Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Recent Good Anime (II)

So, another really good series I watched at about the same time as WHEN THEY CRY is THE STORY OF SAIUNKOKU -- which, ironically, met with a similar fate although the two are unalike in almost every way.* Whereas WHEN THEY CRY is set in a v. specific time and place (the rural village of Hinamizawa, Japan in the month of June 1983), THE STORY OF SAIUNKOKU takes place in an imperial China of the mythical past. Rather than a series of ever-shifting tales, SAIUNKOKU is uses an epic backdrop to tell a very personal story, perhaps in the belief that great deeds ultimately come down to the hard work and personal relationships of individual people.

In brief, this is the story of Shurei Hong, the impoverished daughter of a noble house who agrees to take a position at the imperial court** in order to cause the careless young emperor to bestir himself. She quickly establishes a platonic but intense relationship with the emperor, who inspired by her deep-rooted optimism and an endless capacity for hard work undertakes to begin to actually govern. But successes come with a price, and each victory has consequences that the story embraces and follows up on.

One particularly interesting theme is Shurei's lifelong desire to take the official examination that is the pre-requisite for holding any administrative post -- an exam which women are not eligible to take -- and the emperor's desire to reward her by changing custom and the law to make that exam open to women; a decision with many consequences. The latter parts of the story suffer somewhat by separating the two main characters for long periods of time, but it's still a compelling story as it shows Shurei growing up and making hard choices.***

That's no more than a bare summary, of course; what makes the show worth watching are an appealing cast of likable characters, a compelling story, an interesting setting, and an undefinable something that makes it all stand out from the crowd. You come to care deeply about these people while watching this series. There are also a lot of nice touches, like their using a proverb for each chapter title ("A Frog in the Well Knows Not About the Ocean", "A Genius Can't Better a Hardworking Man").

In short, highly recommended.


current audiobook: HUMAN SMOKE
current anime: CANAAN
*That is, both were overtaken by the collapse of Pioneer/Geneon, which left the US releases of the remainder of each series in limbo. This was particularly egregious in the case of SAIUNKOKU, since WHEN THEY CRY had already given three of its constituate chapters in full and reached its mid-point, while SAIUNKOKU had released only two disks, containing only the first ten episodes out of a total of thirty-nine, barely a quarter of its run. Moreover, while fairly good copies of W.T.C. were available on import, the foreign subtitling of the rest of SAIUNKOKU left much to be desired (for example, changing character's names erratically from episode to episode, so it was hard to figure out exactly who they were talking about). Luckily, once again Funimation came to the rescue, releasing a third disk (ep. 11-15) with a box for holding it with the two already out, plus two later slimpacks that contain all the rest of the series in a form that won't take up too much shelf-space.

**technically as imperial concubine, comforting herself with the (false) reports that the emperor is gay.

***[SPOILER] one good example of the show's avoidance of easy solutions is the long-term solution Shurei eventually comes up with for a province devastated by brigands, scheming nobles, lack of stable government, and scanty resources. Her suggestion? Establish a university, which can draw people (and money) from around the empire but does not require a hospitable climate or fertile soil. Of course, she points out, it may take a century or so for the project to reach fruition, but that's all the more reason to start now.

Monday, December 27, 2010


So, early last month I heard (thanks to Dimitra Fimi, the leading Tolkien scholar in Wales) that a Cardiff bookdealer had an unusual Tolkien associational item for sale: a piece of sheet music by Alfred Tolkien, who seems to have been the cousin of JRRT's grandfather, John Benjamin Tolkien (Sr). The price was more than an impulse buy cd justify, but this seemed like one of those never-to-be-repeated chances, so I decided to take the plunge. And now, thanks to the good offices of a friend in England with whom I trade book-purchases (I buy things for him that are only available over here, he buys things for me that are only available over there*), it's finally arrived in the post today -- a little late (we think the post office mistakenly sent it by boat rather than airmail) but safe and sound.

