The world's affairs rush on, an endless stream; A sky-told fate, infinite in reach, dooms all. The kingdoms three are now the stuff of dream, For men toThe world's affairs rush on, an endless stream; A sky-told fate, infinite in reach, dooms all. The kingdoms three are now the stuff of dream, For men to ponder, past all praise or blame.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a book which attempts to cover the sweep and drama of history. The sheer scale and scope of the book makes it a clear 'epic' in the traditional sense. This is a book written in the same century as the The Decameron. To give a scale of its scope, the book starts in 168 AD and ends in 280, which is from the time of Marcus Aurelius to the time just before Diocletian. Or as long as from the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt to today.
The other big trait of this novel is the ancient concept of warfare, which is done through glorious feats and massed armies. Generals are praised not for their tactical genius, but from their personal bravery and acts of heroism. Those who do dabble in strategy and politics, like Cao Cao and Zhuge Liang, are the stark exceptions.
The story largely concerns the fall of the Han Empire and its dissolution into three warring kingdoms. Our heroes are a brotherhood of three warriors, Liu Bei, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu, who swear an oath of fealty in a peach garden and pledge to protect the empire through its troubles. The main 'antagonist' is the wily Cao Cao, a brilliant trickster-general who also hopes to restore the entire empire. After he preemptively kills another warlord's family for self-defense, he says, "I'd rather betray the whole world than have the world betray me." The story follows the plans of warlords, invasions, the rise and fall of petty kingdoms, palace intrigue, battles, poetry.
The sheer scale of the book prevents any discussion of plot points, so I'll sketch a few reactions to broad themes.
The book also ties to the idea of nationalism. The empire falls apart, but it will come back together. In this book, history follows long and spiraling cycles. The Ming Dynasty, which only re-established itself after liberation from the Mongol yoke, looked to the mythical ideal of the past to draw inspiration for a unified Chinese state. The heroes of this story were relevant then, heroes to save the nation, heroes who held past traditions and serve the people. The book is Tolstoyan in scale, but not in its approach to history, where all humans are at the mercy of impersonal forces. If anything, with its superhuman characters, it resembles the historical epics of the Greeks.
The character archetypes have become embedded in Chinese literature and popular culture. One of them, Guan Yu is now venerated as a god of loyalty and martial brotherhood in some local traditions. There is the the trickster genius, Zhuge Liang, who wins by deception and bravery. One of the most fascinating characters to me was Cao Cao. The Chinese treat him as a villain who disregards all traditions and obligations, but Western readers I know treat him as a compelling antihero who still hopes to save the empire.
This translation by Moss Roberts is presented in an excellent edition. There are versions in multiple volumes, but mine is a five-pound monster of a book. There are copious annotations, an afterword, a historical timeline, and even a biographical list of major characters (some 116 out of the thousand in total). The only thing that's missing is a table of contents, which would help due to the sheer length of the book.
Still, this is a deeply compelling book. It treats the sum of history as a narrative, and it does so with a grand scope, which encompasses legend and myth. It might be overwhelming at first, but as you settle into it and remember the major characters, you get a sense for the truly epic narrative here....more
I'm sorry, I'm putting this whole series back on the 'to-read' list for now.
It's not that they're bad. It's the precise opposite. I have been so distrI'm sorry, I'm putting this whole series back on the 'to-read' list for now.
It's not that they're bad. It's the precise opposite. I have been so distracted with work and other books that I've fallen behind schedule and now I've forgotten the events and even some of the characters.
I enjoyed the three books I did finish immensely. I did not place as much emphasis on the character interactions, as a novel of this scale is so vast that I did not focus on the totality of it. Instead I enjoyed our narrator's 'non-fiction' thoughts on memory and life and society. Those were excellent. A few pages into The Guermantes Way were enough to convince me that it was 5 stars, and nothing after could possibly bring that down.
This journey, as incomplete as it is, was one which brought me much entertainment and even wisdom as can be derived from conversations with books and about them.
Some day I will come back here, and I will finish what I have started. To do otherwise would be a disservice not only to myself, but M. Proust as well....more
The Jetavana Temple bells Ring the passing of all things. Twinned sal trees, white in full flower, declare the great man's certain fall. The arrogant do
The Jetavana Temple bells Ring the passing of all things. Twinned sal trees, white in full flower, declare the great man's certain fall. The arrogant do not long endure: They are like a dream one night in spring. The bold and brave perish in the end: They are as dust before the wind.
