Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Sicilian Mafia & Human Cadavers

Then add in the yakuza, except not really because see below. I didn't really see the connection till after I put everything down in a list like this. Huh.
  1. Moonlight (2016)
    • One of the things I especially enjoyed here was that although I went in thinking it was going to discuss blackness in Miami, which it did, it did in a way where being black was not the focus: it was part of the setting and accepted as such, so that we could then focus on Chiron coming to terms with his sexuality and figuring out how to live in the world.
  2. Tales from Earthsea (2006)
    • I wasn't particularly impressed with this one: they virtually hit you over the head with the message of "life is precious, all the more so that it's fleeting" as well as the other one being "this is what happens when you try to play God and cheat death", and it was awfully convenient that Tehru happened to be a dragon; deus ex machina has never been something I've been a great fan of. Also, a lot of things don't get explained, which I'm sure has something to do with the fact that this movie tried to compile several novels of a series: we never do find out why Arren killed his father, why are there 5 hawks at the end if the 1 hawk Tehru sings about represents Haitaka? (so there's Haitaka, Arren, Tehru, and Tenar, right? Unless the hawk is also just the hawk instead of a stand-in for Haitaka to begin with? Maybe I'm just thinking too much here), and the first scene where the King tells his wizard to find out the cause of the fever, though we don't actually ever see any manifestation of the fever itself across the land, in addition to which we never see the court ever again; also, Arren tells Tehru he's going to go back and atone, but immediately after that, we see a scene where they're all tilling the land together, so is he putting it off? (I mean, he's been gone all that while, so maybe it doesn't even matter anymore? His kingdom might actually just be a mess because he killed the figurehead and then ran off? Also assuming he's the crown prince, then the kingdom also lost its immediate successor? Uggggghhhhhhh)... and that's just to name a couple of things. While I haven't read the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin, I'm almost positive this film adaptation does not do the series justice.
  3. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
    • I was forewarned multiple times that I would either a)cry, or, barring that, b)be ripped apart into two (or more) pieces by this movie. Grave of the Fireflies delivered: it would probably have been great to have watched the first screening on New Year's day, as bleak as it was. I was tempted at first to push blame onto the older brother for not swallowing his pride and staying with the aunt, but that's probably the wrong way to go about it. It's a portrayal of just some of the victims of the war, and while on the whole it condemns the war (because the entire movie), there aren't any particular individuals that you could single out as "the bad guy".
  4. Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia by John Dickie
    • This is a very well organized introduction into what the Sicilian mafia is, in terms of its structure, its history, its resilience, leading all the way up to 2006. I've been interested for a while in doing a bit of research into what exactly the differences are between the mafia, the yakuza, triads, cartels, and other such organizations or groups (including regular ol' gangs), so I figured it would probably be easiest to start with the mafia.
    • Dickie provides a chapter by chapter bibliography so that the reader can go to his sources to read up more on each specific period in time, as well as outlining pretty well the timeline. He also makes sure that most, if not all, of the names mentioned do get referenced later on, giving short descriptions if too many pages have passed, which makes it a lot easier to follow along for the reader: it can get confusing when you have to keep a bunch of names in mind and remember who did what when, and Dickie has done a really good job keeping everything relatively straightforward. He is also at pains to make clear that some information may simply be lost to time, as key witnesses may either be dead or refuse to talk, and crucially, even when dealing with pentiti, and even if they are high up the system, it doesn't mean that they have a full grasp on the reasoning behind every event, or even that they would be willing to divulge everything.
    • I'm not sure if there's a more up-to-date version of this book, or if there are other such books written by others about the history of the Sicilian mafia up to present day, though. I'm sure a lot has changed, if even just because Bernardo Provenzano died in 2016 (I remember seeing a snippet on CP24). In addition to which, for all the years he had been imprisoned, the mafia must have been running without his immediate direction.
    • Now if only there were simple chronologies of every organized crime group, readily available from my public library...
