoyed at the author continually pointing out that none of the devices people have claimed ninjas used to walk on water actually, you know, work, and the rest of us can certainly be annoyed at the general tone.

Not recommended. Does anyone know a better reference work on the same topic?
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Oh hey only three hundred books left to read. Cool.

After yesterday's Infinity Of Tristram Shandy I wanted to read something relaxing and, above all, short. This is a cute little guide-book to Japanese youkai (the word has concepts of spirit, demon, ghost, goblin, revenant, etc., but is essentially untranslatable). I know a fair number of youkai categories and classifications from anime and other books and having done some gruntwork for an Utagawa Kuniyoshi print show at the Boston MFA a few years back-- this is my favorite of the prints they had-- and I have for some time been wanting an English translation of Shigeru Mizuki's youkai encyclopedias, which are actually based on him having gone out into the countryside in the late 1960s and asking people in extremely rural areas for stories.

However, this book does meet my basic criteria for success in its field: it has information I did not know, and its illustrator was one of Mizuki's assistants. And it has an impeccable bibliography.

So yeah, this has a lot of neat trivia about the circumstances under which household objects come to life if they reach more than ninety-nine years old, and why demon cats drink lamp oil, and why you should never eat a block of tofu offered to you by a small child in the road because it may well be full of demonic spores that will eat you within minutes. Spirits of foxes and otters, spirits of rice paddys and antique cutlery, spirits that are dangerous and spirits that are silly and spirits that are simply totally inexplicable (there's this one kind of monstrous giant that bestrides a distance of twelve miles and is only ever seen washing its hands in a river between its feet; it never interacts with anybody). Giant disembodied feet. Giant invisible sentient walls. Things that are attested folklore and things that were made up by one author in one anthology and things that are modern urban legends that have seriously caught on.

I'm happy with this. It does exactly what it should and intends to in a mildly cheesy but not annoying format, and it's entertaining without sacrificing accuracy and clarity. And the illustrations are very good and make continual reference to various ukiyo-e artists, sometimes as outright citation. Goodness knows, I have seen far worse reference books: this is a useful one.


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