Monday, June 30, 2008

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

For some time I've wanted to real the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Books of Wonder) I just finally got around to it.

In the introduction Frank L. Baum states that he wanted to write a book that taught children as fairy tales did, but without the nightmare inducing villians or monsters. Hmmm. The film with those flying monkeys certainly must have caused countless nightmares. The book does have a witch, but she's not as scary as the film's.

But the book is quite different than the film. Noting these differences was the best part of reading it. Some examples include:

  • The first good witch isn't young and pretty; she's old and cute in a frumpy way.
  • The monkeys aren't scary or evil. They just hae magic powers and in fact they help Dorothy & Co. throughout the story.
  • The Wizard isn't just a giant head. He takes many forms depending on whom he's speaking to.
  • Dorothy & Co. meet a few other adversaries like the Hammerhead men and bears with lion heads.
  • Dorothy had to sew the balloon herself.
  • The frame of the story is quite different.
  • And more. I won't disclose them all. Read and delight for yourself.

Baum has a delightful style and the book reads fast. I plan to read more in this series before taking on Wicked.

By Donald Richie

Donald Richie is one of my favorite writers on Japan. Every Sunday he writes a book review in the Japan Times. Here's this week's
Having faith in traveling

EXCURSIONS IN IDENTITY: Travel and the Intersection of Place, Gender and Status in Edo Japan, by Laura Nenzi. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008, 267 pp., illustrations IX, $57 (cloth)
During Japan's Edo Period (1603-1867), Dr. Laura Nenzi tells us, "physical mobility (traveling along horizontal lines) was tightly regulated and social mobility (traveling along vertical lines) . . . was not always a viable option."

This was because "parameters based on status and gender permeated every facet of one person's life, and to a certain extent travel was no exception." Officials meddled with every major move, and actual checkpoint barriers periodically closed the major roads.

However, what became known as recreational travel changed all this, and altered some of these parameters. By the 19th century, travel had already become a part of consumerism and though religious pilgrimages were often the excuse for travel, the new mantra, suggests the author, was "I buy, therefore I am."

Besides being pious and visiting noted shrines and temples, the new travelers could take advantage of quite a menu, one which in the author's words rested on the relationship between "faith and fun, prayer and play, sacred and profane."

As the Edo Period matured (if that is the word) into an age when money mattered more than pedigree, travel generated its own economic power. Thus the pilgrimage, far from being a mere act of faith, became an enterprise that required a monied infrastructure to pay for the advertising, the lodgings, the making and marketing of all those amulets and charms.

Landscape (something to look at and admire rather than something to simply tramp through) was invented, and citizens flocked to gaze at Mount Fuji, not as an object to avoid by going around it, but as a presence that was to be thought beautiful and, eventually, divine.

And when the traveling crowds got too big, they could go see the miniature Fujis that, Disney-like, spotted old Edo. The most famous of these imitations was in Meguro. It was only 12 meters tall but visitors admired the blend of the sacred, the leisurely, and the convenient.

The Japanese discovered many reasons for travel, once travel had become a possibility. Among these one of the most interesting to the modern mind (at least, to this modern mind) is what we would now call sex tourism. Though there were eventually many guides to various venues, there is also one literary monument. This is Jippensha Ikku's 1814 "Tokaidochu Hizakurige" translated into English as "Shank's Mare."

In its picaresque pages the two friends Kita and Yaji make a mock pilgrimage, the real purpose of which is to eat and drink a lot and to enjoy the other sensual pleasures as well. Every pretty girl is noted and the Tokugawa military checkpoint at Hakone is barely acknowledged.

Ikku quotes the old proverb that "shame is thrown aside when one travels," and Kita and Yaji go out of their way to illustrate this. Their travels are punctuated by their realizing it on a purely physical level and in the form of instant gratification.

And they knew just where to go, since by this time brothels and baths loomed large on travel maps and cruise guides. As Dr. Nenzi informs us: "To the erotic traveler, interaction (and intercourse) with local prostitutes served a purpose similar to what lyrical or historical recollections did for the educated and what the acquisition of material objects did for other wayfarers in the age of commercialism." And it is true that sex makes a memorable souvenir. Or, as phrased by the author: "Intercourse, like the recovery of historical and lyrical precedent, or like shopping, facilitated the seizure of the unfamiliar."

Nenzi is an academic and manages to squeeze out most of the juice before presenting the pulp, but, on the other hand, such a dry delivery benefits the text in that, by contrast as it were, it beckons the salacious (this reviewer among them) to re-imagine the pleasurable dimensions of free travel in straight-laced Tokugawa times.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Darcy's Story by Janet Aylmer

Pride and Prejudice is largely told from Elizabeth's point of view. This novel attempts to tell Elizabeth and Darcy's story from Darcy's point of view and, to some extent, succeeds.

