This is pretty much what you expect from Carlin - acerbic, abrasive, disrespectful, challenging language that doesn't give a good goddamn what anyone...moreThis is pretty much what you expect from Carlin - acerbic, abrasive, disrespectful, challenging language that doesn't give a good goddamn what anyone else thinks. Which means there'll definitely be something in there that you disagree with, and probably something that pisses you off. Not me, of course. When I watched the South Park movie, at the abortion joke from The Mole, the entire theatre was dead silent except for me in the back row, cackling. I have a very broad sense of humor.
Anyway, if you've read his previous works, Braindroppings and Napalm and Silly Putty, you pretty much know what's going to be in here - a lot of essays on current events, social customs and traditions, and the general weak character of Americans today. Plus, there are lots of short bits that are really funny:
"I wanted to be a Boy Scout, but I had all the wrong traits. Apparently, they were looking for kids who were trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Unfortunately, at that time I was devious, fickle, obstructive, hostile, rude, mean, defiant, glum, extravagant, cowardly, dirty and sacrilegious. So I waited a few years and joined the army."
One of Carlin's hot points is his love of language, as the above points out. He loves language and he loves to watch how people use language to bend the truth of their meaning - in other words, he takes particular notice of euphemism. As an English teacher, and a lover of language myself, I also find this topic fascinating and have cannibalized some of Carlin's material for use in lessons on the topic. Included in this book is his "Shell Shock to PTSD" speech, chronicling the renaming of the same condition from World War I ("Shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. Shell shock!") through to the present day ("...at last, the pain had been completely buried under psycho-jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.").
This is one area in which I have great respect for Carlin. Overall, I prefer his old material - the Hippy Dippy Weatherman, Congolia Breckenridge and all that - to his newer, rougher stuff. But on the subject of language, I find him to be an insightful and clever scholar of communication. Words exist to describe things. At the same time, however, words conceal the true nature of things, and no one word can completely encompass the thing it describes. Knowing that, we use words to change things according to comfort and custom. We soften the things that make us uncomfortable - going from "cripple" to "physically challenged" might make up feel better about it, but it doesn't change the condition itself. No matter what we call it, Stephen Hawking isn't going to engage in a round of beach volleyball anytime soon.
What Carlin believes, and what he explains in this book and his others, is that, given the choice, we should opt for the word that is clearest, simplest and truest over the one that just makes us feel better....
In between the jokes about sex, death and old people, that is.
"A children's museum sounds like a great idea, but I would imagine it's not easy to breathe inside those little glass cases."
If you're a nut for ancient history, or if you were wondering about how close Frank Miller got with 300, this is the book for you. But it's not for th...moreIf you're a nut for ancient history, or if you were wondering about how close Frank Miller got with 300, this is the book for you. But it's not for the casual reader, so be warned. There's a lot of information that comes are you quickly, all leading you towards understanding more about the famous battle of Thermopylae and why it's still significant 2500 years later.
For those of you who don't know - Thermopylae is a narrow pass that runs north-south into Greece and any invader who feels like making headway pretty much has to pass through it. These days it's pretty broad, but in the time of the Spartans, it was only about 14 meters wide. And it was here that 300 Spartans and nearly 5,000 warriors from other Greek provinces held off the much larger forces of the invading King Xerxes. While the Greeks did eventually lose the battle, their bravery and self-sacrifice has resonated through history.
But how did this happen? Cartledge does a quick round-up of all the forces in play at the time, giving brief descriptions of Spartan society, the rise of the Persian Empire, and ever-fluctuating Greek politics. He paints a much more complex picture of the events than you get from films, mainly because Cartledge is an historian and Frank Miller is a storyteller. Two very different responsibilities. He then goes on to look at how the battle has been remembered, both in ancient and modern times.
It's a really neat book, and offers a lot more layers to a story that most people don't actually know much about. The Spartans were lovers of freedom, for example, but only their own. They weren't so concerned about the Helot slaves who made their warrior lifestyle possible. And Xerxes was not a totalitarian monster who held himself as a God among men. The Persian Empire was a heterogeneous one, and while not exactly the Land of the Free, it wasn't as horrible a place as it is presented to be.
History is a tricky beast, especially once Hollywood gets its hands on it. Enjoy.(less)
Seriously, he's one of my favorite literary characters. Tough, dogged, unafraid to get his hands dirty and...moreI want to be Philip Marlowe when I grow up.
Seriously, he's one of my favorite literary characters. Tough, dogged, unafraid to get his hands dirty and completely ethical. He's always got a good line at the right time, and he knows well enough not to get involved with crazy ladies.