The piece itself is titled THE PATCHWORK POLKA, "Composed for the Piano-Forte & respectfully dedicated to the Ladies of England by Alfred Tolkien", price two shillings and sixpence. Apparently you cd buy it either at Henry Tolkien's shop in King William Street nr London Bridge, or from J. B. Tolkien in New Street, Birmingham (Henry being Alfred's brother and thus another of JRRT's grandfather's cousins**). This suggests for me that the Tolkiens were already thoroughly Anglicized in circa 1865, when this piece was published. I don't have access to a keyboard, but I'll look forward to trying it out at some point -- although haltingly, since a swift glance convinces me it's far beyond my long-atropied skill at the piano. Rather to my surprise it's in 2/4 time, I having been under the impression that a 'polka' had to be 3/4*** -- not so, a little quick research shows; 2/4 was in fact the usual. Live and learn.

Now, if I cd just find someone with a Tolkien piano to play it on, that wd be something.

--John R.
current reading: TROY AND HOMER by Joachim Latacz, THE COMING OF THE FAIRIES by Conan Doyle
current audiobook: HUMAN SMOKE
current anime: CANAAN

*such as, most recently, the Derek Jacobi audiobooks for LETTERS FROM FATHER CHRISTMAS and ROVERANDOM on cd, to supplement the old ones I have on audiocassette.

**and thus JRRT's third cousin, or first cousin twice removed, as some folks prefer to reckon it.

The Wife Says:
"I think I've reached a new high in baffled and bemused tolerance" --JC

CORRECTION (1/2-11): changed "3/3" time to 3/4, thanks to the my error being pointed out in the comments. Many thanks.--JDR

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Bees

So, the unofficial bee-watch continues, as the honeybees surprised me once again by coming up to the hummingbird feeder for at least several hours today (late morning /early afternoon). Only about seven or eight of them at most at any one time, but still impressive, given that we've now reached Midwinter. At this point I'm beginning to think they might actually make it through the winter, keeping to their hive (wherever that is) most of the time and eating their honey to keep them going, then emerging on those days when it gets warm enough and dry enough.

If that weren't strange enough, yesterday I noticed that one patch of the daffodils I planted just before last winter are starting to come up again -- about two months early. And then this morning Janice confirmed that the alders and willows along the creek are just beginning to get that look that precedes their budding for the spring.

In short, Nature outside seems to have concluded that winter came with the snow and ice we had a few weeks ago and has now passed. I'm apprehensive about the fate of those daffodils, given how many months of official winter there still are to go. I guess we'll see. In any case, I'll keep putting out the hummingbird juice and hope it helps.

--John R.

current anime: CANAAN
current audiobook: HUMAN SMOKE
current reading: TROY & HOMER by Joachim Latacz

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Year in Anime

So, as one of my little year-end projects, I just made up a list of all the anime I have on dvd, thus replacing an old vhs/dvd list from several years back that was never completed and at any rate wd now be badly out of date. It's a longer list than I wd have expected -- almost a hundred titles -- and it's gotten me into a reflective mood of wanting to re-watch some older titles that had drifted onto back shelves. Naturally, I watch a lot more anime than I buy, thanks to Netflix and a local rental shop, but still it's rare that a month goes by without my buying at least one new series (or half-series, since that's how a lot of them are issued these days). These days there's less coming out than during the big anime boom of a decade to a half-decade ago, but there are still plenty of interesting shows being made, some of which reach us in the US sooner and some, alas, later.

Anyway, as part of a winter-organizing (as opposed to a spring cleaning), I recently shifted around the anime so that older and less-rewatched items went downstairs into the Box Room, old favorites that no longer get rewatched as often stayed on the shelves upstairs, and things I'm likely to want to see again sooner rather than later stayed in the living room, where the tv and dvd player are. I'd thought it might be nice to do a 'year-in-anime' review, quickly running through some recommendations, but ran into a problem of determining just when I first watched something. While I once kept in a little notebook a viewing list of what anime I watched when, similar to the reading list I've kept for years, that anime viewing list lapsed years ago. Hence I have to rely on my memory of when I watched what, and I know that in some cases I'm off by a bit -- for instance, both PRINCESS RESURRECTION and KAZE NO STIGMA, which I planned to included, turn out to have actually arrived late in '09. So I think I'll just write up several posts over the next few days, each sharing some recommendations of things I've seen and enjoyed over the last year or two.

