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Sun and Steel
Sun and Steel
by John Bester
Edition: Paperback
46 used & new from $14.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars beach and weights vs. flag and sword, July 2, 2011
This review is from: Sun and Steel (Paperback)
Sun and Steel is on its face a story about physical and ideological transformation through the realization and experience of bodybuilding and martial arts. For westerners in the post-Schwarzenegger world, "sun and steel" conjures images of ye olde California body-building culture, and Mishima's work has some aesthetic connection with that, too. However, it needs to be remembered that sun and steel in the Japanese context have very different meanings, referring both to the Japanese artistic and martial traditions and to Imperialism and militarism. While it is not the topic per se of this book, the meaning of the book is the conflation in Mishima's mind of these three things--the physical body, traditional Japanese aesthetics, and WWII-era totalitarianism. While it is not quite fair to call Mishima a fascist, one does need to answer the question of why Mishima's costumes for photos included loin clothes, swords, and modern military uniforms, but not traditional armor. Or why his books are about soldiers and martial artists but he didn't write historical novels of the Edo or Sengoku periods. Or why he studied karate, kendo, and iaido rather than enrolling in a traditional school of martial arts. Or why he took up western-style body-building rather than engaging in traditional Japanese physical culture. In discussing the Shield Society, his private army, Mishima described a triangular relationship between comrades and the Emperor, where the Emperor acted as a mystical bond between men. And in an interview, the headmaster of a school of traditional bujutsu described the emphasis on death as a modern and decadent misunderstanding of the samurai, who valued life, as they valued service and success over romantic death.

Sun and Steel is a fascinating book, eccentric if not unique. And it will probably be enjoyed by anyone seriously at odds with modern times. But it is not written by a true reactionary so much as by an aesthetic who remained true to the visions of his youth. Mishima's opposition is to the democracy that forcibly replaced the mid-20th century Imperial system, not to the modernity that supplanted Japan's traditional values, arts, and politics.


Count Belisarius
Count Belisarius
by Robert Graves
Edition: Paperback
33 used & new from $1.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well-crafted but not especially enjoyable novel, June 26, 2011
This review is from: Count Belisarius (Paperback)
In the preface to Count Belisarius, Robert Graves says the story exists in what is for many people an historical hole between the classical period of the Roman Empire and the medieval period of European feudalism. And the story does fill this void, showing us warfare combining elements of both legions and knights as well as the political and religious transformation of Italy as it is overrun with barbarian tribes from Europe. Specifically, the story covers the end of the Roman Senate (murdered en masse while captives of a barbarian tribe), which is probably a fine arbitrary point for the end of Roman antiquity. But anyone looking for a romantic adventure story about "the last Roman" or "the last days of the Roman Empire" best look elsewhere. Graves gives us the story of a stoic man who suffers injustice and sees his life's work destroyed by incompetence and jealousy. Rather than a proud Roman, Belisarius is a professional soldier in the bureaucratically top-heavy Byzantine state.

I am not familiar enough with the scholarship to judge Graves as an historian, but he writes from slightly feminist and anti-Christian biases, which are prominent in this book. The women are generally savvy and powerful and drive much of the plot while the church is generally presented as full of hypocrits or cowards.

Dramatically, the book is good but falls short of Graves' I, Claudius. The prose are a higher level than what can be found in novels today, but there are minor plot inconsistencies and the events seem to stay close enough to source material that we never get deep characterizations. Even Belisarius remains somewhat flat through to the end of the book. Accounts of battles and troop movements, exciting at first, become tedius by the end. Details about life in the period are woven into the narrartive effectively.

There are other studies of Belisarius and his era available, and some of these might be more fruitful for someone interested in the history of the late empire. Likewise, those interested in historical fiction might enjoy more a book that is less about Graves' political interests.


Ghost Dog - The Way of the Samurai
Ghost Dog - The Way of the Samurai
DVD ~ Forest Whitaker
Price: $9.38
60 used & new from $2.01

1 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars urban loneliness remake, June 5, 2011
When I watched Ghost Dog some time ago, I was confused but also very embarassed as I thought obviously either the protagonist or the writer didn't understand anything about the Way of the Samurai. But having seen Melville's film Le Samourai, I can now explain Ghost Dog. Le Samourai is a non-sequitur in which the title of the film has essentially nothing to do with the plot (assassination) or theme (solitude) of the film. Ghost Dog is an homage re-make of Le Samourai that says "let's try to make the title relate to the plot." It's that simple, and that's why the film fails. The idea of a overweight, out of shape inner-city contract killer who derives some lifestyle from reading Hagakure and swinging around a samurai sword is ridiculous and not even clever or fun if you actually know anything about Japanese history, martial arts culture, or, especially, the actual contents of Hagakure. Like Le Samourai, Ghost Dog depends entirely on fashion and film history for any success.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 11, 2012 5:34 PM PDT


