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Monthly Archives: November 2011

I just finished reading The Ramen King and I, by Andy Raskin (2009). It was a gift from a friend, who insisted that I would love it.

Yes, I loved it. It has obvious flaws, but it was both really fun to read and provided great insight into the human condition, so there you go: a good read.

Brief Summary: The story, which is mostly true, follows two threads that weave sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely around one another: Japanese culture – particularly its very charming form of gourmandism – and sex addiction. The focus on Japanese culture surrounds Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant Ramen. You get a lot of biography on and quotes from the guy, who I must say is definitely worth writing a book about. The sex addiction is Andy’s own memoir. The connection? Most simply, Andy ends up going to a 12-Step program and decides that Momofuku is his higher power.

What could be called the core of the narrative is the story of Andy’s spontaneous trip to Japan in an attempt to meet, well, God. The rest of the book is more a collection of longer stories, brief anecdotes, musings and selections from his 12-Step notebooks.

So, this was going to be brief. The Good: It’s really fun to read. Part of that is that I love reading travelogues about Japan. This is mostly one, but not entirely. Andy is also a pretty entertaining writer – it moves quickly, and you enjoy yourself. He brings a lot of very bold honesty to the table, and it’s envigorating to read.

I also like how the threads are not so tight. This has its problems in holding a story together, but after thinking about it, I decided I like how the food thread and the 12-Step threads don’t feel the need to really join up any more than Andy chooses for them to. That’s how life works, and I often find it distracting when authors try too hard to wrap everything up at the end. We have many kinds of threads wrapping around our lives; they are connected merely by being important to us. They don’t need to intersect.

Finally, I must say, his insight into his life at the end is really inspiring. To sum it up: all of his struggles – including his addiction – are an attempt to struggle with the voice of criticism in his head. Dealing with the problems in his life is dealing with that problem. How, I won’t go into. I will mention, however, that this is a very valuable thing for me to be hearing right now, in my life. It’s very true. Perhaps I will revisit this thought, as I think about it.

The bad of this book is twofold: first, the structure, which cycles between different narratives, is very confusing. I was left without truly grasping the order of events. It jumps around too much. Very simple problem; too bad Andy didn’t work it out better.

The other is that it is too long. It’s a short book, in terms of the amount of words. What I mean is that the book continues long after the narrative has lost its momentum. This was a little disappointing, but, fortunately, the first four fifths of the book had more than enough momentum to carry me to the end.

But despite these two flaws, it’s a solid read. I recommend it to a wide variety of people. There are, of course, the japanophiles, ramenophiles and foodies. However, I think people participating or interested in 12-Step programs would enjoy this book the most. If my memory serves me right, it’s a big, fat lesson on Step 2. The book is an excellent illustration of what it means for the non-religious to find a higher power. But, what’s more, it really shows you the details of how the higher power can help you – how to use it best. Maybe this is par for the course for 12-Steppers – I’ve never been through a program so I don’t know.

I’m led to sincerely wonder how a higher power might fit into my own life. And I’m also wondering if maybe so quickly assigning this role to a traditional deity is a serious hindrance to the program doing its work. But that’s for another discussion.

Seven Against Thebes; translated by David Grene.

The superior translation in this edition seems to make all the difference here compared to the last two, though I do think that this play is somewhat engaging on its own.

Readers of Sophocles’ Thebes trilogy will recognize the main character, Eteocles, one of Oedipus’s sons. The other son, Polyneices, is about to attack the city with a massive army from rival city Argos. We see Eteocles talking and arguing with the women of Thebes as he receives messages about the approaching soldiers. The titular seven are generals who were chosen to lead seperate regiments against the cities’ seven gates. The meat of the play is the messenger’s description of each general – a brief summary of his character and description of the devices on his shield (or lack thereof). In this long scene, after each description, Eteocles chooses a suitable warrior from his own ranks to counter each enemy general’s particular character. The final general is, of course, Polyneices himself, and Eteocles decides to face him hermano y hermano. They die, and the brothers’ more well-known sisters Antigone and Ismene arrive to mourn their bodies. An epilogue, which supposedly is apochryphal, introduces the city’s ban on burying Polyneices and Antigone’s resolution to put his body rest anyway – thereby introducing Sophocles far more famous play, Antigone.

Is Grene simply a better translator, or is this play actually more interesting than the other two? I think it’s both, actually. Compared with the first two, this one was a little entertaining and somewhat thought provoking. It is by no means a masterpiece (as Grene himself points out in the introduction – what’s with all this ragging on Aeschylus?), but things happen; you know what’s going on; there’s interesting tension between the characters; and, finally, I really loved the descriptions of all the generals. There’s this common thread (or meme, if you roll that way) in literature, whereby a special team is formed from individuals with particular personalities and, if applicable, super powers. Chalk it up to the number being magic, but usually there are seven such members. E.g.: The Seven Samurai. The Magnificent Seven. And, last but not least, my favorite Grimm’s fairy tale: The Seven who went Far in the World, which was the basis of the Terry Gilliam movie, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

So it seems that Seven against Thebes was the first instance of this story, and I found it just as bad-ass as I always do. The only problem here is that it’s so brief. We only get the set up for about 300 lines, and then the battle is resolved off-stage in about two minutes. What a tease. Where’s the action? Sadly for us moderns, the Greeks were more interested in the curse that led to the battle and the mourning that followed it than some fanboyish interest in the powers of heroes.