I was reminded of this one by recently picking up a two-volume manga which forms a sequel to this story set a generation later. The anime is altogether remarkable for being cute, funny, scary, and deeply disturbing, often in rapid succession. The first disk is a pretty good example. Our point of view character is the new kid in town, a city kid whose parents have moved to a small town deep in the country, where he quickly makes friends with his new classmates. But after a while he begins to notice that the local kids sometimes behave v. strangely, and he learns that the village has a sinister past no one likes to talk about -- people disappearing (sometimes totally, sometimes re-appearing with the occasional discovery of dismembered body parts), the uneasy legacy of an anti-development group that lynched some pro-development residents, what are essentially men-in-black lurking about in sinister vans, and above all a local god's curse that the residents believe must be appeased at all costs. Things become increasingly sinister and unsettling, suddenly crescendoing into a crisis: by the end of the fourth episode, three of the story's main characters are dead.

That wd seem to be that, except that the fifth episode starts a new story arc. Suddenly time rewinds to the start, all the characters are alive again, and a similar story plays out, once again moving from light-hearted hijinxs to horror -- except this time with a different character as villain and a distinctly different explanation for what's going on. This happens over and over again throughout the series: the hero of the first story even becomes the villain (more or less) in a later story-arc, and we sometimes see the same events from strikingly different points of view (for example, two characters are twins who sometimes pose as each other: realizing which is which in a particular scene can completely change its significance). The overall effect is fascinating, and disturbing, and v. impressive.

Unfortunately, this series was orphaned when its US distributor, Pioneer/Geneon, went under mid-way through releasing it (literally, after issuing the first three of six disks), forcing those who, like me, wanted to see how it all came out to resort to buying an import. Luckily it was eventually picked up by Funimation, who completed the series -- although I hear there's a second season which has not been released over here (apparently there was such a fuss that it didn't even finish its initial run on Japanese television), as well as an ova.

So, impressive stuff, but a word of warning: this in genuinely creepy, and one of the story-arcs (the fifth, I think) is particularly brutal -- you might want to consider skipping that one, even though it retells the events of one of the earlier arcs closely (except whereas there people suddenly disappeared, we get to actually see them die one by one in this arc, and it's not pleasant).

--John R.

--current audiobook: HUMAN SMOKE
--current music: The Beatles Christmas Messages

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Aslan Buddha

So, yesterday I saw an article* railing against Liam Neeson for being too open minded. In the course of which, the author accuses the Archbishop of Canterbury of being essentially a Fifth Columnist for Islamic jihad. Here's the link:

Pretty mind-boggling, I thought. There's a good case to be made rebutting Neeson,** but of course to do that you'd have to pay attention to what Neeson actually said, as reported in the following piece:

That is, the voice-actor (a devout Catholic) isn't presuming to speak for the author but simply gave his own opinion. It seems an odd thing to get excited about -- I mean, does any F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar worry about what Rbt Redford might say?

--John R.

* by Ken Blackwell, the Kathleen Harris of the 2004 election

**and also a good one defending his position

Monday, December 20, 2010

Reading Group

So, yesterday our reading group met again for the first time in a long time. We usually break for the summer, when it's hard to get people together because of vacations &c, and this past year all our fall meetings had fallen through. And, to make matters worse, I'd missed the last meeting before that break because I was out of town (in Kalamazoo, at the Medievalist Congress). We have about four to six members, scattered between Redmond and the University District and Queen Anne Hill and Kent, who come most of the time, plus another half-dozen who can only make it once in a while.

This being our annual December party, we didn't have an assigned book but instead pick books for the next few months (sometimes we've tried picking the whole next year's books all in one go, but that rarely works out for us). First, though, we just enjoyed getting together, sipping tea, enjoying book-group snacks, and playing with our host's Most Excellent cat, Max (even Max's shy companion, Maya, made a brief appearance).

