Conversations with a Translator: High School 2

Kate: I’ve been reading more manga with high school settings, specifically the series Hana-Kimi by Hisaya Nakajo. And it seems that the more I delve into the genre, the more certain issues swim to the surface, including issues specific to Japanese teen fiction.

It seems like every manga series has at least one volume where the bratty girls drag the heroine up to the roof (geez, where are the hall monitors?) and bully her—I mean, bully her, like beat her up. The hero inevitably shows up to save the day although there’s one very funny series (High School Debut) where the hero shows up only to find that his girlfriend has thrashed the third-year girls.

The reasons for the bullying are, quite bluntly, that the heroine doesn’t know her place. Nobody pretends that the bullying is being done for personal reasons. It’s just “You shouldn’t be dating a senior” or “You get better grades than us.”

How mean are Japanese girls?

Eugene: Good Morning Call has almost the exact same scene. It long ago entered trope territory. But it reflects an ugly reality.

Bullying remains a big problem in Japan’s secondary schools, just as the realities of social class and hierarchy remain omnipresent. In an episode of Cool Japan on NHK, hosts went around asking teenagers and young adults about the traditional class markers in school and business (senpai/kohai: senior/junior, etc.). Hardly anybody was in favor of doing away with them and embracing American-style “egalitarianism.” It’s the water the Japanese still swim in.

Back to School at 35 is a live-action series in which Ayako Baba (Ryoko Yonekura) returns to her alma mater to complete her senior year. It covers all the relevant social issues, especially the problems that arise out of the homeroom class being the same class for all the students in that class for all their subjects. The series similarly concludes with the message that, well, yeah, the system sucks (a root cause in the bullying problem), but we prefer it that way.

One of the best movies in this regard is A Silent Voice (Netflix). It is basically an Afterschool Special, but was produced by Kyoto Animation, so it’s a really good Afterschool Special.

The big difference between boys and girls, of course, is that boys really do beat the crap out of each other.

Loud, sweet-natured, dyed-blond Natsuku from Osaka
Kate: Apparently, being from Osaka is the equivalent of being from the Jersey Shore and carries with it all the class-consciousness, or at least jokes, associated with the “guido” lifestyle (see Bones, “The Maggots in the Meathead”).

Characters in the series are constantly making comments about Osaka and at one point, the mother of an Osaka student shows up. She’s got big hair, a loud mouth, and dangling jewelry. The narrator keeps adding comments like, “Not all people from Osaka are like this,” the implication being that the mother represents common assumptions about Osaka. (This is Osaka, the area, not Osaka, the name, which, according to the helpful narrator’s notes, uses different characters.)

Eugene: During the Edo Period 1603–1868), the Tokugawa shoguns imposed an authoritarian form of federalism on the provinces. This was to keep discontented governors from banding together and overthrowing the regime, which was exactly what happened in 1868. But they kept it at bay for 250 years.

Traveling from one province to another required an internal passport and getting caught without one would get you tossed in jail (though the draw of the big city was enough that many risked it). As a result, the provinces developed distinct identities and dialects.

The traditional Osaka greeting is “How’s business?” A common dubbing mistake is giving characters from Osaka a Southern accent. You’re right; they should sound like they’re from Jersey. “It ain’t personal, it’s business.” After all, the Osaka (Kansai) region is also home to Japan’s biggest and oldest yakuza gangs.

Kate: Speaking of regions, Hokkaido is the “hicks” but in a cool way.

At one point, a manga character who lives in Hokkaido decides to go to Tokyo University. Everyone acts like he’s moving to the moon—America would be closer. I was so puzzled, I looked it up. It appears to be the same distance as Portland, Maine to Washington DC which, granted, is quite a ways (and in Japan, there’s a sea to cross) but not THAT far.

 I've since gotten the impression that it’s the Portland part of the equation that makes Hokkaido the “hicks”—that is, Hokkaido is “hicks” like Maine is “hicks” (as opposed to Arkansas “hicks”). It’s remote and mysterious and kind of otherworldly. Which is pretty much how people in Washington State reacted when I told them I was moving to Maine.

Eugene: Hokkaido is like Maine married to Minnesota only with volcanoes and earthquakes. There’s a ton of open land, but given the choice, hot and crowded Tokyo wins out every time. For example, Nana (HIDIVE) begins with two girls fleeing the sticks for the big city. Enough people are doing it that many rural towns in Hokkaido and elsewhere are drying up and blowing away.

Fifty years ago, the coal town of Yubari, made famous in the 1977 Yoji Yamada film, The Yellow Handkerchief, had a population of 120,000. Since the mines closed in the 1980s, the population has declined by over 90 percent.

A cute anime series that takes place in Hokkaido is Figure 17 (Tubi). An elementary school student moves to Hokkaido with her father (he’s apprenticing at a farm bakery) and runs into a bunch of aliens. It’s The X-Files meets Little House on the Prairie. The aliens aside, it puts the region in a romantic light (man-eating monsters aside), to the extent of making all that wilderness look downright exotic. 

Kate: Hey, I could go for The X-Files meets Little House on the Prairie. In fact, that may be Supernatural!

The deserted element definitely shows up in the manga I read! If a series has a ghost story, it takes place on Hokkaido. That is, Hokkaido is where spooky stuff happens—in the woods. Likewise, the two questions I was asked by folks in Washington State about my move to Maine were “Will you see a moose?” and “Will you see Stephen King?” (A third was, "Isn't Maine in Canada?") Bizarrely, I’ve seen the latter in-person but not the former.

Speaking of Americans, an assumption throughout many manga series is that Americans kiss more—all the time, constantly, and they kiss everyone and everything from pets to family members to significant others to people in the street. I think this perception may mostly be due to television.