Le Samourai (The Criterion Collection)
Le Samourai (The Criterion Collection)
DVD ~ Alain Delon
Price: $20.91
33 used & new from $14.99

3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars expect no swords, June 4, 2011
Le Samourai is a film for film buffs. About the life of a French contract killer, director Melville has made a movie that synthesizes American crime drama of the film noir variety with the artistic sensibility of the 1960s avante-guarde. The title Samurai is a pretext, as the film never demonstrates that the main character is consciously engaged with any Japanese tradition. The title refers instead to the protagonist's solitude, a characteristic tied to samurai only on authority of the director. And this solitude is itself a pretext for making a visually stark film with very little dialogue that is driven entirely by plot, without any exploration of the emotional life, background, or motivations of any of the characters. It is almost experimental film-making and will be of less interest to the casual viewer than to the viewer interested in the history of film.

Le Samourai is a likely overrated film that depends on style and period sensibility for its success. While it is visually engaging enough to support viewer interest over the course of the film, and it is successful in telling a story with almost no dialogue, it has almost no interest except as a formal exercise in the things it does well. While one is expecting an interesting turn in the plot, the denouement is a disappointment that never explains the questions raised by the film.

The description on Amazon mentions some films that have been influenced by Le Samourai, and you can add to the list Ghost Dog starring Forrest Whitacker and The Professional starring Natalie Portman. This is obviously a film seen and loved by filmmakers.

While I wouldn't recommend this movie to someone interested in martial arts, action films, or modern crime dramas, it might be of interest to those with a taste for fashion or history. Because of Melville's directing style, the film does an excellent job of showcasing the clothes and cars of period Paris.


NEU SEX
NEU SEX
by Sasha Grey
Edition: Hardcover
29 used & new from $84.75

123 of 136 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Still not understanding the big deal, April 21, 2011
This review is from: NEU SEX (Hardcover)
Neu Sex is a book of art photos of author Sasha Grey interspersed with a few essays. Two things motivated me to get this book. On the one hand, I am fascinated by phenomena like Asia Carrera and Bobbi Starr who seem to break the backstory mold we have come to expect from the industry, while on the other I have always failed to "get" the big deal over Sasha Grey. Plus, the book has sort of been advertised as a behind-the-scenes look at the industry by an insider with a camera. How does the book deliver on my interests, and how are the photos?

The story that people like to tell themselves about the industry is that the actresses are unhappy girls without any skills to support themselves who do things they don't like in order to get attention and drugs. Actresses like Carrera and Starr seem to break the mold, inasmuch as they had other viable options that were clear to them. Is Grey, who Oscar-winning director Soderbergh describes as being not of the typical industry mold, another Carrera or Starr? Based on this book, not apparently. Grey much more conforms to the broken home/no skills story. The photos and essays in this book range from the uneducated mundane to the educated mundane, but they don't really have anything to tell us. There is not a budding artist or philosopher here. The gushing over Grey by reviewers and industry insiders has always been lost on me when confronted with the final product, and I feel the same about this book.

Is the book a behind-the-scenes look at the industry by an insider with a camera? No, not at all. They are a few shots of Grey on-set, but the majority are simply portraits of Grey. I was expecting photographs BY Grey that would show how she sees the world. Instead these are all photographs OF Grey, and so it makes me wonder how many were actually taken by her at all. The portraits range from uninteresting shots that could have been taken by any schmoe with a 35mm camera to art photos that have obviously been informed by viewing the work of professional photographers. Yes, some of the photos are good, but none of them are original and few go off script ("it's about Sasha").

As for the essays, they are also mixed but mundane. In style, they fit the short, expository, non-formal format favored in art show catalogues. In content, they seem to reveal someone of above-average intelligence who hasn't given much thought to the things she's writing about. Is it true that many people have trouble being honest about their feelings with those they love? Yes. Okay. So what?

In the end, I think this is mostly a book aimed at Grey's fans. You won't get much out of it otherwise.


The Girlfriend Experience
The Girlfriend Experience
DVD ~ Sasha Grey
Offered by Sparks DVD Sales
Price: $6.49
67 used & new from $0.70

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars If this is GFE, I'll never date again, April 21, 2011
This review is from: The Girlfriend Experience (DVD)
The plot of The Girlfriend Experience is, essentially, girl works as escort and has accepting boyfriend, girl falls for client, boyfriend dumps girl, client dumps girl, girl is alone. This is not a very interesting plot, nor one that gives us any insight into either the life of escorts or the human condition. The hook (other than the well-advertised bit about having a porn star play the escort) is that the scenes are not arranged chronologically, so boredom is staved off by the prurient interests of finding out details like what the special client did to make the girl fall for him.

