Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

 (Book Review)

Some books you read and…Well, some books you don’t so much read as struggle through.

I recently read Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” in “On writing Short Stories”, and I thought to myself, “Hey, this Faulkner guy’s not so difficult after all. This is pretty straight forward.”

However “The Sound and the Fury” is anything but straight forward. I think this is the most difficult book I’ve read since I had to read Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” for a Calvin class.

The book is divided into 4 different sections, the first 3 of which are different narrators going over the same events in Rashoman like style.

The first section is narrated by Benjamin, the mentally retarded brother. Benjamin has the inability to stay focused on one moment in time, and so his account jumps all over the place. He can only see events, but not realize their significance, so nothing is ever explained.

This section of the book reminded me a little bit of the movie “Memento”. Because everything is shown out of order, at first you have no idea what is going on, but if you stick through it, and resist the urge to throw this book across the room, eventually the pieces do start to come together and you can make sense of the story.

But if I had to do it over again, I think I would read the cliff notes alongside this book to help me sort out what is happening. Unless you want a real intellectual work out, you should probably have some sort of study guide alongside this book. There is no set up; you’re just thrown into the middle of the story. And to add to the confusion, three sets of characters share the same name, and one character even has his name changed.

The second brother, Quentin, is even more difficult. Benjamin may jump around in time, but at least his narrative is straight forward. Quentin also goes in and out of time, but Quentin thinks about the past in a stream of consciousness way which jumbles diverse ideas and images together. He’s also obsessed with his sister, and there’s a lot of Freudian ideas about incest thrown in here.

If you can make it as far as the 3rd brother, things finally start to make sense. The third brother, Jason, tells everything straight forward. He’s a bit of a jerk, but he’s one of those literary characters that you love to hate, so its fun to read.

And the fourth section is standard 3rd person omniscient narrative, very straight forward. Almost as if Faulkner is rewarding you for sticking with him till the end by finally making his story easy to understand.

This book can be pretty interesting at points, and it contains a lot of Southern colloquialisms that have a way of rolling of the tongue if you try and say them out loud. (“Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say.”) But unless you like to struggle through books, I recommend tackling this one with a study guide next to you.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The Red Scare periods ended May Day as a mass holiday in the United States, a phenomenon which can be seen as somewhat ironic given that May Day originated in Chicago. Meanwhile, in countries other than the United State and United Kingdom, resident working classes fought hard to make May Day an official governmentally-sanctioned holiday, efforts which eventually largely succeeded.

Link of the Day
I've heard through the grapevine that there's trouble in the Chimes office once again, as the usual spoof issue has been banned, and then published on-line. The offending spoof can be found at http://www.calvinspoof.com/

Also Phil has a couple posts on the subject, one giving his reactions, and one mentioning that the Chimes managing Editor was fired as a result.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

 (Book Review)

As regular readers of this blog might recall, I ruined the ending of this book for myself a long time ago. Truth be told, even before I linked to the ifilm clip I had asked a friend to tell me the ending. “I’m never going to read the book anyway,” I told him. “Just tell me what happens at the end.” He obliged, and then a few months later I got addicted to the Harry Potter Audio books.

The shocking ending aside, there are a number of other thread plots that kept my interest while listening to this book. More teenage romance, quidditch matches, mysterious potion books, et cetera.

Although the damage has already been done to the Brett-Sarah family, I’ll try and keep my remarks general for the sake of anyone else who may not have finished this book yet.

*I get more and more addicted as these books progress. The author does a good job of juggling several subplots at once, and the characters are some of the most vibrant literary creations I’ve come across in a long time. They seem like real people to me instead of just fictional characters, and I don’t think that’s easy to pull off.

* That being said, I think a few of the plot lines are getting recycled from book to book. I suppose this is inevitable in a 7 book series, especially one that revolves around school life. After all, what is school but the same things happening year after year?

* Phil once wrote in his blog: When the whole of late capitalist life becomes a full-time computer simulated hallucination I... will spend all my time in virtual reality, kicking Snape's ass! Fuck you, Snape! You're a ball-coddling coward!)
In spite of the last scene, I think there are enough clues to indicate Snape is still acting on the good side. I won’t write them all out here, but next time we meet up, Phil, we’ll have to discuss this.

Now I, like the rest of the world, am now eagerly awaiting the last book so I can find out how it all ends up.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Bat-Mite, a childlike Imp in a bat custom, appeared often in Batman comics from 1959 to 1964. After 1964 an effort was made to make Batman comics more serious, and subsequently Bat-Mite seldom appeared.

Link of the Day
More of Bush's Disastrous Environmental Choices

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

 (Book Review)

Steinbeck was one of the few authors assigned in high school that I actually enjoyed. I always meant to read more books by him, but I got distracted by other things.

A few year ago, I saw the movie “East of Eden”, and really enjoyed it, so I’ve been meaning to read the book for some time now. I had a hard time finding a decent copy, but when I saw it in the Oita library I grabbed it.

Because I had already seen the movie, I was a little worried that I would get bored with the book, but actually it turns out the movie only deals with a small portion of the actual story. The book actually traces three generations of two different families: the Trasks and the Hamiltons. In this way the book is actually a much more epic story. It reminded me of Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks".

The Hamilton family is John Steinbeck’s actual maternal family, and so Steinbeck writes himself into the book, including what I’m assuming are real autobiographical details mixed in with his fictional story. This is an interesting literary technique, and some of the most interesting parts of the book are those dealing with Steinbeck’s life, such as the time he recalls with great regret about how he and his sister took part in the harassment of a German immigrant during the first World War.

As the title indicates, and as anyone who’s seen the movie knows, this story is a modern retelling of the Garden of Eden story. I’ve heard that this book has been criticized for lack of subtlety, and this is really true. The characters themselves even comment on the Garden of Eden and the Genesis story, so that there’s never any doubt as to where the story is going. In this regard those who have seen the movie, and already know how the story will end, are at no more disadvantage than those approaching the story for the first time. At times I felt things were a little heavy handed, but on the other hand it’s kind of refreshing for an author to be like: “look, I’m not going to be coy with you and make you guess at the symbolism. This is the story I want to tell. It’s all out in the open for you.”

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The September 25, 2005 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper reported that Tillman held views which were critical of the Iraq war and did not support President Bush's re-election. According to Tillman's mother, a friend of Tillman had arranged a meeting with Noam Chomsky, to take place after his return from Afghanistan. The article also reported that Tillman urged a soldier in his platoon to vote for John Kerry in the 2004 U.S. Presidential election.

Link of the Day
CIA Spy Speaks Out: No WMDs in Iraq Was Not an 'Intelligence Failure'

Sunday, April 23, 2006

V for Vendetta

Because of the delayed release in Japan, for better or for worse it has been the fate of this weblog to only comment on movies after the stateside buzz has already died away, and people have moved onto other things. (For example, my blog reviews of Lost in Translation, Troy, The Passion, Fahrenheit 911, Star Wars III, and Team America.) And since this has never stopped me from chipping in my two cents before, I don’t see why it should now.

I read a lot about this movie and its anarchist themes before I saw it. For example this web editorial encourages anarchists to use the movie as an educational tool. And I noticed from my cousin Dave’s blog that Emma Goldman's famous quote, “If I can't dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution," was paraphrased in the movie. Any movie that quotes Emma Goldman gets points in my book.

Unfortunately however that little quote was the only reference to Emma Goldman I found. Neither Emma Goldman nor any other anarchists are mentioned by name in the movie. Instead, the historical figure that the movie revolves around is Guy Fawkes. And whatever legitimate grievances Guy Fawkes might have had against the British parliament, he was not an anarchist. He was a catholic extremist who wanted to replace protestant rule with Catholic one. He would not have approved of Emma Goldman or any anarchist platform. I understand that he’s been co-opted as a symbol of resistance to government, but if every right wing kook who wants to blow up government buildings becomes an anarchist symbol, is the movement going to be wearing Timothy McVeigh T-shirts in 400 years?