Eugene: Actually, according to the people who measure such things, American do kiss more than Japanese (though not as much as Europeans). For what it’s worth, there’s more kissing in shojo manga than on Japanese TV. You can watch a bio pic series on NHK that covers the protagonist’s entire life, including marriage and children, and not see a single kiss.

You know what you see instead? Hugs. Like the nosebleed, it’s become symbolic shorthand for everything else.  

Kate: I’ve noticed the nosebleeds! In fact, the latest version of Emma hilariously uses it. At the climax, Mr. Knightly asks Emma to marry him and she is so stunned--because she once again misread the situation--she has a nosebleed. She crossly borrows his handkerchief and then declares that she is going to fix matters with her best friend who is in love with Mr. Knightly. I had to wonder if the director, Autumn de Wilde, was influenced by Japanese manga.

How symbolic is the nosebleed? Nineteenth-century women swooned. Not as much as literature depicts, but they did swoon (possibly due to corsets). Is the nosebleed a common occurrence, an uncommon occurrence that provides go-to emotional relief, or purely symbolic?  

Eugene: By this point, it’s entered the realm of the purely symbolic. For example, the aforementioned hugs. In Hanako and Anne (on NHK), there is a dramatic hug in the pouring rain between Hanako and Eiji, her future husband, but at the time married to somebody else. The plot developments and dialogue that follow only make sense if they slept (or almost slept) together, but that is left entirely to the imagination.

 As noted, the exception, and a fascinating example of cultural compartmentalization, is manga (and to a lesser extent, anime). Cheese! is an imprint of Flower Comics that targets a female audience starting in the late teens. It is often as explicit and gratuitous as Japanese law allows. A recent review of Yakuza Lover on ANN, published in Japan under the Cheese! imprint, reminded me of my Cheese! posts.

In one of those posts, I quote Tokyo-based writer Roland Kelts, who argues that

the strict codes of etiquette and behavior that govern daily life in Japan also allow for an extraordinary degree of creative and social permissiveness, the freedom to explore other identities, to test the limits of possibility.

It follows that, at least in terms of mainstream entertainment, the less abstract the artform (the live-action drama being not abstract at all), the more morally constrained it will necessarily become.

I wonder if there is something here that accounts for the huge success of manga and anime overseas, at the same time that Kdrama is orders of magnitude more popular than Jdrama. Unlike manga in the same genre, the characters in a Jdrama like Good Morning Call can at times feel they were transported out of a 1950s Golden Age sit-com.

To be continued as Kate discovers and inquires about more themes and tropes and motifs!

Kids Are Weird (But So Is Everybody)

I recently started a book about Hitchcock. I gave up. The author had some insights. However, when I am reading psychological analysis and the author fails to understand fundamental human nature, I start to question what the author could be offering.

The author argues that Hitchcock was fascinated by violence. He anticipated Psycho early on. One of his first films kills off an innocent boy unwittingly carrying a bomb (the death occurs off-camera). When questioned about his penchant for violence/horror, Hitchcock referenced his English upbringing and specific stories from his childhood. (Over the years, the specific stories became somewhat "prepared.")

It's the dog that stands out in Sandlot, not adult concerns.
Then the author makes a mistake. Hitchcock lived through the first World War, but he never referred to it as an influence. How could it not be an influence?! It must be! Hitchcock is, ah, repressing. The world was so filled with violence at that time: soldiers in the streets, the state of fear. So, ah, so here's how he was influenced by something he claims he wasn't influenced by!

But kids aren't necessarily influenced by the obvious. In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis references the terrible schools he attended. However, at one point, he pauses and states that although one particular school was probably, on paper, the worst of them all with a mad headmaster and the boys reduced to near poverty-level survival, he doesn't remember it as the worst. He and the other boys bonded against the crazy adult. It was later schools when the boys were split and torture was endured individually that stood out to Lewis as far worse.

This is truth. Over and over again, psychological analysis records that kids are less traumatized by a state of weirdness and more traumatized by reactions to that weirdness. The constant questioning, the adult panic, the oddness of other people's reactions is what stands out to them, not the event itself.

War and even COVID won't appear strange to them until the strangeness becomes charged with someone else's emotions.

It is entirely believable that Hitchcock was frightened as a child by events that stood out from the ordinary everyday rather than the terror of "war" as an event. After all, the kids in Hope & Glory cheer when the school blows up!

Housework is Appealing: Japanese Manga

If I were to teach Home Economics (or whatever it is called now), I would have students read manga. 

The excellent series What Did You Eat Yesterday? focuses on meals prepared (usually) by Shiro, a lawyer who likes good food yet has the budgeting habits of a parent who grew up at the end of the Depression (yes, I am speaking autobiographically as the child of such parents). 

Consequently, he looks for deals. He uses all the food that he buys. He asks himself beforehand whether he will eat all of a purchase. He gets creative about using ingredients. It was reading What Did You Eat Yesterday? that inspired me to buy more like a European than an American. 

It isn't that the former is better than the latter. It is rather that I learned to buy in accordance with my own budgeting and eating habits: buy food for the week, not for the month. Use everything. Buy what I actually will eat. 

The Way of the Househusband actually inspires me to care about home maintenance: cleaning clothes, getting rid of bugs, using incense to create a pleasant atmosphere, and ways of getting dog (cat) hair off a coat. 

Hilariously, Tatsu, the ex-Yakuza househusband, does in fact teach a Home Ec course in which he assumes that a juvenile delinquent will, of course, decorate his apron! 