After that, we revisited some of the books we wd have discussed had we managed to have the September (WICKED), October (ERAGON), and November (BEREN & LUTHIEN; TURIN) meetings. Wicked we universally found disfavor with: those who had read it all the way through (like Janice) and those who'd given up part-way in (like myself) were united in our bafflement of why people like, and praise, this book. Not only that, but why it had inspired a Broadway musical and given rise to a string of sequels. The idea of retelling a famous story from the villain's point of view, while it's becoming a bit overdone, has its potential, but here the author seemed determined to write a story about an Oz that would be utterly unrecognizable as Oz. The names were the same, but everything that made Oz 'Oz' was gone. I was reminded of LeGuin's famous essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie", and thought that here was a case where Elfland had deliberately been remade as Poughkeepsie -- the sense of wonder stripped out so that a dull political tale cd be substituted for it. Seeing this, I understood what the Jackson-bashers feel when they see his LotR films: a sense that he got everything that matters wrong. I think they're completely wrong about Jackson -- who I'd say sometimes screws up the details but does a great job delivering on the essence -- but just for that moment I felt their pain.

ERAGON we dealt with more summarily; the only person who'd read it strongly urged the rest of us not to, and we all pretty much felt inclined to take her advice; sounds pretty much like a mash-up of Tolkien (or Tolk-clones) + McCaffrey.

The Tolkien, on the other hand, we decided is too good to miss, so we decided to roll that over into our first meeting next year (January).

After bantering about several options (LITTLE BIG? -- no!; some Chinese or Japanese classic --where to start?; ARABIAN NIGHTS -- maybe later), we decided on what we'll be reading for the first half of next year:

January (1/16-11): THE STORY OF BEREN & LUTHIEN by J. R. R. Tolkien. From THE SILMARILLION (et al). location: our place in Kent.

February (2/20-11): JOHANNES CABAL -- THE NECROMANCER by Jonathan L. Howard. location: Chez Max.

March (3/20-11): HULDUFOLK 102 (documentary). location: Chris & Andy's

April (4/17-11): JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH by Jules Verne. location: not yet determined

May (5/15-11): WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams. location: not yet determined

June (6/19-11): GILGAMESH -- the translation by Andrew George, not the novelization by Nancy Sandars.

We generally meet on the third Sunday of the month, so if you're anywhere in the Seattle area and enjoy reading & discussing fantasy books, drop us a line.


P.S.: In other news, I was astonished to learn this week that the 'Dragonlance' series has now run its course and ended. At twenty-five years it had a good run, but I'm surprised to hear it's over.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Wife Says

"Christmas is when the faithful demonstrate their piety by demanding the right to violate the 2nd commandment on public property."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dueling Billboards

So, a few days ago I saw the news story about a group of atheists putting up an anti-Xian Xmas message in New York City, apparently in a spot where traffic slows down a lot as people prepare to enter the Lincoln Tunnel. Which has so incensed the Catholic League that they've taken time off from trying to stop people from reading Phillip Pullman and taken out a second billboard, one of those Christ-is-the-reason-for-the-season ones, to counter the message.

Two observations:

First, the atheists' message is self-evidently not 'reasonable', since the majority of people seeing their billboard will not in fact agree with them. So there's a self-imposed limit on how much damage a self-contradictory, smug little message like this can do.

Second, the Catholic League billboard in most contexts wd be so ordinary as to attract no notice -- we all see things like this around all the time. But it's a sad commentary that the League doesn't think God can take care of himself; that the Almighty needs them to rent billboard space. As the article-writer suggested at the end of his piece, there are more Xian uses for that money.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The 'C. S. Lewis Bible'

So, for some reason, this announcement kind of weirds me out. A few weeks ago on amazon I saw pop up an entry for THE C. S. LEWIS BIBLE. At first I thought they might be speaking extravagantly about some reference book to end all reference books about CSL, but no, it's an actual Bible. With C. S. Lewis's comments scattered throughout.

The book's now out, and I still have trouble with the whole idea; it seems like elevating CSL to the status of Holy Writ. The 'St. C.S.' movement was bad enough, but this just feels disturbing on a whole 'nother level. However, I've recently been thinking of picking up 'The Archeology Bible' as a follow-up to the Old Testament audiobook, so maybe I can adjust my expectations enough to come to terms with the idea. So far, it's not proving easy.

In any case, here's a link from the publisher with more information about the book -- note that to their credit they allow one poster to opine that 'Lewis himself wd have been absolutely horrified' without deleting the comment.

