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10:46pm 16/02/2009
 
 
Discard Before Using
I read three books this week: one from what is essentially a Buddhist indie press, one that was surprisingly bad, and one that was amazingly good.

1) 生活のささえ - 山辺 智度 (編集)
     Support for Living - Yamabe Chitabi (ed)

Hm. I am of mixed opinion on this book. First of all, the editing is atrocious. Yomikana appear for kango only after a compound's 20th or 30th appearance, then disappear and reappear at random. There's absolutely no standardisation: many words are written in hiragana, kango, or abbreviations hiragana--often on the same page, to say nothing of throughout the text. I know this is not a major publishing house offering, but really, you think someone would have caught this stuff by the 19th printing.

As far as content goes, the first half of the volume is pretty forgettable: standard "how to live a wholesome life" stuff that straddles the line between 20th century self-help pop psychology and old school Japanese Neo-Confucianism. The section on "How to Be a Wife" was so retrograde I almost decided to stop reading and repurpose the volume for toilet paper on the spot. (Do you know you should neither voice your own opinions, nor be too much like a mother, nor too much like a younger sister, but support your husband in all things and never question him? Neither did I. Incidentally, there's no section on "How to Be a Husband;" the only reference directed to husbands in the entire volume is a throwaway line advising them to set aside some pocket money for their wives every now and then so said wives can "buy clothing and baubles." FAIL, TENDAI BUDDHISM. FAIL.)

Luckily, there is a lot of worthwhile stuff in the second half of the volume, which deals specifically with Buddhist cosmology (and perhaps less with the personal biases of the editor). Philosophically speaking, it's pretty heavy stuff, but the text is amazingly clear and precise, and it makes for lovely reading. The subtle differences in emphasis and interpretation between Tendai Buddhism and the Japanese and Korean Zen/Seon forms with which I'm familiar were pretty interesting. I was especially surprised by the text's repeated insistence that achieving Buddhahood/Bodhisattva-hood is possible regardless of gender or number of reincarnations.

It's also interesting (to me at least) that my head completely segregates understanding-of-Buddhism-in-English from understanding-of-Buddhism-in-Japanese, although I'm perfectly comfortable discussing it in either language. It's just that I don't automatically equate 「業」with "karma" or 「因果」with "dependent origination." (It also took about three years before I equated 「照り焼き」 with "teriyaki" so make of this what you will.)

Final verdict: I'd say this volume is worth a read if you have a chance to pick it up. The first half is an illuminating primer on lingering sexism and feudal systems of hierarchy in Japanese society, and the second is a very 丁寧 presentation of important Buddhist concepts.

2) Interworld - Neil Gaiman and Michael Reeves
Interworld has forced me to acknowledge something that's been niggling at my subconscious for quite some time now. Namely, that I'd be more willing to admit that many of Neil Gaiman's books aren't anything special if they didn't have "Neil Gaiman" on the spine.

Frankly, I find myself a bit irritated that this book was published at all, because I doubt any publisher would have touched it had it come from a no one instead of a Big Name. Its 142 pages contain nothing more than a paint-by-numbers list of every tired scifi/fantasy cliché jerry rigged into the semblance of a plot: Although bumbling, awkward adolescent doesn't know it, he's actually the most powerful [Marty Stu] to be born in living memory and is destined to save the universe, where the forces of science and magic are at war, and where a new world is created every time someone makes a momentous decision.

The only twist Gaiman and Reeves have added to these genre mainstays is to make all the good guys multiverse iterations of the protagonist. Great, but that doesn't make up for all the faults: Mentor character is introduced so that two of his "journal entries" can provide an exposition dump the authors are too lazy to reveal via showing, then killed off once he's served this purpose. Because there's no character development for, well, pretty much anyone in Interworld, readers don't care that he's been killed, and the journal device is swiftly abandoned, making its true purpose all too clear. None of the other secondary characters are fleshed out beyond their names and major D&D-esque race/class characteristics. It's difficult to remember that there are two sets of Evil Guys fighting to rule the universe, because one set drops entirely off the radar after its info dump. Action scenes take pages to unfold, after which the authors predictably tell us, "But really, it happened much faster than this makes it seem." Really? Then why not write it that way instead of opting for such a cheap cop out?