Nor does the level of political sophistication in the movie appear to rise above Guy Fawkes. The solution advocated is simply to blow shit up. Blow up enough buildings and the masses will spontaneously arise and create a utopian society. No platform or organizing work necessary.
( I've gone over many of these same issues about the strategic value of sporadic violence, and I won't repeat myself here.)

Right now you’re probably thinking that I’m just taking this movie too seriously. (Us political types are never much fun to go to the movies with.) I should just grab some popcorn, watch the cool fight scenes and the explosions, and be grateful that at the very least this isn’t another one of those damn patriotic war movies. I should just be happy that at least it’s a Hollywood movie with subversive themes woven in, and not scrutinize it too much for doctrinal correctness.

And I tried to watch the movie with that attitude. I really did. I went into the theater telling myself I wasn’t going to take it too seriously. But what spoils this is that the movie takes itself too seriously. Any movie that stops the action frequently to preach at you is hard to classify as a popcorn movie.

I’ve not read the graphic novel on which the movie is based, so I can’t comment on that. Apparently the graphic novel is more overtly anarchist, and much of this was taken out for the transition to Hollywood. Websites like aforanarchy.org talk about the differences between the movie and the comic book. Interesting stuff to check out if anyone is interested.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Sean Connery was involved in a minor scandal while filming "You Only Live Twice" when he stated that he didn't find Japanese women sexy.

Link of the Day
Amnesty's report on the USA's secret torture program.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

What I've Been Up To

I suppose I should take a break from all these book reviews and post an update. Not that there's a lot to update on.

Still hanging out at Shoko’s place in Hita. At the risk of repeating myself ad nauseum, I’ll mention again that I’m a bit isolated here. I no longer have a car, I don’t know anyone in Hita besides Shoko, and there’s no easy train access to anywhere I want to go. And even if all this wasn’t the case, all my friends have jobs so I’d have to entertain myself during the daytime anyway.

This doesn’t bug me as much as it did last time around, and I think attitude is a key difference. Because I knew this was how it was going to be, I was mentally prepared for it. In fact, during the last couple weeks in Gifu when I was busy with packing and good-bye parties, I was already looking forward to this period when I would just absorb myself in my books.

So, while Shoko’s away at work, I’ve been slipping into deep Geek mode. I’ve been reading a lot of books, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Expect a lot more book reviews to come. Shoko got internet hooked up at her place, which means I don’t have to walk down to the internet café every time I want to update this blog. This is the first time I’ve had regular internet access since I’ve been in Japan, and I’m discovering how dangerous it is. I’m trying to resist the temptation to check my e-mail every half hour, or spend all morning looking up pointless stuff on wikipedia. I know I wrote previously that I might be a little off on e-mail this month, but I take it all back. Send me a message.

I've tried to establish a bit of routine for myself. After spending the first few days sleeping till noon, I now try and get out of bed at 10:30 every morning. I do light exercises, and try and help out with the cleaning of the apartment by washing dishes and folding laundry.

If I get bored in the middle of the afternoon I usually take a walk around town. Hita is a lot bigger than Ajimu is, but it’s still relatively a country town, and so an unidentified foreigner walking around causes all sorts of confusion. In Ajimu at least people knew who I was and I worked at the local schools. In Hita my presence causes a lot of speculation among the locals. Most people just stare. The worst so far was when I was in a café when I noticed two high school girls were spying on me through the window. They would duck back behind the windowsill whenever I looked up from my book with a lot of screaming and giggling. Eventually I waved to them and they ran to their bikes and went away.

Because I’m stuck out in Hita I haven’t seen a ton of the old gang. When Shoko has a day off or an errand I sometimes hitch a ride with her to the old hangouts. Shoko and I went into Oita city and ran into Mike by chance in the local Starbucks. Then Mike invited us to a hanami (cherry blossom viewing) party where we met a few more friends. We also made it into Usa one night to meet up with Chris and Ben, and then I saw Eoin and David of Nanbanjin in Nakatsu on our way back.

A lot of my former Japanese co-workers keep asking me to swing by Ajimu and visit (a few, to be bluntly honest, are being persistent to the point of annoyance). So far I haven’t had a chance but I will definitely try and do this before I leave.

I also met Shoko’s mother for the first time when Shoko and I went to her house for dinner. In Japan it’s not common to meet the parents until the relationship is serious, so I’ve avoided meeting the mother until now. Shoko’s mother isn’t thrilled that her daughter is dating a foreigner, but I got a polite, if somewhat distant, reception.

Other than that not too much to report. Cherry blossom season has already come and gone while I’ve been here in Oita. As always, this blog is pretty rubbish on pictures, but Chris posted images on his blog if you want to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom.

Since the cherry blossoms only last two weeks, I’ve always thought it was odd how important they were to Japanese culture. But then again, as Justin points out on his blog, that’s the whole point. It’s a reminder that life is fleeting. Shoko and I managed to take a few walks through the cherry blossoms before they all vanished.

Useless Wikipedia Fact

Disney comic strip artist and creator of the Huey, Dewey and Louie ducklings, Al Taliaferro, named Huey after Huey Long.

Link of the Day

The Ongoing War on Truth in Iraq

Friday, April 21, 2006

28 Today

Another year, another birthday. This is now the 5th birthday I’ve spent in Japan. Originally I was thinking I’d be back in America for this birthday, but Calypso is keeping a tight hold on me. I’ll be back soon.

I guess birthdays are usually a time to reflect on how old we are and how much we’ve changed. Last year I did a post worrying about how old I was getting, so I’ll just skip that this year. Besides I don’t think there’s much of a difference between 27 and 28. It’s just another number. The jump from 26 to 27, from mid twenties to late twenties, is the big one.

Instead, I want to borrow another leaf from Mr. Guam and play a game with the date. Besides being my birthday, today, April 21st, is also the anniversary of an event which forever changed the face of world history. Anyone know what that is? (Mr. Guam, Mr. Lucretius, I’ll be disappointed if one you boys doesn’t get this one.)

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Although historically Che Guevara and Evita Peron never met, in the musical "Evita" Che acts as a narrator and commentator on the events.

Link of the Day
Bush's Latest Nuclear Gambit

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 (Book Review)

I’ve seen this story many times in its various movie and television incarnations. I’ve avoided reading the book because I tried to read Sherlock Holmes (by the same author) once in middle school and found it terribly dry and boring stuff. But when I saw this book in the local library I thought I would give Conan Doyle another try and see if I’ve matured any as a reader since my middle school days.

This book suffers slightly from a dry and formal style common to all Victorian era books, but it’s highly readable. And the breakneck speed at which the story progresses more than compensates for the dry style. Once the story gets going, Doyle wastes very little ink on boring literary descriptions as the heroes escape from one danger right after another. There’s also a lot of humor mixed in. Dry humor, but occasionally pretty funny at times.

The basic story is that four explorers find deep in the Amazon jungle a hidden land where dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures still exist. Doyle invents new prehistoric creatures (“previously unknown to science”) as well as the old standby dinosaur classics. And if all the danger from the dinosaurs wasn’t exciting enough, the explorers also find themselves in the middle of a war between the native tribes and the strange ape-men.

This book is slightly racist, in the sense that every old book written by Europeans about new lands is always racist. The native Indians, the “half-breed” guides, and the faithful Negro servant Zambo are all described in terms which, while not malicious, would not be considered political correct today. Perhaps I might feel different about this if I were one of the disparaged ethnicities, but I find myself very forgiving of racism in old books. (Recent books are a different story).