Troubles of Biographers: Q is for Qui? James Edward Quibell

Problem: What does one do with the subjects nobody has ever heard of? 

In Claire Tomalin's biography of Austen, the author points out that the only reason that anyone cares about the (reasonably) successful Austen family members is because of Jane.

One of her relatives was an admiral. One was married to an heiress. By worldly standards, the Austens did well for themselves. 

But nobody cares about them except as they connect to the daughter/sister/cousin who was known in her lifetime but is far better known now. 

The attendant issue is the narrowness of any particular field. I've heard of Howard Stern. Since I have never listened to his show, I didn't learn until recently about Robin Quivers, the woman on his show who acts as foil. And she's written an autobiography!

Likewise, in the field of archaeology, I'd heard of Flinders Petrie, but I'd never heard of James Edward Quibell until I read A World Beneath the Sands by Toby Wilkinson. And yet in the late nineteenth century, archaeologists and financiers in Egypt had definitely heard of Quibell. Not only did he work for Petrie, he was assigned by Gaston Maspero, who oversaw archaeology in Egypt for many years and is well-known in his own right, as one of the inspectors for Middle Egypt. He held positions of authority. He was an important guy! 

But he doesn't have his own biography, not even in WorldCat.

Many of the remaining letters in this A-Z list (though not all) will deal with this issue. Must a biography be of a well-known individual? Will anyone buy the biography? Can't a good writer make anyone interesting? What draws us to certain individuals?

Since I have a soft spot for hardworking people who--like hardworking actors--do their jobs but may never become famous, here is what I learned about Quibell. 

He worked for Petrie, who was not the worst person to work for but also not the easiest. Petrie trusted Quibell. So did Maspero who appointed Quibell to the position of inspector in Middle Egypt and then in Lower Egypt. He was responsible for correcting an erroneous theory by the famous Petrie. He oversaw, again at Maspero's request, the dig at Saqqara under the aegis of the Antiquities Services and produced a book called the Excavations at Saqqara. He also published a book on El Kab, an area he excavated on his own. 

Annie Abernarthy Pirie to the right.
Interestingly enough, the only print book I was able to obtain by a Quibell was Egyptian History and Art by Annie A. Quibell, James's wife, who thanks her husband by his full name in the acknowledgements. In fact, she wrote a number of books. Like many marriages between Britishers made in Egypt, it appears to have been a strong, loving, working relationship.

The truth is, he sounds like an enormously trustworthy and reliable and supportive human being who may have been less prone to making his personality felt than some of his contemporaries. I was gratified to be supported in my assessment when I read in Flinders Petrie by Margaret S. Drower that Quibell was a "modest," (206). 

Yet he was still part of an era that ended with Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb. From that point on, Egyptology became more and more the province of scientists rather than explorers-slash-treasure-hunters-slash-archaeologists-slash-scientists. Quibell was part of this raucous and Indiana-Jones-like time period. He married Miss Pirie, one of several women artists who worked on the digs. He made discoveries at Hierakonpolis, which discoveries were acclaimed. He oversaw galleries at the Cairo Museum and eventually became its curator.

Of course, Quibell did align himself with Petrie, who was an Indiana Jones force-of-nature but adhered, as well, to the more scientific and careful version of archaeology. Petrie produced his own CSI Effect: DNA testing looks so glamorous when Greg does it on the show! In real life--it's still very interesting but only to a very specific set of people. Quibell was one of that set.

Is it fair or unfair that Quibell, who likely helped smooth waters and finish projects and make things come out right, doesn't have his own biography? Not even in WorldCat?! 

Or is my perspective the wrong way around? Aside from Wikipedia, most of us don't end up in history books. Quibell has. Both Wilkinson and Drowers are able to relate where Quibell was at various periods and what he was doing. 

Are any of us so well-monitored? 

Drowers, Margaret S. Flinders Petrie. Victor Gollancz, 1985.

Quibell, Annie A. Egyptian History and Art. Macmillan, 1923. 

Wilkinson, Tom. A World Beneath The Sands: The Golden Age of Egyptology. W.W. Norton, 2020. 


Conversations with a Translator: Fireworks

It has been years since I saw a full fireworks show.

When I was growing up, fireworks took place in our neighborhood. We had sparklers and those wormy things that expanded and shrink when lit. And every now and again, a neighbor (or my dad) would set off, ah, um, illegal fireworks obtained from various places outside New York (I'm sure the statute of limitations has passed).

When I got older, I went to firework shows, but frankly, the driving, parking, and crowds dulled the fascination for me.

In my apartment from several years ago, I could see fireworks at the local baseball stadium. I always knew when the Sea Dogs won!

And last year, either the city of Portland or some enterprising souls set off fireworks around Portland. 

Akihito's work kept him late.

This year, a regular show was held. I assumed I wouldn't see it. The regular show usually takes place on the Casco Bay side of the Portland peninsula.

This year, it was held nearer Back Cove. I had a direct view of the entire show across an empty parking lot. I didn't even have to crane my neck. I felt like Akihito in Finder, watching from my special balcony. I got to watch the whole shebang, including the impressive climax.

So, here is Conversation with a Translator: Fireworks!

Kate: So in the latest manga volume I read, a character starts talking about firework shows during the summer. Granted, Americans also like their fireworks, but in Maine, at least, they are confined to (1) the local baseball team, the Sea Dogs, winning a game; (2) the Fourth of July.

Asami's hired expert.
The character's statements made it sound as if fireworks are commonly sponsored events in Japan during the summer--on the beach as well as in the city. I couldn't tell from the dialog if they were attached to any particular holiday (watching the fireworks requires dressing up in a kimono) or if summertime is simply an excuse!

