Personal Note

February 22, 2007

My posting may be a little sporadic throughout the next week. My son is getting deployed to Iraq in less than 2 weeks, so my wife and I are driving down to Georgia to visit for a few days. After deployments to Korea, Afghanistan, and the last trip to Iraq, it seems like we would be getting used to it. It never gets easier. I don’t think parents ever get used to seeing one of their children heading into harm’s way.


A Few Notes

February 21, 2007

After a long work day there was not much time available for reading today. UPS left a couple of books I had ordered to get my study of Japanese literature started. Both of these were purchased to read in conjunction with The Tale of Genji. The first I had not heard of before and stumbled on while browsing- The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. The second was an obvious choice, The Diary of Lady Murasaki, which was a bit disappointing even though I haven’t read anything other than skimming the introduction. Between the introduction and the Appendix, there are only 62 pages of text, and it is not a series of day-to-day entries that are typically expected from a diary, but a series of vignettes.

The first section of the Introduction did teach me something. I had been confused by names of Japanese authors recently because sometimes they seemed in reverse order than what I expected. According to the “Name Notes” included, Japanese names in the book are in conventional Japanese format. This means that the family or clan name is first, and the personal name second.

Another interesting point made in the introduction to Genji is a fascinating fact describing the world of the tale. No one in the story is ever alone. A lord or lady lived surrounded by a large staff. Solitude and privacy did not exist. “A lady slept within curtains, it is true, but they were only curtains, and any number of gentelwomen slept just outside them on the floor. When a lord or lady went somewhere secretly at night, he might (at some risk to himself) take only two or three attendants with him…
Still, a lord or lady with no one but attendants or household staff nearby was alone in a way, because in an important sense such people did not count.”
Wow. A very different world.

genjiThe Tale of Genji is not what would typically be described as a “page-turner.” In the introductory pages, the translator states that the book must be “the oldest novel still widely recognized today as a masterpiece. Its author was a woman whose work ranks in Japanese literature and culture as the Homeric epics, the works of Shakespeare, and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past do elsewhere.” That is likely true, but after a few chapters I am not ready to place it in that same class. But I am thoroughly enjoying it so far, and read through the introduction even though it pretty thoroughly explains the plot. I think reading the introduction, as well as keeping up with the footnotes makes what could be a difficult text more enjoyable.

The Royall Tyler translation published by Viking is actually easy to read, obviously well-researched, and delightful. For some reason I cringe at using the word “delightful,” but it is the right word. This edition is illustrated with great line drawings by Minoru Sugai.

One immediately notices the role that women played in this society. It did not come as a surprise, and I believe was common in many societies for many years, but imagining the reality of it today can be disturbing. Here is a passage in which a group of men are discussing women-

“A wife’s main duty is to look after her husband, so it seems to me that one can do quite well without her being too sensitive, ever so delicate about the least thing, and all to fond of being amused. On the other hand, with a dutiful, frumpish housewife who keeps her sidelocks tucked behind her ears and does nothing but housework, the husband who leaves in the morning and comes home at night, and who can hardly turn to strangers to chat about how so-and-so is getting on in public or private or about whatever, good or bad, may have happened to strike him and is entitled to expect some understanding from the woman who shares his life, finds instead, when he feels like discussing with her the things that have made him laugh or cry, or perhaps have inflamed him with righteous indignation and are now demanding an outlet, that all he can do is avert his eyes, and that when he then betrays private mirth or heaves a sad sigh, she just looks up at him blankly and asks, ‘What is it, dear?’ How could he not wish himself elsewhere? It is probably not a bad idea to take a wholly childlike, tractable wife and form her yourself as well as you can. She may not have your full confidence, but you will know your training has made a difference. Certainly, as long as you actually have her with you, you can let her pretty ways persuade you to overlook her lapses….”


Another feature that I am enjoying is the chapter lead pages. Each chapter retains the original title, but includes a brief explanation of the title word(s), and often a bit of poetry. Here is an example:
broom tree

This is one of those lengthy books that I will not have a problem completing.