On the whole, I’d say this is an exciting book, a quick read, and would recommend it to anyone who likes adventure stories.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
In part because the film's trailer gave away the ending, "Soylent Green" has become a popular example of a twist ending that is already known by the public at large, even those who have not seen the film

Link of the Day
US: AOL Blocks Critics' E-Mails

Monday, April 17, 2006

Coming Home

I’ve been researching airplane tickets, and it looks like I’m going to be coming home May 16th now. I know this was a little longer than I originally planned, but like Odysseus I find myself not able to easily break away from Calypso’s grasp.

A friend from Gifu wanted to come visit Oita during Golden Week, and I agreed to stay around to help host him. And then the first cheap ticket I could find after Golden Week was for May 16th.

Obviously this extension makes for a long vacation, but I’m trying to use the time well by doing a lot of reading and writing that I know I won’t have time to do when I re-enter the work force. Although I’m not earning any money at the moment, I am managing to keep my expenses low. Shoko and I haven’t been eating out, I don’t have a car so I no longer pay gas money, and obviously there’s no rent.

…But here I am making excuses to all of you when I know full well none of you care about how long my vacation is, or what I do with it. The only people who care are my parents, and Shoko’s mother (who has apparently been expressing concerns about my work ethic.) But in the scheme of things I don’t think another couple weeks is going to make a difference.

At the moment I have no plans to return to Japan, so I’ve been looking for a one-way ticket home. The first time I came to Japan the JET program paid for my ticket out, and ever since then all my trips home have been on roundtrip tickets, so this is my first experience into the world of one-way tickets. It turns out they’re actually more expensive than roundtrip tickets. Sometimes significantly more expensive.

That’s counter-intuitive, but I assume there’s a good marketing reason for it. Maybe the airlines figure that roundtrip tickets are usually bought by families doing vacations on a budget, and might cancel their trip if they can’t get deals. Whereas one-way tickets are bought by people who are moving, and so are already committed to buying the ticket. Either that or businessmen who are transferred, and so the company pays for the ticket.

Okay, so I can’t get a cheap one-way ticket. Best thing to do is buy a roundtrip ticket and just not use the other half, right? Seems like a bit of a waste, but what can you do?

Now this is where I really get mad: if I don’t turn up for the return flight, the airline apparently charges me the price for a one way ticket, and sends me the bill for the difference. This is what I’ve been told by two different travel agents at least.

Can they do that? Do I have to pay money for not riding a plane back to Japan? Boy, those bastards really squeeze you everyway they can, don’t they. I’m no legal expert, but something about that arrangement just doesn’t feel right. If I refused to pay the difference and went to court, would I have any legal basis? Perhaps I could take a stand and fight for a man’s right not to use the second half of his return ticket. I could cite the tenth amendment to the constitution. It would be a lot of hard work of course, but in the end…

Or, I guess I could just pay the $200 difference. Damn you airlines.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The Phantom is credited as being the first "costumed superhero", i.e. the first crimefighter to wear the skintight costume attributed to comic book superheroes.

Link of the Day
A long time ago I mentioned on this blog that one of my favorite old Japanese songs is "Blue Light Yokohama". I found a re-make of it on-line. I prefer the original 1960s version because I like the simple style that old music has, but this will give you an idea.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

This Gun for Hire by Graham Greene

 (Book Review)

In this book Raven, a professional assassin, kills the Minister of War, but is then double crossed by agents who give him stolen notes as payment. The police trace the notes, and Raven is on the run from the police and trying to track down the agent who gave him the money.

Meanwhile Mather, a dectective, is trying to catch Raven, but his girlfriend, Anne, is trying to help Raven find the agents, so that the source behind the assassination can be discovered, and a world war can be avoided. This book was published in 1936, in the years between World War I and World War II. It must have been on everyone’s minds that the next great war could also be sparked by an assassination.

I once read a book by Graham Greene (“The Power and the Glory”) for a Calvin literature class, and that remains my image of Graham Greene: Someone you read in literature classes. This book, on the other hand, resembles more a popular spy novel. Apparently Graham Greene alternated between ambitious literary books and suspense novels.

That being said, there’s a lot too distinguish this book from the average paperback. Raven’s whole character is created by the fact that he has a hair lip. This one seemingly trivial feature is enough to permanently keep him on the outside of society. For instance in this scene when he goes to the shop:

He said, “That dress in the window. How much?” She said, “Five Guineas.” She wouldn’t “sir” him. His lip was like a badge of class. It revealed the poverty of parents who couldn’t afford a clever surgeon.


Because of this one defect, Raven has developed severe anti-social tendencies, and is able to kill without remorse. It’s a powerful portrait of what it feels like to be on the outside, and how that can affect someone’s personality.

Much is also made of the fact that the assassinated Minister of War was a socialist, and was trying to help the poor. When Raven finally learns about the beliefs of the man he assassinated, he regrets doing it. I don’t know much about the politics of Graham Greene, and maybe someone who knows more can help me out on this. “The Power and the Glory” was critical of the socialist revolution in Mexico, but this book seems to be very sympathetic to the Socialist cause. I suppose the two are not necessarily contradictory. George Orwell, for example, never gave up on democratic socialism even as he became a critic of bolshevism.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The sign for the town of Fucking, Austria, is the most commonly stolen street sign in Austria.

Link of the Day
Baghdad Morgue Overflowing Daily

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling


(Book Review)

Yet another Harry Potter book. I got a late start on this series, so I’m only now pulling ahead of the movies.

Someone once said of “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy that the whole world is divided into two camps, those who have read the trilogy, and those who intend to. These days I think you could truthfully say the same thing about Harry Potter. Half of you have already read this book, and probably don’t need me to review it for you. The other half doesn’t want me to spoil the ending. (I understand I caused a little trouble in Brett and Sarah’s family with the link I included in this post. Heh heh heh…I mean, sorry about that.)

I’ll try and talk in general terms:
Of the series I have read so far, I enjoyed this book the most. I’m somewhat reluctant to trust my own objectivity, because this was the first book I read without having seen the movie first. So I guess it’s only natural I’d enjoy it the most. And yet I suspect this would be true regardless. There’s a lot more action in this book, and the stakes the characters are fighting for are also increased. The genius of these books is that despite a common setting, none of the books feel repetitive. Each book takes us to new ground.

I enjoyed the flashback segment that allowed us to see Harry’s parents and the childhood versions of Snape, Lupin, and Sirius. It added a lot more depth to Snape’s character.

Also Rowling also does a good job of blending teenage romance with the sword and sorcerer story line.

And this book also has a really great villain, which really adds to the overall enjoyment.

It’ll be interesting to see how this is adopted to a movie. I’m glad I don’t have the job of adopting a book this long into a screenplay.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The communist anthem "L'Internationale" is under copyright until 2014
Link of the Day
Ifilm has a short video of Peace and Civil Rights Protests of 1967. The most interesting part is Martin Luther King heading a procession to the United Nation building to urge UN pressure on the US to stop bombing North Vietnam. This is part of King's forgotten radical legacy. Had he been alive today, I'm sure King would have been urging UN pressure to stop the US in Iraq. (And for what it's worth, the late Coretta King thought so as well).

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Stand by Stephen King (Complete and Uncut Edition)

 (Book Review)

This is my second foray into Stephen King. This time tackling what is probably his most famous work (and one of Sarah’s recommendations).

First note: this is one of the longest books I’ve read in a long time. My paperback copy is 1141 pages, but that’s with very tiny printing. I’m sure it would be many more pages in normal type setting.