A conscious choice, the author, who writes under the pseudonym of Janet Aylmer, repeats much of Austen's original dialogue. While this works to allow the novel to stand on its own, having just finished the original, I found myself skimming over long passages.

To its credit and to my enjoyment, Darcy's Story fleshes out the character of Georgiana, Darcy's sister and allows her to play an integral role in Darcy's growth and ultimately successful courtship of Elizabeth. Aylmer also provides some insight into Darcy's motivations and rationale for the approach he takes when he first asks for Elizabeth's hand.

And yet, the novel is often just presenting Austen's work all over again. This repetition rather weighs down the few original insights which Aylmer offers.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

As I begin to remedy my failure to have read any of Jane Austen's novels, I chose to start with Pride and Prejudice, perhaps due to familiarity or perhaps due to it being her most popular.

Familiarity and high expectations did not diminish my first written Austen experience.

Pride and Prejudice is a complex romance which harkens to the silly romance novels I read as a teenager only so far as to enhance its brilliance.

Elizabeth is sculpted as a completely sympathetic, bright and witty woman. Darcy is only slightly less sympathetic and is more interesting in his character development throughout the novel.

These two are contrasted nicely with many other lesser characters who share some of their character flaws without any of their redeeming qualities.

The preoccupation with class is a dominant theme throughout the book and one with which it is hard for the relatively class "un"conscious to relate. Only by surrendering to the mores of the time can the reader make sense of the characters' choices and prejudices.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Two More Books on Japan

Straight Jacket Society is a hysterically funny book on Japan describing a Japanese psychiatrist's return to his home country after living in New York for many years. He comes up against the idiocies of the bureaucracy and counters them ingeniously.

The problem is Amazon doesn't have it nor does Alibris. I tried but they didn't have it either. This is a gem as it's written by a Japanese man who understands the West.

Fear and Trembling: A Novel is a semi-autobiographical account of a young Belgian woman's year working as an Office Lady in a Japanese company. She's fluent in the language, hard working and intelligent. Yet the harder she works and the more she tries, the worse she gets treated. This is well written, but does show a bad side of the society.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Good Books about Japan

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon- Not like the movie. This is the diary of a noblewoman in Kyoto in Heian Japan (990 AD). Fascinating descriptions, beautiful, trenchant lists.

250 Essential Japanese Kanji Characters Vol 1 (Kanji Text Research Group) - a very useful book to learn how to read the symbols around you in Japan.

Japanese for Busy People I: Romanized Version includes CD (Japanese for Busy People) - a good series of language texts.

36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan - a college professor's experience in Japan. Funny and insightful.

Importing Diversity: Inside Japan's JET Program - a sociological study of the impact of the JET Program, which brings about 6000 foreign English teachers into this homogenus society.

Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan- the story of one Assistant Language Teacher's year in rural Japan.

The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing on Japan. Just an introduction to Richie's writings on Japan. He's been there since the 50's writing all the while.

A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan- more Donald Richie.

Little Adventures in Tokyo: 39 Thrills for the Urban Explorer- a guide that features Kennedy's favorite places in Japan. It's like the insider tips from a good friend who knows and loves Tokyo. I did some of the adventures and they were just as described.

Snow Country- the real life of the average geisha, not a glossy Memoirs of a Geisha.

More Than a Native Speaker, Revised Edition, an Introduction to Teaching English Abroad - a must for those going to teach in Japan or anywhere.

A Wild Sheep Chase: A Novel - a wild post-modern adventure in northern Japan.

The Elephant Vanishes: Stories - more of Murakami's jazzy, modern (post-modern?) fiction. Some short stories.

The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan- a collection of short stories by expats in Japan.

Speed Tribes: Days and Night's with Japan's Next Generation- a look at the darker side of Japan. Skip if you've had your fill of this genre.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Long Day's Journey Into Night

I’d never read Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day's Journey into Night, which is quite autobiographical. This play shows a day in the life of a dysfunctional family at their summer home. O’Neill slowly reveals that Mary, the mother has a morphine habit, which she’s battled for years. She’s married to an actor, who loves Shakespeare and get rich quick schemes. Their two living sons are Jack, a reprobate who can’t hold a job or his liquor all that well, and Eugene who’s got TB. They argue and rant and hide their problems. Written before we became so conversant and familiar with addiction and psychology, the play was probably much more novel and powerful in 194 . As I read, I kept thinking how most people would address these problems with 12-step programs and counseling. I did enjoy the play, but times have changed and that affected how I connected with the characters more so than how I’d connect with say Hamlet or MacBeth.

