The Last 50 Years of Pulitzers (1970-2020)

I have been on a project to read all the Pulitzer winners (and some of the runner’s ups). It has been a wonderful adventure during which I have discovered authors that I would have otherwise missed, but also with some deceptions where I disagreed more or less strongly with the decision of the Pulitzer committee.

Some of the authors I most enjoyed discovering included Annie Proulx, Donna Tartt, Richard Russo, John Updike, Richard Ford, and Marilynne Robinson. There were authors that disappointed me such as Colston Whitehead and some I detested like Anthony Doerr. Nonetheless, it was worth going through the books to see how American literature has evolved over the last 50 years.

The Pulitzer was given 47 times over the last 51 years, whereas in the years of 1971, 1974, 1977, and 2012 there was no winner. In 1971 and 2012, they apparently did not think that there was a book that stood above the others; however, I would have thought Toni Morrison’s fantastic debut, The Bluest Eye could have been an appropriate choice for 1971. In 1974 and 1977 respectively, Thomas Pynchon’s magnificent Gravity’s Rainbow and Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It were selected by the fiction jury but then rejected by the Pulitzer board who has a final decision. In 1977, they did give a special Pulitzer to Roots by Alex Haley.

Of the 47 prizes that were awarded, 30 went to men. This was a surprise as I usually thought of these prizes as being awarded primarily to men, but it was enlightening to see that a third of the prizes went to deserving women writers.

As for locations, the prize went 14 times to books that are based in New York, 7 took place in the South, 6 were collections of short stories, and 6 took place in New England, and 5 in the West. Europe and Asia were locations for 3 books each and Canada twice. I guess that if you want to win the Pulitzer, it might be a good bet to keep New York in the story somehow or at least focus on New England.

As for the time period, 24 times the period was contemporary to the author, 48 took place in the 20th/21st century, and 7 in the 19th century. Four of the books revolved around the Civil War and 3 had slavery as a theme. WWII was the background for 3 books and the Vietnam War was the background for 2 books. And there was only one novel, The Road by Cormac McCarthy was in an imaginary dystopian future.

Of the many protagonists, the ones that made the biggest impression on me were Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit At Rest, Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, Theodore Decker in The Goldfinch, Seymore “Swede” Levov in American Pastoral, Joshua Chamberlain in The Killer Angels, Sethe in Beloved, Celie in The Color Purple, Quoyle in The Shipping News, and Gus and Woodrow from The Lonesome Dove. On the other hand, the protagonists I couldn’t stand included Olive Kitteridge (eponymous), Bennie Salazar in The Good Squad, Cesar Castillo in The Mambo Kings, Marie-Laure and Werner in All The Light We Cannot See, Elwood Curtis in The Nickel Boys, and Henry Townsend in The Known World.

Looking back, it seems to me that the choices have become more politically correct as far more “minority” writers were chosen since 2000 (Lahiri, Díaz, Nguyen) as well as the first black male author to get two prizes (Whitehead). I thought that the tone moved from something a bit more heavy in some of the choices (Jean Stanford, John Cheever, Eudora Welty) in the 70s to some choices of books far more lighter in topic: Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie in 1985 and Less by Andrew Sean Greer in 2018 stood out as somewhat frivolous choices to me.) There were several times where I felt that the runner-up was superior to the winner (2000, 2015, 2020), but more on my disagreements below.

As for agreeing with the committee, I agreed about half the time as you see in the above graph. There were 9 books where I strongly disagreed and 13 where I was hesitant with respect to their choice. I find it interesting and am curious as to how others experienced perceive the quality of the selection. In the 70s, I think they passed over good books 3 times and gave out prize to weak novels like Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson and The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty. In the 80s, I liked most of the choices (or understood them even if I didn’t like the book as was the case for Norman Mailer’s epic (but unpleasant-to-read) Executioner’s Song). In the 90s, I didn’t like Mambo Kings by Oscar Hijuelos nor did I think that The Hours by Michael Cunningham was very good but liked their other choices for the most part. In the 00s, I had a real problem with the choice of Jhumpa Lahiri’s mediocre Interpreter of Maladies over the excellent Close Range by Annie Proulx (it would have been nice to see her win a second prize), with The Known World (although I don’t have an alternative to propose other than maybe Paul Auster’s Oracle Night (not read), but I will admit with atrocities like Cosmopolis by Delillo and the abysmal excuse for literature DaVinci Code coming out in 2003, they may have had a difficult time finding something!). Lastly, for the 10s, I had the most disagreements because I found that the winners in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2018 and 2020 were weak entries in terms of character development and general quality of writing. Just looking at the most recent award in 2020, there were far stronger books considered like runner-up The Dutch House by Ann Patchett but also the sorely overlooked but excellent Disappearing Earth by Julia Philips. I wish I had an extra life to read all the runner’s up each year, but I need to go back and do all the prizes from 1918 now, so may be after that.