Books in Translation

February 19, 2007

Stefanie made some interesting points regarding books in translation in her review of Every Book Its Reader. I started to comment on her site, but it got kind of lengthy so I thought it best to use up my own space. Plus it gives me something to post tonight. 🙂

Like Stefanie, I too get concerned with what I am missing when something is translated from the original text into another language. In the past, I used to search for learned comments about various translations, to make sure that I was purchasing “the best” translation. I felt I was missing out because I had read Kilmartin’s translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way, and then Lydia Davis came out with a more recent translation that received rave reviews. I sat at the bookstore and read a few pages and actually, I preferred the translation that I had read. So, for me, assuming that translations chosen for publication are at least accurate, I have learned that the “best” translation is the one that I enjoy the most.

Having said that, the accuracy becomes a question. I just pulled out 2 versions of Don Quixote that I have on the bookshelf. The first is an earlier translation done by P.A. Motteux, and the second, which I will be reading next summer, is the recent translation by Edith Grossman. Here are the first lines from each (no plot spoilers in the first two lines).


At a certain village in La Mancha, which I shall not name, there liv’d not long ago one of those old-fashion’d gentlemen who are never without a Lance upon a Rack, an old Target, a lean Horse, and a Greyhound. His diet consisted more of Beef than Mutton; and with minc’d meat on most nights, Lentils on Fridays, Eggs and Bacon on Saturdays, and a Pigeon extraordinary on Sundays, he consumed three Quarters of his Revenue:


Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. A occassional stew, beef more often than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays,, sometimes squab as a treat on Sundays- these consumed three-fourths of his income.

The primary difference seems to be in readability rather than content, although I don’t get “eggs and bacon” as opposed to “eggs and abstinence”. Not a big deal and I would just move on and assume that I missed something in school about either eggs or abstinence. In the case of Don Quixote, I would choose the Grossman translation, although I think the language of the Motteux adds something to the “feeling” of the novel, much as the King James version of a biblical story seems more poetic than most of the more recent translations.

Whenever possible, I will try to find copies of various translations and choose the one that suits me, trusting that the publisher has ensured that the content is true to the original. I assume that those that know would warn the readers that don’t when a translation is significantly inaccurate.

A Reading List

February 18, 2007

I’ve seen this on a few sites now so I thought it would be fun to try. It would be interesting to know how the list was compiled, since it is difficult to discern the intent of the exercise. The list is prefaced with instructions-

Look at the list of books below. Bold the ones you’ve read, italicize the ones you want to read, cross out the ones you won’t touch with a 10 foot pole, put a cross (+) in front of the ones on your book shelf, and asterisk (*) the ones you’ve never heard of.

Note that those that I wouldn’t read is simply because I am not interested.

1. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown)
2. +Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
3. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
4. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
5. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Tolkien)
6. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)
7. The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (Tolkien)
8. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)
9. *Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
10. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
11. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rowling)
12. Angels and Demons (Dan Brown)
13. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling)
14. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
15. Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden)
16. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling)
17. *Fall on Your Knees(Ann-Marie MacDonald)
18. The Stand (Stephen King)
19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban(Rowling)
20. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
21. The Hobbit (Tolkien)
22. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
23. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
24. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)
25. Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
26. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
27. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
28. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
29. East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
30. Tuesdays with Morrie(Mitch Albom)
31. Dune (Frank Herbert)
32. The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks) (how embarrassing)
33. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)
34. 1984 (Orwell)
35. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
36. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
37. *The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)
38. I Know This Much is True(Wally Lamb)
39. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
40. +The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
41. The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M. Auel)
42. The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
43. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Sophie Kinsella)
44. The Five People You Meet In Heaven (Mitch Albom)
45. Bible (likely not cover to cover)
46. Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
47. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
48. Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
49. The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
50. She’s Come Undone (Wally Lamb)
51. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
52. A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)
53. Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
54. Great Expectations (Dickens)
55. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
56. *The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence)
57. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Rowling)
58. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough) (embarrassed again)
59. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
60. The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrew Niffenegger)
61. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
62. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
63. War and Peace (Tolstoy)
64. Interview With The Vampire (Anne Rice)
65. *Fifth Business (Robertson Davis)
66. +One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
67. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (Ann Brashares)
68. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
69. Les Miserables (Hugo)
70. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
71. Bridget Jones’ Diary (Fielding) (so, so embarrassed)
72. Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez)
73. Shogun (James Clavell)
74. The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
75. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
76. *The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
77. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
78. The World According To Garp (John Irving)
79. *The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)
80. Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
81. *Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley)
82. Of Mice And Men (Steinbeck)
83. Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)
84. Wizard’s First Rule (Terry Goodkind)
85. +Emma (Jane Austen)
86. Watership Down(Richard Adams)
87. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
88. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
89. Blindness (Jose Saramago)
90. Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer)
91. *In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)
92. Lord of the Flies (Golding)
93. The Good Earth(Pearl S. Buck)
94. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd)
95. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
96. The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
97. White Oleander (Janet Fitch)
98. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford)
99. The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield)
100. +Ulysses (James Joyce)

Culture Immersion

February 18, 2007

On occassion it is fun to immerse oneself in the literature of a particular time, region, or culture- sort of a thematic reading period. I don’t know what caused me to suddenly want to do that in the midst of a snowy February, but once I made the decision I got excited about it and started planning. I am usually good about following through once I start a project like this, so I committed to it by investing in a few more books to augment the unread ones that were already on the to-be-read shelf.

The plan is to read some of the best literature from Japan. I really enjoyed Kawabata’s Snow Country last week, and several of my favorites from recent years were from or about regions in Asia.

The local Barnes and Noble didn’t have anything that I was looking for, so this afternoon I drove the 30 miles to a large independent bookstore that I always have pretty good luck at. I picked up Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki, written in 1914. I also bought a more recent novel published in 1980 called Silence, by Shusaku Endo. The others on the list were not available, but they can wait.

The literary experience will have to begin with The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu.
Murasaki Shikibu
Writing Murasaki Shikibu, by Kikuchi Yosai

I found a terrific bargain on a slipcased copy of the highly regarded Royall Tyler translation a couple of years ago, and it has been sitting on the bookshelf waiting. Since it helps to understand a little about the culture of the era, as well as know more about the author that one is reading- a diary or autobiography seemed essential. So, Diary of Lady Murasaki seemed to be an appropriate online purchase. Unfortunately, the search for that led to stumbling upon The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. That one sounds really fascinating, and got me up to the free shipping minimum.

Guilt is setting in because of all the purchases. The Tale of Genji is lengthy, and is going to take a while, so I’m hoping it will keep me from book shopping for the duration. This is going to be fun.

Ummm… Love Stories?

February 15, 2007

Valentines day questions from Booking Through Thursday
Love stories? Yes or No?
Ok, I’ll admit it. Love is not gender specific and life in all it’s aspects makes for interesting reading.

If yes, “romances” as a genre? Or just, well, stories that have love stories? (Nobody’s going to call “Pride & Prejudice” a “romance,” right?)
I have not read what I would call the typical “romance novel”. But even Dirda’s Book by Book listed the top 10 love stories of the last 25 years. Having enjoyed a few of them, I have purchased others that sounded interesting. Here is his list- I bet you see at least one favorite.

  1. Light Years, James Salter
  2. Darconvilles’s Cat, Alexander Theroux
  3. Little, Big, John Crowley
  4. Possession: A Romance, A.S. Byatt
  5. The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  6. The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald
  7. Fairness, Ferdinand Mount
  8. The Married Man, Edmund White
  9. The Dying Animal, Philip Roth
  10. On Beauty, Zadie Smith