  5. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
    • Roach makes the subject of human cadavers and the fascinating things that happen to them highly approachable for the average reader who may not have much interest in reading too much about the gory technicalities of death. While there were times when I found that Roach's snarky comments were a bit overkill, I enjoyed it for the most part, and it was only towards the end that I started to get a bit tired of it; for the most part though, I did enjoy her tangents in the footnotes. Overall, a great gateway into the world of the (human) dead (though she does also provide information about animals whenever relevant, which is quite often) that I would recommend!
    • I also, unexpectedly, got an answer to a question I've had floating around in my head for a while: how much can the human rib cage compress before something actually gets damaged? (Albeit not in quite as well-articulated or coherent a form as that. It went something more along the lines of "how hard can I hug someone before I break something, and can I actually even do it?") The answer, as it turns out, is 2 3/4" (p.88 if you're interested in reading more about that figure, though Roach doesn't much expand on it, the actual subject being the use of human cadavers in driving simulations and safety tests), which I think I can safely assume is outside of my own physical ability to compress a fully grown human's rib cage: in other words, I can hug people with full abandon and not worry too much.
  6. Yakuza Moon by Shoko Tendo
    • I was more looking for something that would discuss the yakuza, but since there's a dearth of that at my local library, I had to settle for this memoir, which might have had an impact on my impressions (although I knew going in that it wasn't going to be what I was looking for, exactly).
    • The writing, which Tendo from the start acknowledges as being of poor quality, is I think supposed to strike a cord with the reader in terms of authenticity, and while I have no doubt of the truth behind her account of her life, the issue is more that I couldn't get into it. Tendo's depiction of her life is rather dry and shallow, describing everything quite simply and without describing too much the emotions - only touching on them, really - that came with what was happening. There was also no buildup whatsoever to her decision to get tattooed, or to any of her other decisions: perhaps this matches well with her portrayal of herself as someone who did what she wanted, but this was supposed to be a momentous event for her, was it not? Everything that occurs presents more as a list of events rather than a fully fledged narrative, and I'm of the opinion it doesn't quite work in Tendo's favour in this case.
    • The book also ends before her child is born, which I found a bit odd considering that she mentions her child in the introduction and Tendo mentions her miscarriage and abortion. I suppose it makes sense if it's because that information might jeopardize her privacy and her current life, but it was a rather unexpected cutoff point.
  7. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison
    • To an extent, I cannot but feel that Morrison is simply pointing out the obvious, but at the same time, I realize that I'm coming at this from a position of having had the issue of othering presented to me throughout my education (to some degree). That being said, it's not as though I noticed the role played by black characters in whatever I read, so sometimes, it does take someone stating the obvious to make the connection clear.
    • Without black characters and the general concept of "blackness" to provide a backdrop against which to produce a definition of "whiteness", I wonder what that notion might have become? Of course, as Morrison states, it would be an impossible feat for the masters in the master-slave equation to not be affected by their dominance over the black slaves in terms of their own understanding of their identity. If society or literature could really truly be free of racial interpretation and influence, there would from the outset have been no issue in trying to define "whiteness" or "blackness", because none of that would matter at all - that being the way things would stand in an unracialized state of affairs.
    • One quote I wanted to keep on me: "Expensively kept, economically unsound, a spurious and useless political asset in election campaigns, racism is as healthy today as it was during the Enlightenment" (p.63)
    • In relation to Cosa Nostra (above) though, there was a line in Cosa Nostra, I think spoken by the pope at the time on the topic of the Sicilian mafia, that it does no good to simply try to remove the mafia with an "anti-mafia" campaign; unless the issue that allowed and continues to allow the mafia to prosper is fixed, either the mafia will rise once more from the ashes, or something else will take their place. In similar fashion (and another example would be in the case of defining mental health: sometimes it's easier to define it by negatives, in terms of what it is not rather than what it is), in an unescapably racialized literature, if "whiteness" could only be founded on the juxtaposition against what it is not, i.e. blackness, then where does that leave the concept of whiteness?
  8. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate - Discoveries From a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben
    • I keep thinking this author's name is Wollebaum (because cotton is baumwolle).
