So this is happening

My son, who clearly does not realize what he has gotten himself into, has to do a report on a Famous Person from Indiana, and has somehow chosen Axl Rose, born in Lafayette in 1962. The ensuing discussion among my wife and I about what GnR song is their most iconic led to my brother suggesting that I get an immediate divorce. While I suspect I’m probably not going that route– I would be homeless in a month without my wife– her opinions on GnR are Wrong. My son, at one point during the conversation, looked at us and, I swear to you, quietly mumbled “What have I started?” to himself.

The correct answer is Sweet Child O’ Mine, by the way.

I think what’s probably going to happen is I’m going to write a 75-page pamphlet on GnR and give it to him, and he can edit it down to three pages or a hundred words or whatever passes for hard work in fourth grade nowadays.

I don’t have to go in to work tomorrow, as I have a training thing in the morning, which means that I’ll actually have my afternoon to myself. I’m going to take the rest of the night off after I finish this brief post and curl up with a book; I started John Scalzi’s The Kaiju Preservation Society last night and it’s going to demand my full attention until I finish it, I think.

#Review: African Samurai, by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard

I have talked a couple of times about how recent trends in my video game habit have led to a minor fascination with the Japanese language and Japanese history. Specifically, I have the Nioh games and Ghost of Tsushima to blame for this, both of which hang very fictional video game storylines on top of actual people and actual events in Japanese history. Yasuke, a (real) African who rose to be a samurai in the service of the (real) sixteenth-century warlord Oda Nobunaga is actually someone you fight in both of the Nioh games. The real Yasuke did not have lightning powers or a magical bear spirit that fought with him, but he was a real dude who actually existed.

I’ve gone looking a couple of times for a recent biography of Nobunaga in English, a book that does not seem to actually exist, but during one of those searches I happened upon this book, and it languished on my Amazon wish list for quite a while until it finally came out in paperback a bit ago and I ordered it. And considering what the book turned out to be, it’s really interesting that I only know about Yasuke through heavily fictionalized accounts of parts of his life– because while African Samurai is definitely a history book, it’s not at all like any of the books about historical figures that I have read in the past.

Thomas Lockley, one of this book’s two authors, is an American historian currently living in Japan. Geoffrey Girard, on the other hand, is a novelist, and while I didn’t delve into his background too deeply it doesn’t seem that he has any particular academic training in either history or Japan. While there are contemporary sources that attest to Yasuke’s existence– he is depicted in artwork and there are a handful of letters from a very prolific Jesuit monk who lived in Japan that discuss him, among a small number of other sources– there really isn’t enough information about him out there to fill up a 400+ page book without finding some way to provide more detail. And this book handles that dearth of source material in two ways: one, by making this a book that is nearly as much about Oda Nobunaga as it is Yasuke (which was a treat for me, since that’s what I was originally looking for) and two, by making the book almost more a piece of historical fiction than it is a traditional history. It is clear, in other words, that a novelist had his hand in writing this, and if I had to guess I’d suggest that the majority of the words on the page are Girard’s and not Lockley’s– although, to be clear, I would be guessing.

How is it historical fiction? Because far more of the book is about Yasuke’s thoughts and feelings and day-to-day life than the extant evidence we have about him would ever allow. For example, we know, because the Jesuit monk talked about it, that Nobunaga granted Yasuke a house on the grounds of his home and provided him with a short sword and a couple of servants. That’s factual, or at least as factual as a single secondhand account from five hundred and some-odd years ago can be presumed to be. But that’s all we know, and the two-page scene where Nobunaga summons Yasuke and then surprises him with the house, and Yasuke falling asleep on his new tatami in his home and awakening to find his new servants bowing at his feet, is pure invention. It’s not necessarily unreasonable invention– there was no point in the book where I thought that the authors were going too far in constructing a narrative out of what they had, and they only very rarely go so far as to utilize actual dialogue anywhere, but the simple fact is that that whole sequence is fictionalized, and the book is riddled with things like that. Yasuke is traveling with Nobunaga, and he reflects upon something-or-another that allows the authors to inject a piece of necessary historical background. We know that at one point Yasuke fought with a naginata, and so there’s a paragraph at one point where he’s thinking about buying one. That sort of thing.

So it’s necessary to be aware of what you’re reading while you’ve got this book in front of you– it never quite crosses over to the fabulism of, say, Dutch, Edmund Morris’ “memoir” of Ronald Reagan that actually literally inserted the author into Reagan’s life and pretended he was a witness to events that he wasn’t there for, but it’s absolutely not a straight work of history. (And while I’m comparing African Samurai to other books, I want to mention Ralph Abernathy’s And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, which is another book that is supposed to be about one person and ends up being someone else along the way.) And there are several places where the authors are forced to bow to simple historical uncertainty: we lose track of Yasuke in the historical record at some point, and we don’t know how or where or when he died, so the authors actually mention multiple possibilities about what might have happened to him after the brief Nobunaga era ended; stories about enormous African warriors (Yasuke was 6’2″, and would have been easily a foot taller than anyone around him in Japan) in places where such people usually weren’t found, but they explicitly paint them as possibilities, of varying levels of likelihood, rather than picking one and ending the “story” with it.(*) But once you internalize that lightly-fictionalized aspect of the book, it’s a hell of an entertaining and informative read on a whole bunch of levels, and I’m really glad I ended up picking it up. I don’t know how big of a group of people I’m talking to when I say something like If you’ve ever wanted to know anything about sixteenth-century Japan, pick this up, but … yeah. Go do that.

