Book Review – The Prince By Niccolo Machiavelli

Title: The Prince and The Discourses
Author: 
Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Luigi Ricci, revised by E.R.P. Vincent, Intro by Max Lerner
Format: Paperback
Written: cir 1515 / 1532
Published: 
1950, Modern Library College Edition (Random House)

The Prince is a political discourse which follows a literary genre of advice to princes on how to govern their territories.  Machiavelli’s was distinctive by taking a harshly realistic rather than idealistic approach to the genre.  (The Discourses were included in this edition, but I did not read them.)

I believe I picked up this battered copy of The Prince from a free book shelf and would recommend this edition if you chance across it.  There’s a lengthy introduction at the beginning which provides some biographical information on Machiavelli.  I normally skip those, but this one held my attention longer than most.  And The Prince is the sort of book that makes a lot more sense in historical context as it’s largely a commentary on history and current politics (in the early 1500s).

Frankly, it’s one of the more boring books I’ve read.  But I suspect that has a lot to do with my lack of detailed knowledge of Italian political history.  Machiavelli is frequently pointing to specific rulers as examples of his points, and not being familiar with them, it’s hard to tell if he’s being dry or sly in his commentary.  Someone on Goodreads had insisted The Prince was really a satire, and I was hoping to be able to determine whether or not this is so.  But without the historical context it’s hard to say.

The book itself is historically significant and Machiavellian ideas have influenced a number of leaders.  It’s not nearly as dark or unfeeling as I had thought it might be given its most frequently quoted line (“It is better to be feared than loved” which is only part of the sentence).  Out of context, it does sound awful.  In context, it’s fairly pragmatic.  Machiavelli also goes to great lengths talking about how important it is to have fair laws and not abuse the common people.  So I do think he was more realist than sadist.  But the reality of history is that political change often came with a good deal of violence.

There’s plenty of room to debate how pragmatically “good” Machiavelli’s ideas are.  They’re often circular and contradictory (which leads credence to the satire theory).  But I believe the book has endured for how incredibly quotable many of its sentences and paragraphs are.  Just as the spews of names and dry text would lull me towards sleep, a brilliantly insightful and well phrased line would emerge.  So there was certainly wit and intelligence in the writer, and while I’m glad to have read the book, I wish I had better context knowledge to understand it.

I’m going to give it a solid 3 out of 5, because I would strongly recommend it to the intellectually, politically, or historically curious.  But I have a feeling it would bore and annoy many readers.  Certainly not a good pleasure reading.

Book Review – Memoirs of a Geisha By Arthur Golden

Title: Memoirs of a Geisha
Author: 
Arthur Golden
Format: 
Paperback
Published: 
1997

Memoirs of a Geisha is the story of a young girl who is sold along with her sister into prostitution.  The older sister is taken directly to a brothel which she soon flees, while the younger is taken to an okiya to be raised as a Geisha.  In the real world, it was integral to the role of a Geisha that she is not a prostitute, but in Arthur Golden’s world Geisha sell their virginity to the highest bidder and must work as a mistress for hire to exceedingly wealthy men to be “successful”.  At 14 our young girl, who goes through three names but ends up Sayuri, falls for a man in his mid forties and spends the next fifteen years or so obsessing over him until she finally gets to be his mistress.

Skip the book, see the movie, then go read a book or two about actual Geisha.  The movie garnered its own share of criticism by casting Chinese actresses in the main roles and inaccurately representing Geisha dress and culture, but even so, it is visually stunning and well acted.  Details of the film bothered me, and I had hoped Hollywood had not done the book full justice.  No such luck.  This is a case of the film improving on the book, trimming down some of the more disturbing elements like Dr. Crab who not only makes a practice of paying large sums for the privilege of deflowering the young Geisha but keeps a collection of their blood from the encounter as well. If this guy isn’t creepy enough for you, the woman who is supposed to be training and guiding young Sayuri is fully aware of this creep’s practices but still goes out of the way to get him in on the virginity bidding for her own financial gain.  Even her love interest was involved in arranging this fate for her, though he had hoped originally to do the deflowering himself.  Basically, everyone in Sayuri’s life is using her for sex, either on the buying or selling end.  She’s positioned as a high-end prostitute with other talents, but the focus is selling her body more than her entertaining skills.

Historically and even currently young girls go through similar hardships, but it’s not the way of Geisha.  Golden has heavily sexualized one of the few outlets for women in 17th century to WWII era Japan to pursue independent careers which weren’t dependent on marriage or prostitution.  Geisha did originate in brothels, originally men but the role was adopted by women who entertained alongside high class prostitutes who had their own ranking system.  Geisha were not allowed to be prostitutes in part because it conflicted with the courtesans’ business.

