Friday, December 29, 2006

Brett comes to Japan

(Retrospection)
A while back, I posted some pictures from Brett's visit to Japan and the Harajiri waterfall. Here are some more pictures from that week. Although it was Brett's visit, these pictures tend to be mostly of me because Brett was behind the camera. But I'm a good looking guy so I trust there are no objections.

You can see me sporting my 100 yen ($1) sunglasses in many of these pictures. My West Michigan eyes aren't used to the bright sun of Kyushu, so I always wear sunglasses in the spring and summer, even though the locals never do. Because I tend to be the kind of person who always breaks or accidentally steps on his sunglasses, I started getting all my sunglasses from the 100 yen store. At least until someone told me that not all the cheap sunglasses are UV protected, and therefore actually worse for your eyes because they cause the pupil to open up more without protecting it from UV rays. But these pictures were before I knew that, so you can see me still modelling the stylish 100 yen sunglasses.

All of these pictures were taken in my town in Ajimu. Pretty beautiful place, huh?








I still have no idea how Brett talked me into taking this picture. Especially since at the time I was sure he wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to ring the bell once I was inside. Fortunately he only took the picture, and I escaped with my ear drums intact.

















Useless Wikipedia Fact
McCartney was inspired to write the song "Helter Skelter" after reading a newspaper review of The Who's latest single, most likely "I Can See For Miles". The review described the single as the loudest, wildest song ever recorded, with distorted guitars, reverb, and screaming. McCartney took this as a challenge to write something louder and "Helter Skelter" was the result. Some historians of popular music believe that this song was a key influence on the development of heavy metal.

Link of the Day
Gerald Ford: The Conflicted President on Civil Rights
and
President Gerald Ford Dies at 93; Supported Indonesian Invasion of East Timor that Killed 1/3 of Population
and
Investigative Journalist Robert Parry on Gerald Ford's Legacy and the Bush Administration's Roots in the Ford White House
and
Did Gerald Ford Agree to Nixon Pardon Before Taking Office? The Nation's Victor Navasky on Ford's Memoirs and the Lawsuit that Followed

I should make it clear I don't have a Vendetta against Ford. He wasn't our worst President by far. But I do want to provide a counter-perspective to the love orgasm going on in the Grand Rapids Press this week. The GR Press has yet to mention one word of the Genocide in East Timor that Ford supported.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

(Book Review)

Since I began my commitment to read more fiction, I’ve made a point of asking people for their top 5 book recommendations. (I’m still taking recommendations if anyone has any good suggestions).

“The Remains of the Day” was at the top of the list from not just one, but two good friends. And since they were both people whose opinions and tastes I respected, I decided to give this book a try.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, although it took me a while to get into it. Because the book starts out a little slow, I had a couple false starts before I finally settled down and read the whole thing. At 20 pages in this book may seem a little dry, but if you can make it to page 75, you’ll be hooked.

Before I started this book I noticed that my friends, although they recommended it highly, were not able to tell me what it was about. The only thing I could get one of my friends to say was, “I read it when I was 25, and recognized in it all the mistakes I had made it in my own life. I re-read it at 30, and saw even more mistakes.”

And when I looked at professional reviews, I noticed the same pattern. Now that I’ve finished the book, I find myself in the same position. Because of the structure of the book, and the many themes it juggles, it doesn’t lend itself well to summary.

The book is about an English butler who takes a road trip. While encountering the various sites on the road, he spends most of the time reminiscing about his life of service to his master, Lord Darlington.

Although it is not for me to say whether or not this book will be a classic in 100 years time, it did remind me a lot of the classic books that we discussed in my high school and college literature classes. It is a very short book, and yet it manages to touch on many different themes, and is able to interweave all of these themes seamlessly into on story. If one were to use this book in a literature class, there would be no shortage of topics to discuss. The book deals with class culture in England, inter-war politics and the tendency of the British upper class to sympathize with Nazi Germany, the nature of dignity, the importance of one’s life work, the nature of relationships, and how one evaluates one's life at the end of it.

The book also manages to touch many different emotions flawlessly. There are a lot of really funny parts in this book. My personal favorite was when the Butler was given the job of explaining the birds and the bees to his employer’s 23 year old godson. But there are also a lot of sad parts in this book, and the ending is absolutely devastating. Salman Rushdie is supposed to have said of this book “A story both beautiful and cruel”, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

Definitely worth reading.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Originally titled "Maharishi", The Beatles changed the title to "Sexy Sadie" to avoid possible litigation as the song's lyrics portray the Maharishi in a less than favorable light. John Lennon became discouraged after the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had allegedly made a pass at one of the female members of their entourage. John Lennon once said about this song: "That was inspired by Maharishi. I just called him, 'Sexy Sadie,' instead of (sings) 'Maharishi what have you done, you made a fool...' I was just using the situation to write a song, rather calculatingly but also to express what I felt.

Link of the Day
Sanitizing the Death of Ford, What the Media isn't telling us

Friday, December 22, 2006

Crash by J.G. Ballard

(Book Review)

Definitely one of the more bizarre things I’ve read recently, this book deals with people who become sexually aroused by car accidents.