Here are my overall rankings. My apologies, but since I strongly feel that Gravity’s Rainbow was robbed in 1974 and that it was the best book written in the past 50 years, it gets a controversial #1 ranking in my table.

1[Gravity’s Rainbow]
3The Goldfinch
4Lonesome Dove
5A Confederacy of Dunces
6The Shipping News
7American Pastoral
8Rabbit at Rest
9The Orphan Master’s Son
10Independence Day
11The Color Purple
12The Overstory
13Empire Falls
14The Sympathizer
16The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
17The Road
18The Stone Diaries
19Humboldt’s Gift
21A Thousand Acres
22The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
24Angle of Repose
25A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
26The Optimist’s Daughter
27The Killer Angels 
28Elbow Room
29The Stories of John Cheever
30The Executioner’s Song
31Rabbit Is Rich
33Foreign Affairs
34A Summons to Memphis
35Breathing Lessons
36The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
37A Visit From the Goon Squad
38The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
39Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer
40Interpreter of Maladies
41Olive Kitteridge
43The Hours
44The Known World
46The Nickel Boys
47The Underground Railroad
48All the Light We Cannot See
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Reading Shakespeare

Several years ago, I purchased the Oxford Complete Shakespeare and placed it on my shelf. It stared at me more and more intensely, particularly during the confinement period in the spring of 2020. In a moment of existential angst, I finally gave in to its guilty looks and began reading each of the plays as well as a wealth of criticism and commentary on Shakespeare and was more than healthily rewarded for the effort.

One of the first barriers to entry for someone reading Shakespeare is the archaic language he uses. Most modern versions use emendated texts with modern spelling, but in order to preserve the iambic meter (da-Da-da-Da-da-Da-da-Da-da-Da) in most of the lines of blank verse, some conventions that the Bard used such as the “èd” at the end of verbs is kept. Admittedly, it gets some getting used to the syntax as well, but I found that after struggling through the first few plays, I found my reading rhythm and was less disturbed by the difficult grammar.

You may be surprised to learn that there are many English words that were used in print for the first time by Shakespeare, 1700 to be exact. There is an excellent article here: about his inventive vocabulary. And when you realize that there was no wide circulation of printed versions of the plays until well after his death, it is fascinating to think about how talented a writer he was to be creating literary, spoken, and stage language all at the same time.

When reading Shakespeare, given the wide variety of genres and themes that he deals with, it is difficult to know where to start. I decided to begin with a chronological approach, but when I hit the 8-play history series (well, nine plays if you count the recently attributed and enjoyable Edward III) that covers Hundred Year’s War and the War of the Roses, I decided to read them in historical order and supplement this reading with Shakespeare’s Kings by John Julius Norwich. It was a good plan and a lot of fun. I would also highly recommend watching The Hollow Crown, a BBC adaptation in two series from 2012 and 2016 which covers these plays nearly line-by-line. Also, the classic Laurence Olivier versions of Richard III and Henry V as well as Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Richard Loncraine’s Richard III starring Ian McKellan as a particularly terrifying Richard III.

There are so many layers to Shakespeare, that it is hard as a writer to set it all down on paper. There is the action as it appears to the characters in the play whether it be a comedy, a tragedy, a romance, or an adaptation of history. Then, there is what the play was saying to Elizabethan (before Elizabeth I’s death in 1603) and Jacobean audiences (under James I until Shakespeare’s sudden retirement in 1613 and his death in 1616) because there was always a contemporary message more or less evident in the texts. Lastly, there is what the plays say to us today about ourselves, about human excellence and depravity, about good and evil. When reading Shakespeare, it is helpful to have a few guides to help one along the journey to see the clues to these various strata in the Bard’s works.

For a biographical sketch of Shakespeare, I read the introductions in the Oxford Complete as well as the various Signet Classics, Folger Library, and other editions of Shakespeare plays that I used. Additionally, I enjoyed James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare which was entertaining and educational. This particular year was eventful historically as well as a century marker, but in Shakespeare, it separates the period of his earlier works from his later classics – the line being typically drawn between Julius Caesar and Hamlet.