And here's another link showing some sample pages, so you can get a better idea how the Lewis material is integrated into the biblical text:

I gather from some passing comments that Douglas Gresham, Lewis's younger stepson, wrote an introduction to this book and that a distinguished list of Lewis scholars contributed to making the selections, but haven't yet seen a copy to confirm this and haven't been able to find that list online.

--John R.

Monday, December 13, 2010

God Willing, and the River Don't RIse

So, yesterday afternoon while I was working away at the desk, buried deep in deadline, the phone rang. Answering it, I found it was the Kent automated Flood Warning system, calling to tell me we had just entered Flood Watch Stage Two. A few minutes later my cell phone rang with the same message, and not long after that they sent me an e-mail to the same effect. So, good news that the system works, but what about Stage One?

Checking the information on the website, I confirmed that this was no cause to panic, though certainly time to pay attention. Essentially Stage One just means the river is high and they're keeping an eye on it. Stage Two means there might be some flooding up near the river's headwaters the other side of Auburn. Still, I went downstairs and made sure all the cat carriers were easy to get at and took a few similar precautions, just in case.

Then this morning came another round of calls at seven a.m., this time to tell me the river had reached Stage Three. Which means that areas that flood when there's a ton of rain, like a stretch alongside a pumpkin patch on the West Valley Hwy south of Kent, are either flooding or probably soon will. Still no reason to panic, but time to pay close attention.

Luckily, we're not at Stage Four, which is where things get bad -- that is, somewhere a levee cd give way and things cd really get wet. Having made a side-trip to check on the river a few miles downstream of us when running an errand this afternoon, I cd see it's v. high and it wdn't take much more rain like what we've been having to fill it the rest of the way to the top. It was interesting to watch the little rafts of brush, the occasional log, and twice what must have been a small tree all go sailing past, and at a good clip too.

So here we are, still safe and warm and dry, so long as we stay inside. And outside, after the brief sunshine of late morning, it's raining again. Tomorrow I'll check the river closer to home, perhaps by the Neely-Soames House, and see how we're doing.

--John R.

Winter Bees

So, today there were bees.

Much to the consternation of our resident hummingbird, by the way, who was relieved when a little later it started to sprinkle again and the bees went back to their bee-refuge, wherever that is, leaving it to sip in peace without having to zig and zag amongst the little ladies.

That's twice now I've thought we've seen the last of them for the year, only to have them re-emerge a week or two later on the next warm or sunny day to rally round the ol' hummingbird feeder. And not just one or two grizzled survivor but more in the neighborhood of twenty to thirty.

Or, as some like to call it, climate change. Incidently, as I was watching the hummingbird/bee show, 'Bird Notes' came on the radio to talk about how the yearly bird counting day was coming round again, and they happened to mention one discovery from compiling their (extensive but anecdotal) evidence is that the wintering territory of migratory birds has shifted by about thirty-five miles over the last decade. I suspect the line dividing when it's warm enough to winter over in lieu of migrating at all is similarly creeping north. It'll be interesting to keep an eye out for other outliers of all the changes going on.

--John R.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Arbocide at Glastonbury

So, tonight I saw the news that the Thorn Tree at Glastonbury got chopped down two nights ago. Speculations as to motive range from anti-Xian (implausible legends connect it to Joseph of Arimathea) to anti-monarch (the locals send the Queen a sprig about this time every year), but it seems far more likely to me that it's simply someone who enjoys killing trees--which after all are large, alive, irreplaceable, and can't fight back (cf. Tolkien's comments on this in the preface to TREE & LEAF and also in THE NEW SHADOW).

They're hoping this one grows back from the stump; if not, I suspect they'll plant a new one, since the current tree is the latest in a long line stretching back for centuries, where a descendent of the former tree is planted in or near its place when the old tree dies, rather like the White Tree of Gondor. Which is good, but it won't be the same.

I'm hoping to get to England sometime in the coming year and seeing a lot of the old prehistorical/archeological sites, Mere and Glastonbury and the Somerset Levels among them -- but I'm sad to know that here's one sight no one will be seeing again, at least not for a v. long time.


current book: LOOKING FOR THE KING by David Downing.

