Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Random Impressions From a Visit to Japan

Bear in mind that these are the product of a single trip, covering a mere two cities and eleven days. Don't expect deep analysis here.
  • If you go, endeavor to go sometime that is not June, July, or August. June is the rainy season; July and August are brutally hot and humid.
  • Reports of Japan being ferociously expensive are grossly exaggerated. A good hotel room in Kyoto, right across from the Imperial Palace gardens, cost us $85/night. Perfectly decent meals can be had for $10 or so.
  • You could scrape by with no Japanese, although you'd be pretty limited in what you could accomplish. 
    • Transportation, even city buses, displays enough English to let you know where you are and where you're going. 
    • The general level of English proficiency is not very high, but people in public places--hotels and train stations, for example--tend to know just enough to do their job. 
    • Menus usually have pictures. Point. You can say "kore o kudasai" ("this, please") if you want.
    • Buying stuff at a cash register is the same everywhere: look at the number, fork over the cash.
    • Museums and attractions mostly have text and/or audio in English, although it's not always extensive.
  • Take some time to study how the transit systems work before you go. For example, on the subways and trains in Tokyo and Kyoto, you look at a map and find the station you're going to; that tells you what you need to pay for a ticket.
  • Taxis are easy to find and not particularly expensive.
  • Japan is a modern, wealthy, industrial country. Don't expect to be overwhelmed with the exoticness of it the moment you get off the plane. If you look for cultural differences, you will certainly find them; you will also find many similarities.
  • Tokyo is a modern business-oriented city with no particular character but plenty to do. Kyoto is not particularly beautiful or ancient in its streets and urban fabric; its setting is gorgeous, however, and it's positively ringed with splendid temples and shrines of every description. 
  • You could eat nothing but western food, if you insisted.
  • Many Japanese, in interacting with you, will behave as if doing so were the most wonderful thing that's happened to them for the last month. You should reciprocate, at least to the extent of not being a boor. Learn, at minimum, the rudiments of polite Japanese expressions: "sumimasen" ("excuse me"), "arigatou gozaimasu" ("thank you very much"), and so on.
Photos to follow.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Travel Advisory

It is well known that the movie Jurassic Park was filmed on Kaua'i. What is less well-known, doubtless because the tourism industry is engaged in a massive cover-up, is that the movie is based on fact. I, personally, have seen it with my own eyes: the island is overrun with dinosaurs. Here is a typical example, clearly in threat-response mode:

Even more alarmingly, the dinosaurs have learned to associate humans with food. Here, a pack threatens my wife:
Stay safe, people.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Book Review: The Line Upon a Wind

The Line Upon a Wind: The Great War at Sea, 1793-1815
Noel Mostert
History

When you start reading a book that's 800 pages long, you kind of know what you're in for. You know, for example, that it's not going to be a general overview for the novice. You also know that the quality of the writing will make a difference: 800 pages of good writing can be a challenge,  but 800 pages of dull writing is torture.

By this measure, The Line Upon a Wind qualifies as "good enough." I'm a non-specialist, and I finished it. I didn't rush through it in big gulps, but I didn't stall out either.

Having said that, you need at least a Horatio Hornblower or Aubrey-Maturin level of engagement before you start TLUaW. There's a certain amount of nautical terminology, for instance, that isn't always explained. There are a lot of characters. There are descriptions of battles, but not enough maps of same, and those that there are aren't terribly good.

Moreover, you need a certain level of tolerance for the Great Man School of History. In Noel Mostert's case, the Great Man is Horatio Nelson. When Nelson is on-stage, the book leaps; when he isn't, it tends to plod. Since the book has ten years left in it when Nelson dies, the wind (as it were) rather goes out of its sails in the last third. There are a couple of chapters, intriguing in themselves, that nonetheless read like outtakes from other books (e.g., the material on discipline in the R.N.). Nor does the whole thing add up to a cohesive geopolitical synthesis.

I'd describe the result, then, as useful background reading. If you want to get a lot of information, newspaper-style, The Line Upon a Wind delivers. It won't kill you to skip it, though.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Book Review: The Story of Greece and Rome

The Story of Greece and Rome
Tony Spawforth
History

It's an expansive title, but it's not a very thick book. You might suspect, then, that The Story of Greece and Rome would be a general overview without much depth. And you would be correct. It's not the Cliff Notes version, but it's necessarily a synopsis.