Are the Japanese more fireworks-conscious than Americans? Or about the same? And what about regulations? I got the impression that Japanese fireworks are as carefully regulated, if not more so.
Eugene: Japan has New York-style fireworks regulations. Enforced. The only real fireworks for "home use" are sparklers. Not like Utah, where July 4th and the 24th are like the climax of a Marvel superhero movie (fighter jets included).

But "official" fireworks festivals are bigger in Japan. Very big during O-Bon, which is held in July or August, depending on the region (it has to do with adoption of the Gregorian calendar). And Tanabata (July 7).

Local summer festivals (like July 24th in Utah or St. Patrick's Day in New York) put on big and elaborate parades followed by big and elaborate fireworks.

There are also regional fireworks festivals and competitions that have been going on for centuries. And commercial operations like hot springs resorts that, like Disneyland, do it for the publicity and entertainment value.

A "how-to" guide: 
A list of the major festivals: 
The Tokushima Awa Odori festival gets national television coverage and has become a huge tourist attraction. Lots of videos on YouTube.

Conversations with a Translator: High School in Manga

Literature can provide insights into the culture and historical time period in which that literature was produced. 

Years ago, my mother told me that during an exam on the nineteenth century, she realized, rather to her surprise, how much she already knew due to reading Jane Austen, one of her favorite authors. She didn’t set out to learn the information. It arrived unconsciously as part of her preferred form of entertainment. 

These kinds of insights can be taken too far, of course, mostly when theorists insist on reading backwards into a piece of literature their personal pet ideologies. 

For those readers who, as C.S. Lewis would say, prefer to “receive” rather than “use,” diving into a genre can expose readers and viewers to an entire lifestyle and way of thinking that seems entirely familiar while offering the rewards of new and different experiences.

To paraphrase Lewis, we “become a thousand men and yet remain [ourselves].” The following Conversations with a Translator began several years ago when I began my first major exploration of manga series.

The posts range from 2013 to 2021 (they are not strictly chronological, so a single post may reference manga and anime selections from 2013 and 2021). The posts will delve into various aspects of Japanese culture, starting with Japanese high schools. Surviving high school is a popular motif in all literature. Are these high schools a distillation of concepts/experiences? How universal are they? How individual?

Kate: I’m reading the manga series Mars, a 15-volume set written by Fuyumi Soryo. The series is your basic high school romance set in Japan. The houses/businesses/etc. are all Japanese in style as are the names.

Yet I’ve started to ponder the series’ realism. For one, the teen characters have an amazing amount of freedom. American novels would present this circumstance as utterly unrealistic. Teens must be monitored! How realistic is this lack of supervision?

Eugene: One plot device that is plausible in Japan but not common in the U.S. has the father getting transferred, the mother going with him, and the teenager staying behind. Parents who have gotten their child into a decent school dare not risk pulling him out. High schools often take borders for this reason.

That’s why the transfer student who shows up halfway through the school year is such a big deal. It suggests a complex chain of unfortunate circumstances. High schools in Japan operate under an open enrollment system. A student can matriculate at any school in the country if there’s an open spot and they can pass the entrance exam. Good Morning Call (Netflix) begins when Nao moves to Tokyo to attend high school and “accidentally” ends up sharing an apartment with Hisashi, the most popular guy in school.

Many of the teen characters in Durarara!! (Netflix Funimation) are transplants from outside Tokyo who live on their own while attending high school. That does make it easier for them to get caught up in the crazy goings-on in Ikebukuro.

In Super Cub (Funimation), Beyond the Boundary (HIDIVE), and March Comes in like a Lion (Netflix Crunchyroll), the main characters live alone in their own apartments. In their cases, they would probably be classified as emancipated minors.

There is also more self-government and more student-directed activities in Japanese high schools.

On the other hand, the lack of an omnipresent testing regime and fewer constraints outside of high school can make the American teenage experience seem like a wonderland of freedom. Most Japanese won’t get a driver’s license until their twenties (if at all).

Kate: Rei has his own apartment in Mars! It is due to unfortunate circumstances, but not considered unusual by others.

Plots vary a great deal in high school manga. The plot of Mars is relatively realistic in that it involves neither a conspiracy (Denegeki Daisy) nor a girl-in-disguise in a school full of boys (Hana-Kimi). It also doesn’t have a supernatural component, as in Black Bird. And it is lacking the dog-eat-dog underlying tone of Caste Heaven.

Yet for a contemporary plot, Mars contains little talk of drugs though lots of talk about dating. At one point, Kira is pressured to sleep with Rei. (She eventually decides to.) So, on the one hand, Mars is not much like American plots. On the other hand, it is very much like them! What are “typical” plots for high school manga?

Eugene: In story terms, there’s always the need for conflict. In the typical Japanese high school, drug use isn’t widespread. The teenage pregnancy rate is close to zero. In O Maidens in Your Savage Season (HIDIVE), exactly one girl in the school gets pregnant and it is a huge deal (she drops out, gets married, and appears happy with her life).

Bullying is a chronic problem. Incompetent teachers just putting in the time aren’t unheard of either. Which is why most students who want to get into a “good” university spend hours every day at cram schools, no matter how smart they are.

A popular genre of teen romantic comedy has a poor student winning a scholarship to an exclusive high school populated by rich snobs, and winning the heart of BMOC. The live-action television series The Story of Yamada Taro cleverly turns this formula upside down: the poor girl falls for the young prince, who turns out to be poorer than she is.

Another plot complication that crops up is English, the bane of every student in Japan. Given the demands of the test-dependent “escalator” system, doing true study abroad is a near impossibility. Being able to spend enough time abroad in order to master English and not fall off that escalator is a sure sign of privilege (or indifference).