These is the opening song of the epic, The Tale of the Heike. Although this is a war story, detailing the quick rise and steady fall of a clan which sought a military takeover of Japan, it is something more. The Heike monogatari, written to be read aloud and sung over nightly installments, is a long and winding journey through triumph, defeat, religion, and myth.
It is made clear in the very first lines that a main theme of the Tale of the Heike is the Buddhist concept of impermanence or transience, also known as mujō (無常). Sadness at the passing of things, or, to use a 19th-century term, mono no aware (物の哀れ). There are falling spring blossoms, death poems, and lamentations over burning temples.
Yet despite (or because of?) this focus on impermanence and death, the work is also an early contributor to the myth of the warrior code (武士道 - bushido). There are multiple instances of an honorable deaths, suicide, and one of the first instances of death by seppuku. There are little parables of war horses, heroism, fathers defending their sons, wives mourning their husbands, warriors with nine-foot-long bows. A child-emperor and his nurse jump into the sea to reach a more heavenly and eternal throne.
Perhaps in this way, it is not dissimilar to the Iliad or the more contemporary Beowulf. Although there are lamentations of the loss of divine virtue and that this is a corrupt age, warriors still chant their names and their deeds. Individuals are frequently singled out for their bravery. They still decorate their uniforms with bright colors, black or red or blue or gold or white. Some blacken their teeth - for beauty, not for intimidation.
A third narrative thread is that of religion and karma. Karma, or (業)Gō, of course, is where one's deeds and one's past life affect your own. Death is ordinary, but it is temporary. The tyrant, Taira no Kiyomori, was once a wise Buddhist teacher who had not yet comprehended the nature of evil. Of course, this religion is not detached from ordinary lives and political struggles. Warrior monks are wily players in this struggle, and they compete in very earthly struggles for allegiance. Yet this is a particular form of Buddhism which they fight, with the Amida Buddha promising eventual redemption to all of those who sincerely ask for it and chant his name as they die.
This is a 'war story', but there is also poetry and emotion. It is elegant at times, and even dares to hint at the complexity of life - and it's difference from Buddhist notions of simplicity. The winners are not always good, and the losers are not all bad. At the moment where the Taira suffer their greatest defeat, there are some digressions on how noble and good some of their followers were as they were slaughtered. From Chinese history. Didactic as well as emotive.
Royall Tyler does a magnificent job with the translation, moving from song to recitation with fluid ease. This edition also has some 50 pages of maps, genealogies, lists of characters, and helpful historical or poetic footnotes. There are also multiple engravings from a 19th-century edition of the book, etched by a pupil of the great Hokusai.
As for the victorious Minamoto clan? Their victory, too, was not permanent, for no empire is. The Kamakura shogunate which they established fell in 1333, then the Ashikaga after them in 1573, then finally the Tokugawa in 1868. For now, they have their victory, but it too shall pass and become dust and fading memory. This is a story which conveys the rise and fall and great sweeps of history past, but with steely elegance.
[Images are screenshots taken from Kurosawa's films, Kagamure and Ran.]...more
The back cover boasts that this is the best Russian novel since 'War and Peace'. I must dispute this simply because the Russians have produced so manyThe back cover boasts that this is the best Russian novel since 'War and Peace'. I must dispute this simply because the Russians have produced so many other good novels since then. Nevertheless, this is a grand work.
This is a big sweeping novel, with generations of a Russian family interposed on a backdrop of the turbulent years of the early Russian Revolution all the way up to the mass slaughter of WW2 and fall of 1945, in triumph and fear and exhausted victory. It is something of a cross between 'Doctor Zhivago', 'August 1914', and 'Life and Fate'.
My book seemed almost incomplete at the end. I learned this was because only two volumes of a trilogy were translated for this edition. A bitter disappointment. I yearn for more.
An exemplary book, and a vastly underrated one. 4.5 stars....more
I had done some selective rereading (OK, pretty much the whole thing) over the past few days, and I think I'm ready to offer a more substantive reviewI had done some selective rereading (OK, pretty much the whole thing) over the past few days, and I think I'm ready to offer a more substantive review, in comparison to the exuberant gushing I wrote last year (see below). Truth be told, I'm rather embarrassed about it, but I'll leave it up anyway.