This is one of his later books, published in 1954, and it presents Marlowe as we know him best - just about to get involved in a mess he never wanted. It all started with a drunk, as so many things do. The drunk was a man named Terry Lennox, the off-again on-again husband of a rich heiress, Sylvia. Philip and Terry hit it off well, and it's obvious right from the start that Terry's hiding a big secret. But Marlowe doesn't press because it's not his business. He figures it Terry wants to tell, then he will.
Or he would have, except that Sylvia ended up dead, with Terry taking the blame. Marlowe helped him get to Mexico, but all he knew after that was that Terry killed himself in a dusty Mexican town. And that should have been the end of the story, but for Marlowe's new case - Roger Wade.
Wade was a big-time writer, the kind of guy who made millions selling swashbuckling romance to lonely housewives. But he was plagued by demons, and only drink would make them go away. His wife hired Marlowe to bring her husband back to her, which he did, and then tried to hire him as a full-time minder, which Marlowe refused to do. Nonetheless, he found himself part of the Wades' drama, one that was inextricably linked to the fates of Sylvia and Terry Lennox.
It's hard to believe that Chandler's work was derided as "pulp" back when he was writing. He was one of the pioneers of the "hard-boiled" mysteries - the best of them, in my opinion - but like so many visionaries, he was unappreciated in his own time. If I still smoked, I would light one in his honor. As it is, a stiff cup of bad coffee will have to do.(less)
It was years and years ago, probably my first winter in Japan, and I'd picked up this book at Maruzen. I had he...moreI lost my backpack thanks to this book.
It was years and years ago, probably my first winter in Japan, and I'd picked up this book at Maruzen. I had heard about Chesterton, mainly from the dedication page of Pratchett and Gamian's Good Omens ("The authors would like to join the demon Crowley in dedicating this book to the memory of G.K. Chesterton. A man who knew what was going on.") and the title looked weird enough to be entertaining. So, I was reading the book on the train, as I often do, and I had my backpack on the floor between my feet. When the train got to my station, I stood up, still reading, and walked off.
It wasn't until I had to put the book down again to eat that I realized I no longer had my backpack.
This was no small problem, either - the bag had a lot of important stuff in it, not the least of which was my Palm Pilot with all my friends' addresses on it. There were also about two dozen Christmas cards in there, along with other various and sundry things. And it was a good bag, too.
Long story short (too late), I never got the bag back. The staff at my school, and even one of the students, were kind enough to call the Keihan lost & found a few times to see if anyone had turned it in, but with no luck. And whoever got it didn't do the obvious thing and look at the return address on every single one of those Christmas cards, nooo....
Ahem. I'm over it. Really.
My point is this: beware the seductive power of this book. Beware the enchantments laid upon it, and the dreamlike web that it weaves. For if you let it, this book will enrapture you, and gods help you if that happens.
The story is one that sucks you in almost from the first page, when two passionate poets argue the worth and detriment of society. Should it be torn down, and let chaos reign in the world? Is order the true glory of humanity, the crowning jewel of mankind? Should the existing paradigm by praised or destroyed, and is he who advocates the path of anarchy true to that path?
From that moment, that confrontation of poet-philosophers, we are drawn into a dark heart of true anarchy, where no one can be trusted to be who he appears to be. And not even the protagonist himself can be absolutely sure where his path will end.
Needless to say, I think this book was awesome on many levels. The whole thing reads like a dream, moving in and out of locales with odd fluidity, and it's honestly hard to put it down. It has a great cast of characters, each one distinct and interesting and worth your attention, and a great ending that, while not making a whole lot of sense, is entirely fitting.
What's really interesting is the modern applicability of this story. Its major theme is that of law versus anarchy, and when Chesterton wrote this back one hundred years ago in 1908 the anarchist movement was seen as a real threat. These people were not the angry kids, spray-painting Anarchy signs all over the place and listening to punk rock. The fringe radicals of the Anarchist movement advocated violence. They liked dynamite and struck terror in the hearts of the citizenry, much in the way that terrorists still do today. And like modern terrorists, they were driven by a twisted and dark ideology which placed their own motivations above society. In the world that Chesterton has made, the Law is in a perpetual battle with the forces of chaos, the dark and shadowy enemies who are always out to destroy us.
The hunt for terrorists is a great plot for any writer, and hundreds of them - good and bad - have used this trope as a way of telling a story. Chesterton, however, reached into the heart of that idea and found the uneasy twist that we are not always willing to deal with. He found the Nietzschean paradox about what happens when you battle monsters, and saw that it could very well be true. He has shown us that it is dangerous to act without knowing the truth, even if the truth isn't what you want it to be.