A funny twist on this in Strawberry Marshmallow (HIDIVE) has a girl from England desperately trying to hide the fact that she grew up in Japan and can’t speak English any better than her classmates.

Kate: Stumbles over language are always potentially humorous! I encountered a scene in Hana-Kimi (above) where the Japanese-American student who gets herself accepted to a Japanese boys’ school (without her parents finding out!) does poorly on English exams. All that grammar!

In all honesty, I expected more such plot points in Mars. I was a little taken aback by how recognizable I found many classroom scenes. The teachers behaved exactly the same way as American teachers (one of them throws chalk!).

And I had to wonder, are high schools in manga “true” Japanese high schools? Or are they a crystallization of everyone’s idea of high school? Is Japanese culture not exactly the way it is portrayed in articles (students bowing when the teacher enters the room)?

The custom of kiritsu and rei (stand and bow) at the beginning of class is still very much a thing through high school (though not college). The class president usually barks out the commands like a drill sergeant.

Rich kids in manga invariably live in gigantic mansions (with butlers and maids) that don’t exist anywhere in Japan. Okay, I’m sure there are mansions in Japan, and perhaps some of them have butlers and maids. But I’d expect most mansions, like the most exclusive, private schools, to be managed quite conservatively.

The flip side of this genre has a rich kid (or teacher) ending up at a reform school at the bottom end of the scale, no more realistically depicted (i.e., in dystopian terms) than the exclusive schools at the top of the scale. A good example is Gokusen, that has Kumiko, the granddaughter of a yakuza kingpin, becoming a teacher at such a school.

She has to keep the school board from finding out she’s a yakuza princess while not letting on she can be tougher and meaner than any of her students. She also has a bad habit of cussing like a yakuza when she’s stressed out.

Or the reality-unreality of Buffy.
So high schools in manga are like high schools in most American television shows—a fictionalized “other world” similar to Shakespeare’s approach: set an Ancient Roman story in the middle of Renaissance Europe or plant a bunch of Italian characters (who have English habits) in the middle of a Danish court because, hey, what did he care?

Eugene: I think the high school setting can be compared to the cop show setting. Imagine a Japanese audience trying to deconstruct the American legal system by watching American TV shows.

CSI: Las Vegas, for example, sorta, kinda tried to stay pinned to reality, though it still takes great dramatic license; CSI: Miami was pure, eye-rolling fantasy. NCIS somewhat approximates the real world; NCIS: Los Angeles is literally and figuratively in La La Land.

This pretty much has nothing to do with the entertainment value (though as with CSI: Miami, the lack of verisimilitude can stretch suspension of disbelief to the breaking point).

Kate: The comparison of crime shows to high school dramas makes a lot of sense. I think my “huh?” response is rooted in my perception of Japanese high schools as more “other” and interesting than American high schools—why not take advantage of that?! But of course, that perception is easily reversed!
More to follow as Kate comes to realize that a lot more differences are embedded in Japanese manga than she realized…

Troubles of Biographers: P is for Perspective on Pavlova

Problem: Is the best biography one told by an objective insider or by someone invested in the subject's life? 

Should a banker write about bankers? Should a biologist write about biologists?

In our current world, this type of literal match-up is often demanded. It can become distastefully absolutist as terms like "appropriation" and "cultural dominance" get thrown around.

In terms of commonsense, a person in a specific field can often communicate the particular problems of that field better than an outsider. Or at least use the terminology correctly. On the other hand, sometimes people in certain fields simply cannot communicate anything beyond their fields. A friend once asked me to write up a brief document instructing engineers on how to send emails that didn't assume knowledge by the recipients of what was going on in the engineers' minds. 

Of course, in a perfect world, the best communicator would be an insider who could communicate to outsiders.

Biography: Pavlova: Presentation of a Dancer. Presented by Dame Margot Fonteyn. Viking, 1984

The chosen book is a compilation of primary documents by Pavlova, her manager, various news reporters, interviewers, reviewers and so on. Dame Margot Fonteyn, a great ballet dancer in her own right, comments on the primary documents, which are gathered into four chronological sections, starting with Pavlova's childhood. The book ends rather abruptly with Pavlova's funeral (another section of primary documents by more contemporary, mid/late-twentieth-century commentators would have been a nice addition). 

The question immediately arises, "Is this a biography?" It isn't the story of a person told by another person. It is a collection of documents. 

In some ways, this approach comes across as more honest. Setting aside Fonteyn's commentary, which is interesting in its own right, the reader can assess each document independently. An image of Pavlova does emerge from the accumulated texts. She had a strong personality. In her art, she communicated an effortless depth of feeling that astonished even critical reviewers. Quick, expressive, and lively in her conversation. Friendly.  Sensible. Perceptive. Devoted to her craft. She was ambitious. She held strong beliefs about art and chose to leave Russia and become a citizen of the world to prove those beliefs. And she did, which is even more remarkable.

Pavlova believed that art generally, and dance specifically, was a great communicator. She also believed that countries, such as America, should develop their own art forms rather than borrowing from Europeans (Pavlova was, unfortunately, not a fan of the obvious American answer here: jazz). She states, "America lacks its own forms of art...because of two things: your too plentiful money and your general idea that talent and ability is genius" (123). 

The latter comment intrigued me. She goes on to state, "No one can arrive from being talented alone. In my life I have seen...brilliant-minded people...who had great talent for what they did, but they did not, could not last...I worked for seven years under iron discipline, under ceaseless toil. It is so with all true artists" (123). 

