The Awesome Charlemagne and A Short Hiatus

Well, dear readers, I must now prepare to go on vacation.  We leave at 4 AM first to visit my brother’s in Richmond.  The next day we travel to Sanibel and Captiva, Florida with the intention of staying there until July 1st or until we begin to feel sorry for leaving our cats.  The change of routine will do me well; however, this will cause a short period of inactivity here.  Nevertheless, I shall attempt to read some interesting works and to scribble some essays in my down time which will find their way to this blog after July 1st.  Yes, I’m an incorrigible bookworm, but this mode of being has some benefits.

The greatest bookworm of them all, Yomiko Readman!

For example, when Pliny the Younger’s guardian, Pliny the Elder, enthusiastically suggested that they go and see the eruption of Mount Vesuvius up close, Pliny the Younger replied that he would prefer to read a certain book.  Pliny the Elder no doubt chided his namesake concerning his lack of a spirit of adventure and scientific inquiry, but this turned out to be Pliny the Elder’s last scientific foray.

But now to begin my review of the Penguin edition of The Two Lives of Charlemagne by Einhard and Notker the Stammerer.  The latter’s life of Charlemagne is a string of anecdotes mocking worldly churchmen and poking fun at foolish nobles.  It provides a very personal character sketch of the ruler: one gets a picture of a hot tempered, wise, commonsense, and powerful monarch–both physically and regally–with a good sense of humor, which only makes me happier to account him as one of my ancestors.  (I must confess, dear readers, that probably half of you are as nearly related, so I shouldn’t feel too proud of this; but, it’s still nice knowing that one is somehow related to an emperor.)

Here are some examples of the anecdotes to which Notker treats the reader: Charlemagne gives a merchant free rein in order to trick a bishop known for buying silly trinkets and baubles.  The merchant, declaring to the bishop that he possesses a rare oriental creature, convinces him to buy a painted mouse for “a full measure of silver” (something over fifty pounds of silver, I suppose).  This same bishop later receives an edict from Charlemagne to the effect that he must preach a sermon on a certain feast day or else forfeit his see.  While the bishop realizes that he severely lacks rhetorical skill, he does not wish to relinquish his see.  So, he stands behind the pulpit as if to sermonize, then notices a certain person who, in order to conceal the redness of his scalp, has his head covered in church.  The bishop demands that the man be brought to him in bold tones.  Then, once the man is in arms’ reach, he snatches off the covering and solemnly declares to the congregation: “Lo and behold, you people!  This fool is red headed!”  Forthwith, he continues the mass.  When some of Charlemagne’s representatives reported this to him, the monarch is said to have been pleased by the bishop making some kind of effort to obey his edict.

This one stands as my favorite: the Greeks have a custom that the king is disgraced whenever a fellow diner looks through a pile of meat for a better cut.  One can only take whatever is on top.  While visiting this country, a clever knight of Charlemagne’s does so, and several Greeks demand that he be put to death for “disgracing” the king.  Charlemagne says he must do as they say, but he tells the knight that he may ask for one final boon.  The knight requests that all who have seen him do this have their eyes put out.  Charlemagne agrees to this strange request and is closely followed by the queen in declaring that he did not see him do this, swearing by God.  The end result is that all the Greeks and Franks at the table swear by God and the saints that they had not seen the knight do this, who is spared from capital punishment for lack of a witness.

Einhard, unlike Notker, actually lived during Charlemagne’s time as a close confidant of the emperor, admired for his learning and character.  His work is much more historical than Notker’s, and especially useful since he was present at all the events he chronicled.  He gives more details concerning Charlemagne’s wars and even provides us with a physical portrait of the emperor.  Though, it describes the emperor’s character in a matter of fact way, it is still almost as engrossing as Notker’s anecdotes.  So, this is a very good edition for those of you who both want the historical background of this man’s times and a more personal sketch of his character.

May you all also enjoy pleasant vacations and good books this summer!

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Sometimes the First Episode is Enough

A couple of days ago, I suggested to my sister that we watch an anime from my enormous Want to Watch list on Anime-Planet.com.  Basically, anything which I’ve found remotely interesting and have yet to watch is on there.  I’m especially interested in the classics.  So, her choice of Texhnolyze rather pleased me at first.