Great Christian Thinkers

I’d read of Hans Küng, modern Catholic theologian who’d disagreed with Pope Benedict XVI years ago and who’s written many books. I thought he’d be too dense to read. Well, on a trip to the library I figured I could see what he really was like. I checked out his Great Christian Thinkers, in which he briefly covers the life and work of Paul, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Martin Luther, Schlieremacher, and Barth.

His writing is pretty clear, though I did learn some new words like soteriology, which is the doctrine of salvation. (When would I use that? To read more Küng I guess.) There are some complicated parts, but not so many that I had to give up. I did learn more about Augustine’s reasons for his attitudes towards sexuality which he saw as a very dangerous aspect of life likely to trip us up salvation-wise, I mean soteriologically. He had his own issues.

I’d known about Aquinas giving up on his writing saying it “was all straw” but I didn’t know that some theologians think he had a mystical experience that led him to think that reason isn’t everything.

I had never heard of Frederick Scleiermacher (1768 - 1834), a Protestant philosopher and theologian and now think he’s quite cool. He was part of a circle of thinkers and artists in Berlin. He was quite modern in that he urged women to pursue education, art, honor and wisdom just as men do. He wrote that they should not enter into loveless marriages. He was very big on women’s rights saying “I believe in infinite humanity which was there before it took the guise of masculinity and femininity." So everyone should be accorded equal rights. In one of his writings he wrote commandments for parents including one that was to “Honor the idiosyncracies and whims of your children, that all May go well with them and they May live a mighty life on earth.” He became a pioneer of progressive education.

He had a lot of intellectual friends who had no understanding of religion and wrote to reveal why smart, cultured people who were up on current science could benefit from religion, why it’s not just for the peasantry.

This book is a good intellectual history of Christianity.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889

My cousin recommended A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889on 19th century Vienna and I'm glad I took his advice. Author Frederic Morton looks at this pivotal year in European history. His style is more like a novelist than a historian and the people and events seem so romantic and real, which they were.

It was a time of great inflation and Austria is lost. The suicide rate in Vienna is the highest in Europe. People were killing themselves in the most dramatic fashion. For example, one woman got on a train, went into the loo, changed into a wedding gown, comes out into the main car and then jumps out of the train. Freud is starting his practice without much success. Klimt is painting a major mural at a theater and there's a big rivalry between Brahms and an unknown composer. In this setting Crown Prince Rudolf is the focal point. He's got lots of new ideas and wants to align Austria with France and progressive thought. His dad's still ruling and is quite conservative. He is closer with the German and Russian rulers and philosophy.

It's a dramatic look at history and how easily things could have gone a different way "if only . . ." Then ending echos in my head.

The Hollywood Standard

I was talking to a friend about screenwriting and mentioned that The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style is a reference all screenwriters need. It shows you how to format and write for all types of shots and conditions. You'll look very professional.

My Dinner with Andre

I'm trying to read more plays and scripts so I got My Dinner with Andre by Shawn, Wallace when I saw it at the library. I remember seeing the film on video probably in 1989 and I liked it. It's quirky and philosophical. Not to mention different.

It's the story of two friends, Andre and Wally, who have dinner together. Andre is going through this crisis, he's realized his life lacks meaning and that he's just going through the motions. He can't do that any more so he takes off on a variety of wild quests in India, Poland, wherever he hears of some group or guru or old friend doing something that might me more real. Now the story consists of his explaining all these bizarre experiences to his everyman friend Wally. Wally takes it all in, but is skeptical. He cares for his friend, but really must we all trek off to Tibet to encounter reality? Of course, not. But the two then launch into a discussion of how deadened people have become.

It's witty and Wally balances out Andre well. They do care for each other and respectfully challenge and disagree with each other. The film was engaging as was the script. Here you get the benefit of the introduction by Andre Gregory which says he really did go through this midlife crisis.

The DVD sells for $78 so go to Netflix.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The End of America

Bridget is right. Every American should read The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. I think all high school students should read and discuss it as should those of us who’ve graduated long ago and are about to vote in November. Wolf thoroughly and methodically organizes the 10 Steps she sees as leading to a "facist shift" or the erosion of civil rights that lead to dictatorship or tyranny.