Neil and Terry were right - Chesterton knew what was going on. This book is just as relevant today as it was a century ago, even if Chesterton never meant it to be. No matter what the subtitle to the book may be, and no matter how he may have meant it, the book is still valuable to us. Well worth reading. (less)
Well, after all that depressing reading about Iraq, let me tell you that I was more than overdue for this book. Before I read this book, I was filled...moreWell, after all that depressing reading about Iraq, let me tell you that I was more than overdue for this book. Before I read this book, I was filled with doubt and uncertainty. I thought about the nuances of politics and the ebb and flow of history and worried about how the future might view us. I thought and I pondered and I stewed.
But now, I feel much better. I know that all this "thinking" is nothing more than enabling the Liberal Bummertocracy to invade my free-thinking headspace. What was I doing, allowing them with their "facts" and their "experiences" to influence my opinions? Last time I checked, I was an American, free to think whatever I want and nobody - not even you, Misters Packer, LeMoine and Neumann - has any right to change that. Just who do you think you are? You know who else tried to change people's opinions to match his own?
Hitler, that's who. That's right, I went there.
So thank you, Stephen Colbert. I am now a proud citizen of the Colbert Nation, full of truthiness and taking orders from no one but my gut!(less)
Michael Crichton passed away recently, so I thought he would be a good choice to read. I know there are people who have problems with Crichton - his l...moreMichael Crichton passed away recently, so I thought he would be a good choice to read. I know there are people who have problems with Crichton - his later books revealed some distinct political leanings and display very clear biases, the most obvious of these being State of Fear, in which he attacks the environmentalist movement's support of global warming. His attacks are blatant, and even though the novel is said to be a good read, it's burdened by the obvious slant of the author.
It's tough to know what to do with authors who inject their own personal morality into their works. Some of them, like Heinlein, do it in such a way that it's not a distraction - it's Heinlein. Others, such as Orson Scott Card, are so vocal in their political opinions that they risk losing a large portion of their readership. In this situation, you have to make a decision: read the book for the story or read the book for the author's politics? Or don't?
I take the same route here that I do with actors, musicians and other artists who make their political and social views known. I disregard those views and just judge their work on its own merits. It's not that hard to do, really....
Anyway, I remember seeing this movie for the first time, and it scared the hell out of me. Not in the same way that my childhood slasher films scared me, of course. In those, there was always someone - Jason, Freddie, Michael - who was lurking behind curtains, waiting to turn you into steak tartar if you were foolish enough to have sex in the camp counsellor's cabin. But at least they were human (sort of), and they had motivations, however insane these motivations were.
In this book, we are not facing a psychopath with a chainsaw. It's something more terrible and more impossible to deal with.
The premise - The US space program, in an attempt to figure out exactly what is lurking in the upper atmosphere, has been sending up special satellites - the Scoop satellites - to sample the air up there and then return so that scientists can do what they do best. The theory was that if we were to encounter extraterrestrial life, the odds are that it would be some sort of simple organism rather than a four-foot grey humanoid.
People like Carl Sagan seemed to support this theory, and Crichton makes a very good case for it through his characters. Radio waves attenuate, even light pulses can't last forever - but build an organism that can survive indefinitely in space? That is an excellent way of telling the rest of the universe that you're out there. A microbe needs a lot less to keep it going than your average movie E.T., so it would be reasonable to assume that it would make an excellent message in a bottle in a vast and harsh cosmos.
Back to the book - most of these satellites went up and came down without incident, but one - Scoop VII - had some unexpected problems and crashed in the American southwest, just outside a small town called Piedmont. The good citizens of Piedmont, wanting to know what it was, brought it home to have a look.
Within eighteen hours, nearly everyone in Piedmont was dead. The lesson? Never go near something that comes screaming out of the sky. Yes, it might give you super-powers, but odds are that it'll kill you.
The government, always looking for the worst case scenario, had planned for this, and put Project Wildfire in action. Wildfire called for a team of scientists with varied backgrounds to be brought to an isolated lab in Nevada. Scoop would be brought there, and they would attempt to unravel the mystery of what killed the people of Piedmont.
The story sounds pretty simple, and Crichton makes a point of saying that, ideally, there should be no story to tell. Wildfire facilities are insanely well-guarded, and the design of the complex itself is nearly foolproof against something escaping - to the point that, if the facility becomes insecure, it will be vaporized in a nuclear explosion.
As usual, Crichton is meticulous in his science. The book has a bibliography in the back with 58 references to justify his use of x-ray crystallography, culture growth, electron microscopes, and other theories. The point is, he is saying that the incident in The Andromeda Strain could happen. Maybe. And it is possible that, despite our best planning and efforts, we might not be able to stop it.