And quite frankly, it doesn’t need to be that long. There are a lot of dead ends, reverses, sub-plots that really don’t go anywhere or have tangential importance to the main plot, and just wordiness. King obviously loves his job, and loves writing, but I kept thinking an editor should really have hacked away at it. I guess that’s what I get for buying the uncut edition. Ordinarily I’m a stickler for all the details, but in this case I think I would have been quite happy with the abridged version.

As King explains in the introduction, this edition was released in 1990, twelve years after the original edition in 1978. King says that most of the original cuts made from the 1978 version were made because of economic publishing concerns and not editorial reasons, so he justifies re-inserting the cut 400 pages. And I suppose that’s an author’s prerogative.

What I find more troubling is that King also updated his book for the 90s. I think this was a terrible idea. While I understand that it might be strange to publish a book in 1990 that predicts the apocalypse in 1980, I think the great thing about books is that they act as miniature time capsules from the time they were written. You’re bound to screw it up if you try and update it.

As wikipedia points out, the revised edition has a lot of anachronisms and fuzzy math probably due to sloppy editing. But updating a book is more than revising the dates and changing which war the characters fought in. The mood of the story is also trapped in the time period. The pre-apocalypse world of “The Stand” is filled with racial tensions, student activism, political extremism, and references to “long hairs”, all of which obviously belong to the 70s instead of the 90s. (More accurately to the late 60s, but I figure art is always five years behind reality).

There’s enough sex, swearing, blood and gore to insure that this book will never be a favorite of the religious right. And yet it’s a very religious book.

Almost all American horror movies and books are somewhat religious in the sense that they exploit Christian mythology to create horror stories of demons, devils, and hells. But “The Stand” emphasizes the power of God just as much as the power of Satan. Cut out all the “bad” stuff, and it could easily be re-written as part of “The Left Behind” series. The human characters are not so much free agents as they are pawns in a game between God and “the dark man”. They are guided by visions and prophecies and the occasional miracle.

In my more optimistic moments, I like to believe that God actively intervenes in this world. However I get uncomfortable when God intervenes too much in fiction. It seems like cheating. Whenever the characters get in a jam, the author creates another supernatural act to guide them. I believe the literary term for this kind of cheating is “Deus ex machina”, and there seem to be a lot of places where this term applies to “The Stand”.

All those criticisms aside, I enjoyed this book a lot more than “The Gunslinger”. The prose is very readable, and during the climax at the last 200 pages or so I was absolutely hooked and couldn’t put it down. Of course, that’s a lot of set up, about 1000 pages, to get to the final climax.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The Green Hornet is the grand nephew of The Lone Ranger

Link of the Day
(From This Modern World)
Can there be any doubt that George Bush as one of the most corrupt and dishonest political figures in our nation’s history? He’s a man whose arrogance and incompetence have led to a string of scandals that combine the worst aspects of Teapot Dome, the Pentagon Papers, Tammany Hall, the Whiskey Ring, Watergate, and more. Misleading the public about the Iraq war, the use of torture as an interrogation tactic, spying on American citizens, looking the other way while war profiteers raid our treasury, diverting war funds without Congressional approval, blah, blah, blah. You’ve seen variations of this lists everywhere, yet corruption has become so normal at this point that the Bush’s latest misdeed, selectively and secretly “declassifying” a national intelligence estimate to provide to a single Administration-friendly reporter (aka. “leaking”), feels like more of the same.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Vampire Blood Trilogy by Darren Shan

 (Book Review)This book is actually a collection of three books (Cirque Du Freak, The Vampire’s Assistant, Tunnels of Blood) originally published separately. I was going to review them all separately, but since they’re all such quick reads, and because this book review project is already threatening to take over this blog, I thought I’d just review them all as a whole.

These Darren Shan books are very popular with my Japanese Junior High School students in translation. For a long time I actually thought these books were Japanese because of the publisher’s ploy of having Darren Shan, the main character from the books, credited as the author. Because I couldn’t see an author listed on the book cover, I simply assumed the Japanese translator was the author. Then, when I found these books in the English section of the bookstore, I decided to by a copy to find out what my students were so excited about. (I’m not sure if these books are as popular back home as they are in Japan. Perhaps someone who works with Junior High school kids could fill me in).

These books are fantasy adventure/ horror books aimed at the young adult market. When I was a kid I avoided these kinds of books like the plague. What could be worse than a horror book that adults had actually approved for kids?

And yet there’s some pretty frank stuff in here. Maybe the standards have changed since I was a kid. There are mildly graphic description of a vampire getting his intestines ripped out, a kid eaten alive by a wolfman, and a misguided environmentalist who tries to free the wolfman and gets his arms bitten off. (That will teach those dirty hippies.) Several of the main characters meet with gruesome ends, which adds a bit of suspense to the book. When a character is in danger he is really in danger. You can’t assume everything will turn out all right because it’s a children’s book.

What kills this book is the infantile style. Maybe it’s unfair to harp on a children’s book for stylistic concerns, but even when compared with other young adult books like “Harry Potter”, it really falls flat. The characters in “Vampire Blood Trilogy” talk like they’re in a book. Especially the children characters, all of whom have extremely flat dialogue. The principal characters often do stupid things apparently just for the point of creating conflict and advancing the plot.

Because of the bare bones style, it’s an easy read. But it’s broken into lots of short chapters two or three pages long, which makes it jarring to read too much of in one sitting.

Although this collection is referred to as a trilogy, there is no over arching story arc to connect these three stories. Rather they are just the first 3 stories in a larger series, combined into a trilogy edition for publishing reasons. I have to admit I’m somewhat curious to find how the series turns out, but these books are so poorly written that I doubt if I'll keep reading. If I end up reading further into the series, rest assured I'll review the other books on this blog.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Sherlock Holmes was at times an habitiual user of Opium and cocaine

Link of the Day
Media Mouse has posted a disturbing post dealing with racism and the Grand Rapids Police.
African American Community Responds to Club Raid

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

 (Book Review)
At 116 pages, this is right on the line between long “short story” and short novel. It’s a real page-turner and a very quick read. I finished it in about 3 hours.

The story is very simple. A drifter falls in love with a woman, and they plot together on how to kill her husband. There’s a lot of suspense, and some good courtroom scenes as well.

This book was, according to the introduction, tried for obscenity in Boston when it was first published in 1934. But reading it now, it’s very difficult to see why. I guess that’s just a sign of how much things have changed between now and 1934. I kept reading the book, hoping to get to the good parts, and then all of a sudden it was over and I was like, “What? Where was the obscenity?”

Useless Wikipedia Fact (A new feature I'd like to start up to celebrate the amount of useless information now online)
Ernst Stavro Blofeld appears in six James Bond movies, making him the most popular James Bond Villian

Link of the Day
Media ignored, underreported NY Times disclosure of explosive Bush-Blair memo
Summary: Since a March 27 New York Times article confirmed that a leaked British memo appears to contradict President Bush's repeated claim prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that he wanted to avoid war, media have failed to note the full significance of the document and in some cases ignored the story altogether.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Gods Will Have Blood by Anatole France

(Book Review)

This is a story about an idealistic young artist named Gamelin who is appointed as a magistrate during the French Revolution in the days of the terror, and quickly becomes sucked into the bloodshed and turns into a monster himself.

The author, Anatole France, was not anti-revolutionary, and was a member of the French Socialist party and a supporter of the Russian Revolution in its early days. The story, then, is not about the evils of revolution, but about how even good ideals, when not tempered by a sense of humanity, can turn people into monsters. In many ways it is the same story of Robespierre, whose path Gamelin parallels.

Despite the complexity of the human problems under discussion in this book, subtlety is a bit out the window. The path that Gamelin takes from idealist to monster could easily be plotted on a graph if one wanted to make a chart of this book. And yet it still stands as a good insight into how the original humanist ideals of the revolution went so terribly wrong.