In describing human sexuality, a friend of mine once said: “Any possible pervasion you can possibly imagine, you can bet that there are some people somewhere who have a fetish for it and that there is an industry that caters to it.” That caveat aside, to the best of my knowledge, this car accident fetish doesn’t actually exist in reality. It is created in this book as a metaphor for the role of cars in modern life.

Ever since this book was first released in 1973,people have debated whether it is pornography or art. (According to Wikipedia one publisher's reader returned the verdict "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish.") The graphic descriptions of sex and car accidents indicate that, if nothing else, the author is trying to push the boundaries.

However beneath all of this there is a larger point. Why are we so in love with cars when they crush and maim our bodies? And when we all know someone who has been killed in a car accident, why do we keep getting back into cars?

I’m not doing a good job of conveying the feeling of the book, but like all good books this needs to be read to be truly experienced. I can’t do it justice in a summary. But after reading repeated descriptions of mangled flesh and automobile described in sexual terms, you do start do wonder: “Yeah, what is it with Americans and their cars? Is it a sexual thing?” (Technically it’s a British book, but I think it applies just as much to us Americans).

The whole book reads like Freud on steroids. It’s not subtle, but you get the point. The only thing I wonder though is did it need to be a whole book? Could not the same objective have been achieved in a short story? At 224 pages, it’s hardly a long book, and yet I felt like I got the point after the first 50, and am not sure what further benefit I got by reading all the way to the end. I also felt many of the images got repetitive.

Stylistically this book was a struggle for me. The prose was very thick (for lack of more insightful literary criticism.) Lots of unusual sentence structures, and possible overuse of the author’s thesaurus. Or, as another friend of mine observed, “He writes in that weird experimental 70s fashion.” Personally I have my doubts as to whether this was typical of the 70s or not, but you get the idea. Despite the voyeuristic content of the subject material, I had a hard time keeping my mind on the book as I struggled through. But ultimately I think a lot of this comes down to personal preference. If you enjoy these experimental type books, you’ll probably have an easier time with this than I did.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
On "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey" Musicologist, Alan W. Pollack, commented: "The shaken (cow?) bell only seems to be incessant. If you manage to track it (come on, you can do it yourself this time), you'll note how neatly it is dropped out and back in over the course of the song; typical Beatlesque attention to detail."[1

Link of the Day
Via Tom Tomorrow: This is what can happen to American citizens in the post 9/11 world:
Former U.S. Detainee in Iraq Recalls Torment

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Perelandra by C.S. Lewis

(Book Review)

Continuing on through Lewis’s “Space Trilogy”, this is now the second book in the series.

As Phil points out, this book is in many ways superior to its predecessor “Out of the Silent Planet”. The first book didn’t really have much of a plot other than “Man travels to new planet and encounters many strange things.” In this book, now that the set-up has been established, the story line starts to pick up a little. It does take place on a completely different planet, but many of the characters are the same: the unlikely hero Dr. Ransom, the evil Dr. Weston, and C.S. Lewis himself, who continues the conceit he established in the first book of writing himself as a minor character into his own series.

The religious themes are also a lot stronger in this book. In the previous book, only slight references are made to God or Dr. Ransom’s religious faith. The Christian overtones were there, but it was possible to ignore them and still enjoy the book, just like the Narnia Chronicles. This book, on the other hand, is very blatantly and very explicitly about spiritual warfare on another planet.

If you go into any Christian bookstore, there is a lot of Christian fiction dealing with spiritual warfare. Most of it absolute crap. (I had to read “This Present Darkness” by Frank Peretti in high school, and absolutely hated it. Also reference the “Left Behind” Series). I think spiritual warfare might be to Christian writing what sex scenes are to secular books: it’s something everyone wants to write about, but almost no one can do well.

Lewis seems to be one of the few who can do it well. Partly by keeping it simple. (There’s only one demon to keep track of here, as opposed to a whole hierarchy as in Peretti’s book). But also because Lewis has pioneered his own genre which might be labeled “Theological Science Fiction”. Lewis takes well known parts of the Christian doctrine, and uses the medium of Science Fiction to play the “what if” game with them.

In the previous book, Lewis explored a world and civilization which predated the creation and fall of man. This time it is the opposite. The world of Perelandra is younger than Earth, and asks the question: if God created again after the fall on Earth, how would his new creation be different? In this new world the story of the Garden of Eden and the temptation is reenacted, but in a different setting and with different results.

I didn’t agree with everything in this book, but I found it possible to look over what I disagreed with and still enjoy the book. In particular, Lewis has gotten a lot of criticism for his portrayal of gender roles in this book. At various points he seems to implying that God has assigned women the role of housekeeper and child bearer, and the temptation to expand from these roles is the Devil’s handiwork. But all of this is very slight, and I suspect that it wouldn’t be such a big deal if Lewis wasn’t already under fire for his portrayal of women in his other books. It's about what I expected from a book written in the 1940s. I’m sure it would be different if it were written today.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The lecture by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that inspired "Mother Nature's Son" also inspired John Lennon's unreleased song "Child of Nature," the tune of which he later re-used to completely different effect in "Jealous Guy."

Link of the Day (slash mini-rant)
U.S. first ladies to be honored on coins: Not to be outdone by their husbands, the first ladies are getting their chance to shine on the nation's coins. Starting next year, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams and all the rest will begin appearing on a new series of gold coins.
It will be the first time in history that the U.S. Mint has produced a series featuring women.