This brings up the question: is this really science fiction? Well, yes, because A) it's fiction and B) the story is dependent on the science. But it's not science fiction in the way that we're familiar, since very little of it is actually fictional. Most of the technology is extant, and the tech that is a little more outlandish is certainly within our ability to create. The only thing that is really speculative is the Andromeda organism itself. And even given that, the story is not so much about the organism as it is about the race to figure out what the organism is - it's about the scientists, not the science.
Where the actual story comes in is with the introduction of Mistakes. A simple malfunction in a piece of communications equipment. A medical problem that is hidden until it is too late. Miscommunication and assumption abound, which is what makes this book interesting. Otherwise, it would just be a matter of the scientists trying to figure out what this wee beastie that hitched a ride on Scoop can do, and why. Perhaps it's not so much science fiction as it is scientific fiction. If that makes any sense....
Indeed, the silly humans are saved from worldwide extermination by virtue of the microorganism's own nature, oddly enough. This isn't The Stand - Crichton didn't set out to write an End of the World story. He wanted to talk about science and what might happen if an unknown pathogen should appear from the darkest regions of space.
As I said before, this is what makes it so terrifying. The villain of this story is a bacteria. We don't know where it comes from, how it works, or why. It has no ambition, no plan. It is not hostile, malicious, or vindictive. It can't be bargained with or tricked.
Perhaps that is why disease stories are so interesting. On the one hand, they point out how vulnerable we really are to something we have never encountered. On the other hand, they show how sometimes, just sometimes, we can avert disaster with the ingenuity that keeps popping up in humanity.
So - it's well-written and well-researched, not to mention a sci-fi classic. The movie's pretty good as well, and sticks relatively close to the book. Either are recommended. (less)
Those of you who are paying attention might recall that I have reviewed another book by Takeo Doi, The Anatomy of Self, which deals with the problem o...moreThose of you who are paying attention might recall that I have reviewed another book by Takeo Doi, The Anatomy of Self, which deals with the problem of how one can live in a society where the primary drive of everyone is to return to the state of perfect peace and dependence that we knew as an infant at our mother's breast. In Japanese, this emotion is called amae and it's one of those great words that can only be imperfectly translated. The image of the baby at the breast is Doi's way of describing it.
He believes that while the feeling is one common to all humans, the Japanese are the only people who have an everyday word to describe it, and a whole host of words to describe what happens when amae goes wrong. This being the case, he believes that the Japanese are somehow special in being the only culture in the world that holds amae as a core element in their national psychology.
In his opinion, to understand Japanese psychology and the way Japanese people behave with one another, you have to understand amae, and that's a very long struggle.
The verb form, amaeru is defined in my dictionary as, "to fawn; to take advantage of; to depend on," which, of course, is kind of misleading. To many Westerners, Americans especially, there's very little in that definition that is positive. We are brought up to deny amae, and so strike out to become independent, individual, and beholden to no one. To the Japanese, though, it is a way of gauging relationships with other people, and the level to which one can amaeru with another person defines everything about their relationship. How they will talk, how they'll act, how much of their true opinions they'll let out and how much they'll conceal.
Doi takes amae to be his central pillar of his own practice in psychology, and so his perspective on all other concepts of relationship is defined by his views on amae.
As you can imagine, it's not the easiest book in the world to get through.
While the book is written for popular consumption, there are a few places where it would have helped to have known some basics in psychological terminology. But if you're very familiar with life in Japan, you can see that he certainly has a point. For example, he views the Emperor as the embodiment of amae in Japan. He is, in theory, the most important person in the country, and yet he is the most helpless. Everything is done for him by assistants or staff. Every dinner is chosen by dietitians, every moment of a traveling schedule, every wardrobe decision, every word of his speeches is prepared for him.
In other words, he is like a baby, comfortable in the knowledge that no matter what, he will be taken care of, he will be "loved." His life is steeped in amae, and if he ever had to rely on his own resources, he would probably be totally lost. And yet this is the ideal to which all Japanese aspire. It is the knowledge that they cannot achieve it that brings about the elaborate social constructs that keep everyone from going nuts from their unfulfilled desire to be taken care of.
A thought occurs to me as I write this, too - about the Two Princesses.
Princess Kiko, who had a baby boy last week, is very popular with the Japanese people. Not only because she had a boy, but because she does everything that a princess is expected to do. She smiles, she waves, she is sweet and pleasant and kind, without a bad word to anybody or, near as I can tell, any ambition but to be a good Princess. In other words, she allows herself to be loved and indulged by the people of Japan. She amaerus.