The book finishes where one might expect the first episode of a TV pilot to end: with lots of potentially tantalising introduction but absolutely no resolution for any of the outstanding plot or emotional dilemmas facing the protagonist. According to the afterward, Interworld was originally a pitch for a television series. Fine, but once the decision was made to turn it into a novel, Gaiman and Reeves should have turned it into a bona fide novel. They didn't.

Interworld would have been a good short story had a college freshman submitted it to a creative writing class. Had he submitted it to a publisher, it would have gone straight into the reject bin...where it belongs. This is a supremely mediocre piece of writing whose authors should have taken the time to flesh out much more fully, or failing that, declined to publish it. Borrow this cash cow from the library.

3) The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong - JaHyun Kim Haboush (trans)
This is a phenomenal book. A stellar book. It has won awards...and rightly so. I wish more translators would take their cues from Haboush, because she does everything right.

Some background: Lady Hyegyong entered the Joseon-era imperial court at the age of nine, as a bride to the heir apparent, Prince Sado. Sado, who suffered from extreme mental illness, was a serial rapist and murderer finally put to death by his father, who imprisoned him in a rice chest where he suffocated to death over the course of eight days.

Hyegyong wrote her memoirs in order to reveal the truth of these events to her grandson (himself in line for the throne), as well to impart her understanding of the motivations behind the political persecutions of her close relatives (which read like the pre-modern version of the most acrimonious lj defriending wank EVAH). I've plenty of opinions and speculations of my own concerning these events, but this is a review of the book, not Korean history, so let's talk about the translation instead.

It is wonderful. The excellent preface provides all the necessary historical context and technical information concerning Haboush's translation readers could possibly desire. Haboush isn't afraid to offer her own interpretation of events, but she never tries to push an agenda. Her translation is fluid and gripping, and she deftly handles the discussions of political minutiae of which Lady Hyegyong was so fond. Furthermore, Haboush almost magically manages to translate almost every word into English, even words with no English cognate--something I wouldn't have believed possible had I not read this translation.

Her decisions on what to notate are flawless, as are her decisions on whether said information belongs in the text, as a footnote or as an endnote. The copious supplementary material--palace maps, genealogical charts, important persons glossaries--makes keeping track of who's who and what happened when much less daunting than it should by rights be. Indeed my only complaint is that the palace maps do not feature every location mentioned in the text, and that a decision to place these materials in a single location (instead of having them bookend the translated memoirs) would have made consulting them much less burdensome.

Folks, this is a truly excellent book whose excellent translation merits a read above and beyond the worth of the historical events it chronicles. READ IT NOW.



That will be all.
music: dengue fever - laugh track
tags: books, reading
 
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 theosakakoneko
 
07:14pm 16/02/2009 (UTC)
 
 
TheOsakaKoneko
I think I just don't like Neil Gaiman.
::flees from flying tomatoes::
 
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 akujunkan
 
02:21am 17/02/2009 (UTC)
 
 
Discard Before Using
No flying tomatoes here. While doing this writeup, I kept wanted to add all these caveats, like "But I think Sandman is brilliant" or "But I really liked American Gods."

Then I realised that it's precisely because I know he's capable of writing such good stuff that there's no excuse for him to be publishing such crap. I mean, it's not as if this was a sophomore effort...
 
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 theosakakoneko
 
02:23am 17/02/2009 (UTC)
 
 
TheOsakaKoneko
I didn't even really like American Gods. It was just so...cliched and silly. And overly 'look at me i'm clever!!!'. But I was probably being too harsh on it.

I never read Sandman which I believe is my loss...I really do need to read that. This I do know. Other than that... eh.

I did like the movie Stardust, and I liked Good Omens.
 
