Reading Journal Entry: Howl's Moving Castle

I am a big fan of Diana Wynne Jones. I was thrilled when I learned that Miyazaki, the director of the animated blockbusters Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, had chosen Howl's Moving Castle for his next project. That movie was released in Japan a couple of months ago - I can't wait to see it.

I picked up a copy of Howl's Moving Castle a few days ago (magic words: store closing sale, everything in store 50% off) and pounded it down. It's as good as I remember. A sweet, charming fantasy book. What I love about Diana Wynne Jones is that her characters have real flaws - and are still lovable. Sophie (the 18-year old heroine who, cursed by a witch, spends the whole book looking like a crone) has to learn not to be a doormat. Howl (the love interest/wizard) is a selfish spoiled brat. Loads of jolly adventures and fun.

Reading Journal Entry: Amber, by Zelazny

Just reread The Great Book of Amber, a collection of all ten Amber books written by Roger Zelazny.

Highly recommend.

The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New English Version, by Stephen Mitchell

I listened to The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New English Version on audio CD as read by George Guidall during my commute on three recent (cold) days. This was my first exposure to the Gilgamesh story. I was impressed - it definitely got the blood flowing. Once again, as with Abelard and Heloise, I found that my preconception of what the story was about to be almost completely wrong. This isn't a simple 'boy meets monster, boy defeats monster'. Instead it's the story of a friendship between two godlike men, and a lament at the inevitability of death.

Gilgamesh is the king of Uruk, two-thirds god and one-third human. Superhumanly strong, he oppresses his people, who cry out to heaven for help. As answer the gods create a man who will equal Gilgamesh in strength. Enkidu is discovered, a wild man running with the antelope outside the city. He is enticed to civilization by the wiles of a woman. Enkidu and Gilgamesh fight, then become friends. They travel to the Great Cedar Forest and together defeat the monster Humbaba. Gilgamesh offends Ishtar, and with Enkidu defeats the Bull of Heaven. Enkidu is cursed by the gods and falls ill, and dies.

Gilgamesh falls into despair at the death of his friend. He despairs at the realization that Enkidu is dead and he will die too one day - in stark contrast to his earlier admonitions to Enkidu not to fear death, as it must come to all men. He goes on a quest to find Utnapishtim, the oldest man alive, and the only one whom the gods have granted eternal life. Utnapushtim tells the story of the flood that destroyed all men except him and his wife; he then gives Gilgamesh two chances to earn immortality, and he fails at both. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk empty-handed, and the epic ends with a repetition of the praises of the strong, beautiful city walls (a constant refrain).

Is this a lament at the unfairness of the world? Does Gilgamesh (or do we) take solace in the fact that although death is inevitable, fame and lavish architecture may survive? Fame is given as the motivation for killing the monster Humbaba. The walls of Uruk are Gilgamesh's legacy, spoken of over and over against throughout the epic.

We keep trying to defeat death, and failing. Fame is one way - but no matter how famous you are, eventually people are going to forget about you. I can't help but think of the words from another poem: "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair".

But hey, here I am listening to the epic of Gilgamesh in 2004, so who's the sucker now?

Notes about this translation and recording: Guidall was awful. He seemed -well - lewd, for lack of a better word, and too quavering to be convincing for Gilgamesh and Enkidu's voices. I found myself thinking about his performance instead of the work much too often.

The translation was pretty good (although I lack comparison), mellifluous in places, but in others grating - (might have been the way the reader pronounced 'vagina' though).

Our Oriental Heritage (The Story of Civilization, Part I), by Will Durant

The Story of Civilization is recommended by Clifton Fadiman in the 3rd edition of his Lifetime Reading plan. Since I don't intend to spend a lifetime reading it (and it is truly immense, clocking in with 11 heavy-weight volumes - number 10 won the Pulitzer Prize) I checked the first volume (parts 1 and 2 - 25 cassettes or so) out of the library on audiobook.

Our Oriental Heritage covers the history of the emergence of civilization and goes on to recount the history of the Middle East and Orient from ancient times to the mid-1930's. It's astounding in its breadth and a scope, but has suffered somewhat from the ravages of time. Durant's account of the emergence of civilization is probably an accurate protrayal of sociological theory when the book was written, but it's vastly old-fashioned when compared to modern knowledge on the subject. His review of the pre-and and early history of the middle eastern cultures I am acquainted with also left something to be desired - important archaological discoveries have been made since the 1930's that reframe older ideas of early Judaism, etc.

