May 29th, 2011


May Books 13) Ōoku: The Inner Chambers vol. 4, by Fumi Yoshinaga

This is the first manga series I have really got into (I bounced off the first volume of Osamu Tezuka's Buddha a few years back) and I will start with some general reflections. First, it is easy to read these too quickly. The sparse black and white illustrations, the subtleties of the difference in appearance between characters, the condensation of the equivalent of many prose paragraphs of plot and emotion into a single frame, all male it important to take these slowly and sensibly. Second, I was a bit unnerved at first by the stylistic device where people's faces go all cartooney when they are in the grip of strong emotion (usually anger); but in fact this is a fair metaphor for what it feels like, and to an extent what it looks like, when one is consumed by rage, joy, sadness or whatever, and I have not only got used to it but practically welcome it as an extra signal to the reader.

Volume 4 of Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is a transitional work, covering the end of the reign of Iemitsu, zooming rather rapidly through the thirty year reign of her successor Ietsuna, and then getting stuck in to the career of Tsunayoshi and the arrival at her court of the young nobleman Emonnosuke. It is also about the historical legacy of Arikoto, a central figure of the previous two volumes, whose valet ends up as Tsunayoshi's father.

The background to the story is of course a Japan which has lost 75%-80% of its men; but I feel the plot is more and more about the exercise of power, Iemitsu's wise and enlightened decisions - including "coming out" as a woman ruler and permitting other lords to do the same - contrasted with Ietsuna's indolence. We then see Tsunayoshi as largely concerned with using power for her own sexual pleasure, to the annoyance of her courtiers, and the end of the book suggests that Emmonosuke's arrival will take her and her rule in a new direction, though we cannot be quite sure what. It's enough to make me want to get the next volume anyway.

Barcelona 3, Man Utd 1

I watched a football match last night for the first time since the (disappointing) World Cup final last summer. I'm generally not much of a sports fan, but this match had been hyped so much that I wanted to share the mass viewing experience and also hoped that it would be a genuine pleasure to watch. I have also, in the vaguest possible way, been pro Manchester United for most of my life - basically because all the kids at my primary school supported either them or Liverpool, and on the whole I liked the Liverpool supporters less. Back in 1977 this gave me an immediate thrill as Man United beat Liverpool in that year's FA cup final. (Also even at a young age I was aware of the drama of the Munich air crash, years before I was even born.)

However, they were comprehensively outclassed by Barça last night. It was a bit humiliating to watch, in some ways - I see the post-match stats say that Barça had possession more than twice as often as Man U, and that they had 22 shots at the goal to Man U's rather miserable 4, and though I wasn't keeping as close tabs as that, the 3-1 result was an accurate reflection of the relative skills on display. One friend commented on Twitter that Barcelona were doing to Man United what Man United has been doing to every other team in England; I can't comment on that, but I had to admire the way in which their crackling energy as a team translated into results.

Which brings me to a final point: One of the ways in which experiencing this sort of event has changed is that thanks to social media one can share the experience online with people around the world (well, in this case Europe). It can pull in all kinds of people: the Finnish foreign minister tweeted in such cryptic terms about his support for Man U that the Swedish foreign minister worriedly asked him if there was some civil war brewing? (Two weeks ago they had exchanged tweets about the world ice hockey final, in which Stubb's team thrashed Bildt's 6-1.) But for me it was also a nice way of being in touch with old friends, some of whom I haven't seen in decades, knowing that we were watching and enjoying the same match along with millions of others around the continent. The world is becoming smaller, and that is not a bad thing.

May Books 14) Fables vol. 13: The Great Fables Crossover, by Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges

Catching up with this series since the next volume after this has got a Hugo nomination. The 'crossover' of the title is between the Fables of the series (Snow White, Jack Horner, Bigby Wolf) and a new group of characters, the Literals, led by the powerful Kevin Thorne who can alter the world simply by writing it. The story was originally published as part of three different lines (Fables, Jack of Fables and The Literals) so this is one case where compiling the narrative within a single set of covers is definitely helpful to the reader. There are some good characters and some neat character moments, and I hope we will see more of the Page sisters in future volumes. But the core concept of a character whose power is so immense that he can destroy everything else is actually quite difficult to make interesting, and I kept thinking that Doctor Who did this better in The Mind Robber back in 1969.

Gibbon Chapter LII: The limits of the early caliphate

My thoughts here. The Arabs fail to capture Constantinople or to hold Rome or their gains in France, and start to lose ground to the Byzantines as well. Much discourse on Arabic learning. Gibbon concludes that three reason they failed to make much headway after the eighth century were:
  • "When the Arabian conquerors had spread themselves over the East, and were mingled with the servile crowds of Persia, Syria, and Egypt, they insensibly lost the freeborn and martial virtues of the desert."
  • "The sect of the Carmathians [Qarmatians] may be considered as the second visible cause of the decline and fall of the empire of the caliphs."
  • "The third and most obvious cause was the weight and magnitude of the empire itself."
Also some reflections of mine on happiness, and on science and learning.