Does anyone else think this is the lamest idea ever? The US mint wants to create some diversity, and the best idea they can think of is a series of women famous for being good wives to the Presidents?
And what is this obsession with the President's and their family? Are they our royal family? Are we going to have a mint next with the daughter's of Presidents? Personally I like the idea of Japan and other countries which have artist and authors on their currency instead of politicians. Elected officials? Okay, I can live with that. The wives of elected officials? Come on!
The sad thing is, if the US mint wanted to do a series of women, there is no shortage of brave women activists in US history. I guess some of them might have been controversial, but you can't tell me anyone is rushing out to get the new Abigail Adams coin.

Message to the next generation of American Girls: Work hard, and you too might someday marry someone famous.

Friday, December 15, 2006

E-mail: August 13, 2001

(Retrospection)

Dear Bear,
I haven’t heard about Cowboy Bebop yet. Last night people were telling me about an animated Children’s show that is quite popular among Japanese children, called An Pan Man, or something like that, which apparently translates into Bread Face Man. It sounded quite strange to me, but perhaps you’ve heard something about it or other.

Yes, I am in the land of Anime I suppose. And yet I think it will be difficult to find any Anime in English, so I might have to wait until I get back to the U.S. before I start watching any of it.

The town is pretty small, about 8,000 people, and not too many people my age (although I have met a few). And I have one other Jet here too, who is a New Zealand fellow, and we’ve hung out a bit. I’ve discovered my Americanness makes me pretty popular among the locals here. For instance, last night me and Ryan (the New Zealand guy) went into a supermarket, and the owner was so happy to see us in her store that she invited us to dinner later that week. So, it’s pretty easy to keep occupied. And when I don’t have anything to do, my apartment is only about an hour’s walk away from some great hiking.

****************************************************************

Thanks for the heads up. I checked out CNN’s website after reading your e-mail. [Story relating to protests in Tokyo over controversial new Japanese text book. Also bomb went off in author’s office. Left Wing Japanese group claimed responsibility].

Funny thing, I was in Tokyo when that bomb went off and when they were having those protests. And I was completely oblivious to it. Of course, Tokyo is a huge city. Even bigger than New York. On the last night we were there we went out for food. We got on a train in Downtown Tokyo, rode for 15 minutes, go off, and we were still in the middle of Down town Tokyo.

My apartment is pretty nice actually. About as big as Rob’s current place back home. For some reason though, my predecessor absolutely hated the place. He kept telling me how small it was over the telephone. And I guess he did a lot of complaining while he was here, because everyone was afraid I would hate my apartment before I even got here. My supervisor kept asking if it was alright and apologizing for it, saying it was hard to get a bigger apartment for a single guy in the country side. The New Zealand Fellow had heard from his predecessor that “The American guy is going to be really cheezed off when he sees how small his apartment is” so even he was worried I wouldn’t like the place. In fact even the Mayor of Ajimu asked if my place was alright.

Living by myself is a bit lonely. So far I’ve been keeping busy though. I get a lot of invitations to places.

***********************************************


Dear Rob,

Yes, it is quite humid over here too. It’s probably no worse than a hot summer day in Michigan. (That is, a really hot 90 degree day). But the killer is that it is like this every day, instead of in Michigan where we might have one 90 degree day only once in a while. Fortunately my work and apartment are air-conditioned. (My apartment is actually very much like yours in terms of the way it’s laid out).

I’m in my little mountain town right now. I only spent a couple days in Tokyo actually. Tell Brett it is absolutely gorgeous over here. Be sure and rub it in a lot. Seriously though, I’m right next to a bunch of mountains, and I’m only an hour’s walk away from the top. But these mountains aren’t like Colorado or the Smokey’s or anything like that. They’re covered in bamboo plants, and have tons of weird insects and spiders. (Actually the spiders are a bit creepy).

I haven’t heard any Aerosmith since I got here, but the Beatles are quite popular. In fact the Beatles are more popular in Japan than they are in the US. I think that might be partly because of the whole thing with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, because everyone talks about John Lennon a lot. I see his picture all over the place, and I learned that John Lennon’s favorite food is Miso soup. It almost seems to be common knowledge over here. I used to read about the Beatles all the time, and I never found out Miso Soup was John Lennon’s favorite food.
[Ed. Note: Actually this e-mail is a classic case of speaking (or writing) too soon. It turns out Aerosmith is also very popular in Japan, and I would hear a lot of Aerosmith as well over my Japan time.]

I haven’t started teaching yet. It’s kind of a weird system. They don’t have anything for me to do right now, but I show up everyday to show I’m a team player (which apparently is very important in Japan). The office just lets me read or do e-mail (which is where I’m e-mailing you from right now).

******************************************************************

Dear Mom,
In regards to my mail, please save the letters from the War Resisters League. None of it is particularly important, and you certainly don’t need to forward it to me here in Japan, but it would be nice to read when I return home. As for the Sports Illustrated: Butterball signed me up for a subscription over the internet as a joke, along with Cigar Monthly, National Geographic, etc. (I think Butterball has a lot of time on his hands). Anyway, I’ve just been ignoring it, and most of the magazines gradually stop coming. Sports Illustrated is more persistent than the others, but everything is being sent to the Camelot address, so I don’t think they’ll be able to send me anything once the forwarding stops.

