Sunday, August 29, 2010

Beauty And Sadness — Read 2010.08.28

When I bought this book, second hand but 'new,' I ignored the little alarms that warned me to keep my money in my pocket. I had spent too much time looking for my usual dreck in my local used bookstore, and had made myself late — books before life! As I'm in the process of leaving the store I see atop an 'in-box' near the cash register Beauty and Sadness. I decided that the author being Japanese out-weighed my caution against him being a Nobel prize winner. I allowed my visual aesthetic to tumble me into an infatuation with the Japanese print without reading the publication details. And so it came to pass that I impulsively bought a Japanese version of Henry James because I was in a hurry.

Henry James! I had rather throw sand in my eyes than read HJ! But, there I was. I spent my time reading this book wondering at whether or not it was the translator or the author who had effected the dull thud of short sentences filled with ominous meaning spoken by automatons repetitively about slowly rotating chairs, or obis, or paintings over and over again, repetitively.

The different characters all spoke in the same manner, with the same cadence, and the same heavy handed overtures to misplaced meaningfulness in a meaningless life. There were several times when I had to re-read the dialogue in order to keep straight who was speaking because the sentences all sounded as if they were spoken by the same person.

And the passions expressed were done in such dead voices that the finale was almost funny in its obviousness. Now that I'm older, it strikes me that James' characters tend to sound emotionally like overly melodramatic teenagers, housed, supposedly, in the bodies of adults with the adults' life experiences but twisted by their youthful fixation on nirvanic virginal sex, unrequited puppy love, and a cloyingly repugnant narcissistic infantilism. And this is exactly what Yasunari Kawabata and/or his translator gave us with Beauty and Sadness.

Why did I finish reading it, then? Well, in short, because I foolishly fell back into my own version of infantilism, to a time when I took pride in my having finished reading every book I started, regardless whether or not I enjoyed it. Michener's The Source humbled me in that regard, and with his writing sparked my nascent understanding that reading bad writing is a narcissistic waste of life. Life is short; read the good books first! (Okay, okay, what is a good book is hard objectively to define!)

And so why did I finish reading Beauty and Sadness? Because I belong to some weird web-based book club, and I wanted to put another book into my 'read' file; and because I wanted to write a review of it that I could put up into the ether-sphere. Oh! And because the book is very short, with relatively large font, and is festooned with lots of white space. And when I write this review I get to stuff it on other web sites, at least one which offers a chance at winning some money for books.

If you like Henry James, you'll probably like this. If you find youthful melodrama played out by so-called adults with emotionless sensitivity trite and trying, give this book a pass.

Moral of the story? When buying books, do not ignore the small inner intuitive warnings lest your book buy's haste has bought you waste.

Yasunari Kawabata.
Beauty and Sadness.
Toronto: Vintage Books International (A Div. of Random House), 1996. Tr. by Howard S. Hibbett. ISBN: 0-679-76105-5.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest — Read 2010.08.20

I finished The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest in two days. 

Larson, Stieg.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2009.06.23. ISBN 9780143170105. Book Three of the Millennium Trilogy.

Although TGWKTHN is separated out as book three in the millennium trilogy, it is more accurate that this is the balance of book two, The Girl Who Played with Fire. I was unable to put this down, hence the five stars, despite two or three slight detail failures, some of which others have enunciated in their reviews. Larson gave himself a serious writing challenge by having his action hero bedridden for much of the book, but manages to make it work, hence it getting five stars despite the number of times coffee drinking is enumerated. (Do Swedes drink as much coffee as written?) The manner in which Salander is lured/pushed into becoming a social being is beautifully written, hence five stars, despite a bit of waffling in the characterization of Blomkvist's partner and boss, Berger. The sub-plot of sexual harassment seems to have been hurried, and came across a bit clumsy, but the quality of the courtroom writing was top notch, and I enjoyed the character of Blomkvist's sister, hence five stars.

Reading the three books in six days was a delightful way to enjoy six days of my summer vacation, and so despite it not quite being perfect, it still gets
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire — Read 2010.08.17

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was so good, that I bought The Girl Who Played with Fire almost as soon as I'd finished it:

Larson, Stieg.
The Girl Who Played with Fire. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2009.06.23. ISBN 9780143170105. Book Two of the Millennium Trilogy

And it is equally good. And, like with TGWTDT, TGWPWF fulfills the hyped promise as an excellent crime drama with colourful, underdog anti-heroes. And, even better, Larson also continues to highlight media's failure to protect democracy and the problems of corporatist ownership, this time of the media and the motivational problems of greed-based profits. He develops and comments on the problem of government sponsored internal spying and spy-related agendas when they run counter to the diurnal concerns of the citizenry.