In terms of critics, I limited myself primarily to 20th and 21st century writing about Shakespeare. I, unfortunately, did not major in English, but I induce from my reading that the views on Shakespeare radically changed in the last century as a result of the sea changes that society was undergoing: the industrial revolution, social revolutions, more European wars, and the advent of psychoanalysis. My understanding is that Oxford Laureat A.C. Bradley in his Shakespearean Tragedy from 1904 changed literary criticism by using a more intertextual analysis of the four major tragedies to derive insights into the deeper psychology of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. Delivered in a series of lectures, it is an incredibly exciting and insightful read.

G. Wilson Knight wrote a series of books including the famous Wheel of Fire (1931) of “interpretive criticism” (his term) in which, admitting his debt to Bradley, he explored the mythology of Shakespeare and is equally fascinating in his insights, particularly his reading of lesser known plays such as Timon of Athens. He does an excellent job of comparing the plays by plumbing their deeper meanings through character analysis and the common themes and symbols used in the plays (storms, animals, death, hate, etc).

M.W. MacCallum’s book Shakespeare’s Roman Plays was incredibly helpful for Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus to understand how Shakespeare got these stories as they had just recently been translated from Plutarch’s Lives. Actually, Shakespeare also used Plutarch for Timon of Athens as well, but this is not covered by MacCallum. Instead, he dives deep into the three plays I mentioned to show how Shakespeare built his epic characters Brutus, Cassius, Marc Anthony, Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. It is a very good introduction to this often overlooked aspect of Shakespeare.

For the comedies, I read the rather academic R.P. Draper’s Shakespeare: The Comedies and found it interesting, but perhaps a bit too abstract. On the contrary, Hugh Richmond’s Shakespeare’s Sexual Comedy: A Mirror For Lovers was excellent and extremely insightful and a delightful read.

For the later romances, Northrop Frye’s A Natural Perspective is a classic and a must read. It looks at Pericles, Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest showing how Shakespeare’s vision had matured at this point and how central a role nature plays in these late works.

Besides Norwich’s Shakespeare’s Kings and MacCallum’s Shakespeare’s Roman Plays, I also read the recent Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt. It was a vitriolic study of the various tyrants in the history plays and tragedies with a not so subtle warning about current politics and the virage in today’s world towards authoritarianism. It serves as further proof as to what I said earlier about Shakespeare’s relevance regardless of which time period he is read.

As for the plays themselves, I reviewed most of them on Goodreads and will add a list here connecting to those reviews. In the meantime, my favorites in order:

  • The Tempest (Miranda!)
  • Hamlet (Ophelia!)
  • As You Like It (totally in love with Rosalind!)
  • Macbeth (Lady Macbeth!)
  • King Lear (Cordelia)
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream (Helena)
  • Richard III
  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • Richard II 
  • Henry V
  • Othello
  • A Winter’s Tale
  • Julius Caesar
  • Pericles
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Twelfth Night
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • 1 Henry IV
  • 2 Henry IV
  • 3 Henry IV
  • Two Gentleman of Verona
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • Measure for Measure
  • All’s Well That Ends Well
  • Coriolanus
  • Cymbelline
  • Troilus and Cressida
  • Timon of Athens
  • Edward III
  • 1 Henry IV
  • 2 Henry IV
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Titus Andronicus
  • Love’s Labor Lost
  • King John
  • Henry VIII
  • Two Noble Kinsman
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Fino’s 2020 Pulitzer Prediction

I have been working my way backward through winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and have read back to 1980 (Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer). For 202o, I have read the 15 books that predicted would be considered for the prize and runner-ups on 4 May 2020. Below is my analysis of this year’s candidates and my own predictions as to who will win and be shortlisted.

The list at was as follows:

1.   The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
2.   The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
3.   Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat
4.   Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
5.   On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
6.   Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
7.   Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
8.   Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
9.   Exhalation by Ted Chiang
10. My Life as a Rat by Joyce Carol Oates
11. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
      Dominicana by Angie Cruz
13. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
14. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
      The Need by Helen Phillips

The list is predominantly feminine (10/15) and quite diverse (two African-American males, one male of Vietnamese origin, one Haïtian woman, two Latinas, two Jewish writers, two Chinese-American writers). There are three short stories collections (Everything Inside, Sabrina & Corina and Exhalation), two science fiction books (Exhalation and The Need), one magical realism book (The Water Dancer). Two books talk about slavery and racism (Nickel Boys and The Water Dancer). There is one former Pulitzer winner (Colson Whitehead) and one finalist (Joyce Carol Oates). Arguably, The Other Americans by Laila Lalami should be here as well as it was a finalist for the National Book Award, but not having liked The Moor’s Account (runner-up 2015), I didn’t read that one.