Things are good here. This is a brief description of what I’ve been up to since I arrived in Ajimu:
Wednesday: I actually just spent this night by myself, because the office assumed I would be tired and would want to sleep. I did some unpacking, and took a walk through the town, but it gets dark here so early that I couldn’t see much. (There’s no daylight savings time in Japan, plus the surrounding mountains block the sun earlier).

Thursday: First day of work. They don’t have anything for me to do yet, (summer vacation) but it is important that I show up because of the emphasis here on team. I just do e-mail or study Japanese. I was also introduced to everyone in the town hall. At night Issei (one of the younger guys in the office) took me out on the town with his friends.

Friday: Work, and then at night I had nothing to do, so I just went hiking in the hills around here (although again it gets dark early so I had to cut it short).

Saturday and Sunday: My supervisor had his family in town (they are usually studying in Tokyo, but he has two sons, 17 and 23–the same ages as me and Kyle). He invited me over and took me sight seeing with his family to all the scenic spots in Ajimu. Lots of Buddhist temples, much like our trip to Korea. But there are also beautiful mountain views and waterfalls. We spent all day Saturday sight seeing, but Sunday afternoon he dropped me back home early, so I just went hiking around town again. I met some Japanese college students up in the trails, and they took me around and showed the safe hiking areas. Then I hung out with Ryan (the other New Zealand Jet in my town. I had been unable to get a hold of him before then, but a 3rd year Jet from the neighboring town of Innai came over to visit, and showed me where Ryan lived).

Monday: went to work, and then hung out with Ryan in the evening. At night, Issei took me to O-bon festival (Shinto festival for the dead, lots of dancing and thinking. Even though I think most Japanese are not religious, they like the old festivals. Afterwards we had a party in the temple.)

Things are going good over here. I’m certainly getting a lot of special attention where ever I go. Last night Ryan and I just walked into a grocery store, and the owner invited us for dinner, so that’s what we’re doing Thursday. Tonight and tomorrow there is a coming of Age Ceremony, and Ryan and I are supposed to say a few words or something. To be honest I’m not really sure what we’re doing, but I’m sure it will be interesting.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Lennon apparently intended the song "Yer Blues" as a parody of British blues, but it was delivered with such spirit that it has been hard for some listeners not to take it seriously. The lyrics are extremely suicidal, and include references to Bob Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man as well as cosmology.

Link of the Day
Last night I went to the screening for Jeff Smith's new documentary. His corresponding book: " Sembramos, Comemos, Sembramos: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time" can be read on the Media Mouse site here.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Imperium by Robert Harris

(Book Review)
Now that I’ve finally finished off the last two books in McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series, I am beginning to remember why I used to be so interested in this period of history, particularly the last 100 years of the Roman Republic. With my interest officially rekindled, I began to wonder if there were any other good historical novels that dealt with the same period of time.

And then, (what perfect timing), a new historical novel “Imperium”, which chronicles the life of Cicero, just came out this fall. I don’t often like paying hardcover prices for new books, but I figured in this instance it was worth it.

This book is the life of Cicero as told from the perspective of his secretary Tiro. (According to the author’s end note, the actual Tiro really did write a biography of Cicero, but it was lost with the collapse of the Roman Empire.) At only 300 pages, this book is significantly shorter than McCullough’s books, but then it only covers a short part of Cicero’s life. Although the author does not explicitly say so, I can only assume that this is to be the first book of a larger series, because it ends before most of the major events in Cicero’s life.

The book itself has a number of serious flaws. I guess I feel about this book the same way I feel about the comic book novels I’ve recently reviewed on this blog. I was so enamored with the subject material, that I enjoyed the book in spite of its literary shortcomings. (And I will probably buy and read the sequels when they come out.) But there are a lot of serious problems with this book.

For reasons that are mystifying to me, this book got a lot of very good reviews. I think that is because the life of Cicero isn’t generally known to the average person, and I think a lot of reviewers were just really excited to be able to put some sort of story in connection with all those stuffy Cicero Latin quotes which have survived the ages.

In comparison with McCullough’s series, however, this book is definitely the poorer of the two. I will try and keep the comparisons to McCullough to a minimum, because I realize that it would only be of interest to someone like me who had read both books recently. But I got a much better picture of Cicero from her books, and her books weren’t even about Cicero. In her books, Cicero is just a supporting character in a story about Julius Caesar.

In McCullough’s books, we first meet Cicero as a 17 year old youth serving an internship in Pompey Strabo’s army. We then follow him as he makes his first appearances in Rome, takes his first court case, and meets his friend Atticus for the first time.

In Robert Harris’s book, we start when Cicero is 30, despite the fact that the narrator, Tiro, has known Cicero since childhood. All of Cicero’s life up to that point is covered in a few paragraphs, and his time in the army and his famous case defending a client accused of Patricide are virtually ignored. A great opportunity to add some depth and interest to the characters is lost.