What the film purports to be, I'm not sure. The other Soderbergh films I've seen--Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Ocean's Eleven, and Traffic--were all, I thought, underwhelming and overpraised. In particular, Traffic was a poorly acted and 2-dimensional film with what was, in the context of Hollywood and the international film community, a safe and pedestrian socio-political message. The Girlfriend Experience is in the same vein. Despite some formal interest in the way of cinematography and a well-executed job of editing, the film is empty. There is no exploration of the characters' personalities. They are almost stereotypes. Things that Soderbergh has said interested him in the film, such as the impact of technology on the escort service (no more madames!), are lacking in both complexity and presentation. Technology has changed lots of industries by taking out the middle-man. Why is this interesting in escorting? And how do we see the changes in the film?

That Sasha Grey stars in the film neither adds nor detracts. She exists on-screen as a passive non-entity, but this is also how her character is written and directed. The only jarring bits are points when the male characters praise her beauty or skill at her job. We never see her interacting with clients except by giving mono-syllabic reponses, and the other women in the film are better looking than she is. If Soderbergh failed to see this, it makes one wonder why.

Although on one level the film seems to be presenting escorts as independent business-women, on another it re-inforces many of our prejudices and stereotypes about escorting (e.g., she has no other skillset, the money is too good to get out, the clients are socially dysfunctional, etc) and in this way is simply a moralizing tale about a girl that ends up all alone. Yawn. Soderbergh is now a name I will look for to avoid in choosing films.


No Impact Man
No Impact Man
DVD ~ Colin Beavan
Price: $12.58
46 used & new from $2.28

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Very poor documentary, April 19, 2011
This review is from: No Impact Man (DVD)
No-Impact Man is supposed to be a documentary about 1 year in the life of a man named Beavan and his family during which they use only sustainable, non-polluting products. It was not supposed to be a movie about WHY you should be a no-impact environmentalist, nor a movie about HOW to go no-impact, so I wasn't disappointed that this DVD didn't show either of these things. Also, Beavan never said that his experiment was in living the only acceptable lifestyle, so I don't fault him for getting solar panels to power his laptop or selling his books. However, what I did expect was a movie about his experience of living without disposable things, and No-Impact Man didn't deliver. Instead it is a movie about Beavan and his wife, and some discombobulated moments in their lives.

Example one: The family tries to use a double-bucket system to cool food rather than having a fridge. But we get from the movie a scene where Beavan's wife is telling him that he doesn't support her because she is willing to use the buckets but he is not willing to have a second child with her. That's basically a movie about them as a couple, and we don't learn anything like... is the food going bad? Are the buckets hard to use? etc.

Example two: The family stops using toilet paper, using washable pieces of clothe instead. We get to hear from the wife stories about how some of her co-workers won't shake her hand anymore, etc. But what was the experience of using the clothe like? Did they feel clean? Was it gross to wash the clothes? No questions like that are ever answered.

I don't know who put this movie together, but they did a very poor job of making the No-Impact Man experiment either interesting or educational. Hopefully the book will be better.


The Barbarian Princess
The Barbarian Princess
by Florence King
Edition: Paperback
22 used & new from $0.80

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The romance of Florence King's imagination, April 11, 2011
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: The Barbarian Princess (Paperback)
The Barbarian Princess tells the story of a British princess during the Roman empire. She is married to an important Roman noble, falls in love with a Saxon barbarian, and eventually travels around the Mediterranean looking for him and getting herself embroiled in various historical matters such as St. Patrick's abduction by pirates, Alaric's sack of Rome, the Pelagian controversy, the burning of the Alexandrian library...

I'm not really sure what to make of this book. Unlike the other reviewer apparently is, I am not a reader of romance novels, so it is hard for me to judge this book against its genre. I was expecting something funny, although much of it wasn't or the humor was lost on me. Is it a complete parody? Is it the earnest pinnacle of the romance genre? I couldn't say.

Judged on other merits, I found it inconsistent. No one would ever mistake this for the great American novel, but some of the writing is quite good, while at times the writing is no better than the pulp fiction sleaze available at about the same time the novel was published. Starting with a near rape in the first few pages that leaves the protagonist in an unsettled and curious state, the main justification for the book seems to be a sort of sexual Odyssey (like Barbarella, Emmanuelle, or other erotica of roughly the same time period) in which the princess enters into a variety of different sorts of relationships with different sorts of men (and women) in the course of her historical embroilments, finding satisfaction in the end in a life of hearth and home with her one true love. Although some of the situations are ridiculous, some of them seem to be quite serious. In particular, the treatment of the issue of Christianity and paganism seems to have a distinct message. One gets the feeling that this is the author's attempt to lay out her own approach to sexuality and religion. (Also, there's a lot of killing, gore, and destruction, and I'm not sure why.)