Watching the first few minutes immediately made me realize that this was a very sophisticated work.  The setting is incredibly dark, and they do not employ dialogue–to be more precise, speech of any kind–for the first half.  One is particularly struck by the griminess and darkness, which creates a rather empty feeling in one’s gut.  This pleased me at first, since the setting and mood come across as very original–even if they draw out silent scenes of the cityscape and dark rooms for too long.  Then, a woman’s appearance initiates a long sex scene (I skipped most of it) to which the episode continually reverts in between scenes concerning a certain drifter (who actually speaks!) and a girl wearing a fox mask, who leads him to a kind of gang.  So, the hollowness in my stomach increases along with the lack of emotion, inhumanity, and depravity of the characters.  A gun fight occurs, and the person whom we take to be the main character is cut down by a katana at the episode’s end.

So, let me make it clear that I’m discarding this show not because its bad–it displays a ton of originality and sophistication, but because it’s evil.  One shouldn’t meditate on the dark side of the human character for too long, and plenty of other shows examine the darkness in humanity without becoming inhuman, e.g. Serial Experiments Lain.  I rather feel like comparing T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland to this show.  The lack of meaning Eliot finds in the modern worldview creates a similar feeling to the hollowness of Texhnolyze, but such things are better read than watched.

At any rate, I decided to prevent further harm to my psyche and stopped watching right there.  I’d recommend that none of my dear readers watch it.  For those of you who have seen it, is there any positive or interesting message to the show that one discovers further on?  Does the mood lighten or become less hollow?

World’s Most Popular Vet

As I was reading through James Herriot’s The Lord God Made Them All, the question of just how popular Herriot’s works are today occurred to me.  My mother is particularly fond of these works, and I picked up a fondness for them from her.  Herriot’s literary skill, the many surprises contained in these stories, the genuineness of his character, and many hilarious moments combine to make these great fun to read.  He also employs a frame story to great effect in his works so that we do not become bored with a barrage of veterinary cases.  He most often resorted to his experiences in the Second World War to provide a main narrative, from his time in basic training to his career in the Royal Air Force.  In the one I’m presently reading, he uses a sea voyage he takes to Russia on a Danish merchant ship during the Cold War as a main narrative in which he intersperses his veterinary practice.

Let me end this post by giving you an example of how amusing the stories are.  During one chapter, he describes a barber who is willing to trim people’s hair during his stay in the pub at the cost of one pint per hair cut.  The guy can cut hair pretty well up to four pints; however, they start getting a little messy after that: seeing one farmer with a missing side burn, Herriot comments that it must have been a 10-pint job.

Anyway, this barber brings his little mutt named Venus to him, because she got into the garbage pail and began eating some chicken bones, one of which lodged itself across the roof of her mouth.  An easy fix, but the dog struggles so much that Herriot suggests the use of anesthesia.  The owner leaves and Herriot extracts the bone from the sleeping dog without any trouble–except that he realizes that the dog stopped breathing!  Now, her heart is still beating and everything, but that won’t last long if she doesn’t breathe again!  He tries every method possible in the examining room until he rushes outside in order to use the approved method for resuscitating a small dog in the ’60’s.  He grabs the dog by her hind legs and spins her around in a circle while raising and lowering the dog!  His son, who had watched all the proceedings, nearly died laughing.  After several attempts and the world around Herriot spinning, the dog starts breathing again, and Herriot is able to return Venus alive to her owner.

Oh, I will offer a review of The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, but I decided to read that work again before writing up a review.  Expect it in one month or less!

How to Weather the Anime Doldrums

In every otaku’s career, he arrives at a point where anime no longer satisfies: all the characters, plots, gags, and backgrounds seem to have been used 1,000 times over.  The show we’re presently watching seems like a cookie-cutter copy of the last one.  Unless you’re a certain kind of viewer, you have only three options available to you in order to break out of this rut: 1) attempt to learn new things about Japanese culture; 2) revert to an old hobby; or 3) learn about a new culture.

But first, let’s start with the case where it’s one’s own fault.  I confess to have fallen into the second fault, which caused the first period of anime doldrums.  Your ennui is your own fault if you’re the kind of viewer who 1) only watches what’s mainstream; 2) sticks to a particular genre; or 3) only watches new seasons.  As at one point being a samurai genre only fan, I can say that the best solution for the second case is to find a new genre.  If you believe that you’d only watch shoujo with a gun pointed to your head, watch Fruits Basket or even Sailor Moon–you might be pleasantly surprised.  Those of you who stick with slice-of-life shows need to give Full Metal Panic a try; those favoring mecha anime Rurouni Kenshin; and those with a predilection for comedy Wolf’s Rain.  Those of you carried away in mainstream need to find an off-beat show, and you’ll likely find one that speaks particularly to you.  For example, Book of Bantorra or Kara no Kyoukai might be up your alley.