There are several supporting characters in “Imperium” who help Cicero in his political career. His friend Atticus, his younger brother Quintus, his cousin Lucius, his protege Frugi, etc. These characters are present in most scenes (apparently they have nothing better to do but follow Cicero around) but none of them are developed at all. They’re nothing more to the reader than a bunch of names to keep track of. And what little characterization we do get is done in the worst way possible: by the narrator simply telling the reader. (Didn’t Robert Harris ever take “Creative Writing 101"? Isn’t that the cardinal sin for fiction writers?) For instance, we know Atticus was an Epicurean because the narrator states: “Atticus was an Epicurean.” Otherwise we would have no way of knowing from the story. In the same way we know Quintus Cicero is not as clever as his older brother, but more militarily inclined. It is told to us directly by the narrator, not shown in the story. And despite Quintus being in almost every scene, that’s as much characterization as he gets in the whole book.

As for the history parts:
This book ends with the election of Cicero as consul, so it doesn’t get into the Catiline conspiracy. But it does lay the ground work for it, and sets up Catiline as a pretty nasty villain. In my high school paper, I argued that Cicero exaggerated or made up many of Catiline’s crimes for his own political purposes, and that they were afterwards recorded into history. (Or rather, Lester Hutchinson argued that point, and I plagiarized him for my paper). Robert Harris seems to be taking Cicero’s allegations against Catiline at face value. Which I guess is the difference between a serious history and a historical novel. In a serious history you spend a lot of time analyzing conflicting accounts to get to the truth. In a historical novel, you are free to use which ever account best serves your dramatic purposes. And having Catiline as a great villain and, by correlation, Cicero as a great hero, definitely makes the story more exciting.

The big problem though, as Hutchinson points out, is that if all those awful allegations about Catiline were true, how in the world did he manage to stay in good graces with the aristocratic Roman Senate? And this seems to be the 500 pound Gorilla in Robert Harris’s novel. How does this psychotic, murdering, incestuous sex fiend keep moving in the snobbiest circles of the Roman aristocracy?

Also, in order to preserve the hero-villain dichotomy of the novel, Harris presents a view of history in which all of Cicero’s enemies are in conspiracy together. For example when Clodius prosecutes Catiline, Harris’s takes the unlikely explanation that both Clodius and Catiline engineered a show trial to boost their respective reputations. That’s right, Catiline arranged to have himself prosecuted, because he thought it would increase his popularity. Would it have been too much complexity to admit the possibility that Clodius could hate Cicero and also hate Catiline? Would that have been too confusing for the readers?

And then it gets worse. Harris takes the (I believe almost universally disregarded) view that Caesar and Crassus were secretly funding the Catiline conspiracy. By the time you get to the end of this book, it’s like reading the “Conspiracy Nut's Guide to Ancient Roman History”. I suppose some of this (and the discussion it generates) is all part of the fun of historical novels. But to me, it just seemed too ridiculous. All that being said, I’m still looking forward to the next volume in this series, just to see what Robert Harris’s take on events will be.

One last addendum: Robert Harris takes advantage of the post 9-11 world to draw some parrallels between ancient and modern history. The Pirate attacks, and the resulting panic in Rome and Pompey's power grab are retold in terms very reminiscent of the 9-11 terrorist attack and the resulting expansion of government power. This makes the book feel a bit more relevant to today's world. It will also date the book in 20 years time, but then I severely doubt anyone will still be reading this book in 20 years.
Update: Interview with the Robert Harris on NPR here confirms that this is indeed intentional. Not that there is much of a chance of people missing it.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"Birthday" begins with a blues progression in A (in the form of a guitar riff doubled by the bass) with Paul singing at the top of his chest voice, "They say it's your birthday/ Well it's my birthday too, yeah!" Afterwards, a drum break lasting eight measures brings the song into Lennon's section, which rests entirely on the dominant before returning to a third section, sung by McCartney. It is among the latter's most intense vocal performances due to the range in which he sings during the blues run. The female backing vocals that sing the "birthday" were performed by Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman and Patti Harrison.

Link of the Day
What the media aren't telling you about the Iraq Study Group report

And, via Phil's Blog:
From This Month's Harper's Index"Amount a 2006 defense bill authorized for a daylong "celebration" of "success" in Iraq and Afghanistan: $20,000,000""Date on which the authorization was extended to 2007: 9/30/06"
I wonder how many teachers we could've afforded with that 20 mill alotted for propaganda. Not very convincing propaganda, most likely.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The October Horse by Colleen McCullough


(Book Review)
Now that I’ve read the last book in McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series, I first want to say how much I’ve enjoyed this series. In my review of the previous book, I mentioned several quibbles I had, and I stand by those, but they are after all only quibbles. On the whole this is a fantastic series.

Granted it’s not for everyone. Hard as it may be to believe, there are some people who have no interest in history, and I imagine they would lose interest in this very fast. But if you have even the slightest interest in history, if you’ve ever enjoyed a good historical novel, I can’t recommend these books enough. They’re well written with vivid characters. You’ll learn a ton about Roman history, and you’ll have fun doing it. They are long books, but you don’t have to read them all at once. I took a 10 year break in between books 4 and 5 in the series, and had very little problem getting right back into it. Because these are historical novels, and not straight histories, the characters and events of the previous books remained vivid enough in my mind even after 10 years. Which is the beauty of learning history through novels. It sticks in your mind a lot longer.