In general, I think it is a good policy for men to avoid bodice ripper novels. They are a losing proposition. Is this one any different for being a Florence King book? No, I don't think so. I got some enjoyment out of it for its multitude of Latin sayings and classical references and the occasional misanthropic moment, but in the end it is still a bodice ripper.


Gesundheit, Dummy!
Gesundheit, Dummy!
by Rex F. May
Edition: Paperback
8 used & new from $3.80

3.0 out of 5 stars hilarious, but very short, April 10, 2011
This review is from: Gesundheit, Dummy! (Paperback)
I love Baloo cartoons, and I see them frequently in different places. So, I was really looking forward to having a collection of them. Unfortunately, this book only has two cartoons per page, and only on pages 7-62. This means there are less than 120 cartoons in this book. I read through the book while waiting for a family member to finish primping before going out. I have no idea how many Baloo cartoons are in existence, but it must be far more than are published here. This book is not even close to a definitive collection. I hope the artist produces something more comprehensive in the future.


The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul
The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul
by Dave Bruno
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.15
120 used & new from $0.01

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars memoir of 1 year avoiding consumer culture, April 10, 2011
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Feeling weighed down recently, I purchased 4 books about decluttering:Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide: How to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify Your Life, Unclutter Your Life in One Week, and the 100 thing challenge. Here is a comparison of them.

Less is not really about decluttering so much as Zen. The book is more about less busyness than less stuff. It is about mindfulness. It is about facing fears. It is business-oriented. For someone interested in cultivating a minimalist approach to living, Less does not have that much to offer.

The 100 Thing Challenge is more the sort of book I had in mind to buy. Written by a man who spent a year living with only 100 possessions, it is an anti-consumerist tract. It has some limited practical advice, but it is more about the experience of doing without things than a how-to. And even at that, it is more memoir and less analysis. The author repeats himself a lot, including the fact that he hates American consumerism and gained so much emotionally and spiritually from decreasing his reliance on things. And he does make some interesting observations about the way people use purchases to address emotional issues. But by the end of the book, I could not say how, exactly, the author had benefited by not having the things that weren't on his list of 100 possessions. The author strikes me as being slightly neurotic over his own history of purchasing and being tied to consumer brands, and the primary benefit to him seems to be an easing of his neuroticism. I was annoyed at first, as some other reviewers have noted, that his 100 things did not include everything he holds in common with his wife. But that's the only realistic way he could have lived. I was reminded that when Pope John-Paul II died, they said his only personal possession was a razor. This book was not outstanding but I got sucked into it eventually. Some reviewers have complained that he didn't write about the hardships of reducing to 100 things, but he did. He says that there was nothing to say about it because it simply wasn't very hard, and that is part of the point. I just wish the author could have written a little more specifically about the benefits of avoiding purchasing and accumulation.

The Joy of Less and Unclutter Your Life in One Week are both how-to books, but they are rather different in focus. The Joy of Less takes a single systematic approach to decluttering (represented by the acronym STREAMLINE) and shows how it might be applied to decluttering various parts of your home. Unclutter Your Life in One Week has a more shot-gun approach, suggesting a variety of different methods for organizing and reducing clutter.

Are any of the books worth buying?

What I was really looking for was a book that would delve into research a little and identify what areas of life make the most difference in minimalizing and what that difference might be. None of these books took that approach. The how-to books are based on sensible advice and suggest that you will feel better by living in a simpler, more organized space, but that is all hearsay. Maybe you are a creative person with a lot of hobbies. Will throwing things out really improve your life?

These books might be helpful to you if you aren't good at organizing your things already. At one time or another, many of the suggestions in Joy of Less or Unclutter Your Life are things I figured out on my own. I think if you have a natural propensity to live a minimalist and organized lifestyle, none of these books are going to have anything of value for you. But if your living space is overflowing with things you can't figure out how to deal with, you might learn something from either of these how-to books. If your problem is that you buy too many things, you might want to check out the 100 Thing Challenge. Other than Less, all of these books also have accompanying websites such missminimalist.com, unclutter.com, and guynameddave.com

If you are interested in the sustainability impact of minimalism, you might also be interested in No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process or Better Off : Flipping the Switch on Technology, by a Christian who goes to live with an Amish-style community.


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