This would be a good book for someone who didn't know much of the history in question. I know a fair amount, so I'm not the ideal reader. I enjoyed it, though, for what that's worth. The Story of Greece and Rome does what it sets out to do, and does it pretty well. Tony Spawforth is good at drawing parallels and contrasts between his two titular civilizations. He's also good at providing understandable summaries of complex questions, and scrupulous about indicating where academics disagree. The writing is both clear and learned--I suppose it would be too much to expect that it would be witty as well, but it's at least never dull.

So: a perfectly decent read for the knowledgeable, and a valuable introduction for the curious. The Story of Greece and Rome doesn't quite achieve must-read status, but it's a pretty decent achievement.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Book Review: The Mysterious Commission

The Mysterious Commission
Michael Innes (J.I.M. Stewart)
Mystery

There were quite a few respectable mid-century Englishpersons who moonlighted as detective novelists. "Nicholas Blake", for example, was actually Cecil Day-Lewis, Poet Laureate (and father of the actor Daniel Day-Lewis). To this tribe belongs "Michael Innes": J.I.M. Stewart, academic literary critic and student of J. R. R. Tolkien at Oxford.

The "Innes" novels, from early to late--and this one is quite late--all have a certain flavor to them. It's not easy to describe. Irony is a big part of it, but it's an understated irony. Imagination, sometimes run wild, is there too. I'm tempted to call the writing "urbane", but that sounds a little too mannered. It's a little bit gently snobbish, quite witty, and even  . . . gulp . . . cozy. That latter word has been co-opted latterly by a mystery subgenre that would mostly be better described as "cutesy", which is a pity, because otherwise it would fit the Innes model well.

That aside, The Mysterious Commission is an enjoyable little book. The protagonist is a portrait painter, rather than Innes's usual Sir John Appleby, and the artistic side of the story is nicely handled. There's some good puzzlement and some funny bits. The air goes out a little bit in the last chapter, for the simple reason that the baddies could have accomplished their goals in a much more straightforward fashion. Getting there, however, is at least half the fun. The writing is usually good enough to carry an Innes novel even when the premise is a little lacking in credibility. This one isn't a classic, not even a minor classic, but it's an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Book Review: The Rubber Band/The Red Box

The Rubber Band/The Red Box
Rex Stout
Mystery

If only it were possible to retroactively combine the virtues of Ellery Queen and Rex Stout.

Stout was, by most measures, much the better writer--particularly in the early years. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are engaging characters, much better realized than Queen, and always fun to spend time with. The descriptions are better, the dialogue is better, the supporting characters are better, and the Wolfean aphorisms are irresistible.

Only . . . there's the plot. Stout's mysteries are not only not fair-play; they're barely mysteries. Wolfe conjures his solutions from thin air, or using the flimsiest of assumptions. Sometimes the entire book consists of waiting around for the [message, hitherto unknown character, newspaper story, other plot device] that will reveal all. Other times, it's a matter of Nero Wolfe simply declaiming and everyone else nodding.

These two mysteries are fun to read, but they both fall flat at the end. Wolfe makes his pronouncements, and (surprise!) they somehow all turn out to be accurate in spite of being grounded in nothing at all. The Red Box, in particular, depends on a plot device that was elderly and feeble long before Stout got hold of it. Whatever the shortcomings of early Ellery Queen, you'll always get what you paid for: a strong puzzle and a fair solution. 

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Book Review: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes
Loren Estleman
Mystery

While this is written in an acceptably Watsonian style, it adds absolutely nothing to Stevenson's story. It's nothing more than a rewrite of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Holmes and Watson stuck into it. Every single development in the original is here. "Watson's" introduction promises that this book reveals hidden and shocking depths behind the published version . . . which is exactly what it fails to do! There's one trivial addendum near the end. Unless you've somehow managed to avoid knowing the Big Reveal in Dr. J. and Mr. H.--in which case, I want to know how--you've already read this book. 

Loren Estleman was a noted Sherlockian. He should have known better.