Owls, Narratives, Everest and Samurai

I thought I might write a short post about the books I've read so far this summer: I Heard the Owl Call My Name, Counter-Narrative, Into Thin Air, and Chūshingura. About the best groupings I can make the books are that two concern Asia and two concern North America, and two concern the past while two concern the present. Other than that, each of the four books is as different as can be - instructive, biographical, literary, dramatic; violent, suspenseful, touching, political; challenging, amusing, saddening, incredible. Let me tell you a little bit about them.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name is a book written by Margaret Craven about an Anglican missionary sent to a village in remote coastal British Columbia. The Kwakwaka'wakw people of the village welcome the missionary and grow to like him, but at the same time they struggle with how their youngest generation will handle incoming changes from the outside world. The missionary develops a deep connection to the the people of the village and their culture, but ultimately he can't conclude how their way of life will continue. I liked the book a lot because of its unique look at a culture I've never studied (though there are of course many similarities to the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian of southern Southeast Alaska). On the other hand, it left me feeling that there was a lot more to be written.

My second book of the summer was Counter-Narrative: How Progressive Academics Can Challenge Extremists and Promote Social Justice, written by H. L. Goodall, Jr. I had bought it on Amazon for one cent (plus $4.00 shipping), just because I feel that a big part of what it means to be a historian and a good teacher of history is to influence the sorts of historical narratives that people accept as true. The book didn't end up having too much to say about history in particular, but it was still a very interesting look at how successful rightists in the United States have been at promoting their perspective on the world. At times the author was too transparently partisan for my taste, but the book helped convince me of how important it can be to study communication. (My brother, who's starting college this fall, has said he wants to pursue that as a major.)

Jon Krakauer wrote the book Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster soon after being part of a deadly expedition to the earth's highest summit. I wouldn't likely have read the book on my own, but my girlfriend convinced me to do it by promising in return to read The Golden Spruce, which I had recommended to her (and which I wrote about here). Into Thin Air was a quick and exhilarating read, well-written and of course written about some very suspenseful events. My basic conclusion is that I think there is a very big difference between climbing mountains and hiking up them. As for me, I would only ever like to hike up them, and I never want to do mountain climbing - especially in the Himalayas.

My most recently finished book was Chūshingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers, translated from the original Japanese by Donald Keene. The story is probably better know as the tale of the 46 or 47 rōnin - a fictional account of an incident in the early 1700s: An important lord antagonizes another lord into assaulting him, causing him to be sentenced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide. That lord's now-masterless samurai (rōnin) swear to avenge him, and they plan for years until they are able to storm the compound of their enemy and kill him. Afterward, all of the rōnin must commit seppuku themselves, as is due after committing murder. Chūshingura was originally a puppet play, similar to many other plays created around the time of the incident that did not purport to portray it directly, as that was forbidden by the government. Instead, the fictionalized story was set many centuries before and with different names, but its meaning isn't subtle. The foremost value set forth in the story is of loyalty - to the death, and after. It's part of Japan's most important literary heritage, and it's an engaging story besides.

(Images taken from here, here, here and here.)