The French Revolution, like all historical events, is one that is extremely simple in brief and very confusing in the details. For instance in “A Tale of Two Cities” Dickens portrays the French Revolution as nothing more than the poor rising up against the aristocracy. “The Gods Will Have Blood” is slightly more complex, dealing with the struggle between the Girondists and the Jacobins, culminating in the fall of Robespierre. The point of the book is not the history though, and so it never gets too complex. If you have a vague idea of who Robespierre is, you’ll be all right. Even if you don’t, most of that history is in the background, so you should still be able to understand the main story line.

Link of the Day
Another Civilian Massacre? U.S. Launches Investigation After Iraqi Police Accuse U.S. Troops of Murdering 11 Men, Women and Children Last Week

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Notebook By Nicholas Sparks

 (Book Review)
Before I lay into this book too much, I should make the disclaimer that I probably didn’t fall into the target audience for which this book was intended. And for that matter, I don’t like romance novels in general. Not that I don’t like love stories. I liked “Romeo and Juliet” although in my youth I was probably more influenced by “West Side Story.” “The Great Gatsby” was one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and I also enjoyed “Les Miserables”, “A Tale of Two Cities”, and a host of other books about love.

But I don’t like “Romance Novels”, in the sense of the sappy trash that populates the paper back section of most bookstores. And this novel I think fits clearly in that category.

It has the unique twist of being from the perspective of two older people, one of whom has Alzheimer’s disease, looking back on their youthful romance. Unfortunately that’s the only twist. Other than that it is just a replay of every cliché from the genre. The poor boy is in love with the rich girl. Her parents don’t approve because he comes from a lower class. She gets engaged to a young successful lawyer, who is the envy of all her friends, but doesn’t make her feel quite the same way as the poor boy who used to recite poetry to her under the oak tree. Are you getting ready to throw up yet?

There is no subplot or complicating factors, other than the Alzheimer’s twist mentioned above. Other than that the whole book is pretty much just the lame plot mentioned above, filled with passages like “Allie looked at Noah, and she could tell that Noah was thinking about her, and that knowledge thrilled her. She didn’t know what Noah was thinking about her, and she didn’t care but she was just thrilled with the knowledge that he was thinking about her.” All misquoted here as I have no copy in front of me, but that’s an example of the boring stuff which makes up the whole book. It doesn’t get any more exciting than that.

There’s a certain amount of literary skill involved in making one evening dinner drag on as long as the author does, but it wasn’t my thing.

Link of the Day
In a new report on police treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, a leading international human rights group yesterday indicted the United States law-enforcement system for facilitating discrimination and abuse based on sexual orientation in American communities.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Harry Potter And the Goblet of Fire By J.K. Rowlings

 (Book Review)

Again, I’m a bit behind the times, but I’m still slowly working my way through the audio discs of the Harry Potter series (as I mentioned here). And, because I’m so slow, I’m one of those people who saw the movies first (as mentioned here).

I don’t know if it is fair to bring this up years later, but when we were children my sister and I used to debate whether books are better than movies. My sister argued that books are always better than the movie, no matter what, even if it is the crappy “novelization based on the screenplay”. I argued that people have a fondness for whatever medium they first encountered the story in. If you see the book first you like the book, if you see the movie first you often like the movie better.

I’m going to get myself in trouble with a lot of Harry Potter fans (or at least I would, if they read this blog), but I think in a lot of ways the movies are better than the books.

Both the characters of Snape and Malfoy come off better and more 3 dimensional in the movies. In the books, they’re just jerks. Flat stock characters, as if J.K. Rowlings had said to herself, “Now I need to insert an antagonist to Harry here. Someone who just wants to just make his life miserable for no apparent reason, and can always be counted on to act like a jerk no matter what the circumstances.”

Alan Rickman is one of the greatest under-rated actors, and he does an excellent job with the character that makes the movie Snape a lot more appealing than the book Snape. Even Malfoy seems more real in the movies, if for no other reason than having a real face on the character makes him seem human.

Obviously the movie can’t compare to the book in terms of length. But given the time limitations of the movie, I think they did an excellent job of fitting all the important stuff in. And I actually liked a lot of the cuts. I know the whole “House-Elf” sub-plot got cut from the movie, but those House-Elves were pretty annoying characters anyway. They were annoying in the books and they were annoying in second movie, and I thought it was a good move to give those parts to Neville Longbottom because he otherwise wouldn’t get a lot of face time in this story.

So, that’s my little rant. You can send your hate mail to the address on the side of the blog, or comment below. (My sister's already taken issue with me on her blog here).

Of course in the end, the movie doesn’t have as much time to get into detail as the book. And in this way I guess maybe the book is always superior. After all in the movie you get only the smallest of glimpses of the Quiddich world cup, or the wizard’s consul, or many of the minor characters like Karkaroff. I didn’t even realize who Karkaroff was the first time I watched the movie, nor caught on to all his significance to the plot. It just goes to fast. As with the sub-plot about Barney Crouch and his son. It’s mentioned so briefly in the movie, the significance of it doesn’t sink in. In the book you get to know the whole history of the family, and understand what’s happening a lot better. So I’ll concede those points. In those respects, the book is vastly superior.

But I still have a fondness in my hearts for the movies.

Link of the Day
Media Mouse interviews Cole Dorsey of the Grand Rapids Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Also a brief shout out to my favorite Oita Band: Nanbanjin, who's new website can be found here.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Oh, The Movies I've Seen Part 3

I know I just got done saying I wasn’t going to see any movies this time around. But I’ve let a few slip in. I’ve done my best to limit myself only to movies I really wanted to see, instead of just using the VCR as a way to pass time. (I don’t have my own TV, so until now I haven’t been able to see these movies on my own).

Also there were a couple times when I used movies as a way to entertain, like when I spent the afternoon with the model, or when Shoko wanted to watch a video together. And then there were just a few guilty pleasures that snuck in. Anyway, here are my brief thoughts on what I’ve seen so far.

Movies I really wanted to See
1. Team America
American movies are really big in Japan, but comedy doesn’t always translate as well as “Harry Potter”, so this was a hard movie to track down. It never got a big theatrical release, and was hidden in the back of the local video store.
This movie had come highly recommended from a number of people I respect. So I was very disappointed in it. As political satire, I thought this movie was very weak. Instead of intelligent political commentary, it was political humor in the “Saturday Night Live” tradition, where slapstick humor and cheap jokes are supposed to pass for satire.The film slashes at both sides, the premise being that the right is more concerned about kicking ass than they are about seriously solving the world’s problems. And that outspoken film actors on the left don’t know what they’re talking about, and have no business in politics. Both of these are rather simple concepts that are flogged endlessly for the duration of the film.

Since the film cuts both ways, I don’t want to sound too defensive about the jabs at the left. But really I don’t understand why the right spits so much venom at outspoken movie stars. As Jon Stewart said to Bernie Goldberg: "I wish smart guys like you spent less time worrying about Barbra Streisand but more time worrying about Richard Perle or Karl Rove, or whoever the Democrats had in those positions during the Clinton years."

Aaron, although he appears to have now retired from blogging, once had an excellent post 2 years ago on this very subject. (I linked to this long ago, but it's worth re-reading).