And unless you have an extremely strong ability to put down a story in the middle, I suggest that when you buy TGWPWF, you might just as well buy the hardcover of the last book of the trilogy, because the ending of TGWPWF is amongst the best cliffhanger endings I've had the pleasure to read, and the paperback of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest hasn't been given to the booksellers yet. When I went to reserve it from my local library, I was number 27 in the line, even though the library had eight copies of it in their stacks.

This book is a well deserved ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — Read 2010.08.15

Prompted by the little fushigi I had with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I went out and purchased it on Saturday, Aug 14th. Began it in the afternoon, and finished it Sunday morning.

Larson, Stieg.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2009.06.23. ISBN 9780143170099. Book One of the Millennium Trilogy.

I was surprised at how good this book is. I am always skeptical of NY Times', or other bestseller lists, and consequently this is the first I have purchased from such a list in many, many years. (Way to go fushigi!) All the elements of this book as a work of fiction work: complexity of the story and completeness of the details to make it credible; sophistication and humanity of the characters make it engaging; quality of the writing in terms of pacing, clarity, and elegance makes it delectable; relevance to the real world makes it substantive. And okay, it has some great blood and guts and sex scenes, too, but for the most part they lack any feeling of being gratuitous. Finally, the David and Goliath elements always get me rooting for the underdog and TGWTDT has two underdogs that balance and complement each other — the anti-social punk Lisbeth Salander and the socially conscious reporter Mikael Blomkvist.

Besides falling in love with Salander, what surprised me most about the book, and what is likely a significant part of its being more than just a best selling crime fiction novel, is that Larson makes three powerful and real indictments on the global society. The first is that there is still, at a very fundamental psychological level, an anti-female, even misogynist, underbelly. The second is that capitalism has run amok and the corporate foxes are now not just guarding the hen houses but owning them too. And the third is that the corporate media is egregiously failing to safeguard democracy from the consequences of corporate greed business ethics. The book is in not 'preachy,' but more a matter-of-fact but exhilarating exploration of these realities through the experiences of Salander and Blomkvist. As an example of the last two ideas is the big banks' recent ethical and associated financial failures and the inadequacy of the media's reportage before and after the scam was exposed — the Millennium Trilogy was written before the crash happened. As to the second, as a resident of metropolitan Vancouver, I recently watched a police representative apologize for the police's failure to apprehend more quickly a serial killer of about 50 prostitutes over ten or more years because these women were in effect disposable in being unimportant in their and the society's eyes.

Great read. My first binge read in more than fifteen years.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Book of Chuang Tzu, Chapter 10 — Read 2010.07.23

I stumbled onto this delightful translation of Chuang Tzu's Wandering on the Way in one of my local used book stores, Renaissance Books.

Chuang Tzu. The Book of Chuang Tzu. Toronto: Arkana (Penguin Books) 1996. Translators Martin Palmer and Elizabeth Breuilly with Chang Wai Ming. ISBN: 9780140455373.

I started reading it upon purchase, and finished it quickly. I am surprised at how well it stands beside my favourite translation of Chuang Tzu, Victor H. Mair's Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1994.

I have been slowly re-reading it ever since then. It is filled with delightful criticism of intellectually accepted philosophical practices. As I have read Chuang Tzu in various translation more or less continuously for more than ten years, I am starting to see just how prescient is his social/philosophical criticism and commentary. With just the smallest leap in understanding, I now see that our age — which I find philosophically and spiritually enervating, and increasingly so — is being described in its failures by Chuang Tzu's description of the failures he observed in his time. Truly, there is nothing new in the fundamentals of man's social structures, regardless the technological toys extant. And my feeling of societal debilitation is not because of technological innovation! Rather, our uses and abuses of today's marvels of technology display and often amplify societal moral and philosophical immaturity and childish impatience and petulance.

I was 'forced' to create this blog entry when I realized that Chapter 11, 'Leaving the World Open,' describes the crumbling of our current society under the pressure of what I call flowcharted MBA-itis, and which Chuang Tzu calls 'controlling the world.'