Also, I know the joy of introducing one’s friends to the next great anime, but modern shows suffer from a lack of creativity (increased commercialization of a form of media always does this), and they tend to have a similar style of animation.  A fan like this needs education from an old otaku—one who has been a fan since the days when anime was considered a subculture.  (Fortunately, these are quite numerous and often in their early twenties.)  However, if one cannot find such a fan, there are many works, like Anime Classics Zettai by Brian Camp and Julie Davis, which are quite handy in providing a list of great old shows.  The magazine Otaku USA has many contributors from the subculture days who are only too happy to encourage appreciation for the classics.

Anyway, now to offer advice to those of you who find yourselves legitimately bored of anime.  Those of you who wish to quickly restore your interest in anime ought to take the option of learning new things about Japanese culture, particularly by learning Japanese.  Some of you may consider this an overwhelming task, but learning basic Japanese is not too difficult.  Learning new syllabaries (We have an alphabet, the Japanese have two syllabaries: katakana and hiragana) is a fairly simple task, Japanese is incredibly easy to pronounce, particles make determining the function of words in the sentence simple, and Japanese incorporates many English loan words.  The difficult part comes in learning kanji, the more complex verb forms, and translating long sentences by ear–which subjects you may tackle whenever you feel ready.  (You see, the Japanese arrange ideas differently from us, particularly in cases where we use relative clauses.  Instead of having a relative clause following the noun it describes, they place the relative clause as one long descriptive phrase before the noun it modifies.  By the time the English speaker has made sense of this and reversed the order of the noun and its clause, five lines of dialog have gone by.)  But, having a beginner’s level of knowledge of Japanese will make it sound like a real language rather than “pera-pera” (the Japanese version of “derka-derka”), one can begin to see the liberties the translators take, and one can consider how they themselves would have translated certain lines.  All of this adds another level of enjoyment to your favorite pastime.

For those of you who still find this idea too daunting, try studying Bushido, Zen, Taoism, martial arts (i.e. through books unless you wish to really immerse yourself), their literature, or history.  Any of these fields will allow you to see deeper into the Japanese mind, and understand more cultural references.  Reading Yagyu Munenori’s The Life-Giving Sword will help you understand the talk about the life-giving sword vs. the death-dealing sword in Rurouni Kenshin.  Some other good books are Miyamoto Musashi’s  The Book of Five Rings, Hagakure, Nitobe Inazo’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan, Okakura’s The Book of Tea and his The Ideals of the East.  Reading about Gichin Funakoshi (the founder of Shotokan Karate) and Morihei Ueshiba (the founder of Aikido and perhaps Japan’s greatest martial artist) also make for great reading.  On the more literary side, Natsume Soseki (the father of Modern Japanese literature) wrote a very popular work called Botchan and  Jun’Ichirou Tanizaki is famed for his dark heroines (any time you enjoy watching a dark heroine in anime, you can thank him).  You can also read classics like Genji, Tales of the Heike, orThe Tosa Diary.

But option two, reverting to an old hobby for a few months, is perhaps the surest way to weather the anime doldrums.  People thrive on variety.  Also, one likely has a more difficult hobby which has been put aside for the easily attainable highs of anime.  After a month or two away from anime, it will seem much fresher.  One of your friends will have been apprised of your situation.  One day, he shall walk through the door with some awesome new title which will restore your interest.

Since a human being is often greater than the culture he dwells in, one should not focus on just one particular culture for too long.  One feels constricted after a while.  Did you know that many of the people who were interested in Japan during the twentieth century were Classicists?  There are many parallels between the Classical Antiquity of the West and pagan Japan.  For example, Stoicism feels much like Bushido, so you might benefit from reading Seneca or Marcus Aurelius, which will allow you to examine these ideas using a different perspective.  Even in Roman history, we find characters who act like samurai.  For example, Livy documents the example of the General Regulus.  Regulus was captured by the Carthaginians and sent back to Rome in order to be exchanged for Carthaginian prisoners and to convince Rome to ask for peace.  Instead, he argues against these things before the Senate and, even though he could easily have broken his oath and not returned to Carthage, he does so only to be tortured to death by these people.  Your humble author, a Classicist himself, could go on ad nauseam.

However, one may also stick close to Asia and read about the Chinese.  All of Asia was greatly influenced by this country.  Chinese Classics like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms are still very popular in Japan.  As another option, I do believe an anime fan would find themselves very comfortable among Norse Sagas.  Pagan cultures tend to have many similarities–like having a tendency toward tragedy.  Then again, one can really broaden one’s perspective by studying a completely disparate culture.