However, she goes on to say that America will produce great dancers: 

From where else than this melting pot of all the nations could come an international or universal artist to best interpret all moods? Your great country will produce a superb dancer not bound by old traditions and narrow nationalism...No other country represents every racial characteristic in the world. No other people feel the influence of nature so keenly...what counts most of all is your national trait, your American optimism. (123)

It is a classical liberal attitude that is enormously refreshing and welcome these days. Pavlova truly saw art as non-political, as an expression of the self: 

[I]n every one of us, no matter how deep it may be hidden, is a latent germ of beauty...and the more we give it outlet the more we encourage our own instinct for graceful the steady elimination of everything which is ugly...the whole progress of humanity proceeds. (150)

One can assume, to a degree, that Dame Margot Fonteyn shared these beliefs. In fact, to claim "lack of bias" due to the book's organization ignores a subtle truth:

Yes, the documents are primary. But the producers of the book and Dame Margot Fonteyn chose which documents to present. Fonteyn acknowledges this reality in the Introduction: 

[W]e have drawn first on her spoken word in interviews and the written words attributed to her in articles, bearing in mind that the latter have been edited and sometimes translated at least once. For that reason I have selected with very great care only those words that ring true to my ear, knowing, as I do, something of what it means to dance year in and year out, trying always to find within oneself that fresh inspiration that alone brings truth and spontaneity to the performance. (11)

In this sense, the book is a biography (and gorgeously illustrated with photographs) since it presents a subject from the point of view of another writer.

Since Fonteyn is an "insider," her commentary expresses connection with Pavlova. When discussing Pavlova's description of "daily life," Fonteyn remarks, "How little the daily life of a ballet dancer in a large, permanent company has changed since Pavlova's youth!" (31). She later commiserates with Pavlova's complaints about ballet shoes, pointing out how many shoes a dancer goes through and how a pair of shoes can feel differently from a previous pair, even from the same shop/maker, since so many factors affect them, including humidity.  

Still later, in reaction to a description of Pavlova preparing for an entrance, Fonteyn writes, " like all the ballerinas in the world summed up" (133). I felt a flare of satisfaction since when I read Pavlova's passage, I was instantly reminded of a scene from Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes.

The book's strongest "sell" is Fonteyn's transparency (and the gorgeous photographs). Transparency allows biographers/researchers/collectors to show their cards, exhibit their hand. I am attempting to convince you of the following. I will never deceive you about where I stand in regards to this person. 

The reader can then determine what to do with the provided information and commentary.  

Margot Fonteyn

Silliest Agatha Christie On Record: Death on the Nile

In preparation for Branagh's upcoming Death on the Nile (February 2022), I re-watched David Suchet's Poirot version. I saw the Hollywood version years ago but couldn't bring myself to re-watch it. (The reason isn't Ustinov; see below.)

Before I continue: I loved this book when I was younger. I especially liked the exchanges between Poirot and Jacqueline. And on the page, the book more or less works.

It is unbelievably ridiculous on film. 

First, it relies on split-second timing and the kind of set-up that never, ever, ever happens in real life. 

*Spoilers Unless You Already Know the Plot*

For one, why doesn't someone stay with Simon? They would in real life. Why didn't one of the other passengers pick up the gun? They would in real life. What if a passenger wandered into the temporarily empty lounge? They would in real life. Why didn't someone come out of a cabin and run quite noisily into Simon ("Hey, Simon! Whatcha' doin' with that gun?")? They would in real life. 

Simon and Jacqueline can't kill off everyone. Which brings me to--

Second, so many people die! Tragedy around every corner, long before anyone has time to recover from the last "surprise." It's like Tess of the D'Urbervilles on steroids (though somewhat more interesting). Bang--wife dead! Bang--maid dead! Bang--horrible mother dead! Bang! Bang! Bang! Or "Boom, boom, boom," as Balder would say. 

It's more or less the reason I stopped watching Midsomer Murders, despite liking John Nettles. Uh, I don't think anyone in the tiny English village at the end of the episode is left.

I am extremely willing to suspend my belief (or disbelief) when I'm watching just about anything. So I know that something has reached radical levels of "I can't help but roll my eyes" when that's exactly what I start doing. 

I have thought for years that scriptwriters should remove at least one of the extra murders from Death on the Nile. It simply doesn't translate from the book to the screen. They never do. Melodrama sells! 

I'm curious to see how Branagh handles the problem.

Picture Books: S is Not For Dr. Seuss (But Not For Political Reasons)

I considered reviewing Seuss books--simply because it is now, apparently, considered inappropriate in some circles to like Dr. Seuss, and I'm incredibly tired of how literal-minded and perfection-oriented people can be about history and art and human endeavors.

But the truth is, I never cared for Dr. Seuss even back in the days when it was considered absolutely necessary to adore him.

Yup, once upon a time, earnest, so-called tolerant, so-called loving, "we are righteous/we know how others are supposed to feel and think" people were aghast if one didn't care for Dr. Seuss. 

(I've spent most of my life staying out of the way of people who want to call me names.) 

Liking him because of other's people insistence was token virtue then. Disliking him because of other people's shock is token virtue now. And removing stuff from the world because it might "corrupt" supposedly fragile minds--to keep messy and impure possibilities from tainting our Victorian-like, supposedly pure selves--is always a form of censorship, whether done by a traumatized religious group or a traumatized bunch of activists.

I still prefer stories that don't remind me of my weirder, more unlikable dreams--the same reason, yes, I prefer the movie The Wizard of Oz to the nightmarish book! So I'm not reviewing Dr. Seuss.

I'm not going to review Maurice Sendak either--although he is astonishing, and I have a far higher opinion of Sendak's art than of Seuss's art. 