Certainly a few of them crossed the line, and there were prostitutes who presented themselves as Geisha and Geisha who turned to prostitution in desperate economic times.  However, Golden presents these as standard and ritualized Geisha practices, as though he can’t believe in a world before radios or television men would pay women for their entertainment skills.

Geisha (a word that mean “artist”) are skilled performers who might specialize as singers, musicians, and/or dancers.  They also provide company and conversation similar to an escort.  And yes, it is more than a little offensive to suggest they couldn’t possibly hold onto a patron without also being his mistress or they need to auction off their virginity to graduate to a new level of Geisha.  It would be like suggesting Michelangelo couldn’t get a job unless he was also putting out.  Golden thanks the real Geisha Mineko Iwasaki for granting him an interview, even though she had asked him to keep her name private.  She in turn sued him for breach of contract and defamation of character in 2001, and published her autobiography Geisha of Gion in 2002 to help give the world a more accurate view of Geisha life.

This book made me kind of mad.  Golden sets up a pretence of historical accuracy, only to take us through a series of what are essentially rapes, have a pretty young girl obsess over a middle-aged man, and then the publisher has the nerve to call this “romantic, erotic, and suspenseful” when it’s none of these things.  If I was being flattering, I might call it beautifully tragic, because it takes a resilient person to survive sexual slavery, even with comfortable trappings, and the kimono and setting descriptions are often lovely.  If I take a deep breath and try to see past my indignation, the writing is passable with strong descriptions and believable characters but not gripping or entertaining.  Sayuri is a sympathetic but somewhat bland narrator.  The plot meanders, which is perhaps more realistic, but if you’re going to ignore realism to pander to fatalistic sex fantasy, then I’d much rather have a tight plot and clever narration.

As with the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (which is also fiction), the writer can’t even give his subject the consideration that they might be competent enough to write their own books, but must wrap it in pretense of being recorded for posterity by a “real writer” who also happens to be a male very similar to the actual male writer.  Maybe that’s to help bridge us between the male name on the cover and female narrator, but I’m developing a strong distaste for fake memoire fiction.

Final verdict is 2 out of 5.  Golden’s writing is solid enough I might try other works by him.  He comes off as a capable writer, but lazy or indifferent in the wrong places, at least in this book.

Book Review – I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla By Marguerite A. Wright

Title: I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla
Author: Marguerite A. Wright
Format: Hardcover
Published: 1998

Dr. Marguerite A. Wright draws on years of research (her own and others) and experience as a child psychologist to discuss the different phases of racial awareness in children from the preschool to teen years and give guidance and practical advice to parents and educators on how to help children develop healthy attitudes about race and themselves.

Overall this book is brilliant and an important piece of literature which I’d strongly encourage anyone working with children of any race to read. The focus is on black and biracial students, and it’s important to keep in mind that there have been ongoing social changes in the past fifteen years since the books release (so the statistics and details may not all be current). However, I feel that most of it is still extremely relevant to current day. Children are essentially the same even as culture shifts.

I don’t agree with every single thing Wright said. For instance, she is completely anti-spanking, and I think that it can be a healthy disciplinary tool when used consistently and within limits. However, she does suggest several alternative discipline options which are equally if not more effective and should compliment if not replace physical discipline. There’s a few odd places where her advice almost seems contradictory, but I believe that’s mainly a call for balance. Racism can be a broad and complex topic, and often there is a balancing act between pride in one’s own culture and respect for others’. But Wright does a good job making her case on most points with living examples and research statistics.

While part of what I love about the book is its focus on psychological development, the language is very accessible. It avoids the extremes of being too technical or too dumbed down, and Wright talks to her readers as though they are intelligent adults capable of adult conversation.

Because I want most everyone to give this book a read for its tasteful and productive handling of the subject matter, I do declare it a 5-out of-5 read. However, I think it’s equally important to understand the examples and legal details are often 20 years old. I have no idea if an updated edition is planned, but I would love to see one.

Book Review – The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

TITLE: The Invisible Man
AUTHOR: Ralph Ellison
FORMAT: Paperback
WRITTEN: 1952
PUBLISHED: 1981

The Invisible Man is about the almost surreal struggle of a young black man in the early 1950s trying to distinguish himself in a predominantly white world.  He strives first for education, but an incident ejects him unfairly from college life and into the streets of New York where he eventually finds himself a spokesman in Harlem for a political movement known as the Brotherhood.