She carefully, with lots of footnotes, provides evidence of the erosion of civil liberties in America and provides examples of similar erosions in other societies like Italy and Germany. Many people, she believes, think that fascism or a dictatorship are radical changes that are obvious, something we’ll see and know react to because they’re such gross attacks on the constitution. That isn’t the case. In other societies citizens lost their rights slowly and didn’t realize the small changes in political rhetoric and laws were shifts that would result in a dictatorship and loss of freedom for all.

Wolf writes in such a way that she takes into account the shortcomings of the average reader’s history and civics courses while respecting one’s intelligence. While I don’t think she’ll convince the far right wing conservatives, I think she will persuade many.

She’s actually not the only writer to warn citizens of democracies of the fragility of this system of government. The founding fathers, Socrates, Lewis Lapham in Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and Stifling of Democracy, all knew that democracies are in peril. They can easily mutate into tyrany. Citizens must be vigilant.

I did find that conditions are so bad and we have lost a lot of ground, that I could not read more than a couple chapters at a time. Not because of the writing, but because of the content. Things are bad. She does end with suggestions on what patriots can and should do to keep America democratic. Yet the end is scary. She urges patriots to first check all their records to see what dirt adversaries might use against them. Yikes.

Prince Caspian

I read C.S. Lewis' Prince Caspian (Narnia) for my online Act One book club this month. Although I’ve read other C.S. Lewis books, nonfiction and Till We Have Faces, I’d only read The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe of the Chronicles.

I love how much charm and humor the narrator has from page one to the end. The story is allegorical, but the symbolism is well weighted in the story. It is there and available for the average reader to pick up, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story.

I liked the characters and how they relate to each other. I like how the narrator explains them, for example relating them to how we might feel or how we might get when we’re tired or hungry. It’s humble and respectful of us and the characters.

I took a film class Roger Ebert taught years ago and he always said the best genre films (but I think the same can be said of books) interests the person who’s not “into” that genre. I don’t read fantasy books, but I did like this. Very much.

I looked to see if the film is near me. It isn't. Guess I'll see it on DVD.

I did read The World According to Narnia: Christian Meaning in C. S. Lewis's Beloved Chronicles, and appreciated the further analysis of the story.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

How is this Determined?

blog readability test

Movie Reviews

So this must be due to Bridget. Bravo!

(I got this from looking at Barbara from Act One's blog - long story on my thoughts on that, but it's called Church of the Masses.)

To put this in perspective, the New York Times, New Yorker and Nobel Prize website are all rated "Junior High." MIT and Princeton's sites are "Genius."

Monday, June 09, 2008

Introducing Chomsky

Introducing Chomsky, New Edition (Introducing...)makes Chomsky's linguistic ideas and his social activism understandable for those outside the ivory tower, smart people who don't want to trudge through denser works, those who aren't registered for graduate classes in linguistics. The Introduction to series uses graphics and summaries to acquaint readers with the lives and work of great thinkers or schools of philosophy. By reading this book, I got a better understanding of the context of Chomsky's work within linguistics and what led him to his political activism. I saw how his thinking fit within the field of linguistics.

This series is like having a friend who's studying linguistics, political science or philosophy who can break down big ideas for you with out watering down all the contents.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Significantly different from the movie.

But I mostly mean that in a good way.

In an effort to distract Sylvia from her impending divorce, Jocelyn decides to start a Jane Austen book club, one Jane Austen book a month for 6 months. The book club is made up of Sylvia, Sylvia's daughter Allegra, Jocelyn, Bernadette, Prudie and Grigg, the lone guy.

The book has some odd flashbacks to several incidents during Jocelyn and Sylvia's high school years which serve little purpose. They don't advance the narrative nor do they really seem to shape Jocelyn's future behaviors.

As a Jane Austen neophyte, I found the insights into and analysis of the Jane Austen books intriguing and a redeeming feature of the novel.

And yet, I must say that this is one of those circumstances where, even having read the novel after seeing the movie, the movie was more enjoyable. Generally, I feel that movies suffer in comparison when seen after having read the book, but in this case, it is the book which suffers in comparison.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Boston Marriage

David Mamet's Boston Marriage is a play with three characters: two "women of style" (i.e. lesbian lovers) and their maid. Anna, who was originally played by Felicity Huffman, and Claire were lovers. Claire has found a younger woman and wants Anna to cover for this relationship. Obviously Anna reacts with jealousy. Anna has found a rich man to support her and Claire. He's given her an emerald necklace and Anna plans to string him along. She'd like some gratitude for her sacrificing (a bit) for Claire.