My only complaint is that McCullough has ended the series here with the formation of the second Triumvirate. The true end of the Republic wasn’t until Augustus defeated Antony and assumed power. It would have been nice if she would have continued just a little farther to bring closure to her series on the fall of the Roman Republic. But I guess if we want to get technical about it, she really should have started the series 50 years earlier with the Gracchi brothers. (Actually according to Wikipedia, McCullough has relented to fan pressure, and is currently writing one last book in this series. So at least I have that to look forward to.)

Now onto the specifics of this particular volume:
Because this book deals with the assassination of Julius Caesar and the love life of Cleopatra, more so than any previous book in the series it deals with events already very familiar through Shakespeare and Hollywood. McCullough presents a different view of these events than the one we are accustomed to. She defends some of her choices in the afterward to her book.

For instance, Julius Caesar never utters the words “Et Tu, Brute?” According to ancient sources, Caesar was silent at his death. Cleopatra is not the exotic beauty she is often portrayed as in Hollywood, but an awkward gangly teenage girl. Marc Antony is depicted as originally being in on the plot to assassinate Caesar. Brutus and Cassius are not the charming men they appear as in Shakespeare, but men who are perfectly content to loot, pillage and burn Greece and Asia Minor in order to fund their war against Marc Antony.

I remember one of my Latin professors at Calvin once made a big deal of the fact that, contrary to popular conception, Brutus and Cassius were not in fact killed in retaliation for the murder of Julius Caesar. Rather after the assassination, a general amnesty was offered to all the conspirators. It was for other reasons that the uneasy peace collapsed and civil war began. The reasons for the collapse of peace can be pretty confusing, but McCullough does a good job of thoroughly covering this step by step in her book.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"Julia" was written for John's mother Julia Lennon, who was struck by a car driven by a drunk policeman in 1958. It was also written for his wife Yoko Ono, whose first name, which literally means "child of the sea" in Japanese (洋子), is echoed in lyrics such as "Oceanchild, calls me."

Link of the Day
Antiwar Vietnam Vets Mentor Next Generation of Resisters
About 8,000 soldiers have gone AWOL since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and many of them are looking to their predecessors for support.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Revolutionary by Hans Koningsberg


(Book Review)

This book is an attempt to capture the psych of the typical revolutionary. It is often compared to Camus’s “The Rebel” and Malraux’s “Man’s Fate.”

I’ve not yet read “The Rebel” (add that to my reading list), “Man’s Fate” is one of my favorite books of all time. It is about the Chinese Communist’s defeat in Shanghai 1927. (I first read it as part of my “Western Perceptions of China” class, the same class in which I was first exposed to Fu-Manchu.)

Like “The Revolutionary”, “Man’s Fate” attempts to capture the confusion and disillusions of the revolutionary. But much of the genius of “Man’s Fate” is that it is attached to a real historical event. By contrast, “The Revolutionary” occurs no where. It takes place in an unnamed country, at an unspecified time, in an unknown city. The political parties are referred to simply as “The Radical Party” or “The Reds” and the main character is known simply as “A.” The idea is that it can be taken to refer to any revolutionary at any given time.

I’m told (although some of you literary types might be able to correct me on this) that at one time it used to be stylish for writers to write novels without any specific setting. Personally I think this book would have been a lot better if, life “Man’s Fate” it had been connected to an actual historical event. But that being said, this book is not as bad as it sounds. A good writer can draw the reader into even a non-existent world, and I think Koningsberger does a good job of making “A.” seem like a real person.

The book deals a lot with the disconnect between the romantic dreams of revolution, and the day to day drudgery of working late in a print shop or waiting in the freezing cold at a rendevous point. Although I would be flattering myself to claim the title of a revolutionary, I think everyone who has been involved in activism can identify with this to some extent. As A. Explains near the end of the book,
“You mustn’t be disappointed. I know this is not the way you’d expect things to be. Me neither. It’s hard to explain...from a distance, when you’re sort of floating above it all, it seems so simple, just a matter of being determined. But then the closer you are, the more complicated it is. You get lost in details.”

This book was made into a film in 1970, starring Jon Voight and Robert Duvall. I've never seen the film, but appearently it made Roger Ebert's top 10 list for that year.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The recording session for the song "I Will" turned into a jam session, producing the short "Can you take me back"-segment that introduces "Revolution 9" on most versions of the album, as well as "Los Paranoias" (released on Anthology 3). This quiet song required 67 takes

Link of the Day
More Japanese Music.

君といつまでも--This is one of my favorite Japanese songs, although I didn't care for it the first time I heard it. Maybe it's one of those songs that has to grow on you. I put it on my mixed cassette tape just to fill up space, but then one night when I took a wrong turn in the country side and was driving around at night surrounded by just empty rice fields, this song came on. I think to fully appreciate it you have to listen to it with that kind of atmosphere in mind.
A couple notes about this video: first of all it has a long introduction, so you can just skip 2:10 minutes into it to hear the actual song if you're impatient.
Secondly, obviously this is a later performance when the singers are a bit older. But the song sounds almost exactly the same as on the original recording.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis


(Book Review)

Yet another book which has been on my list for a long time, I’m finally getting around to reading C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy.

Interestingly enough, C.S. Lewis begins this book by acknowledging his debt to H.G. Wells. H.G. Wells was one of my favorite science fiction authors as a child, but one does not often associate the socialist, atheist Wells with C.S. Lewis. However if nothing else the styles of both authors are very similar. In both of their writings, the voice of the narrator is very strong.