(*) I wish they’d gotten more deeply into his name rather than relegating it to a footnote, but as you might have guessed, “Yasuke” almost certainly wasn’t his actual name; it’s likely that “Yasuke” is “Isaac” filtered through Japanese pronunciation, and “Isaac” almost certainly wouldn’t have been his African birth name either, for obvious reasons. So just because we see a story of a similarly large and skilled African warrior somewhere near Japan in the right time frame, knowing that other person’s name doesn’t automatically exclude it from being Yasuke, because Yasuke wasn’t Yasuke, and might have abandoned that name after leaving Japan.

#REVIEW: Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

2020 thus far has been an interesting year for reading. 2019 had so many stellar books in it that I had to expand my traditional end-of-the-year Best Of list from ten to fifteen. In general, the quality of what I’ve been reading this year has been reasonably high, but there haven’t been all that many books that I was doing backflips over so far. There have definitely been standouts, of course, but nothing where I was rattling cages and shouting you must read this while running pantsless through the streets.

So it’s pretty cool to have identified my first major WHY DON’T YOU OWN THIS BOOK ALREADY of the year, finally, and even more interesting that it’s turned out to be nonfiction. There are usually a couple of nonfiction books in my top 10, but never one that I thought might be the best book of the year, and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci is absolutely a book that I could see being my favorite of 2020 once the end of the year rolls around. Assuming we’re all still alive, that is.

I have read one other book of Isaacson’s: I was a big fan of his biography of Benjamin Franklin, and having now read this one I’ve got my sights on his book about Albert Einstein. You may notice a theme here; Isaacson very much enjoys writing about geniuses, and one of the best things about this book is the way his sheer enthusiasm for Leonardo shines through every page. This is a book about, with no real fear of contradiction, one of human history’s most interesting people, written by someone who is utterly fascinated by his subject, and it just cannot help but being a tremendously compelling and educational read.

(Two things I learned about da Vinci: I was aware that he was able to write backwards and mirror-imaged, but I was not aware that he always wrote backwards and mirror-imaged. He was left-handed and just taught himself to write that way to save time and keep from smearing ink. Similarly, one of the ways his work is validated when its source is unclear is to look for signs that it was produced by a left-handed person. Second, and I’m not sure how common knowledge this is and it’s possible y’all are going to be surprised I didn’t know this, but he was gay. Not, like, “for the times” gay, or “if he was alive now he’d be” gay, but out and fabulous gay. There apparently exists one of his notebooks where he’s put a to-do list on one of the pages, and one of the items on the list is “go to the bathhouse to look at naked men.”)

(Also, and I’ve Tweeted at him and I’ll update if he responds, but I’d love to know how much work in language Isaacson had to do specifically to write this. I suspect the differences between Renaissance-era Italian and modern Italian are not minor, even before you get to everything da Vinci wrote requiring a mirror to read, and given his other books Isaacson may not even have known Italian before writing the book– every other book he’s written was about someone who, at least, worked primarily in English.)

I can’t pass up talking about the book as a physical object, either. I got the book in paperback, and the paper used both for the cover and for the pages is thick and textured in a way that makes the book an absolute joy to hold. In addition, it’s full of pictures, as one would imagine it would have to be, but they’re scattered throughout rather than as a tip-in in the middle of the book, and every single one of them is in full color. I don’t recall how much I spent for this book, but I’m genuinely surprised it wasn’t $40. Amazon currently has it for twelve bucks. That’s madness for a book of this high quality; this could not have been cheap to print.

I am also in love with the way Isaacson talks about art. I had to take an art history class as a random requirement to get my teaching MA, and while I honestly didn’t do terribly well in the class, reading people who really know a lot about art talking about paintings is something that I will never get tired of even if to a large extent I don’t really know what the hell they’re talking about. Isaacson can drop a paragraph about the emotional resonance of a detail in someone’s eyebrows that I can’t even see, and a good proportion of this book is dedicated to analyzing da Vinci’s artwork, both finished and unfinished. His chapter about the Mona Lisa is a masterwork. I couldn’t have written something like this to save my life; I just don’t have the eye for detail or the vocabulary for it, but it was an immense pleasure to read.

Ten stars, six thumbs up, one finger oddly pointed toward the heavens, go find this and read it right away.

1:07 PM, Wednesday June 17: 2,143,193 confirmed cases and 117,129 Americans dead.