    • It's absolutely incredible all the different things trees do that I had never really even considered in full (though at the same time never rejected outright - the issue is more that I never truly thought about trees all that much at all)! They have social networks, are able to communicate through the air and underground (oh dear, giraffe alert! Giraffe alert! Put out your poisons!), have different personalities (do I keep my leaves since it's a pretty warm fall, or should I jettison them - better safe than sorry!), raise their young under their own shady authority (wait a couple hundred more years before you even think about surpassing me, you young stripling!), and self-regulate (no surprise) way better than all our efforts to regulate them.
    • While every chapter was charming in its own way, and each of the following chapters helped reinforce whatever was said before, every aspect introduced was dealt with in pretty quick succession: in about 6-7 pages, the immediate topic would be done and Wohlleben would move onto the next related topic. For the purposes of this book and the flow, it worked out pretty well, although I would also have appreciated a more in-depth coverage of some topics (e.g. re: the red wood ant and other non-native species in the context of how they affect the trees). As an appetizer, The Hidden Life of Trees serves to whet your appetite for more, and as increasing awareness of trees is the aim of the book, I would say that Wohlleben has done a great job in making this information lighthearted (e.g. Spruce & Co.) and accessible.
  9. The Heart of Henry Quantum by Pepper Harding
    • Harding tried a bit too hard here (or perhaps not quite hard enough) to go off on related but also ridiculous and tenuous tangents, which were the point, of course (and to simply ignore them sometimes and live in the moment to face up to what exactly it is you want to do), but at the same time, the idea could have been carried out in a much smoother way. As it is, the thoughts seem forced to meander off rather than naturally doing so of their own accord - as thoughts do - because of all the helping words that guide the reading, along the lines of (and these are not direct quotes): "and this of course led him to think about this other thing", or "but this is related to this, and this new thought so gripped him he could not but continue down that path". You get the sense of it. Too much hand-holding and too little actual stream of consciousness going on.
      • OH. There were also some really nonchalant stereotyping types of thoughts dropped by Henry Quantum, which I will not equate with that of the author because that way lies madness and simply wouldn't be fair on Harding, but the fact that these thought tangents led around in such a shallow manner, and in such a way, turned me quite against the novel as a whole. The casual racism simply doesn't work towards anything in this novel: it doesn't further character development, it doesn't further plot, nothing. In addition to which the stigmatization of mental illness made another huge dent in my impression of the novel.
    • As for the plot itself... it's nonexistent at best? Boring in all honesty. (And possibly offensive at worst.) If you're reading this novel, I'd say you're probably going to be reading it for the supposed quirkiness of Henry Quantum - and I say quirkiness only because the tangents are so forced, whereas if they were handled better and presented more naturally, it would probably be much more captivating in the sense that the reader would be able to identify more fully with Henry as a fully fledged character - but my comments on that are as above. To sum up: it was a good try, but it had so much more potential. Most likely a better plot coupled with more natural liaising of thought digressions would lead to a better novel; then again, it might just be something completely different rather than another version of this one, so make of that what you will.
  10. On the Dot: The Speck that Changed the World by Alexander Humez & Nicholas Humez
    • Harding, this is how it's done (see above on The Heart of Henry Quantum). The somewhat unfortunate thing is that Humez & Humez were not attempting a tangential novel (to my knowledge).
    • Tangents upon digressions upon tangents upon digressions. Of course, this means that about a third of the book - possibly more - does not actually discuss the dot in all its manifestations within the realm of writing. The authors have no qualm going off on tenuously related topics before returning (if at all returning) to the written dot. If you're looking for an in-depth history of all the uses of the dot in written form, this is probably not going to be your jam: there is simply too much meandering around the subject for this to be that sort of book. It almost reads more as a stream of consciousness, only so very loosely guided by the chapter headings that I'm seeing it as a more well wrought version of what I'm sure Harding (above) was trying to do. The style of writing is incredibly informal, and if you step away from your expectations of what you wanted from the book and enjoy it as a conversation of sorts, then it will most likely be time well spent. Never mind that another third of the book contains the endnotes, appendix, and whatever else, or that the book itself is only 256 pages. I'm sure a lot more dry fact could have been imparted upon the reader about the history of the dot and how it has changed in use and in appearance throughout the ages of written communication, but I'm of the opinion that was probably not the Humez's goal here; rather, it appears to me they sought to delight the reader in unrelated topics they otherwise would not have connected to the dot at all, all the while touching gently upon the actual proposed topic of the dot.