Obviously the nature of popular fiction has changed over the years. Most contemporary fiction relies heavily on dialogue and the voice of the characters to further the plot. Lewis and Wells instead rely much more on the voice of the narrator (as some of you may remember from childhood and the Narnia books). Since it was a long time since I read Narnia, I found this style a bit jarring at first, but it grew on me as I stuck with the book.

Like many children, I grew up with Lewis’s Narnia series, and only afterwards realized the religious symbolism in the books. As an adult, I catch onto it much more quickly, and there are a lot of religious themes in Lewis’s books (to state the obvious). I wouldn’t call Lewis’s religious themes subtle, but it wasn’t overbearing either. It’s definitely a lot better than the “Left Behind” series. Lewis avoids a lot of sermonizing and preaching in his books.

Instead, the philosopher theologian in Lewis explores a lot of interesting questions. Like, how do Angels talk without physical bodies? I mean how do they manipulate sound waves without a physical device?

Or, if you grew up in the church, and if you were a science fiction fan, perhaps you used to wonder, “If there is life on other planets, did they experience sin like we on earth did, or are they still in the Garden of Eden pre-fall stage. And if so, what would happen if they ever interacted with our earth?” I know I used to ask that question a lot in Sunday School. I never did get a good answer back then, but Lewis posits one possibility in this book about what might occur.

There's not much of a plot to this book. A man goes to Mars, he sees many interesting things and learns about an alien race, and he comes back. There is a certain wonder at a new world lived through the eyes of the main character, but it's nothing science fiction fans haven't already seen many times before. I'm assuming this book is mainly just the set up for the rest of the books in the trilogy. In fact in the afterward, Lewis pretty much says as much.

On a side note: Phil once said in his blog, “When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, I argued endlessly (and predictably) with my parents about what's appropriate to describe: Should characters be depicted in the act of cussing? violence? sex? Since I was raised fundamentalist I actually felt like I had to expend energy defending the position that not every character in a work of fiction needs to talk and act like a nun.

Since I had a similar background, I thought it was interesting that Lewis used the words: "damn", "hell", "God", and "Lord" as exclamations in this book. Nothing compared to the latest rap albums I’ll grant you, but it would have been more than enough to get me disciplined at the Christian Middle school I attended.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" is a simple twelve-bar blues song, featuring a constant hammering on the piano topped by McCartney's increasingly histrionic singing. It may be an attempt by McCartney to imitate or parody John Lennon's raw, stripped-down songs such as "Yer Blues" or "Don't Let Me Down." Paul played all the instruments himself (except for the drums, performed by Ringo Starr), and recorded the song without the other Beatles. John was upset that Paul would do a song as controversial as this without him, and most likely this contributed to growing tensions within the band. It is rumored that this sparked his interest to produce Revolution 9 with Yoko.
Lennon was said to have been fond of sarcastically citing "Why Don't We Do it in the Road" as the "best song Paul ever wrote."


Link of the Day
More Japanese Music.
あの人の手紙 "The letter from that Guy". From 1972 during the new folk music revival in Japan. Check it out here. I think you'll agree it's pretty catchy. The guy on the left is actually from Oita Prefecture.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Sept. 5, 1990 "What I did this summer"

(Retrospection)

Yet another "What I did this summer" essay in which I was really struggling to find something to write. (I must have led a boring life as a middle school student).
The highlight of my summers was always when my cousins came up to visit, so I usually tried to work that into these essays (as with the previous example).
My family had the habit of going up every summer for one week to "Portage Lake Family Bible Camp". This summer (1990) my cousins and their parents joined us for the week.

There was also a 3rd family, with whom we always did our vacations together. They had 3 kids, including two little girls about the age of my youngest sister.


The playful wrestling of pre-teen boys, like sarcasm over e-mail, is something that can be easily misinterpreted when written down. Or in other words, even though I wrote this down in dramatic language, everyone was only playing here. Even the little girls, who acted a bit like the ball is to a football game for our purposes, were having a lot of fun. If they stopped having fun at any point, they could always leave and go find an adult to tattle on us, a tactic that they had absolutely no qualms about resorting to.


This summer my family and I went to a family camp called Portage Lake Covenant Bible camp. My cousins came there also, and our two familys shared a cabin together with a third family. My cousins are named Brian and Jeff.

Jeff is ten years old and Brian beats him up all the time. I don't know how he gets away with it. His parents don't even seem to mind. I wish my parents would let me do that to my sister sometimes.

Brian is twelve years old and is older than me by a week and a half. But he is a lot stronger than I am.

One day my sister, Jessica, who is 5, and her friend Kathryn, who is 6, were playing on the camp swing set. Brian, Jeff, and I were walking around and talking. Brian decided to chase Jessica and Kathryn. He sneeked up behind them and started chasing them. Jeff and I went on talking. As Brian chased the two girls, two boys, about 5 or 6, watched with interested. They cheered for and occasionally helped Brian.

Soon, Brian caught Kathryn and put her in "the closet". "The closet" is a small room that is part of the playground, next to the swing set and right below the slide. It has only one exit, which is a door. Brian closed the door, and leaned against it so that Kathryn could not get out.