2. Bananas (Woody Allen)
I once read that the success of “The Simpsons” was its ability to mix highbrow humor with lowbrow humor. If that’s true, Woody Allen seems to have mastered this formula decades before. His lost his touch a little bit now, but his old movies are genius.
This 1971 film is a satire on Latin American revolutions, American television coverage of those revolutions, and the involvement of the CIA and FBI. There are all sorts of cultural references thrown in, from Bobby Seale’s being bound and gagged at his own trial, to the infamous baby carriage scene from “The Battleship Potemkin”. Mixed in with this is just a lot of silly humor. My favorite part was when Woody Allen was acting as his own lawyer, and called himself as a witness. He asks himself questions, and then runs back into the witness stand to answer, and then runs back to the lawyer’s platform to argue with himself.

And yet amid all the sillyness, a lot of good points get made. Like when Ms. America is asked if Mr. Mellish (Woody Allen's Character) is a traitor to his country, she answers: "I think Mr. Mellish is a traitor to this country because his views are different from the views of the president and others of his kind. Differences of opinion should be tolerated but not when they're too different. Then he becomes a subversive mother." I think this still describes the views of many on the right.

I know I’m always talking about how old movies are better, and in that sense I’ve become a bit of an old codger before my time. But I challenge anyone to watch “Team America” and “Bananas” back to back, and then think about how far political satire has fallen.

3. The Life of Emile Zola
Although having just said, this is an example of an old movie that is clearly showing its age. In some ways I guess movies are improving, and comparing old and new biopics is a good way to see that. Old biopics have a need to white wash their subjects, get ride of all subtlety, and have sappy sugary sweet Hollywood endings.
Also the subject of Emile Zola’s life is too vast for this movie, and the rough cuts and jumps show. The Dreyfus affair alone would have easily been enough for a whole movie. If this movie would ever be remade, maybe it should focus on just this one episode, just as “Capote” only focused on one episode in Capote’s life.

4. The Assassination of Richard Nixon
I find myself in agreement with a review of this movie I once read. All the themes in it, the isolation of modern life, and idea of a man to prove his existence by assassinating a political figure, have already been done, and done better, in “Taxi Driver” (by Calvin’s own Paul Schrader). Of course “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” has the advantage of being a true story, and that adds to the interest, but that only gets you so far.

5. Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
I think this was a project that was doomed to failure from its inception. It’s impossible to capture Douglas Adam’s dry wit on the big screen. Everyone gets full marks for trying, but I think we all knew the film could never live up to the books.

6. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
This is another movie I’ve wanted to see for a long time (I think Phil had some thoughts on it a while back), but I had difficulty tracking down in Japan.
I enjoyed this the most of all the Wes Anderson films I’ve seen so far, and I think this was mainly because Bill Murray was finally put in the spotlight instead of a supporting character (like he was in “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenebaums”). Bill Murray and Wes Anderson seem to bring out the best in each other.
Like all Wes Anderson films, however, this has a tendency to go on for a little bit too long, and get bogged down in the middle. I had the same criticism of “Rushmore” and “Royal Tenebaums”

7. The Lady Killers
I know this movie got a lot of bad reviews, but I enjoyed it. Tom Hanks was a bit over the top at times, but it was still a really funny movie

Movies I watched for entertaining purposes
1. A Series of Unfortunate Events
Eeh, not bad, but not great either

2. Chicago
I like musicals, but musicals aren’t made to be watched, they’re made to be re-watched. The first time you watch a musical it’s incredibly frustrating to be caught up in the plot, and then to have the story be stopped every 5 minutes for another song.

Guilty Pleasures
1. Dodge ball
During my last few weeks at the elementary school I taught the kids how to play American Style Dodgeball.
Dodgeball is very popular in Japan (apparently the game originated in Asia), but the rules are a lot different. If you catch the ball, nothing happens. No one gets out, no one gets back in. So there’s no incentive to throw carefully. In my opinion that really spoils a lot of the game. Also, if someone gets tagged out, they don’t have to sit down and wait to get back in. Instead they simply move to the outskirts of the enemy side, and they can try and get the other team out from there.
Of course no one likes to sit out, but I think part of the suspense of the game is the fear of getting out and having to just sit down and watch. Call me culturally biased, but I much prefer American Style.

So I was very happy to see this movie promoting the correct, American way to play the game. (Cue patriotic music, and a scene of me wiping away a proud tear against the backdrop of the American flag)

Link of the Day
War Crimes in Iraq by Noam Chomksy

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

 (Book Review)
This is the first Stephen King book I’ve read, which obviously means I’m a bit behind the times. Since I share a juvenile fascination with his macabre subject matter, I’m not sure why I’ve waited so long to read one of his books. Probably just intellectual elitism I guess. I avoided him because he was popular.

Not having much of a base of comparison, it’s difficult for me to say with any certainty, but I don’t think this book is typical Stephen King. Apparently it was originally written when he was 19, and then published much later in 1982 after he had become famous with his other books. And the 2003 edition, which I read, was expanded and revised by the author. So at times it is difficult to know which Stephen King I am reading, the young one or the old one.

I found the book a very difficult read, which doesn’t square with my image of Stephen King as a pop fiction author. In the introduction to the revised edition, King says, “I should say a word about the younger man who dared to write this book. That young man had been exposed to far too many writing seminars, and had grown far too used to the ideas those seminars promulgate: that one is writing for other people rather than one’s self; that language is more important than story; that ambiguity is to be preferred over clarity and simplicity, which are usually signs of a thick and literal mind. As a result, I was not surprised to find a high degree of pretension in Roland’s debut appearance…”
So this might account for the confusing nature of the book. And yet King goes on to say that he cleaned as much of that junk up as he could, and so it is difficult to know who to blame for the muddledness, the young King or the old King.

It’s a shame the book is such a tough read, because the people who would enjoy it’s story most are undoubtedly younger readers. They wouldn’t want their parents to know they were reading it of course, but I would have really gotten a kick out of this kind of story 10 or 12 years ago. I’m not sure if I would have bothered to wade through the thick prose 10 or 12 years ago though.

(In a way, this is similar to what I call the “horror movie” paradox. When you’re young enough to actually be frightened by these movies, your parents won’t let you watch them. By the time you move out and can watch whatever you want, you find nothing really seems to scare you anymore.)

The plot of the book, at least as far as the forward moving story is concerned, is incredibly simply. I think I could summarize absolutely everything that happens in a couple paragraphs. (I’m not going to. That’s what Wikipedia’s for.)

The back-story is somewhat more complex. Who is this Gunslinger? Where did he come from? Why is he on this quest?

The back-story is hinted at and given in pieces throughout the book, yet when we come to the last page, we still don’t know what is really going on.

I’ve done my rant against serial novels before. I’d be more willing to forgive the Dark Tower because it’s an epic story, and epic stories always come in several books. But after working all the way through the book, the fact that I still don’t know the back-story is annoying. I could handle the suspense of “What comes next?”, but not knowing what is going on at all really bugs me. Now I’m going to have to track down and buy the next books in the series just to figure out what’s happening.

Or on the other hand…
King says he makes up all his stories as he goes along, and he himself didn’t know what was going to happen in the next installment of the “Dark Tower series” until he wrote it? Does this include the back-story as well?

King claims the best stories are made up as they go along, because that makes them seem real and character driven instead of slaves of the plot. And maybe he’s right. But as a reader it spoils the illusion for me. I like to think the writer has everything planned out perfectly from the beginning. I mean, if King’s just making this up as he goes along, I could do that myself. I could imagine my own end to the story and my own explanation of the back-story, and probably be just as satisfied with that as with the real thing.