What was to follow was to be an extended transcription of Chapter 11, interspersed with my commentary. But, when I went to do just that, much to my annoyance I had the idea that Chuang Tzu's ideas from Chapter 10 needed to go first, as a kind of introduction.

So,with my added commentary [in square brackets], here is Chuang Tzu's caution against the pursuit and use of 'knowledge':
If those in authority search for knowledge [Harvard MBAs and their emulators], but without the Tao [greed-based economic ethics supplants history, awareness of personal integrity and responsibility and delimits any 'vision' of the future beyond flow-charted manufactured/manipulated quarterly results], everything under Heaven will be in terrible confusion. How do I know this? A great deal of knowledge is needed to make bows, crossbows, nets, arrows and so forth [like earning that BBA/MBA/EMBA], but the result is that the birds fly higher in distress [the natural order of how to think about things becomes strained/distorted and is alienated from diurnal existence – psychologically birds can often represent thoughts/thinking. An example of such distorted thinking is the use of 'derivatives' as investment tools, and the recent 'asset-backed papers' scam.]. A great deal of knowledge is needed to make fishing lines, traps, baits and hooks, but the result is that the fish disperse in distress in the water [and, psychologically, fish represent food for the soul arising out from the psychological/spiritual unconscious. When people cut themselves off from spiritual food, they become unbalanced, and often seek it in something outside of themselves, be it fame, wealth, sex, drugs, alcohol. As to the latter, part of the AA cure for alcoholism is to accept that there is a spirituality in life outside of the bottle]. A great deal of knowledge is needed to make traps, snares and nets, but the result is that the animals are disturbed and seek refuge in marshy lands [that which feeds the human body and consciousness]. In the same way, the versatility needed to produce rhetoric, to plot and scheme, spread rumours and debate pointlessly, to dust off arguments and seek apparent agreement, is also considerable, but the result is that the people are confused. [No metaphorical interjection required here! Chuang Tzu could not be more precisely describing the role of 'specialists' to fix our troubles, be they economic, social, logistical.] So everything under Heaven is in a state of distress, all because of the pursuit of knowledge. Every[one] in the world knows how to seek for knowledge that they do not have, but do not know how to find what they already know. Every[one] in the world knows how to condemn what they dislike, but do not know how to condemn what they have that is wrong. This is what causes such immense confusion. It is as if the brightness of the sun and moon had been eclipsed above, while down below the hills and streams have lost their power, as though the natural flow of the four seasons had been broken. [This brought to mind the events of my experience of being locked out of my employment for five months so that the CEO could break the union, and for which he received in excess of fourteen million dollars in salary, bonuses and share options. And, now a Canadian first, the threat of a massive political recall of elected officials that was organized by someone not even in office!] There is no humble insect, not even any plant, that has not lost its innate nature. [Honeybee hive collapse and threat by mites; Monsanto and GM foods; the addition of hormones and antibiotics into animal feeds and injections.] This is the consequence for the world of seeking after knowledge. From the Three Dynasties down to the present day it has been like this. The good and honest people are ignored, while spineless flatterers are advanced. [Recent bank bailouts concomitantly with tens, and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of American citizens are being thrown out of their homes; the failure of the USA to rebuild New Orleans, while they spend billions fighting a no-win war. (I suggest to everyone to watch Michael Moore's 'Capitalism: A love Story.' It is is filled with fascinating examples of economic and social failure in the USA, while the ultra-rich are praised for being members to a 'plutonomy' deserving special status. See Citibank's proud memo that describes the us/them world order for the ultra-rich at] The quiet and calm of action-less action is cast aside and pleasure is taken in argument. It is this nonsense which has caused such confusion for everything under heaven (p79-80).
My next blog — or maybe the one or two after that, will be of Chapter 11.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Yasuniri Kawabata Beauty and Sadness — Begun 2010.07.30

While looking for something else, I found

Beauty and Sadness in a stack of books being received at Renaissance Books last weekend. And so I've begun it, and it looks like it will be good. It caught my eye — it does have a very nice Japanese print on the cover, after all. But I bought it not just because of the cover, but because I am alway curious as to what it is in a book that warrants it getting a prize. In this case, the prize awarded was the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature. Amusingly enough, Kawabata did not get the award for this book, but "for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind" as it was expressed in three of his other novels: Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and The Old Capital.

Yasuniri Kawabata
Beauty and Sadness.
Vintage International (Vintage Books / Random House),
1996, ISBN: 0679761055.