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30 March 2003

Japan: From Prehistory to Modern Times (1968) by John Whitney Hall (1916-1997) is a fairly well-written, compact history of Japan (358 pp. of main text + glossary, chronology, bibliography and index). It covers the "medieval" period (the Shogunate, when Japan had feudal institutions somewhat similar to contemporary Europe) in more detail than others. In the modern era, the Meiji restoration (1868+, when a group of oligarchs westernized Japan's government while ruling in the name of the emperor Meiji), the period of militarization leading up to the war in Manchuria (1931+) and World War II, and the reconstruction of Japan during the American occupation after the war, get a lot more space than World War II (which only gets a couple of pages), which makes sense given that the war is more thoroughly covered in other histories. I was somewhat surprised to see few or no references to the development of Japan's martial arts. The settlement of Hokkaido in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is only briefly mentioned. The history of Shinto, Buddhism, and Christianity in Japan is pretty well described given the limitations of length.

Dr. Hall also wrote several other books on Japan, more specialized than this general history. I haven't read them, but after this I am inclined to look for them.


The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 2003


I'm going to a cousin's wedding near our nation's capital next weekend. I may find time to post something the Saturday before Palm Sunday, or it may be later than that.


22 March 2003

Roughing It by Mark Twain tells about his experiences out West from 1861 to 1867. When his older brother Orion was appointed territorial secretary of Nevada, Sam went with him as private secretary; he worked for his brother a little while, then went to silver mining, reporting and editing for some years. While working for a San Francisco newspaper, he was sent to the Sandwich Islands (Hawai'i, then an independent kingdom) to write about them for the paper; and on his return, he toured lecturing about the Sandwich Islands. Roughing It ends shortly after his first lecturing experience.

The book opens very strongly with a fine, detailed narrative of his and Orion's stagecoach journey from St. Joseph to Carson City. The middle chapters, about his experiences prospecting for silver and gold, and reporting, are also quite good. The brief chapters about the Mormons in Utah, and the later chapters about Hawai'i, are not as good - possibly because he spent less time there, and had to make up jokes rather than just tell about funny things that happened to him - but still enjoyable. His description of walking on the crater floor of Kileuea is amazing, and makes up for the comparative weakness of the rest of the Sandwich Islands chapters.

Overall I would rank Roughing It as not so excellent as Life on the Mississippi or The Innocents Abroad, but better than Twain's other nonfiction books.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September 1961

6-8 March 2003

Athanasius of Summa Contra Mundum has had several posts recently on Lenten penance, and fasting in particular: on Byzantine Catholic rules for Lent and on Mardi Gras. They're worth reading.

I'm comparatively new at this business; 2000 was the first Lent (that just before I was received into the Church) that I made any attempt to follow any regular discipline of fasting - though, on a couple of occasions long earlier, I had made some briefer attempts (about week long, I think) when a Baptist and later a non-denominational Christian. But, on account of my health, I thought it maybe unwise to follow the stricter discipline with respect to fasting; so I cast about for something else than meat to not use during the whole of Lent (though keeping the Friday abstinences, and the Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fasts (in the loose sense of "only one meal", according to the current discipline for people who have to work on such fast days). Here I come to a difficulty in speaking. It seems clearly a bad thing to make noise about one's fasting practices (as Jesus says in the bit of the Sermon on the Mount we read on Ash Wednesday). Yet to speak about fasting in excessively general terms, or not at all, is to deprive others of the benefit of our experiences (our mistakes, but also our good choices). When I was a catechumen, I got real benefit from hearing Catholic friends talk (not in boastful terms) about what they gave up for Lent, and how they managed difficulties. Some of the things I could say might be helpful to new converts; but I want to go slowly and carefully to avoid speaking boastfully, as though I have already "arrived".