So - I will ask the big question. Why would anyone really read a 774 page book about whores doing fucked-up things? Even if it is written by a Famous Cult Author or has a Good Prose Style. The subject matter seems strange, perhaps repulsive. Despite the large pairs of decorated breasts on the front dustjacket, the contents of the book could hardly be described as pornographic. To the vast majority of sensibilities, they are precisely the opposite. Drugs, sex, disease, perversion, warts (yup!) and all. Vollmann has a remarkable talent for describing disgusting or shocking things almost casually, with candor.
So what? It's about whores. Big deal. If I want to read something disgusting for cheap kicks, titillation, and for the pleasurable thrill of being shocked, I'd go read Bret Easton Ellis and skip the parts about designer brands. Vollmann's doing just that, right?
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If I would distill this hulk of a book into three sentences, they would be: Whores exist. They are people. They have stories worth telling. Vollmann is willing to go the extremest of lengths to prove this point. Whore-fetishism aside, one is forced to consider the frightening possibility that Vollmann is genuinely interested in, and empathetic to, all corners of society. He will spend time with them, listening to their life stories, risk arrest in police raids, smoke their crack (really!) and lovingly immortalize them in his fiction with biblical stories of redemption, Marks of Cain, and all. The devotion of a prophet or a madman, a relentless died-in-the-woll Idealist. Or, at least, a Writer.
It is true, the first 'plot' has the tender trappings of a hard-boiled detective story. If some editor had seized and lobotomized the book, it might have become only this, then it might have sold well. But this is a very ambitious novel, which aims for something much higher. Even if, as some others say, WTV has failed due to his turgid repetition, he has still achieved something by the very act of writing such a behemoth.
It is difficult to divorce the author from his work, especially in this case. But I think that such a work can stand on its own. "Read in order to live.", says Flaubert. Here, Vollmann's life, and those of the lonesome whores of the Tenderloin, are shown very intimately to us. This is a true glimpse of this segment of life. Treasure it.
============================================================= ORIGINAL EMBARRASSING REVIEW: Vollmann, you are a magnificent bastard and I love you. This book consumed almost all of my day today, and like so many of your others, will haunt me.
This book is relentless. It is a force. You are pummeled with the lives of prostitutes and degradation and survival and you almost become numb to it and you keep going, by sheer will. The writing is gorgeous and hauntingly beautiful.
One of Vollmann's characteristics is his honesty - his obsessive desire to be artistically honest by refusing to submit his work to editors and conducting incredibly dangerous research tours in order to provide the most authentic descriptions. One can only imagine what he did in order to research this novel.
Recommended to anyone who wants to search their soul and see the agonies and trials of humanity's dregs....more
Another astonishing book. The collision of cultures, so wholly alien to each other, and the rippling effects across the vast and forbidding continent.Another astonishing book. The collision of cultures, so wholly alien to each other, and the rippling effects across the vast and forbidding continent. Ornate and intricate and dazzling detail.
I had read a selection of the Jesuit histories for a school project, but I imagine Vollmann has plowed through all 73 volumes, traveled to Canada ten times, and befriended the native women in his bid for research and understanding who the people were. Characters which would too easily be stereotyped are given their full measure.
Dammit, I'm gushing. But it's worth it. It really is....more
The Decline and Fall of Soviet Russia. Describes the ignominy and total corruption of the state, and the horrors and drudgery that the Soviet people eThe Decline and Fall of Soviet Russia. Describes the ignominy and total corruption of the state, and the horrors and drudgery that the Soviet people endured, with penetrating detail. Excellent reading, and highly recommended for anybody interested in the era....more
A historical fiction book that's nearly a thousand pages long? And it was positively reviewed by Vollmann and published by McSweeney's? Sign me up!
A bA historical fiction book that's nearly a thousand pages long? And it was positively reviewed by Vollmann and published by McSweeney's? Sign me up!
A big sweeping tour of the United States in the late 19th/early 20th century, taking place in the late Reconstruction era, the gold rush, and the Spanish-American war and Philippine insurgency. I was not too surprised to learn that the author is also a famed movie director - many of the scenes would transition quite well to film, although the book itself would not - it's just too long for that.
The book covers a lot - it's length feels entirely justified. The writing style is a bit sparse, but the imagery is vivid. The enormous cast of characters is fairly easy to keep track of, and seeing their array of stories unfold is excellent.
There are so many good reviews of this on Goodreads already that I'm not sure if I can come up with something interesting or at least original. I'll sThere are so many good reviews of this on Goodreads already that I'm not sure if I can come up with something interesting or at least original. I'll save this as a project of its own, to be accompanied with organ music on some Italian vacation. Instead I'll offer up a quotation direct from the book itself. Not my words, but his.