    • However. All the above praise can't change the fact that I could have gotten a much more in-depth history of the dot with the same research that the authors must have done. I can only hope that such a thing exists, i.e. a comprehensive history of the dot as it exists in writing.
  11. The Miner by Natsume Soseki
    • I want to say I enjoyed it and couldn't help turning the pages, because I really liked several of Soseki's other works (Kokoro, Wagahai wa Neko de Aru, among others), but - and my saying this actually proves a point to a degree, I think, about this - I didn't like it as a novel. Even as a stream of consciousness, the narrator appeared to be trying too hard to analyze himself and his motivations, giving off the impression with some of his writing that he wants to impress the reader with his philosophical conclusions re: the fluidity of identity, certain feelings, etc. It's not so much that I disagree with the fluidity of identity, though the narrator's stance is more that there is no such thing as a personality at all, it's the way in which he tries to convey that, imitating an academic tone of writing (perhaps he has some parts of his upbringing so ingrained he cannot possibly escape from it, no matter that he is so unattached and such a blank page as far as a character goes). However, as an experimental piece of writing, I can appreciate it: the foreshadowing when the narrator notes that he did not yet know he was sick led up to rather an anticlimax when he receives his diagnosis of bronchitis, though it did undo the positive influence of Yasu on his view of the world; there is no plot in particular - you just follow the narrator through his writing, not even his actual thoughts as they occurred to him at the time, rather a reflection upon what must have been his thoughts and motivations; the narrator's self-conscious reflections made in an attempt to make himself appear in a certain light (a degenerate, perhaps?); all of it works together, but I can see why it failed miserably - in the sense that it was reviewed negatively, pretty universally - in the format that it was originally published in.
    • I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the Soseki novels I have, especially having read the introduction & afterword for The Miner. It'll be interesting to see how the other novels written before & after The Miner play out in relation to it, as far as the distinction between good and bad goes, if nothing else.
  12. The Red Turtle (2015)
    • Somehow I recognized the waves from the trailer as being a Studio Ghibli production, before this actually came out at TIFF (on now!).
    • It's amazing what the producers have managed to create without using words! I know that the same was said of Shaun the Sheep, which I have yet to watch (and quite honestly will probably not be watching anytime in the near future), but in The Red Turtle, there's no overarching goal or conflict that needed to be resolved - I mean, there sort of is and there sort of isn't. I really like some of Ghibli's quicker paced goal-oriented movies (e.g. The Cat ReturnsHowl's Moving Castle), but this definitely belongs in the category of the quiet and slow films I've come to love from them, which leave you with a bunch of questions afterwards: Why does the turtle want to keep him on the island? Is she the same turtle he picked up? (But then the timeline doesn't really work out.) Why does she turn into a human being? (Does that have anything to do with myths & folk tales that I imagine abound around the world concerning animals that become humans? e.g. selkies, tsuru no ongaeshi, and I'm sure there are more that I don't know about.) Is there any relation to creation stories related to turtles (e.g. Turtle Island)? Am I just thinking too much?
    • All in all, this is a beautiful film with stunning animation and incredible accompanying music. Once it comes out on DVD, I would be more than happy to watch it again.
February (I just finished this, so I might as well include it here):
  1. Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear
    • Just into the intro and already want to dive in completely. It's also plain to me at this point that this book is even more an intersection between her picture book writing and her writing for adults, which works entirely in her favour for this highly segmented format.
    • This is a short journey not so much into the world of birding as into Maclear's observations regarding art, life, and how to live. She does not hold your hand throughout, leading you instead to try to view the world through a different lens, from a different perspective, by paying attention to your surroundings, by noticing the birds around you. I'm reminded of the use of canaries in coal mines: they serve as a warning; they serve as a reminder; they are what we should pay attention to in the darkest of times, when appreciation of nature seems too luxurious a thing to waste time on.
    • I'm not in love with this book - I don't hold it dear - but there are moments when I connected perfectly with what Maclear wrote, and those are the instances for which I would read the entire documentation of her year all over again.

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