Link of the Day
Sandra Day O'Connor, a Republican-appointed judge who retired last month after 24 years on the supreme court, has said the US is in danger of edging towards dictatorship if the party's rightwingers continue to attack the judiciary

Friday, April 07, 2006

Shoko's Additions

Once again this blog has gotten me in trouble. Damn you blog.
Shoko read the last entry, and had some bones to pick with me about the accuracy of it. I at first tried to get her to laugh these off, but she refused to be placated. So, after much discussion, we came to a compromise. I am now handing the keyboard over to her for her to write her own version of events. And now without further ado, Here's Shoko:

I don't think that there isn't the accuracy of some bones. But the last post lacks very important point about the co-worker's circumstance.  His relationship with his wife is so bad and can't be recovered now, so they want to divorce each other soon but have some reason that they can't divorce for this year at least. Anyway, the relationship is not good. I don't let people who has girlfriend or boyfriend into my apartment if they have a lover partner. But, I think every people have some circumstance which they can't do anything. Like Joel didn't drink wine. and in addition, of course marriage affair isn't good in Japan, so there isn't the person who have an affair, excluding the coworker. If Joel indicate the few exceptional people, there is Bill clinton in USA too. (of couse I don't criticize USA, I respect the great country.) And lastly, the reason that I cleaned my apartment so hard isn't because I wanted to be seen as good. Usual my apartment don't need to be clean .But in that time (and now too) ,there was inhabitant who is Joel Swagman.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Shoko's Sleepover

Just to recap briefly: I finished the job up in Gifu, and am currently freeloading at Shoko’s place for about a month or so.

Last week Shoko asked if one of her co-workers could spend the night at her apartment as well. He usually worked at the Ajimu winery, but was coming out to Hita for a special event they were having. Since it’s a long drive between Hita and Ajimu, he wanted to spend the night at Shoko’s place in Hita.

This particular co-worked has a complicated private life, and of course I won’t write all his private details on this weblog….

Oh, what the hell? He’ll never read this: He’s 34, married with a 5-year-old child, and also has a 23-year-old girlfriend. The girlfriend was also going to be spending the night at Shoko’s apartment.

I always get in trouble when I engage in cultural stereotyping, but it seems a lot more acceptable in Japan for married men to have girlfriends. A number of Japanese men have casually admitted their marital infidelities to me without any shame, guilt, or even concern about whether I was a trustworthy confidant. (I’m not, by the way).

I have often brought the subject up with Shoko, and she has made it clear to me that many Japanese women do not tolerate cheating, and that she is among their number, and would never forgive any affairs on my part. But then she opens her apartment up to a married man and his girlfriend, and asks me to help play host. Is that sending mixed messages or what?
The guy’s not doing bad for himself. I don’t know what the wife looks like, but the 23 year old girlfriend is a professional model who is moving out to Tokyo in a couple months to work for nationally distributed magazines.

Knowing myself like I do, I would be worried about this if I were Shoko. But Shoko, rather than be worried that my attention would be distracted by the model, seemed very excited to have such an elegant person grace her apartment.

Shoko cleaned the apartment very thoroughly before they arrived. “Did you clean this much before I came?” I asked.

“That’s different,” she said. “This is a co-worker. I don’t want people at work saying my apartment is dirty.”

This seemed like an ungracious way to return Shoko’s hospitality. “Would they really say that?”

“They would tease me about it,” Shoko said. “Everyone at work is always teasing each other.”
Shortly afterwards she added, “One more thing. My co-worker will be bringing some wine that he bought for us to drink. Because he bought it for us, I want you to have at least a little.”

“I’m not drinking it,” I said.

“You have to. He bought it because he knew you would be here. Just have a little bit.”

“I’m not drinking it,” I repeated.

“Just a little bit.”

Given how many other bad things I fill my body with, my resolution not to drink alcohol may seem like just a pointless line drawn in the sand. And maybe it is. But I refuse to be pressured into doing something I don’t want to do. I think it’s a sign of weak character. If you give into little things, you’ll give into big things. “Shoko, in this world, many people will try and get you to do things you don’t want to do….”

Shoko has been around me long enough to be able to tell when a lecture is coming on. She usually tries to cut these off when she sees them coming. “Okay, okay, okay Joel, okay.”

I wanted to finish my thought out though. “…And you have to follow what you believe in. If you let other people pressure you into things you don’t want to do, than you’re not even living.”

“Okay, but I want you to promise me that at the very least you won’t tell him that you think alcohol is bad. Japanese people won’t understand that, and he works at an alcohol company.”

I never like these gag orders, but Shoko really put her foot down on this one and eventually forced the promise out of me. “Okay,” I said reluctantly. “But what if he asks?”

“Just tell him you don’t like the taste or something.”

“Could I mention that Che Guevara didn’t drink alcohol?”

“No, because Japanese people don’t know who Che Guevara is, and they’ll think it’s very strange if you suddenly drop him into the conversation. If Che Guevara comes up naturally in the conversation, than you can mention he didn’t drink alcohol.”

“But he’s not going to come up naturally in the conversation,” I said. Shoko just smiled smugly as if that was the point.

Eventually the co-worker and the model arrived. As expected, one of the first things he did after we had all sat down was to pour everyone a glass of wine. He was naturally confused when I turned it down. “What? You don’t drink? Why?”

“Do you know Che Guevara?” I asked.

Shoko started laughing nervously. “I’m sorry,” she said. “He’s always talking about politics.”

It turned out fortunately he did know about Che Guevara, so I continued. “Che Guevara didn’t drink alcohol at all. Nor did The Black Panthers, or a lot of other people concerned about social change. They believed that alcohol, not religion, is the real opiate of the masses. If people are always getting drunk their not focusing on the social problems around them.”

“But alcohol makes us happy,” he answered.

Japan is a drinking culture, and the belief that happiness a truly fulfilled existence cannot exist outside of alcohol is deeply ingrained into the Japanese psyche. I just let this one pass.
He tried to move the conversation on. “You’ve been in Japan five years,” he said. “You must like it.”

“Well, there are both good and bad things about Japan,” I answered.

“I’m sorry,” Shoko said quickly. “He’s a foreigner. He says his own opinions very clearly.”

Sensing that I had committed some sort of faux pax, I tried to correct myself quickly. “I mean there are only good things. Only good things about Japan.”

Fortunately he decided to be gracious and over-looked this. “It’s okay. I agree. There are a lot of bad things about Japan. One thing I hate is how many Japanese don’t know anything about their own culture. Foreign people in Japan know more about Japanese culture because they have an interest.”

I decided it would be tactful not to openly agree with this statement to strongly, but this was my opinion as well. Among us foreigners a popular joke was, “If you want to know something about Japanese culture, ask another foreigner.”

The conversation eventually turned to wines. “I’ve never tried it before,” I said, “But I understand there’s a wine from Australia called ‘Swagman’s Kiss’. With a name like that, how can it not be good?”

The co-worker, something of a connoisseur, said ‘Swagman’s Kiss’ was also available in Japan. “It’s quite good,” he said.

I gloated over this briefly. “Ah-ha. I bet those no wine named after Shoko’s kisses.”

The co-worker soon got drunk, and the conversation disintegrated. “He likes to drink,” Shoko explained to me, “But he’s very weak with alcohol.”

Near the end of the night as everyone was getting ready for bed, the co-worker approached me. “It’s good that you’re interested in politics,” he said. “But remember YMCA is bad.”

“What?”

“YMCA. Like Kennedy, Oswald, John Lennon. Bang Bang.”

Obviously he had somehow gotten the words for assassination and YMCA mixed up. Once I figured this out, there was nothing really left to do but agree that YMCA was very bad.
This is why I hate talking politics with Japanese people. They always make very obvious statements like, “Terrorism is Bad,” or “War is Bad”. And then when you agree with them, they act very pleased with themselves for bringing the foreigner around to the side of reason. I always find the whole thing very patronizing. (It could be that this isn’t so much Japanese as just the way that drunks always talk politics, and most Japanese people don’t talk politics unless they’ve been drinking).

The following morning Shoko and the co-worker left early to go to work. While our respective partners were working, the model and I were left to entertain each other.

