Phineas Finn and After Dark

Phineas Finn is the second of Trollope's six parliamentary–or Pallisers–novels. It concerns the political career of a young Irish barrister, who is returned for two different boroughs, both of which are eventually abolished, learns to prize his parliamentary independence over his position in government, falls in love with 4 women, and marries. He also fights a duel and rides horses and attends the great parties and occasions of many members of the upper class, because it is a british novel. He doesn't, however, gamble, and while he amasses some debts and has difficulty about them, they are not on his own account but on those of a friend, and the debts are resolved by deus ex machina, rather than the usual device of "getting money from some lady who loves him."

Those are the ways it is similar to regular british novels of the 19th century, and those are the ways it differs from one.

It is the second in a series, so it is probably best to leave it until you have read Can You Forgive Her, although the story isn't really about the same characters (The Duke of Omnium and his clan, who are minor characters in Can You… are again minor characters in Phineas Finn) and you could probably just pick this one up. But why? If you are willing to read 600 pages of Trollope's musings on the parliaments of the 1860s, why not start at the beginning. Why are we even having this discussion. Read the first one first!

After Dark
Haruki Murakami

After Dark is, by my count, Haruki Murakami's eleventh novel. Of all of his novels, it covers the shortest time frame (a single night), and in fact it is among the shorter of his major works. It has a lot of trademark Murakami elements: normal people, normal japan, strange parallel universe which intrudes into their affairs. Music. Prostitution. Hotels.

I read it and I enjoyed it, and if you liked any of his other novels (except Norwegian Wood), you will probably like it too. In the weeks leading up to it, I re-read Norwegian Wood, Sputnik Sweetheart, and South of the Border, West of the Sun, and after I finished it, I re-read Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball 1973, Wild Sheep Chase, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and Dance Dance Dance. I re-read Kafka on the Shore at the end of last year, so I am reasonably current in my Murakami.

For fun, then, I give you my top Murakami novels in some semblance of order:

  1. A Wild Sheep Chase
  2. Dance Dance Dance
  3. Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
  4. Norwegian Wood
  5. Kafka On The Shore
  6. Sputnik Sweetheart
  7. Pinball, 1973
  8. After Dark
  9. Hear The Wind Sing
  10. South of the Border, West of the Sun
  11. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

You could read them in that order, of course, but I actually suggest reading them in the order 1,2,4,5,3,6,8,10,11,9,7. Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are very difficult to find. I won't disclose what my copy of Pinball cost me.

Media Weekend

This weekend I finished a book, a Video Game, and a DVD, in that order:

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, was written by brothers Chip and Dan Heath, and attempts to get to the root of ideas that are memorable, often so memorable that you can remember significant details about them after hearing them once. They propose a framework for such ideas that involves simplicity, concrete details, unexpectedness, credibility, emotional appeal, and storytelling aspects, and the book is littered with examples of such sticky ideas, used to draw out one or more of the framework components.

I think they've got a pretty good handle on some things that truly attention getting stories, commercials, &c., have in common, but I don't think the book does a particularly good job of explaining how to turn your boring idea into a sticky one. If you knew how to make your idea have more emotional appeal, after all, wouldn't you have done it? Still, the book is an interesting read.

Of course, I realize this is not my usual reading material. Chip Heath came to speak at one of our educational sessions, and the book was free. But as with Lawrence Lessig's book, I didn't have any trouble getting into it, even if it isn't about English politics of the 1860s or imperial China in the Tang Dynasty.

The game was Hotel Dusk: Room 215, a sort of graphic adventure game for the DS, in the mystery genre. As many people have noted, it is almost more like reading a book than playing a game, and you will like it to the exact extent that you like film noir. I liked it a fair amount, though I certainly didn't intend to play it for 6 hours on Sunday. Get it, or, you know, don't.

The 6th volume of the Zatoichi TV series was released at the end of January, and I put away all four episodes this weekend. There was some good stuff in here, and some very different stuff. Most Zatoichi movies (especially the early ones) and most of the previous TV episodes can generally be described as "Zatoichi shows up in a town, Yakuza bosses fight over whose side he will be on in the coming fight, he sort of gets disgusted with both sides, but for some personal reason, usually shows up to the fight, often killing both bosses." I don't want to make it sound like every episode is the same–there's a lot of room to move in that format and the show has been pretty enjoyable so far–but that probably fits the majority of them.

In this volume, however, there are a couple of very different episodes. One is the story of a blind female musician and her lover, in which Zatoichi plays a pretty minor part. Even the assassin who is sent to kill the girl is told not to bother killing Zatoichi. Of course, there is eventually a fight, but this is basically not his story. He is an observer. In another episode, two men are on a mission to avenge their boss, whom they acknowledge was a scumbag, but whom Zatoichi killed and to whom they promised loyalty. Of course, when they meet Zatoichi, they get to like him, so it's more tragic when they decide they have to go through with it anyway. Finally, there is an episode where Zatoichi returns to his home village, only to be chased down by dozens of Yakuza eager to collect the 500 ryo bounty on his head. When they make trouble for his village and kill the head of the temple where he was learning to be a priest, Zatoichi realizes that he will never have a quiet life and leaves to avoid emperilling the villagers. Sad stuff.