It's a play with great dialog, a study of sarcasm and jealousy. Neither the man nor Claire's new love ever appear on stage. Midway through the play we learn that the girl saw the necklace and it's her mothers. That heightens the drama. Yet I kept wanting the man or his daughter to appear on stage.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Writers at Work: Paris Review Interviews Series 1

This is the first collection of Paris Review interviews. Again I read interviews of some of my favorite writers and of a couple I haven’t read much but would like to. This volume includes interviews with E.M. Foster, François Mauriac, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Thorton Wilder and Georges Simenon, whom I'd never heard of.

Like the collection I read a few weeks back, these interviews made me feel like I was in the room with a master. Dorothy Parker was as witty and perceptive as one would expect. She talks about the pranks and loyalty she shared while working at Vanity Fair with Mr. Sherwood and Mr. (Robert) Benchley. (She never used their first names.) For example, another writer at Vanity Fair had a map of Europe over his desk on which he marked flags noting the battles of World War II (this was during the war). Parker would get up early just to get into work to change his flags each morning. I love this sort of puerile playing with someone’s eccentricities. It’s one reason why I love The Office.

Some tidbits I gleaned:

Both she and Benchley subscribed to undertaking magazines. Imagine. What a curious interest. She also explains how she does not think poverty is best for artists and that few great works are produced in a garret. (Yet this image persists.) She actually didn’t go to the Algonquin that regularly for the famed Roundtable lunches since she couldn’t always afford it.

Thorton Wilder thought it must be fascinating to be a miser as one would always be busy.

From all the writers one learns about their beliefs on what trends or beliefs are good for literature and writers. It’s like a written version of “The Actor’s Studio.”

I had never heard of Georges Simenon, but was intrigued as I paged through this. He was a French novelist who could complete a short novel in ten days. André Gide thought he was “perhaps the greatest” novelist of contemporary France. Simenon wrote his first novel when he was 17. He wrote detective novels and then tense psychological novels and used 16 pen names. By the time of this interview he had published 500 novels, some under his real name and some with a pseudonym. I’ll get one or two next time I’m at the library.

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Ghost Town

I give up. I started reading Robert Coover’s Ghost Townand stopped after 50 pages. It’s a post-modern book with lots of dialect. It’s about a nameless sumbitch who rides or imagines he rides into a ghost town. It’s artful and packed full of surreal elements. I just wasn’t in the mood for this multi-layered demonstration of literary talent.

I did enjoy Coover’s Briar Rose a few years back. Westerns aren’t my thing at least this one wasn’t. Coover is innovative, but that’s not what I’m looking for in a story right now. Or else there’s something else that’s missing. I bet I could read Italo Calvino. Something like If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler again or something of his I ha-ven’t yet read. Calvino has more heart; there’s more to connect with rather than just to marvel at with him.

So at page 50 I decided to put it aside. I can read it some other time. Or not.

The Meteor

In college I took a class on German literature in translation where I read Friedrich Dürrenmatt. I can’t remember the title of what we read, but I remembered I liked it. So I grabbed his play The Meteor at the library. I liked this too.

The Meteor tells the story of a Nobel prize winning author who keeps trying to die. He was in the hospital and died there and then came to again. He returns to an apartment where he once lived hoping to die there. Now a painter and his wife live in the apartment. The painter does not like this intrusion, but he goes along with things. Here the author dies a couple more times and comes back to life. Between deaths other characters come and go and he upsets their lives with claims that say he slept with one real estate baron’s wife. Other characters do die or run away from their husbands, but the author keeps coming back.

It was a humorous absurd play. Not so absurd that it’s pedantic or esoteric. A fun fast read that makes one think a little.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

(Not that You Asked) by Steve Almond


Let me say that I am perversely offended by this Advance Reader's Edition "special excerpt booklet." Perversely because, although I didn't really enjoy the "special excerpt booklet," I'm offended that "they" didn't send me the entire book. I do understand that there's an element of looking a gift horse in the mouth involved here. But, what can I say? I find it kinda chintzy.

Getting past my irritation with the form to my thoughts on the substance, I will say that Almond occasionally made me chuckle but, for the most part, I was unimpressed. His insights came across as shallow and self-satisfied.

Which is probably why it took me 10 months to finish a 42 page "booklet."

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

I'm so glad that "they" turned this book into a movie.

If not for the movie, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I'm thinking that this book, which I also thoroughly enjoyed, might have never crossed my radar.

And that would have been a shame.

The book better conveys Guinevere Pettigrew's internal turmoil and uncertainty than the movie (don't books always do so?) and there are character and plot differences between the two which serve both equally well.

Watson charmingly describes the trepidation and elation with which the poor, desperate Miss Pettigrew gets caught up in the social whirlwind of Miss LaFosse.

All of that and happy endings all around, too!