"Joel, help!" she yelled. I thought it would be funny if I let her out. I went up to the door, and tugged on the handle to open it as Brian pushed to keep it closed. We struggled for a bit, but eventually I was able to get the door opened just enough for Kathryn to squeeze out. She ran as fast as she could back to the cabin.

Brian of course knew that I had only done this to bug him. He said that because I had let her out, I had to go catch her again. Fair enough, I thought. So I ran after her. Brian, meanwhile, continued chasing Jessica around the swing set.

Jeff also ran after Kathryn. But Jeff was trying to protect the girls from Brian. I thought that I would join Jeff and help the girls. As soon as we got out of Brian's line of vision, I called out to Kathryn to wait up. She had heard Brian tell me to catch her, so she didn't trust me and kept running. Just as I was about to catch up to her, she got inside the cabin and locked herself inside.

Through the screen window, I told her I was on her side. Jeff, who had also decided to help the girls, was right next to me at this point, but he didn't believe me either because he had also heard Brian tell me to get Kathryn. Jeff told Kathryn not to believe me. The only way I could make either of them believe me was by reminding them that I was the one who had freed Kathryn in the first place.

Jeff and I told her that we were going to rescue Jessica and to keep the door unlocked so Jessica could get in. Brian wouldn't have been allowed in the other girl's cabin without permission, so we didn't need to worry about that.

Jeff and I ran back to Brian. The two little boys had now joined Brian's team, and became his helpers. Brian had just caught Jessica
"Did you catch Kathryn?" asked Brian.
"She got away," I said. Then I jumped at Brian and pried his hands of off Jessica. Then Jeff, Jessica and I ran off with Brian right behind us.

Jeff and I had to go at Jessica's pace, while Brian ran as fast as he could. So when we reached Kathryn's cabin, we had just enough time to push Jessica in but not enough time to get in ourselves. Brian grabbed hold of me and, try as I might, I could not get free. I heard Kathryn lock the door, which I didn't like because now even if I did free myself from Brian, I wouldn't be able to get to the safety of the cabin. Brian knew what I was thinking, and he laughed.

"Unlock the door," I called out. Immediately someon did. Brian's two little helpers had caught up to us by this time. Jeff rammed himself into Brian. Brian let go of me and grabbed Jeff, and I was able to run inside the cabin.

Kathryn and Jessica were sitting on the bed and as Jeff was struggling to get free Kathryn yelled at Brian, "Let him go! You let him go!"

I led both girls around to the back of the cabin where Brian couldn't see us, and snuck them out the back door, and then into the back door of our cabin.

"Stay there!" I told them. "I'll be back in a minute," and I ran to where Brian was and charged at him. I got Jeff free, and we both ran to were Jessica and Kathryn where. I told them that I had freed Jeff and to stay where they were until further notice.

Then one of Brian's helpers saw us talking to her. "She's in there!" he said to Brian, pointing at the cabin. Brian and the other helper appeared. I sent Jeff in with the girls and told them to get away from the doors. Jeff left and ran towards the front. Briant ran towards the front too. "Keep them away from the front," I yelled. "That's where Brian is."

I ran to the front and found Brian had captured both girls. He took them back to his the prison and and didn't let them out. Me and Jeff got tired of playing, and the girls were on their own.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"Don't Pass Me By" was Ringo Starr's first solo composition and he sang lead on this song, which apparently became a #1 hit in Sweden. Its earliest mention seems to be off a BBC chatter session introducing "And I Love Her" on the Top Gear program in 1964. In the conversation, Starr is asked if he wrote a song and McCartney proceeded to mock it soon after, but the song is unmistakably Don't Pass Me By with very slightly different lyrics. The song has a very predictable 3-chord blues structure, of the root, fourth, and fifth, with the chorus having the same chords and rhythm as the verse, apparently leading McCartney to mock it. The fact that it wasn't recorded until 1968 contributed to Starr temporarily quitting The Beatles during the White Album sessions. Ringo Starr refused to do more than one take on this song, thus getting all the mess ups on the album itself.

Link of the Day
An Article in USA Today on the Quran controversy:
The decision by incoming Rep. Keith Ellison -- who will be the first Muslim member of Congress -- to be sworn in on a Quran has lit up the blogosphere since radio talk show host Dennis Prager wrote in his Townhall.com blog Tuesday that the Minnesota Democrat "should not be allowed to do so -- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization."
conservative bloggers jumped on the story this week with both feet, prompted in part by an "ActionAlert" from the American Family Association calling on them to "send an email asking your U.S. Representative and Senators to pass a law making the Bible the book used in the swearing-in ceremony of representatives and senators."

Also a previous article below
He should not be allowed to do so," Prager wrote, "not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American culture."
He said Ellison, a convert from Catholicism, should swear on a Christian Bible -- which "America holds as its holiest book. … If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress."
The post generated nearly 800 comments on Townhall.com and sparked a tempest in the conservative blogosphere. Many who posted comments called the United States a Christian country and said Muslims are beginning to gain too much influence
.

This is part of the duel strategy of the Religious right. On one hand they complain that Christians are the most made fun of and persecuted religion in the US. On the other hand, they try and force their way religion down everyone else's throats. And then they claim persecution when someone (Simpsons, South Park, Sunset Boulevard) satirizes them for persecuting others.