John Man - Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior (2013)
An odd book. The purpose is worthy – to write an accurate history of ninja without the vast amount of myth and exaggeration built up around them. But Man quickly runs into the problem where he has few sources of uncertain reliability. He solves this as many other authors in a similar situation have by writing about the period, using short profiles of people, adding stray facts and interesting stories, tracing some of the remnants of the activity. The result, though, is a clunky grabbag of material. He focuses mainly on 16th century wars that certainly involved the ninja even if the historical record isn’t always clear about their activities or capacity. This account gets a bit confusing which might well be my ignorance of the period but then again I’m exactly the type of person he should be write towards so if I’m lost then that can’t be entirely me. At times he has interviews of modern historians, collectors and buffs though it apparently never occurred to him to write a combination history/travelogue much as Tony Horwitz does. If that doesn’t work then how about tracing the development of the ninja myth? Again there’s a brief bit about how this happened in Japan but much more about how James Bond started ninjamania in the West. He doesn’t follow too much past that. Towards the end of the book he’s really stretching for material. There’s a chapter on the Nakano spy school that’s interesting and has a conceptual similarity to real-life ninja activities though there doesn’t appear to be any actual connection. The final chapter relates the story of a Japanese soldier who didn’t believe the war was over and lived for decades hidden in the jungles on a populated island. Man claims to see the spirit of ninja here but this is such a weak link that it’s laughable. In one odd part so utterly unrelated to ninja history that you feel the author is trying to pad out the book he includes a bulleted list of survival characteristics including the claim that people with stable childhoods are better survivors because they don’t expect the crisis to last. You could just as easily make the opposite claim – that people with unsettled childhoods have more experience (and might just as well know this won’t last). It’s unlikely that either is true and there’s no source for the statements anyway. This sort of thing makes me wonder how reliable the rest of the book is.
Jeffrey J. Kripal - Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (2011)
Kripal wanted to trace the development of comics in relation to contemporary trends in science fiction and pop culture ideas of paranormal activity. There’s a lot of potential there but this isn’t that book. He quite early lets us know of his genuine paranormal encounter (though what he describes is a well-known psychological effect) and his seemingly proud believe in something both so trivial and so ludicrous casts the rest of the book into question. It’s sort of like starting a book on 20th century Italian history where the author proclaims his admiration for Mussolini – it doesn’t negate the accuracy of the history but does make a reader dubious about it. Kripal at several points claims that the truth or not of the various paranormal events (he includes one from Doug Moench that is so clearly a mistaken memory that it’s hard to imagine anybody taking it seriously if in fact I wasn’t reading somebody taking it seriously), anyway that their truth or not isn’t important. Fair enough. The catch is that Kripal is using this more as a smokescreen and as the book goes on it’s more and more obvious that whether or not he personally believes this (though he’s told us that he does even if with a wink and nudge) that he’s presenting it as fact. The bigger problem is that despite all this the book doesn’t do justice to the connections that it’s supposedly intended to explore. Superhero comics roots in Victorian adventure and 20th century pulp fiction are well-documented (though more wouldn’t hurt) but its ties to the parallel development of modern SF is more scanty and to paranormal and alternative religious beliefs almost nonexistant (other than UFO and related which aren’t typically considered paranormal but in all respects actually are).
David Sedaris - When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008)
People have always told me Sedaris is a writer I’d love so a few years ago I tried to read something but didn’t get far. Lately my boss went on several long spiels about Sedaris and her descriptions were funny so off to the library where I picked this as the most likely choice. Then I read it. It is, to borrow a better writer’s phrase, a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. The first surprise is that despite his reputation Sedaris really isn’t a humorist. I don’t mean that I didn’t find him funny (he has moments) but for the most part that’s not what he’s trying to achieve. Mainly he writes memoirist essays, which I realize is a clunky phrase but best describes these little bits of his life stuck into this form. I have no idea how much of this is true but that really doesn’t matter. When Sedaris goes off in one of the longer, more unpleasant essays about a bad airline trip it’s clear that this is just the literary equivalent of a talk radio caller. He’s merely venting with no reason that we should care. Some of his character profiles offer more substance but again without much to recommend them. In fact after finishing the book I admit to being completely mystified why anybody would think this was worth reading at all.