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
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
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.