And then they silenced, each bending forth, closer and closer, to fix the book the other was carrying with a look of myopic recognition. —You reading that? both asked at once, withdrawing in surprise. —No. I'm just reviewing it, said the taller one, hunching back in his green wool shirt .—A lousy twenty-five bucks. It'll take me the whole evening tonight. You didn't buy it, did you? Christ, at that price? Who the hell do they think's going to pay that much just for a novel. Christ, I could have given it to you, all I need is the jacket blurb to write the review.
FIRST ATTEMPT (14 July 2011):
This is one monolithic book, and I admit a lot of it has gone over my head. Too intricate and dazzling, even by my tastes. Revisit later when I have more time, and then I can assign a review and a star rating....more
Without stories like these about the old days, though, how would we ever pass the time when there is nothing else to do? Besides, Artist: Toshiaki Kato
Without stories like these about the old days, though, how would we ever pass the time when there is nothing else to do? Besides, among these lies there are certainly some plausibly touching scenes, convincingly told; and yes, we know they are fictions, but even so we are moved and half drawn for no real reason to the pretty, suffering heroine. We may disbelieve the blatantly impossible but still be amazed by magnificently contrived wonders, and although these pall on quiet, second hearing, some are still fascinating. Lately, when my little girl has someone read to her and I stand there listening, I think to myself what good talkers there are in this world, and how this story, too, must come straight from someone's persuasively glib imagination- but perhaps not.
This reading of the Tale of Genji, my second, was through a glass darkly. The first time through, I had a superficial understanding of what was going on, and it was so foreign and so different to my previous conceptions of human behavior that I gave up a third of the way in. This time, I have a basic understanding of the course of events, but little understanding of why they happened. Court rituals, titles, poetry, all pass by in a bare haze, even with all of the summaries and glossaries in the back of the book. I read only in the most minimal meaning of the word, and there was very little understanding of the text and the characters.
Despite this general lack of understanding, however, there are brief flashes of brilliance which help me to understand why this book has such long-lasting appeal. The cited part above, in Chapter 25, is one of the first appeals on the meaning of fiction, and how such stories have a greater meaning beyond just passing the time. This, perhaps, is Murasaki's own justification for this novel idea, and the sort of idea which endures long after her.
But still the book is so alien that I am confused by it. The first section of the plot concerns the Shining Price Genji's sexual escapades with a variety of women. Some of these have the air of young romance, but others are in so different from our idea of 'romance' that I was left completely distant from them. This is not only a matter of cultural norms, but some things which I personally found disgusting - rape and pseudo-incest among them. This is supposed to be romance?
There is a gap of one thousand years between us and this novel. Is human nature really so different that we could not understand what all this is? Or is it just being overwhelmed by technical details, and forgetting the emotions which underlie the story? I suspect many of us will remain outside the pavilion forever, left to only gaze at the flowers. ...more
Robert Caro's The Power Broker is the Citizen Kane of books. This is not only because of how often both are almost universally praised, not only becauRobert Caro's The Power Broker is the Citizen Kane of books. This is not only because of how often both are almost universally praised, not only because they have both become a cipher for what you want to refer to something truly Great in that form of media, not only because they are both narrative biographical epics which can also discuss the intimate details of the personal lives of their subjects, but also because they both the stories of engineers of human society on a grand scale.
Robert Moses, like the semi-fictitious Charles Foster Kane, is the sort of figure that might inspire a 'Great Man' view of history, where single individuals are the sword-points for the sweeping changes in human society. Of course, this is not de rigueur for most academic students of history today, with many adhering to some Hegelian idea that individual human beings do not matter, and that all events are largely the product of social forces. Perhaps there is some intermediate truth between these two views - that there indeed are impersonal societal forces, but also that there are individuals who have the capacity to manipulate or order an institutional apparatus to 'speed up' the processes of social development.
The story of Robert Moses' life is a narrative structure, with rising and falling action. It is not solely about the man's life, but about his Power - Rise, Use, Love, Lust and Loss in that order, five acts. Caro's chief aim is to show the many uses and meanings of power. When Moses was a young student, he sought to challenge and acquire power for the better. When he first had it, he used it toughly, but as an enlightened despot, showering blessings upon some of the peoples of New York. But soon his demand for power and reshaping the city simply as he saw fit, turned his past notions from idealism to the most brutal form of pragmatism.