Golden Lotus (or Jin Ping Mei)

Golden Lotus or Jin Ping Mei (alternate romanizations include Chin P'ing Mei) is one of the classic novels of imperial China, along with, for instance, The Scholars, Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, Journey to the West, and A Dream of Red Mansions. Of all of them (possible exception The Scholars), it is the one you're least likely to encounter. It is banned in China for its erotic content (of which I will say more later), so modern translations do not abound. Work was underway in the late 90's on a new translation, but generally only the first few volumes are available. The others were either abandoned, or, if I remember the story right, the translator is very old and may not outlive the task. Just to finish the textual discussion, the version I read is a 1939 UK translation, which originally had the vulgar parts rendered in latin, but which has recently been unexpurgated by translating them back into English. I offer you no picture because amazon does not possess a copy of the edition I read. Look for it on eBay.

The elephant in the living room here is obviously the vulgarity issue: how filthy is it, what did they translate back into English, and so on. I'm going to disappoint you now — the vulgar parts are by far the most boring. Yes, there are some pretty ribald descriptions in there, depicting oral and anal sex, watersports, light bondage, sex toys, menages a trois, and so on. In fact, they're all basically in every chapter. But after the tenth description of sexual acts between Hsi-men Ch'ing (old romanization, but that's going to happen in 1939 translations. Try… Ximen Qing) and one of his many partners, it becomes, well, if I can borrow a line from family guy: it's like, she's naked, but who gives a shit? Maybe if you still have access to the really really juvenile parts of your psyche, you might think it's funny when someone wants to "tease the flower in her bottom," or when someone "was adept at playing the flute," but yeah, it's not going to be a non-stop thrill ride.

What you are likely to find more edifying is the description of the interaction between his six wives, their various maids and manservants, and the singing boys and girls that come to the house. As if… Raise the Red Lantern was a full 100 chapter novel instead of a novella. If you enjoy that kind of family politics, there is probably enough to get you through the rest of the book.

I can't, in good conscience, give this a great recommendation, though. The last 20+ chapters are extremely tedious, dealing with the eventual fates of virtually every member of the household, long after the principals are dead. It's as if the author knew people were going to speculate on what happened after the story, so he decided to record…

You know exactly what it is? It's the fucking Silmarillion. Even if you like Tolkein, reading it is like pounding nails into your dick. Now imagine that they tacked that on to the end of the Return of the King. It would make the whole novel worse, right?

That's what's happening here.

So read it, or, you know, don't. It took me a year. I could have read Dream of Red Mansions three times in that span.

[P.S. – I don't know if a better translation would make it more palatable, but volume 3 of the new version was published in 2006, so there is some chance it will be finished eventually. Maybe a follow up review in 5 years?]

Can You Forgive Her?

Can You Forgive Her?
Anthony Trollope

Can You Forgive Her?, despite its title, is the first of Trollope's six political or "Palliser" novels. It deals with the marriage prospects of a young woman of independent means, and her struggle as she wavers between two suitors–the upstanding but dull John Grey and the exciting but dangerous George Vavasor. It is also a great deal about securing political alliances and the difficulty in being returned for a seat in the House of Commons. And, hell, while I'm warning you, it runs a good 800 pages.

A lot of Victorian novels are about marrying well. A few of them are about the House of Commons. Either you find the subjects interesting or you don't, and for a long time, I stayed clear of English literature because, on average, I want to punch more than 80% of the characters in the face for not saying what they mean. If you've ever read, for instance, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, that was a face-punching extravaganza.

Most of the characters in this story, however, are sympathetic. You like Alice Vavasor (whom you are asked eponymously to forgive), and you like her cousin Kate, and you like Glencora Palliser and her husband, and you like Aunt Greenow and virtually everybody in her arc, and the only characters you don't like are the ones you are supposed to dislike.

As for the writing itself, Trollope talks to his readers and references what he wrote earlier in a way that would make John Barth proud, and in particular, I like his habit of guessing what else the characters might have done that day, as if he hadn't seen it or had no definite knowledge of it. I suppose it makes for inconsistent narration, since at times he knows what a character is thinking and at times he cannot account for their actions, but hell, it's cute. There are a couple of long passages about hunting, which may not be for everyone, but which, according to the introduction, were Trollope's favorite passages to write, so I think we can forgive him that.

The trouble, of course, is that there are five more novels in the series. I got a lot of reading in the last month, and it tool me the entire month of December to get through this. It could conceivably be another whole year of Trollope for me, even if I stop at the end of the Pallisers and ignore the other entire series of novels he wrote. I have already ordered Phineas Finn, and will probably begin it this week.

Anyway, great book, probably deserves more acclaim that it (or Trollope in general) usually gets, worth putting on your bookshelf. The end.

Sasego means “public toilet”

Banana Yoshimoto

Last night I finished Banana Yoshimoto's Amrita. I think that makes all of her major works, but I will have to compare my bookshelf against her bibliography sometime to be sure. As is often the case, her writing is a little bit dark and otherworldly. It's about a girl whose father dies, whose sister becomes a movie star and kills herself, who falls and hits her head and loses her memory, and whose brother suddenly starts to see ghosts. And I guess it's about love and families, too, and… scents.

I wish I read Japanese, because the style of the book (and most of her work) in translation is startlingly simple. Sentences are short and make direct statements. A third grader could read most of her work, the way it has been translated into English, and I wonder if it is the same in Japanese.

She gives an afterward at the end in which she apologizes for the naivete of her writing, and wonders if she will ever write a book so long again. It's a nice contrast to, say, the forewords in early Nabakov novels, where he asserts that he is a genius and takes the time to explain the references and parallels you will miss when you read the book. And at that, there is some kind of similarity between the two styles that I'm having trouble putting my finger on… between Bend Sinister or Invitation to a Beheading and Yoshimoto's writing.

Maybe I'm crazy.