While I do hope that none of you are presently in this state, may these ideas come in handy at some point in the future!

Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus This Friday

Dear Readers, the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus occurs this Friday. Even though it’s not a holy day of obligation, it would be good if you could find some way to attend Mass. If not, try to spend some time meditating on the great love this Heart has for us, particularly how He loved us so much that He endured terrible suffering and death for our sakes.

This is how the Sacred Heart is traditionally depicted. The Flames indicate the burning Love which this Heart has for all mankind, the thorns symbolize the insults, contempt, ingratitude, and sins with which so many men grieve the Sacred Heart, and the Cross reminds us to often meditate on His Passion, in which He showed us the depth of His Love. So, I encourage everyone to read an account of His Passion and meditate on it, particularly by praying through the Stations of the Cross.

The following day is dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I already have a page dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, so you may read that for ideas about how to honor her on this day–besides attending Mass, of course.

By the way, devoutly praying “Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us who have recourse to thee” carries an indulgence of three hundred days.  So, if any of you are worried about having too much time in purgatory, say it often!

Ever Read a Jules Verne Novel?

Reading The Mysterious Island marks the third work of Jules Verne which I’ve completed.  It concerns five Union prisoners who escape from Richmond in 1864 by using the confusion of a passing hurricane to steal a balloon.  You likely can already see a problem developing, right?  Going up in a balloon during a hurricane!  This action, while freeing them from the Confederates, at the same time leads to them flying all to way to an uninhabited and uncharted island in the South Pacific!  At least the confines of their prison have been enlarged from a POW camp to an island.  This is a true Robinsonade (named after the incomparable novel written by Daniel Defoe): these five prisoners, of varying backgrounds, must survive off the land and build a civilization from scratch.  Various obstacles ranging from jaguar attacks to orangutangs capturing their dwelling place to pirates all try to impede them from this goal.  Overall, this was a very entertaining work: only the overabundant digressions into scientific topics detract from it–interesting to be sure, but it does almost feel like a text book at times.

Here’s a picture of the island where our five heroes find themselves.

The other two works comprising my experience of Jules Verne are Around the World in Eighty Days and the little known Adventures of Captain Hatteras, which concerns an English expedition to the North Pole.  (The latter is particularly memorable for me because of the footnotes pointing out phallic jokes; however, I would never have caught these jokes if not for the footnotes in the Oxford edition!  Which almost makes me think the translator was making them up, no matter how good his arguments.  Whenever you see a footnote which makes you say “Why’s that there?”, you might just have read a phallic joke.)  Though Verne’s ability to create tales brimming with scientific information is what makes him most famous, his real strong suit is his ability to create unique, likeable characters.  As a matter of fact, I seem to have enjoyed the novels more which delved less into science, ranking Around the World in Eighty Days first, Adventures of Captain Hatteras second, and The Mysterious Island last. The Mysterious Island does have one great bonus to reading it: we learn how a famous character of Jules Verne ends his days–I refuse to say who!

From Virginia with Beer

Well, the time spent at my brother’s was most enjoyable and productive in finding new beers.  There’s a splendid shop called Total Wine where he lives, and it stocks a great selection of American craft beer.  This visit, I was shocked to find some Goose Island and quickly snatched up their English Pale Ale and Matilda, a Belgian Style Pale Ale.  I also saw an English Pale Ale (So they say.  Tasted more like an IPA to me.) from the Shipyard Brewing Co. named after Joshua Chamberlain, one of my favorite heroes from the Civil War, and snatched that up immediately.  I shall also be reviewing Dogfish Head’s Sah’tea.  Plenty of other ales found their way into my hands, and it will be my pleasure to reveal their tasting notes later.

Yet, I would first like to recommend a wine which paired perfectly with the grilled meat in yesterday’s dinner: Block 303 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2010.  (By the way, I just learned something amazing: Amazon.com sells wine!  They’ve really branched out from being a simple bookseller!)  Some of you probably recognize the Rutherford shelf as the most prestigious sub-region of Napa Valley.  Unlike most wine from this place, Block 303 does not cost an arm and a leg, but still shows the quality one can expect from this region.  The wine is very full-bodied, shows great integration, and complexity with flavors of boysenberry and black cherry prominent, though one can discern other dark fruit flavors present therein.  (I forgot them, and I refuse to cheat by reading the label!)  These flavors blend marvelously with the tannins, which, as I mentioned above, make it a perfect match for grilled meats.  A beautiful wine.

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