Usually, once I get past the first few pages of a book, I see it through to the end, but I almost gave up on this about a third of the way through.  It seemed to belong to that class of “classics” where the protagonist suffers a mix of bad treatment complicated by their own bad decisions, but never acknowledges their own role in their misfortunes.  But the narrative leveled out, and I made it through the 581 pages.  I can’t say I enjoyed the book, so much as I can appreciate it.

I imagine this is one of those novels that will resonate deeply with some people, but be a little too dense and frustrating for others.  Its message was far more complex than my early prediction, and while I occasionally found myself frustrated with the narrative for not being clearer, the protagonist did not simply drift through events for the novel’s entirety.

While reading, the book felt disjointed.  The symbolism was strong in places but the writing murky, too many motives and actions left unexplained.  Reflecting on it, there was a deliberate progression, and I strongly suggest you skip neither the prologue nor epilogue if you hope for any semblance of closure.  Except, the novel ends not so much with closure but with an awakening, or sense of being on the cusp of awakening, which may make a lot more sense in historical context than outside of it.  It’s set in a time gearing up for the height of McCarthyism and the civil rights movement.

I found myself frustrated while reading that the Brotherhood’s politics were not made clearer, but suspect the general reading public of the time would have accepted them to be a communist movement.

Overall, it gets a solid 3 out of 5.  It was a popular book when first released, and it’s easy to see how it could strike a chord.  But I prefer a higher level of polish and closure when making a nearly 600 page investment of my time.

Book Review – Octopus! By Katherine Harmon Courage

Title: Octopus!  (The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea)
Author: Katherine Harmon Courage
Format: 
Paperback
Published: 
2013

Octopus! is not surprisingly a nonfiction book about octopuses.  (I picked up a free ARC copy.)  Subcategorizing it beyond nonfiction is a little tricky.  It’s sort of a snapshot of our historical, culinary, cultural, fictional, and scientific relationship with the octopus.  Katherine Harmon Courage is a journalist and an associate editor at Scientific American.  So there’s a good portion of the book which focuses on the biology and science of the octopus, but there’s almost as much time spent on what we don’t know about them as what we do.

As a personal preference, I like my nonfiction a bit drier than this book.  I felt there was way too much time spent on Katherine’s traveling misadventures to meet various fishermen and researchers, and I got a little bored with the constant variations on “Isn’t that cool/icky/strange/interesting!?!”

However, for other people this might be a nice break from a textbook rattling off a dry list of facts.  There is something interesting about stepping back from a stack of figures and looking at the messy, imprecise side of trying to gather more precise data.

If you’d like to know more about the octopus (or are just looking for idea fodder for a hard science fiction tale) this may be a good gateway book.  At 220 pages, it’s not a super long or intense read, but it does offer up a lot of stimulating food for thought on everything from our perspective on other species to the weird economics of food exportation to robotics.  And there’s an extensive list of source material in the back if you want some drier reading. Courage certainly did her research.

If you’re a hardcore animal rights advocate, you may feel a bit of outrage at sampling a live octopus meal at a Korean restaurant, and if you’re not, you may still feel a bit squeamish during a few passages.  It’s not a book designed to shock, but neither does it hold back on raw realities of octopus life or octopuses in our lives.  (Yes, she briefly covers hentai.)

I’ll give it a solid 4 out of  5, since I think the book accomplishes what it sets out to do.  I can’t say it’s a must read.  Just kind of nice, kind of interesting, and while there’s a certain deliberate messiness to the presentation, it does cover a lot of fascinating ideas.

Book Review – Myst: The Book of D’ni By Rand Miller with David Wingrove

Title: Myst: The Book of D’ni
Author: Rand Miller with David Wingrove
Illustrations: Tow Bowman
Format: Hardback
Published: 1997

So we come to the third and final book in the set of three Myst tie-in novels.  The Book of D’ni reunites us with Atrus, several years older.  There’s a brief allusion to Atrus’s sons, which makes me think they were the center of one or more of the Myst computer game plots.  (I’m hoping I can find a used copy of the computer games to play.  If anyone has one collecting dust…)  Atrus and his wife Catherine have decided to take on the task of rebuilding the ruined D’ni civilization.  With the help of some young recruits from a modest Age, they start by searching for survivors and information to help them rebuild.  In the course of their exploration, they uncover a sealed tomb with an ancient book which leads them to an impressive civilization that dazzles them with its apparent perfection.  But of course there’s a secret hidden in the palatial walls of these grand marble houses.

Reading this book was a bit like listening to a fantastic piece of classical music on a record that keeps skipping.  The sentences and characters were solid.  The images and ideas are grand.  There was easily enough plot in the last book to fill a trilogy by itself.  However, the breaks are awkward, and there are pieces of information that seems to be missing, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks.  To a degree every book should leave a little space for the reader to connect the dots, but there are several places where a little clarity would be welcome.  Moments that easily could have been the most dramatic and exciting are skipped over entirely, while the calm moments are detailed.