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 akujunkan
 
03:05am 17/02/2009 (UTC)
 
 
Discard Before Using
I like that about Gaiman. I can spot most of the obscure mythological/cultural references when they appear, so I enjoy the "Aha!" moments as I guess where the story's going. AG held my interest as a story about (what to me is) "Well, duh" America written by an outsider.

Sandman is incredible, and largely responsible for all the goodwill I hold for Gaiman. Stardust should be avoided in its cash cow novel format in favor of the original graphic novel format, which was illustrated by the ever amazing Charles Vess. I've never seen the movie, but I hear they're pretty much similar in name only.

I like Good Omens too, but it reads more like PTerry than Gaiman to me.
 
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 wombatdeamor
 
11:26pm 17/02/2009 (UTC)
 
 
wombatdeamor
I just read a comic he did called "The Last Temptation." It was based on a concept album he worked on with Alice Cooper. It was good, but if it didn't have those names on it, it would have just been a cheap ripoff of Something Wicked This Way Comes. Or an homage, depending on your stance. To me, American Gods seemed like an info dump, and i couldn't get through it without feeling like I should have a computer in front of my face. Sandman was amazing because even if you didn't get the references, be it to classic or comic mythologies, you still were involved with the story and the characters. Interworld and some of his kids books to me were weak because he just drops the ball at the 1-yard line. So it seems like he's too hit or miss to warrant his acclaim at the top of the genre. I guess I suffer from him what you suffered from The Dark Knight.
 
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 akujunkan
 
10:42am 18/02/2009 (UTC)
 
 
Discard Before Using
See my thoughts on Last Temptation here. Really that was one of long string of his books that leads me to believe he rests on his laurels more than many fans are willing to give him credit for.

Judging by what you and others have said, a reader's enjoyment of American Gods seemingly depends on how much of the background she's already familiar with. Sandman was kinda the opposite for me: I've always felt that it--and the first story arc especially--would have been better had the Marvel universe not been pastede on yay.

The thing about Gaiman is, I think he did warrant his name at the top of the genre. Unfortunately, it's allowed him and his publishers to be much less picky about what works of his they publish, which really lets him off the hook in terms of originality.
 
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 wombatdeamor
 
11:15pm 19/02/2009 (UTC)
 
 
wombatdeamor
Interesting review. I liked the artwork too. The Showman was Alice Cooper, one hundred percent, which you had stated you weren't too familiar with. And the comic universe Sandman fell into was the DC Universe, and I agree that the only reason that mattered was that DC was footing the printing bill. I'd have ran with it, but that's just who I am. He could have left most of the tie-in stuff out.

I just feel a story doesn't work if you are too esoteric. Look at The Eyre Affair or even Lamb. I'm not saying the authors are equals, just making a point. But you really didn't have to have read Jane Eyre or the New Testament to relate to the characters or to know what was going on or even why it mattered. Gaiman seemed to take for granted that I was going to be involved. But I didn't finish it, so I don't really have a right to judge until I can finish it, which I will do, this summer, with a notebook and Wikipedia.
 
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 akujunkan
 
07:27am 21/02/2009 (UTC)
 
 
Discard Before Using
Well, yes, my point exactly. The DC-verse is esoteric to me, which is why I had as little patience for it as you had for the world mythology of American Gods (which is not esoteric to me).

And remember, I got into Sandman waaay before the days of teh Intranets, so I couldn't just go to Wikipedia to find out who or what the hell John Constantine and the JLA is/are. Actually, this conversation has made me realise that people probably like Gaiman (and like him to the extent that) they feel they're in on the secret.

I tend to be in on the secret in his novels more than his comics.
 
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(no subject)
 wombatdeamor
 
06:48pm 24/02/2009 (UTC)
 
 
wombatdeamor
that's probably why his children's novels tend to fall on thier face then. He doesn't have that common ground, that whispered secret to build on, so he has to do all the work himself, and when it comes to world creation, he's hit or miss.
 
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