The model slept very late, and I didn’t feel it was my place to wake her up, so I read my book in the other room until she woke up around noon. I made breakfast, and then we went to the event at Shoko’s sake brewery. We wandered around for a while and got the whole tour of the place. But there was only so much time we could kill at the brewery, so eventually we left to go sightseeing.

The model knew a place where we could get “Wasabi Ice-cream.” Wasabi Ice-cream didn’t sound very good, but the novelty of it appealed to me so we went. Once we got there I realized I had forgotten my wallet, so the model had to treat me.

Afterwards we went for a walk along the river. We bought lunch from a convenience store and at on the river bank (the model had to treat me again).

I didn’t know what else to do with the model, and I didn’t want to suggest anything with no money. So we just went back to Shoko’s apartment and put on a video while we waited for Shoko and her co-worker to finish work.

Shoko was less than impressed that the model had paid for everything. “In Japan, the man usually pays for the woman,” she said. I tried to explain that I would have liked to, but what could I do when I forgot my wallet? She still gave me a rough time about it though.

Link of the Day
Former US general says Rumsfeld should quit over Iraq

Christmas Break Pictures








Last of the old pictures (I think). These are pictures from Winter break. Shoko and I and two local people whose names I can't remember at the moment. This is the second time Shoko's picture has graced this blog, if you count the time I linked to Chris' picture. Both times she has her eyes closed. But she does actually have eyes. Really.

Link of the Day
In Defense of Free Thought

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

My List of American Heroes

This is taking a leaf out of Guam’s blog, and listing for the hell off it.

This list was inspired by a conversation I had with my British friend when I returned his audio book of “In search of British Heroes”. I told my friend the same thing I wrote on this blog, namely that given all the heroes in British history, I was surprised by their selection. We debated a list of the greatest British heroes briefly, and then he turned the question back on me. “Alright, what are the 5 greatest American heroes?”

“Well,” said I, “I guess that depends on how you define the question. Do you mean the five greatest American heroes as defined by common consensus (think Washington, Lincoln, etc) or do you mean my personal heroes (Emma Goldman, John Brown) or do you mean folk heroes, the American equivalent of Robin Hood and King Arthur?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “All of them I guess.”

So, here are my lists. The first one is the stereotypical answer you might find in any high school civics textbook. In no particular order…
1. George Washington
2. Abraham Lincoln
3. Martin Luther King Junior
4. Thomas Jefferson
5. Elvis Presley

I think these are all pretty safe bets. I suppose you could make a case for JFK or FDR in spot number 5 instead of Elvis, but then the right-wingers get little uncomfortable. The first four are solid anyway.

Now remember, this is the typical list. This isn’t my personal list. Personally I tend to agree with Public Enemy’s declaration, “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never met shit to me. Straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain, fuck him and John Wayne.”
Lincoln was a political opportunist, and not the devoted abolitionist people remember him as. If you’ve read some of his quotes, you know he wasn’t quite as noble on the question of slavery as we often think, and probably wouldn’t even have abolished slavery had not the Southern succession and the civil war forced his hand. I don’t admire people like that. Abolitionists like John Brown and Fredrick Douglas are people I admire.

Which brings me to my own list. Again, no particular order
1. John Brown
2. Fredrick Douglas
3. Martin Luther King
4. Emma Goldman
5. Thomas Jefferson

It really kills me to limit myself to 5. I would love to add Eugene Debs, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, William LloydGarrison, Joe Hill, the Haymarket martyrs (as a collective entry), etc. But if forced to limit myself to 5, these are the ones I choose.

All of these individuals are flawed in some way. Heroes don’t really exist in real life, only in our minds. Real people all have serious flaws. I won’t defend everything all of them did. But I admire the way they stood strong for their beliefs, and I admire the ideals they dedicated their lives to. Jefferson has obviously been a controversial choice lately, but I still admire his republican principals even if he didn’t extend them to all people.

Since these are my personal picks, I guess there’s not a lot of room for debate, but I’d love to here your own list if anyone wants to join in my game.

Next, folk heroes:
1. Davy Crockett
2. Zorro
3. Wyatt Earp
4. Superman
5. Elvis Presley

With John Wayne, Jesse James runners up.

America is too recent a country to have mythical heroes lost in the mist of history like King Arthur, Joan of Arc, or Romulus. Our fiction and history is too clearly separated, and so I think you have to mix the two to get a feel for the American mythos.

Notably exceptions to this list are Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Pecos Bill, and other figures which for most people constitute the very definition of “American Folk Hero”. But these are more children’s stories than mythical figures on par with King Arthur. They’re not taken seriously, and strike me as stories librarians and schoolteachers have tried to force into folk hero legitimacy just so people can say that America has folk heroes too. Furthermore they’re barely known outside of America’s boarders, and certainly don’t have the worldwide recognition that a figure like Superman carries. (Some of them might make my top 10 list though).

Finally, my friend asked me for my list of top 5 living American heroes. This is very difficult, since heroes are often by definition dead, but the following represents my stab at it:
Noam Chomsky
Bob Dylan

Cindy Sheehan
Howard Zinn
Dan Quayle (in a Don Quixote type way, in memory of his epic fight against the windmill “Murphy Brown”)

Runners up would include Barak Obama as a prediction.

Just for fun, I thought I’d make a stab at the top 5 American villains. I suppose I could drag this out into 4 separate lists as well, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll contain it to just the generic stereotypical villains.

1. Benedict Arnold
2. Aaron Burr
3. Jefferson Davis
4. Richard Nixon
5. George W. Bush

The top four are pretty solid. I guess I’m showing my liberal bias a bit with the last one, but it’s more of a prediction. I honestly think 50 years hence the Bush presidency will be universally regarded as a disgrace. We’ll see what happens with that one.

Runners up are: Lt. Calley and Captain Medina, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Charles Whitman.

So, if anyone wants to play this game with me, show me your own lists or make other suggestions.

Link of the Day
"Viva Iraq" a video compilation of US atrocities in Iraq

Monday, April 03, 2006

In Search of British Heroes by Tony Robinson


(Book Review)
Another audio book on loan from my British friend with whom I’ve worked out a little audio book exchange recently. This book is obviously designed for British audiences, but I still found it pretty interesting.

The premise of the book is two fold: to explore the essence of what makes someone a “hero”, to separate the fact from legend, and to tie the ancient stories into current landmarks and geography. (I guess that actually adds up to three-fold, now that I think about it.)

As an American, it is hard to imagine what it is like to live in a land in which every corner is crammed full of ancient history. The geographical part of the book is obviously designed for British audiences.

As are the selected heroes themselves. The five heroes explored in the book are Boudica, Macbeth, King Harold, William Wallace, and Robin Hood.

Now, despite considering myself a history buff, I had never heard of Boudica or King Harold before. Presumably a British schoolboy would be better versed in these heroes. For that matter, were it not for the Hollywood movie, I don’t think I would have heard of William Wallace either.

And while I’m being hard on myself, I don’t think I would have ever known about Macbeth were it not for the Shakespeare play. And Robin Hood is a fictional character. So essentially I’m batting zero for 5.

Out of all the heroes in British history (King Arthur, Saint George, Oliver Cromwell, etc) the selection of these 5 heroes represent some interesting choices. Macbeth is more of an anti-hero. Once the legend is separated from the fact, he comes out a little bit better than in Shakespeare’s play, but still not someone I’d want to live next door to.

The book tries to make a case that Robin Hood was actually based on a historical person, but I thought it was a pretty weak case.

And final thought: the real William Wallace comes out a lot different than the Hollywood movie.

Link of the Day
Antiwar Activists Arrested at House Appropriations Committee Hearing