But children's books are about love, and I love Peter Spier! 

Peter Spier's books are delightful. They are beautifully illustrated with evocative images that transport one back in time, much like Robert Louis Stevenson's poems, including "Bed in Summer."

The marvelous aspect of Spier's Rain, for instance, is that it rejoices in equal measure in any type of day--in exploring the world of showers and puddles and in going inside to dry off. 

Years ago, I visited Kew Gardens by myself. It was a rainy day, and I started out trying to stay dry. At some point, I gave up. The rain was warm, and I splashed gleefully through the downpour, parading through puddles with abandon. I was soaking wet, but oddly enough, the ride back to my dorm-apartment in the tube was not a negative experience. Because part of the fun of rain is getting dry and remembering the day. 

Spier brought it all back.

Blocks! Another memory from my youth.

Writing Error: Knowledge As An Excuse

Stargate SG-1's "Citizen Joe" is a fantastic episode. In fact, despite everything I write below, it is well-worth watching multiple times. Based on what I write below, I maintain the episode should have ended with the protagonist feeling justified. Full stop. That ending would cut out about 3 minutes, which could be made up with backflashes.

The episode makes a fundamental mistake at the very end. The protagonist finds out that he isn't crazy; the "visions" he was seeing were true all along. So the Air Force, namely Jack, tries to save his marriage by talking to his wife. 

But the protagonist's visions being true doesn't exactly change his prior behavior. Granted, he won't be able to "see" the mission reports anymore since he handed over the device that makes that possible. But Jack spent several years having the visions of his counterpart, and he never behaved irresponsibly. 

In other words, there's no reason to believe that the protagonist won't go right on telling Stargate stories to customers who have lost interest and giving up a stable income to pursue his hobbies--in other words, exhibiting behavior that his wife objected to in the first place (I'm not saying the wife was right; I'm saying, that's why she left). Will his personality really change?

One of the best message sitcom episodes of all time is "The Gambler" from Family Ties. Elise gets pulled into gambling. She doesn't spend time with her family. She doesn't even deliver her speech at the symposium to which she was invited. The obvious pay-off would be that she loses all her money.

She doesn't. She makes a bundle. But she gives it all to charity because she realizes that the behavior of obsession was destructive, whether or not she won money. 

The mistake "but the truth of the underlying belief excuses my behavior!" is a common mistake in television scripts (and, I suppose, human nature). It's the reason I got tired of Lie to Me within a few episodes. The grumpy behavior of the protagonist was supposedly excused by his "knowledge." To borrow and summarize several lines from Daniel, An all-powerful being may not be worth worshiping despite having lots of knowledge and power. It kind of depends on the all-powerful being's ethics.

To do House justice, the fundamental weakness of House's claim that his superior knowledge lets him off the hook was continually challenged by others. He was grumpy by default. But even House became tiresome.

Troubles with Biographers: O is for ExtraOrdinary

Trouble: Will the non-fiction visual biography reveal as much as the non-fiction print biography?

DVD biography:  Jesse Owens. American Experience. 2012.

Print biography: Stanmyre, Jackie F. Jesse Owens: Facing Down Hitler. Game-Changing Athletes. Cavendish Square, 2016.

To be as fair to both print and visual, I read half of the biography, then watched the DVD, then read the rest of the biography. 

The book is a YA biography and quite good. The author is honest and measured. She straightforwardly points out the conditions of Jesse Owens's life, including the prejudice he faced. She details the pressure he received when many Americans wished to boycott the 1936 Olympics. And she  explains quite objectively the positions of those who wanted Jesse Owens to attend the Olympics in Berlin and those who didn't. 

The DVD is more of a narrative. It has the added benefit, of course, of more visuals, and actual film from the 1936 Olympics. It also has the rather notable addition of sports experts talking specifically about sports. Yet, by necessity, it rarely pauses and says, "Actually, we don't have enough material about this particular event." 

The DVD also has a far narrower focus. Although the book is subtitled Facing Down Hitler, it has a broader focus, delivering a full picture of Owens' life. In comparison, the DVD, titled Jesse Owens, concentrates more than 1/3 of its 60 minutes on the 1936 Olympics, and it ends rather abruptly. 

I learned from the book that although Jesse Owens struggled after the Olympics, he had strong opinions about sports and how they should be used in the fight against discrimination--namely, he thought competition should override any militant action. I also learned that he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976.

The DVD concentrates, rightly, on the discrimination Owens faced when he returned home. He was very popular, in part because he represented a stand against Hitler. However, his popularity faded and he turned to making money in a variety of non-sports ways (in part by necessity since he was suspended by the stupendously corrupt AAU--I guess nothing changes). The DVD goes on to deliver a few tantalizing comments about how celebrity figures are often used for political ends. Those comments never go anywhere.

The DVD also ignores the amount of money Jesse Owens did make when he returned home, which, for the time, was somewhat unusual for those living through the tail-end of the Depression. The DVD additionally ignores the Presidential Medal listed above as well as Owens's honorary degree from Ohio State and multiple other honors. It has a story and doesn't depart from that story (if you are reading these biography posts in order, you may begin to sense a theme when it comes to biographers).

What stood out to me in both the book and the DVD was the power of the personal relationship. Owens and his high school coach, Charles Riley; Owen and his college coach, Larry Snyder; Owens and German athlete Luz Long, who befriended him at the Olympics and cared more about sports than any ideology. These relationships crop up again and again in both sources and give one faith in the human race. 