It was delightful to get back to Atrus and the smaller scale of the early chapters.  The later chapters slide more into grand world sweeping drama.  The intimate moments were strongest.  There was a good variety in the characters, which made them feel better developed.  The large scale events were for me the weakest parts of story, where they fell into the trap of massive fantasy armies which amass at unrealistic speed and unity of purpose than does not make sense for a technology still reliant on foot messengers and rower driven boats, and are dumb enough to constantly be burning crops without thought as to how they themselves are going to eat.  (Tactics and logistic lovers are likely to cringe repeatedly.)

Myst is supposed to contain elements of surrealism, so I think the gaps are intended to give it a dream like quality.  It blends a mix of modern, if not futuristic, science and technology from the Roman Empire.  They have deep understanding of microbes for instance but don’t seem so keen on this wheel thing or anything akin to a telegraph.

There is a massive logic hole or two, which in some ways reflects history (foreign microbes wiping out entire cultures), but don’t quite mesh with their level of scientific and technological understanding.  Nor does the rapid spread make sense when travel between houses and cities takes so long.

Still, there’s a charm and unique character to these novels, and I think this quote from the epilogue captures it.  “ultimately, it is that not knowing, that determination in him to do what he thought was right and not what was expedient, that has made his actions more than something fated”.

Overall, I’ll give it a 4 out of 5.  As an endnote to the chronicle of Myst, it does a decent job tying the threads together and balancing the intimate scale of the first book with the grand scale of the second, but it could have been much better with a few small additions here and there.

Book Review – Labyrinth By A.C.H. Smith

Title: Labyrinth
Author: 
A.C.H. Smith (story by Jim Henson and Dennis Lee, screenplay by Terry Jones)
Illustrator: Brian Froud
Format: 
Hardcover
Written: 
1985
Published: 2014

As a long time fan of the film, I was very happy the Labyrinth novelization was reprinted as hunting used book stores had proved fruitless.  The novelization sticks fairly close to the plot and dialogue of the film with enough changes to make me wonder if it was written based on an early version of the script rather than the completed film.  For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, Labyrinth follows melodramatic fifteen-year-old Sarah who is discontent with her life and takes it out on her baby half-brother Toby by wishing him away.  To her dismay, the Goblin King Jareth from the book she’s reading (also called Labyrinth) does steal her brother away as she wished but refuses to simply give him back.  Instead Sarah has thirteen hours to make her way through the strange, shifting labyrinth populated by goblins and other fantastic creatures to save her brother.

While the film blurs the lines of reality to the point where it’s unclear whether Sarah has really been transported to another world or is simply having an elaborate dream/fantasy sequence, the book feels a tad more grounded in the fantastic.  Jareth’s motivations for kidnapping Toby are a little clearer and more ominous.  We’re given more backstory for Sarah and some hints at Jareth’s past, which make it harder to consider him purely a figure of her imagination.  However this world is densely packed with psychological and life metaphors, which make it a delightful reread (or repeat viewing) to catch all the nuances.

While Sarah starts out a bit whiny and self-centered in the film, she manages to start off even more petulant and cruel in the book.  I’m glad the film lacks her many jibes at Hoggle’s height, which were a bit uncomfortable and on the repetitive side.  But this is a coming of age story and transitioning from childish thinking to a more mature perspective is important to the story.

The book did impress me with how it dealt with the film’s musical numbers, focusing on the spirit and idea of the music rather than lazily reprinting the lyrics, which would have lost impact without the sound to go with them.  I think this approach worked much better for prose, particularly given the pop style of the music.

Labyrinth was YA before YA was cool.  While not crude, it does deal with themes of budding sexuality which make it a more appropriate to a teen audience than young children.  In some ways, the book is a little cleaner than the film, but in others, it’s more blatant about certain themes like desire and infidelity.  So YA but fairly tame on the YA scale.  And it’s certainly clever enough to entertain adult readers.

As a bonus, this hardback includes some previously unreleased sketches by Brian Froud, some notes on the creative origins of the film, and reprints of some of Jim Henson’s notebooks pages with early concept notes on it.  (For a writer, this is a bit like having your baby pictures shared with the general public, so I decided not to read them.  But a treat for dedicated fans and those interested in the creative process.)  Sadly, it’s not illustrated in the normal sense.  The story did not need illustrations but given the distinct visual nature of the film, they would have been fun.

Overall, I give it 5 stars.  There were a few changes that I wish had been done a little differently, but they were matters of preference rather than quality.

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