Caro discusses not only the uses of power, but its many forms. Governmental institutions, private organizations, the press, connections, money (especially money!) and means of getting around the checks and balances designed to prevent the overuse of power. Moses, who never won elected office, was able to avoid, circumvent, or shoot down anything the elected legislatures or the mayors were able to send at him over the span of forty years. The tellingly named 'authorities' which he headed, like the Triborough Bridge Authority, were run like hierarchic corporations, but with access to public funds and property. Hence his capacity to affect change.
Moses' ideas of urban design were generally car-based, and largely a product of the 1920s. As early as 1941, the traffic snarls which we experience today were already forming. It has been part of the American Dream to own a car almost as long as cars were available to the population - the independence and wide-spaces of America no doubt made such an idea very tempting. But what about the growth and crowded development of cities? What about rising resource prices? Such ideas are no doubt tempting, but future circumstances make this pattern more difficult, especially for the seaboards and the cities.
Caro's begins to use the methods here which might make him more famous in his other biographies. His enormous capacity for interviews, research, all distilled into lucid paragraphs. He makes the most wonkish policy details and places them in the context of deeper struggles. One of his best characteristics are his biographies in miniature, devoting a few pages to a relevant figure, distilling their essence into crisp prose. Mayors, politicians, governors, rich men, poor men, reformers, yes-men, strikers - those who swirled around Moses' nexus of power all receive their fair dues. Institutions, of course, are made of people, and it is their networking and relationships which demonstrate their nature and goals. It is when Moses began to lose his backers, and the support of the public, and tried to fight someone who not only knew how to play the game, but had billions to back himself up (Rockefeller), it was where he was backed into a corner, and slid off the city stage.
Are there others like Robert Moses working today? There is no question that he was a very influential man in his lifetime, and the spidery network of parkways and expressways which encircle American cities is largely his invention. But even if you assume the retreat of the ideas of urban planning and civil engineering in America, and our retreat into suburban spheres, what then is left?
Of course Robert Moses is still with us! Not just from what he has left behind (the roads and bridges, of course, and even Fire Island Park survived the hurricanes, and the rusted Worlds Fair sphere is clean again), but also what he continues to inspire, if not in the United States, then elsewhere. The Shanghainese built the same mileage of highways in 10 years that Moses scrapped together over his forty. The Chinese, in their rapid urbanization, adoption of cars and highways and traffic jams, are adopting a very American approach to transportation. More cars, more roads, more urbanization. Their urban planning machine bears more than a passing resemblance to Robert Moses, writ large, even down to the public-private mix of resources and controversies over land development. There is a term in Chinese now, nail houses (钉子户), for individual houses which have not been bought out by land-developers are still remain when all the rest are demolished.
The main difference between Robert Moses's world and that of Shanghai and nail houses is that almost nobody in power in China is elected. Theoretically, they could have dozens of Moseses.
So does Caro's final judgment on Moses stand? It is telling that in these days of governmental gridlock and filibuster, you occasionally hear murmurs that there should be another Moses, because he at least 'got things done'. But would you want him back? He could bring the city parks and greeneries, but only in certain areas. He could bring bridges and transportation, but again they had their own caveats. Here was a man, in Caro's view, who sought to reshape the American city and the people within it in his image and design, according to his specifications and designs. At his best, he was a genius, at worst a tyrant. This story of his life is not only a model of biography, but for anyone who wants a good look at the nature of power and its use.
"ALL GOOD THINGS OF THIS EARTH FLOW INTO THE CITY." -Pericles...more
The books that started it all for me - I started a vigorous campaign of self-education when I was in freshman year of high-school by reading all of thThe books that started it all for me - I started a vigorous campaign of self-education when I was in freshman year of high-school by reading all of these. It took well over a year, but I managed to get through them all, and I learned so much because of them. I regularly return to my favorites. Has some obvious gaps, but then, doesn't anyone's reading?
The high rating here is partly due to my sentimental attachment to them and as the start of my long journey into reading....more
A grand sprawling epic. I can't possibly say anything good about it that has not already been repeated.
I am fortunate enough to have a brand new editA grand sprawling epic. I can't possibly say anything good about it that has not already been repeated.
I am fortunate enough to have a brand new edition with lots of annotations and references. Layers upon layers of allegory and myth and history and religion and fable. Deserves infinite rereadings....more