Luz Long and Jesse Owens are an especially endearing example. They competed against each other in the long jump. They were nearly equal in skill and power. Luz gave Jesse Owens' pointers (there is some doubt here as to when or if the men met before the competition). They pushed each other to excel, breaking record after record during the actual competition. Jesse took the gold with a world record jump that wasn't broken until the 1980s by Carl Lewis. Afterwards, Luz and Jesse walked arm in arm around the stadium. They stayed in contact by letters until Luz died in WWII. 

This is what sports is supposed to do. This is what Coach refers to when he states that the best game he ever coached wasn't one he won but one where both teams played to their very best. 

So, I recommend the DVD simply due to the actual footage. But I recommend supplementing the DVD with the book!

Picture Books: R is for Rocky Road to Rey

The obvious illustrator for "R" is Arthur Rackham but I determined to save him for my fantasy list. 

So I decided to try Norman Rockwell.

Now, I am quite fond of Norman Rockwell. I enjoy his magazine illustrations very much. I find many of them quite evocative; in fact, I refer to the famous Thanksgiving painting in Apron, my third Donna Howard book. 

However, oddly enough, Rockwell's picture book (Willie Was Different) and the picture book made with Rockwell images (The Norman Rockwell Storybook) were rather uninspiring. The point: simply because an artist excels in one medium doesn't mean that artist will excel in a different medium--or can be used to excel in a different medium. (Unless that artist is Michelangelo and decides to master a new art form simply to annoy people and then embarrasses them by surpassing them.) 

The differences between illustration and picture books will come up again later. 

For the A-Z list, I tried out a few other "Rs," including Last Stop on Market Street, words by Matt De La Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson. It's a vibrant book but afterwards, I felt like I needed to read something by Lemony Snicket. Well-written sermons for children are still sermons. 

There is the rather random (not a sermon), hilarious Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. 

But then I remembered Curious George by H.A. Rey (both H.A. and his wife Margret created the books).

How could I forget?! 

Curious George was a staple of my childhood and one of the strongest images burnt into my brain is the image of the room filled with soap suds.

I was a rather hyperactive kid in elementary school and got called a "monkey" more than once. At the back of my brain was always this image. Although I was the type of kid who was born into the world feeling guilty, Curious George  was one place where I never questioned the magnificence of George's supposedly bad behavior. 

Bubbles are always better than, well, anything, really. 

And he got to go into space. 

Not only do I recommend Curious George, I recommend the fascinating and interestingly illustrated The Journey that Saved Curious George : the True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden, illustrated by Allan Drummond. They escaped Germany for South America and then America. It's Casablanca with children's writers!  

Movies & Critics: What Lies Beneath


I often find that I agree with critics but not for the same reasons. 

I saw What Lies Beneath when it came out in theaters with Mike from the Video Club. I recently rewatched it. As I watched, I was surprised at how much I remembered. And I realized (1) the movie was better than I remembered; (2) the things I found wrong with it the first time, I found wrong with it the second time. 

That is, like many critics, I agree that the movie falls to pieces in the second half. However, I don't think it is because the script falls apart. The script works surprisingly well, including the characterization of the husband as bad guy. Both hours provide multiple subtle clues that the husband is not evil incarnate but rather a self-serving man who doesn't behave badly as long as he is getting what he wants (Agatha Christie does a fantastic job delineating this type of villain in Moving Finger). 

In fact, the overall psychology of the movie is quite effective. The wife, Claire, played excellently as always by Michelle Pfieffer, has just packed her daughter off to college. Issues/clues that may not have bothered her in the past have begun to come to her notice. She transfers her initial suspicions to the neighbors before slowly realizing that they belong in her own home. Her husband's constantly changing stories about his affair are believable: oh, this time, this is the full story.

What's the problem?

1. It's way too long at 2 hours (I do think this about most movies; there's a reason I mostly watch television episodes rather than movies: 45 minutes is the perfect length for everything). 

2. The supernatural element is too strong. 

This is Ebert's contention--"the problem with Zemeckis' desire to direct a Hitchcockian film was to involve the supernatural...which [Ebert] believes to be something Alfred Hitchcock himself would never have done"--and I mostly agree with that assessment though I do think that Hitchcock, like Conan Doyle with the Holmes' stories, used hints of the remarkable/unworldly to push people's buttons. 

I think a little bit of supernatural to get Claire unsettled works quite well. She then goes to see the therapist, played by Joe Morton, who encourages her to find out more about the "woman" she is "seeing." And she does. After all, there are plenty of clever clues for her to find.

3. Amnesia is an ineffective mystery trope. 

Amnesia is a fascinating trope. As a "clue" or plot point in a mystery, it is irritating since it negates the need for an investigation. She just needs to get her memory back! The restored memory becomes a facile solution--like all those criminals on Murder, She Wrote who get caught out due to a minor slip of the tongue made days earlier. A-ha, gotcha!

Instead of having a sudden memory of what went wrong in the first place, I would have Claire's character actually investigate. She figures out the affair and eventually the murder through a  remorseless need to know. She might not want to know but she needs to know. 

4. The ending. 

The movie should have ended in the bathroom. The very end of the movie--the car ride with boat and drive into the lake--is kind of dumb and not that effective. It also changes the heroine from Claire to a ghost/character we the audience have never met and feel no investment in. 

The bathroom scene is quite effective and would have ended the movie on a remarkable visual: Norman sprawled in blood across white tile. 

In addition, since I love mysteries and police procedurals, I would have found an police investigation about a billion times more interesting than the ride into the lake. Call the cops! Bring the other body up! Explain the sequence of events! 

 The reason I still don't blame the scriptwriter is that these are relatively easy issues to fix. Maybe a few tweaks. But the basic structure, characterizations, red herrings, and clever clues are already there--only the studio went for horror rather than suspense.