Our doctors and nutritionists tell us who have cystic fibrosis to eat! eat! eat! - lots of calories, so as much of meat, cheese, ice cream, and so forth as we can digest. That qualifier is the tricky part, involving regulating how much of our digestive enzyme supplements we take with each meal, and how to spread them out over the course of a prolonged meal (such as when taking a dietary supplement as enteral feeding). There is no rule except what works, and no way of learning what works but by trial and error; so when eating something outside my usual habits, I'm apt to take too many or too few enzyme pills and suffer in consequence. Because I try to eat frequently throughout the day, and take 2000 calories of enteral feeding throughout the night, I rarely feel very hungry. I generally associate real hunger, therefore, with (1) imprudence; bad planning leads to me being unable to eat when I expected to; (2) laziness; I occasionally go right to sleep after a tiring day without setting up enteral feeding; or (3) medical tests which require my digestive system to be empty during them, so I can't eat or drink anything for many hours previously. I generally get irritable when so unaccustomedly hungry; so it seemed that deliberately going hungry probably was not, for me, likely to be conducive to prayer. But, as the Church recommends fasting as an aid to prayer (though she doesn't make it an obligatory rule for people with serious health problems), I resolved to try it anyway. It worked surprisingly well, that first Ash Wednesday before I was received into the Church, and on the strange Good Friday I spent waiting in Emory's emergency room, gradually giving up hope of getting discharged in time for the Easter vigil (another story for another time). I would not recommend fasting for more than one day to others with CF, or fasting at all to anybody with a case of CF more severe than mine; but I think I can say that actual fasting (not eating anything for the most part of a day) can have spiritual benefits outweighing the physical costs, even for someone with health problems like mine.

Of fasting in the more general sense, of giving up during Lent (or the forty non-Sundays of Lent) something you customarily enjoy during the rest of the year, I am more hesitant to speak. I've tried different things in different years, and all had some benefit in freeing up time to pray more - much of which time I squandered on things other than prayer. For now I'll just mention one such discpline, which I now think to have been insufficiently penitential: in Lent of 2001 I gave up starting new books. (I was in the middle of at least five, most of them nonfiction, when Lent started; I finished nearly all of them before Easter.) Giving up certain other things in Lent of 2000 and 2002 was more of a radical change to my habits, and more effective in putting away distractions and thus helping me to pray. But, being purely on the intellectual level, those disciplines still seemed somehow insufficient. This Lent I'm trying some different things, which I might describe here later, but probably won't.

Back to the regularly scheduled reviews...

With "La Princesse de Babylone" I finished reading Voltaire's Romans (Romances), which I had spread out reading over the course of about two and a half years. Formosante, the only daughter of the emperor of Babylon, is offered in marriage (according to the instructions of an oracle) to the winner of a series of contests of strength, skill, valor and other desirable qualities. The Kings of Egypt, India, and Scythia come to Babylon to compete for her hand. A mysterious young stranger, who disclaims noble birth, also comes, riding a unicorn. The stranger gains in the contest, and makes a gift of a beautiful bird of unknown species to the Princess; but being suddenly informed by a courier of his father's illness, rushes off leaving no forwarding address. The fastest horses of Babylon can't keep up with the unicorns. So begin Formosante's adventures; after her father seeks another oracle, he sends her on a pilgrimage to a shrine in Arabia to pray for a husband. The gift-bird, a phoenix, tells her much about her mysterous suitor, hight Amazan, and his country; she plans to travel thither, but get abducted by the king of Egypt first, and has to resort to a distasteful stratagem to escape... This is as eventful a novella as one could hope for, and covers a great deal of territory all around the ancient world. Voltaire makes satirical points about modern Italy, Britain, Russia, France, and Germany by imputing their peculiarities to their ancestors. (The British section is by far the funniest.) But mostly this doesn't get in the way of Formosante and Amazan's adventures. The end of the story is quite satisfying; then follows a section of disacknowledgements, in which Voltaire invokes his Muse against his literary enemies who attacked his earlier books, and prays for protection for this latest one.

It's been too long since I read most of these Romances to comment on them in any detail. I'll just briefly note which ones I liked best and least. Candide is deservedly a classic, though I didn't enjoy it as much as Zadig, "La Princesse de Babylone", or "Le Taureau Blanc" (The White Bull). This last, my favorite from this collection, is a bizarre concatenation of various stories and characters from the Old Testament: the Witch of Endor, the mages of Egypt, the Serpent from the Garden, Balaam's ass, the whale that swallowed Jonah, and several of the prophets all make appearances. It sounds silly, and it is, but somehow all this anachronism actually enhances the romance of the young princess of Egypt whose fiancé has been missing for seven years. Of middling good quality were "Micromégas", "Le Monde Comme Il Va", and "Le Blanc et le Noir". I didn't finish reading "L'Ingenu". L'Homme aux Quarante Ecus I reviewed back in June.

I don't know of a complete translation of the Romances in English; each of these collections has some of the stories.


Asimov's, April 2003

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1961

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