And, to be honest, the Seven don’t really have amazing powers, just vaguely interesting personalities. Of special note are Tydeus, who ends up surviving the battle and fathering a son named Diomedes – the guy who ends up stabbing Aphrodite in the Trojan War; and Amphiaraus, a prophet-warrior who has a plain, unadorned shield; openly considers the battle an immoral decision; yet goes into battle anyway, because he knows he’s fated to die in it. More on this attitude shortly.

I’m not going to be a complete philistine here and say that this very sensible and understandable treatment of the subject – with loads of historical context to explain it – was worthless. In fact, the discussion of the curse was kind of chilling in itself.

To add to Amphiaraus’ predicament above, the chorus makes it clear that Eteocles has every means available (at least in a world in which curses are real and can be purged by sacrifices to the gods) to end the conflict immediately, but he chooses not to. He displays a very cold, almost frightening fatalism, rushing in the battle to reach some kind of closure that is not very clear to the chorus or to me. Readers of Oedipus Rex are introduced to the Greek idea of fate, to the machinations of the Gods and how crimes cannot be ignored. But this is going a step further – Eteocles is consciously aware of all the gears in the machine that brought him and his city to the brink of destruction – and he still refuses to change anything. What does this say about free will?

This issue is certainly worth thinking about, maybe even losing some sleep over.

While Seven against Thebes is not the best tragedy ever written and seems incomplete in a somewhat frustrating way, it is definitely a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the Thebes dynastic drama (Cadmus, Oedipus, Antigone, etc.); Greek mythology in general; Greek Tragedy; and the Seven-Member Team of Awesome Meme.

(Endnote: Maybe Wes Anderson could roll out a movie script for this one? I really want to see colorful shots of the Seven in which they face the camera and people do quirky things in the background – set to the Rolling Stones.)

I’ve decided to read all the Greek Tragedies that I haven’t read yet. In actuality, what I’ve decided is to read through all the books on my shelves I haven’t read yet, and the first group happens to be my collection of the Grene and Lattimore Tragedies.

Today: three by Aeschylus (in two parts)

The Suppliant Maidens; translated by Seth Bernardete.

Right from the beginning, Bernardete says that this play is uninteresting. I would say he’s correct.

The plot is a tiny section of the story of Danaus: his fifty daughters (the maidens from the title) ask entry into the Greek city of Argos as they flee the lust of their cousins, the sons of Danaus’s brother Aegyptus. The king of Argos, Pelasgus, first hesitates and then lets them in. The end.

Probably this is only of interest to diehard classics scholars. Or perhaps it reads well in the Greek. Judging by this play and the next one, I rate Bernardete as a poor translator. His lines don’t read very well. There is too much switching of subject and object. Sentences are weak and ambiguous. Couple this with the weak source material, and you have a total pass. I am very, very tolerant of what most people call uninteresting and obscure, but this doesn’t even appeal to me.

Always looking for the silver lining: I find it interesting that Pelasgus offers the maidens food and lodging right away. Perhaps this is normal procedure for royalty treating royalty, but, in the context of modern times, it strikes me as an example that culture can be so constructed as to ensure that people in distress are taken care of. Ever since working at a homeless shelter, I have wondered if many of the dysfunctional parts of our society are really necessary. I’m going to file this away for further thought.

The Persians, translated by Seth Bernardete.

Once again our translator deprecates the work he’s going to translate, though not as much as he did Suppliant Maidens. This play is at least a curiosity: the only surviving tragedy with a subject matter pertaining to current events (well, events within 10 years of the play’s composition). The play depicts old men in Sousa, the capital of the Persian Empire, worrying about the fate of King Xerxes and the progress of his army. Xerxes’ mother joins the general gloom. A herald arrives, telling of the Persians’ defeat at the naval battle of Salamis. The queen and the old men decide to summon the ghost of Darius to ask for advice. The ghost, who seems impatient, explains that Xerxes’ arrogant display, where he claimed to have conquered the Ocean itself by crossing the Bosporus and throwing chains into the sea, angered the gods and caused his downfall. He predicts future defeat for the Persians. Xerxes himself arrives, and they all wail and moan.

There are some elements of something interesting here: ghosts, military disaster and a unique setting for a Greek Tragedy. Sadly, though, this play can’t help but seem to be a part of something greater. And, once again, Bernardete’s muddy translation makes the very quick script go by too slowly. It was interesting to imagine the Athenian audience of the play, all or most of whom would have been veterans from the victorious side of this war, feeling at least a little compassion at the misery their enemies must have felt. But that’s about it.

It’s interesting as a curiosity – appealing perhaps not just to Greek scholars but also to history buffs. If you’ve just read Herodotus, or even if you’ve just watched the film 300 and want a little epilogue to the story of the Persian Wars, it might be worth reading this one. But edifying literature it is not.

(Continued in part two)