And then there was the lack of perspective in regards to Japanese history. Durant is just a bit too impressed with how Japan modernized itself and conquered large areas of Asia for anyone who lives in a post-WWII world to suppress a shudder.

I can't really recommend this as a history book. Someone looking for sociological ideas about the emergence of civilization would be better off reading Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond.

Someone looking for detailed historical information on the periods/areas covered would also probably be better off with a more modern source. As an artifact of the 1930's, as a synthesis and overview, it's enjoyable but probably not worth 25 hours of your life.

The Woman in the Dunes, by Kobo Abe

I had a hard time getting into this one until I realized this was your typical existentialist novel along the lines of the stuff I had to read in high school. I guess that's what this project is all about! Stretching the boundaries of what I would normally read. But I don't have to like it.

Woman in the Dunes was written sometime after the end of World War II, and set in the Japan of that period. There's not much resonance with wartime imagery (unless the underlying-pointlessness-of-life theme goes back to some kind of cultural trauma associated with the atom bomb) but the contrast between rural and 'modern' city life is extreme - perhaps this is the true cultural trauma, when Japan as an isolated low-tech Asian culture was abruptly forced into contact with the militarily advanced West.

The main character is an office worker, an amateur scientist, an educated modern man, who finds himself confined in the most primitive type of environment, without any bodily comforts or intellectual stimulation. The situation reminded me of Christ Stopped at Eboli, Carlo Levi's memoir of his imprisonment by Mussolini in an isolated southern Italian village during World War II. Levi conveyed a kind of condescending awe in his reflections on the simple life and primitive beliefs of the peasants he lived with. Abe's character, Niki Jumpei, doesn't manage to maintain such detachment from his situation - he reacts viscerally and angrily to the change in his circumstances until the veneer of his modernity is stripped away by the never-ceasing rain of sand.

The plot: Niki Jumpei is an amateur entomologist who is captured and imprisoned on a day-trip to the seaside. Unfortunately for him, he chooses to look for beetles near a village that is being drowned in sand and only survives through the constant efforts of the residents nearest the waves to hold back the dunes. He accepts shelter for the night from a woman who lives in a cabin in a deep pit in the sand...waking in the morning, he finds the rope ladder he climbed down on has been withdrawn, and he is trapped.

His hostess is both captor and captive, and they are both at the mercy of the villagers who drop down water, food and the occasional newspaper.

Niki rages, feigns illness, tries to escape again and again. He eventually succumbs to the sexual attractions of his companion but doesn't let that prevent himself from using her as a hostage in his attempts to get out. Months pass, perhaps years, and his body and mind are scoured by the sand. He starts to share in some of the woman's goals, helping her to save money for a radio. He realizes that the world outside has gone on without him, and meditates on the meaninglessness of his previous existence. In his final transformation, he studies the sand that towers above them and, when given the opportunity to leave, declines to accept it.

The book is very effectively written (and I must admit that although some of the long meditations on the fluid nature of sand bored me, at other points I was really drawn in) but I disagree emphatically with what, for lack of a better term, I will call the 'moral' of the story. I don't think life is pointless. I don't think it's just as good to live covered with sand and grit at the bottom of a pit as a life on the surface, enjoying the sun, warm and clean, experiencing all the blessing available through one's five senses.

The only meaning I expect to find in life is that derived from my relationships with other beings. But I'd rather be indulging myself in the 'meaningless' enjoyments of life than otherwise.

The Word

I'm an inveterate* reader. I started reading at the age of 5, and once I realized the potential of fiction more thickly worded than See Spot Run to rescue me from dreary reality, never looked back. I read at breakfast, at night before going to bed, on the can, etc., etc., etc. Insert humorous anecdote about reading too much here. Let's just say I felt a lot of sympathy with the main character of The Neverending Story (which, by the way, is pretty darn good and much better than the movie) and leave it at that.

I've been reading less lately, and I find myself often rereading old favorites or new releases by familiar authors. I need to break out of the mold, jump the groove, broaden my mind.

But I've got a plan. I am going to read the greatest works of literature in the history of the world with the help of this extensive list of lists. I've got two under my belt, and I've already forgotten half the information I learned from the first one. Hence this blog - a reading journal, a collection of reviews, and a record of my adventures in reading.

Firmly and long established; deep-rooted: inveterate preferences.

Persisting in an ingrained habit; habitual: an inveterate liar. See Synonyms at chronic.