Thursday, January 31, 2008

Three Kingdoms

Almost done with Chapter 20. I really appreciated the footnote around p. 295 that said "at this point the main narrative starts." Not that I think the Iliad is the be-all and end-all of literature, but I think Three Kingdoms could've used a bit of that directness -- by the 6th line of the Iliad you know that it's all about the wrath of Achilles and how it brought doom upon the Greek troops.

And, speaking of cultural differences, there's an incredibly disturbing piece in chapter 18. Xuande, the putative moral center of the novel, spends the night with a hunter. The hunter, sadly, has no food, so he kills his wife and butchers her and serves her up to Xuande. Xuande doesn't recognize the flavor, but his host assures him it's wolf. Then Xuande gets up in the middle of the night to go the bathroom and run across the corpse, and realizes what he's eating. So at this point I'm waiting for some kind of reaction where he threatens the hunter, or maybe even kills him.

Instead, Xuande is incredibly moved because of the hunter's sacrifice. (Seems to me the wife made an even bigger sacrifice). He wishes he could ask the hunter to join his retinue, but he can't, so he settles on giving him 100 taels of silver. The footnote to this mentions another story, in which Lord Guan and Fang Zhei want to pledge their lives to Xuande. But he worries that they have families, who might prevent them from giving their all. So Zhang Fei, ever impulsive, says "That's okay, I'll kill my family." Lord Guan then steps in to say "no! it's a crime to kill one's family. So how about I kill your family and you kill mine?" This sounds good to Zhang Fei, so that's what they do.

And these are the good guys! There are children's songs lauding these actions. I have never felt Chinese culture to be as foreign as when I read this little bit. Oh, well, enough ranting, on with the main story.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Captain Bluebear, 3 Kingdoms, Metamorphoses

I (finally) finished Captain Bluebear. Episodic right to the end, although the author tried to tie everything together by bringing just about every character who'd ever appeared up till that point back for the ending. But it didn't really feel organic -- if any of the previous characters hadn't appeared, it wouldn't have changed the plot one iota. That's probably a failing of the book, but one that doesn't really bother me.

For me, the charm of this book has always been the inventiveness, as Moers throws in one bizarre idea after another. (A professor with 7 brains, a continent that becomes a spaceship, a lying contest, etc). Anything else would be pure gravy, if there were anything else, but there isn't -- this is not a book with a deep plot, or characters, or social message.

I've decided to split up the 3 Kingdoms into 10-chapter chunks. All the characters are hard to keep apart after a while, but I find that after a little break, it's fun again. Maybe it just takes my brain a while to digest everything.

Moving along in the Phaethon story in Ovid. I'm definitely getting more attuned to the rhythm of Ovid's Latin, and it's fun when I can anticipate the commentary. Just today, I came to the end of the Sun's warning to Phaethon, "quodcumque optaris sed tu sapientius opta." And I knew that the string of spondees is there to give solemnity to the warning, in contrast to Ovid's usual more-sprightly dactyls. Made me feel smart :-).

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Looks like today's a day for finishing books. I've also finished vol. 1 of Out.

I'm really not sure if I want to bother moving on to vol. 2. But I've finally figure out why I'm so hot-and-cold on this novel. I think Kirino writes absolutely electric dialog; when characters are talking, the tension immediately ratchets up, even when nothing actually happens. Whereas the narrative is very flat, and long sections of narrative always make me want to put the book away.

The end of the book has a great bit of dialog between Satake and Anna, which made me want to continue. Then he goes home at the end of the section, and all of a sudden I didn't care any more. Guess I'll decide in a few days.

Lousia the Poisoner

I just finished Louisa the Poisoner, by Tanith Lee. It's a really slight book, only 75 pages including illustrations, but she's always excelled at the short story, so that's not really such a bad thing.

It's the story of Louisa, who, armed with a phial of undetectable poison, worms her way into a rich family, proceeding to kill all of its members, and leaving herself the rich heiress. The amoral protagonist working her way on corrupt others has been a theme that Lee has mined deeply over the years. In, say, the Flat Earth tales, her protagonist grows out of his early selfishness, although he doesn't really change. Louisa, though, is much more one-dimensional, aiming for with rather than depth.