Build Yr Own Dodo

So, thanks to Janice, here's the link to an interesting little display of ingenuity and obsessiveness: a fifteen minute talk by Adam Savage, best known as half of the two-man team that puts on MYTHBUSTERS, talking about why and how he came to make himself a full-sized model of a Dodo skeleton. Which, you learn from hearing him talk, is a lot harder than it sounds. From there he segues into discussion of how, and why, he became obsessed with making an exact model of The Maltese Falcon. But the kicker for me, and the reason Janice forwarded me the link, is the Tolkien reference. You just knew that someone devoted to minutia like this was probably a Tolkien fan, and sure enough at one point he shows, among other past projects he keeps on file, the hand-drawn map of Middle-earth he made once. Looks kind of like the one I made years ago and now have framed up in my office, on parchment, which has now aged enough to look more authentic than it has any right to.*

Anyway, here's the link. The Tolkien bit is very brief and can be found just before the three-minute mark, but the whole thing's worth watching, I think.

*part of its accidental 'antiquing' came from when Tiger, our half-manx cat, threw up on it once many, many years ago now.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Interesting Development

Now this is interesting. I'd seen the announcement a few days ago that the leader of the Palestinian Authority had announced he wanted Palestine recognized as an independent nation or he was going to dissolve the quasi-autonomous 'Palestinian Authority' and let the West Bank revert to Israeli rule (pretty much the defacto state of affairs anyway).

Taken into context with other recent news that the US has just given Israel an extra three and a half billion dollars in top-of-the-line fighter jets in exchange for a three-month stay on settlements, that seemed pretty much yet another empty gesture. So imagine my surprise when tonight I came across a news story that three countries have in fact recognized Palestine as a country in the past few days: Brazil, Ecuador, and now Argentina.

I'm not a supporter of the so-called 'two-state solution' myself -- I think there shd be a single unified Israel-Palestine with universal suffrage for all citizens* -- but this is still a remarkable development, I think. I guess we'll see if it leads anywhere. Given the inertia of the region, and the huge vested interests in the status quo, it seems unlikely.

--John R.

*democracy: a good idea. Sparta-like systems of citizens/second-class citizens/Helots: not so much.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Honey Bomb

So, I haven't been posting much lately because I've been on deadline -- again (one of those projects that's been 'done' twice now but is still not over). I did manage to meet a major milestone on Friday, but later than I expected, because I got seriously interrupted at mid-day by what I think I'll call the honey bomb incident.

There I was at my desk working away when Hastur came up and was inclined to be friendly. It's been a while since I've given her any catnip, which she enjoys sometimes (although less than our other two cats), so I reached into the bottom right drawer of my desk where there shd be a little bagful. Rummaging about absent-mindedly while still half-thinking about the sentence I was recasting on the laptop, I was a bit puzzled when my hand came out sticky. Looking into the drawer, I saw that a small jar I keep honey in, which shd have been on the desktop or in the middle drawer, was in the bottom drawer instead. On its side. And, when I picked it up, it was sticky too. That got my full attention.

To make a long story short, it turned out the jar had not only gotten in the wrong drawer, but it'd tipped over and spilled almost all the honey in it on the contents of the drawer. So I had an unscheduled break from work while I lifted items out of the (double-sized) drawer and carried the more honeyed items off to the bathroom, where I wiped them down with a wet washcloth and then dried them on a towel. The two main casualties were a tarot deck (or the excerpts therefrom that forms my personalized 'Deck of Many Things')* and my Denham file -- that is, all the photocopies I had made two years back of a number of the original little six- or eight-page pamphlets that make up the DENHAM TRACTS. Luckily the damage was confined to the right and top margins of each page, but still it was quite a mess, and the documents now have a faux-antique crinkling along those edges

Could have been worse, but still not a happy event. Ah well; that drawer's now cleaner than it's been in a while . . .**


P.S.: Speaking of honey, I shd note that we had two sunny days in a row and the bees came back to the hummingbird feeder, much to my surprise -- I thought we'd seen the last of them for the year.

Also, speaking of bees, here's a strange little story about bees being dyed red from drinking maraschino cherry juice:

*I prefer the Morgan-Greer Tarot for this purpose.

**my wife says: since it was new.