Princess Masako, on the other hand, is a little less popular, and not only because she had a little girl. She is more independent, having spent time living and studying in the US and working on diplomatic missions for the Japanese Foreign Ministry. She has has a lot of trouble fitting into the Princess role, leaving behind a life of her own and entering one where she is no longer in control of her own existence. Currently she's keeping a very low profile due to anxiety and nervous exhaustion. In other words, she doesn't amaeru - she doesn't want to be taken care of or doted upon, but she really has no choice in the matter, and so the conflict is driving her slowly nuts.
Anyway, enough armchair psychology. It's a fascinating book for anyone interested in comparative psychology or Japanese society. Take a look....(less)
I'm not even sure where I got this book. Maybe I picked it up one time when I was living in a NOVA apartment, I don't know...moreMmmm... Japanese psychology.
I'm not even sure where I got this book. Maybe I picked it up one time when I was living in a NOVA apartment, I don't know. All I know is, I was going through some books with the thoughts of selling them, and figured I could give this one a try. Maybe, I figured, it would give me some insights I could use.
And, in a way, it did.
Doi is a Japanese psychiatrist, who's made his career trying to figure out how the Japanese Mind works. In a country that is very reluctant to seek mental counseling (I read today that Eli Lilly decided not to sell Prozac here because there was "no market" for it), I imagine this was a daunting task.
His previous book deals with the concept of amae, which is kind of necessary to understand, because the rest of his theory rests on it. Amae is the condition of dependency and security that one has as an infant. In his view, we pretty much long to return to that state, where we can feel safe and provided for, but we have to live in a world that doesn't allow that. So, we have to make mental adjustments in order to live comfortably with other people, while at the same time maintaining our individual identity.
The Japanese have developed a very detailed psychological structure to illustrate this kind of self-division, and there's a whole lexicon of words to describe it. There's omote - the outside, the public - and ura - the back side, the private. There's tatemae - the attitude and personality that one shows to the world - and honne - the thoughts and feelings that are normally hidden.
Despite first appearances, Doi takes great pains to explain that there are no divisions involved in this situation. The tatemae is not a false face, and the honne is not the secret thoughts. Neither is "better" or "worse," the "true self" or the "mask." Instead, they are a construct that allows a person to maintain their identity while at the same time fostering a kind of substitute amae by contributing to a good and stable society.
Confused? Yeah, so was I. I kind of get it, because Doi uses fairly simple terms most of the time, and relates his concepts to concepts in Western psychology that mirror them. He uses a lot of literary examples, from Natsume Soseki's Botchan (which I now have to read again, having gained new insight) to Romeo and Juliet. The book is short, and includes an appendix with a couple of summaries of his work. He's able to lead you to a point where the stereotype of the "crafty Japanese" can be discarded, and the reader can start thinking more deeply about why Japanese people might behave the way they do, and how to best live in that society.
But, not having been born and raised a Japanese person, I don't think I'll ever completely "get it." I see some things a little more clearly, though. and that's pretty good....(less)
I've been here six years and I've been looking all over the place for a book in English about Kyoto's history. It's such a key part of Japanes...moreFINALLY!
I've been here six years and I've been looking all over the place for a book in English about Kyoto's history. It's such a key part of Japanese history and culture that you would think there would be tons of work out there for the Anglophone in Japan. But no. Oh sure, there were plenty of books about walking tours, or the best places to go and see temples, or Kyoto traditional neighborhoods, but I couldn't find a general, comprehensive account of the history of Kyoto.
So finally, this year, John Dougill publishes his book. At 225 pages it's a bit thin, but it's very readable and very relevant, and to be honest, I wish I had read it before I came here.
He tackles the history of the city by way of its culture - art, religion, poetry, tea and so on. By looking at the changes in the arts and the creativity of Japan through the ages, he's able to plot the exciting, beautiful and occasionally tragic times in Kyoto's history.
The fun of reading about the city in which you are living is that you know the places that you're reading about. For instance, I found out that I live nearly dead-bang in the middle of the original site of Heian-Kyo, designed over a thousand years ago. I learned something that had been bugging me for a long while - who was living here, and what was this place called before it was Kyoto? Turns out it was the Hata and the Kamo families on the west and east sides, with a whole lot of nothing in between. And it was called Yamashiro. I found out who the statue of the kneeling samurai on Sanjo street was (Takayama Hikokuro, who struck the very first sparks of what would eventually be the Meiji Restoration).
And so on.
In short, this book made Kyoto new again for me, and that is a fantastic feat. I still want more history, but this will satisfy me for quite some time....(less)