As a rather perverse comedy of manners, though, Louisa succeeds perfectly.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Bluebear, 3 Kingdoms, Out

In the middle of too many books!

I'm about halfway through Captain Bluebear. The book is so episodic that it almost necessitates reading in smallish chunks. Read too much at one sitting, and the lists which seemed hilariously inventive half an hour ago seem very thin. Take a break for a couple of days, and all of a sudden the book feels very fresh. Moers does tie his episodes together somewhat -- characters in one episode will make a cameo in another, but it's not very organic. To some extent, you could jumble the chapters of the book into some other random order without really changing the impact of the story as a whole. (That may, of course, change as I get further along)

I've re-started The Three Kingdoms with a new translation, this one by Robert Moss. It's much clearer than the Brewitt translation (although less poetic). For one thing, Moss picks one name out of the 3 or 4 that each major character has, and sticks with it. The old translation switches back and forth all the time -- as a result, I suddenly realize that characters whom I thought showed up in chapter 4 or 5 have been in from the beginning. What a revelation. Moss also has footnotes, some of which are just annoying, but some are very helpful to understanding the motivations of characters.

Lastly, I'm struggling along with Out. Kirino just can't seem to maintain the tension that she builds up. Part of this comes from knowing how much of the novel is left -- I'm not even halfway through, so when she implies that the detective is on the trail of the 4 women, we know he's not actually about to catch them, because there's still a whole volume to go.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Kugel, Night Vision

I finished Jacob's Ladder yesterday. Unfortunately, the book closed with a whimper, not a bang.

For me, the most interesting chapter is somewhere near the middle of the book, on how Levi became a priest. There are a tangle of midrashim around this, although I'm unclear how many made it into the Jewish tradition. (Clearly a couple did, since they're mentioned in Pirkei d'R. Eliezer). Kugel argues that there was a tradition that Levi himself was a priest, rather than just the Levite tribe, which became the priestly tribe at Sinai.

He recounts a tradition in which Jacob promises a tithe to God at Bethel, which he never explicitly fulfills in the course of Genesis. The midrashists solve this problem by having Jacob tithe one of his sons to God, and he chooses Levi (I'm jumping past the obvious "why Levi" question here). There are then a tangle of midrashim about when that happened, and Kugel uses them to date a couple of documents which are concerned with the Levite status, the book of Jubilees and the Aramaic Levite Document.

I think that, in the process, he brings up an interesting question about the polemical use of midrash. Clearly, the authors of these documents have a point of view about the Levites, and this shows in the midrashim they use. On the other hand, it's not so clear that they picked the midrashim cynically. If these stories were floating around in the zeitgeist, so to speak, the authors may well have picked them up, feeling that this story or that is correct, because it agrees with what they think is true. The author might then put a bit more of a gloss on the particular midrash to bring it line with his preconceived notions of truth, but more in the sense of "I know that this is hidden in the text, and I'm just bringing it out."

This discussion was also interesting to me, because I finally got around to doing a bit of reading on the Book of Jubilees, and fascinating it was. The author of the book (which is non-canonical) has a solar calendar system that he believes in, rather than the lunar one of the rabbis. Clearly, there was enough currency for this idea that the book was somewhat widespread. But it's so fundamentally at odds with current Jewish practice that it made me realize how much the rabbis winnowed out from then-current practice in creating modern Judaism (if the lunar calendar is up for grabs, then there must've been other large differences).

Unfortunately, the book then ends on a discussion of the Qumran scrolls, where Kugel does a lot of question-begging. There are so many blanks in the scrolls, and there's a lot of "I think the Qumran sect believed x, so the gap is best filled with y," then drawing conclusions about the sect from y.

I also finished Night Vision, but there isn't much to say about it, other than that it was very unsatisfying. I was going to post an analysis of how Levine badly mangles his idea of two serial killers, but the book's just not worth it.