The books I enjoyed least on this list are, unfortunately, the first two, the fourth, the ninth, and the last one. The Nickel Boys and Topeka School didn’t work for me as I felt no connection to the protagonists and felt the writing was, frankly, not that great. I haven’t really enjoyed Colson’s work since his debut with Colossus and Ben Lerner, well I haven’t read his other novels, but I felt that Topeka School was overwrought and convoluted. As for Trust Exercise, I felt it had some fundamental contradictions, washed over pedophilia between the male teacher and the “Hispanic” student, and just didn’t like the writing so much and really disliked the conclusion. The stories in Exhalation I felt were not nearly as good as his previous collection, The Story of Your Life from which the movie Arrival was based, and not even close to the quality of the short stories of Ken Liu, for example. Perhaps I just am not a fan, but I found that My Life As A Rat was entirely predictable and again, I felt no sympathy for the narrator. The Water Dancer left me wanting due to the mysticism of the Convection which was too much like the physical train in Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning Underground Railroad which I didn’t like either. As for The Need, it was implausible and the writing was mediocre at best – more of pulp fiction than literature in my opinion.

As for the books I liked, I enjoyed Sabrina & Corina, a collection of beautifully written stories that paint a grim but moving picture of the difficulties of being a Mexican woman in Colorado. Dominicana was reminded me of The Mambo Kings Sing The Songs Of Love, but was better written than that 1990 winner by Oscar Hijuelos. Despite being a rich people’s problem story, Fleishman Is In Trouble was very funny and I felt that the storytelling was well-constructed and the characters fully fleshed out. The exposition format of Feast Your Eyes truly pleased me as original and moving as well. Lastly, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous was a poetic paean to the difficulties of immigration for the Vietnamese fleeing the chaos after the end of the Vietnamese War with great literary and pop culture references.

For my runner-ups, I would choose The Dutch House by Ann Patchett due to its wonderful storytelling and engaging characters – it was so well-written and the plot moved along at a relatively comfortable and fast pace. My other runnerup choice would be the painfully beautiful Everything Inside by Edwige Danticat, eight heart-breaking stories of Haïtian refugees before and after the brutal Duvalier regimes – they truly brought me back to by trip there in 1986 and made me feel so close to the various protagonists.

My favorite for the 2020 Pulitzer is the masterful Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. I loved the calendar format, the kidnapping mystery trope, the kaleidoscope of fascinating characters, the beautiful descriptions of this relatively poorly-known land of Kamchatka, and the consistent quality of writing throughout. Of the 15 books I read on the list, this was truly my favorite in terms of writing quality, originality of plot structure, character development and descriptive language. I hope she gets her first Pulitzer although it appears that she is a longshot at best.

So, here is my list:

1.  Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
2.  The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
3.  Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat
4.  On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
5.  Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
6. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
7.  Dominicana by Angie Cruz
8. Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
9.  The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
10. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
11.  Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
12. My Life as a Rat by Joyce Carol Oates
13. Exhalation by Ted Chiang
14. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
15. The Need by Helen Phillips

Full reviews on Goodreads as well as the list for you to vote on:<a href=””>My List</a>



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Duccio’s Maestà


The theme of the Madonna in art history spans the post-Carolingien times to the 19th century. Nearly any artist associated with the Roman Catholic church in one way or another created images of the Madonna and child for adoration in churches or the private sphere. The Sienese school in the 12th to 13th centuries saw an explosion of representations as the models shifted from a heavily Byzantine form to the definitive Italian form. The flat schematic and expressionless face of the Virgin transformed into the more natural shape with depth and expressions of tenderness between the mother and child. In the majestic Maestà of Duccio di Buoninsegna, one of the first great masters born about 10 years before Giotto, the Virgin sits on a white throne inlaid with polychrome marble in eight registers of varying height in addition to being intricately carved and covered with a sumptuous golden cloth. The throne is surrounded by adoring angels each wearing a jeweled diadem and who rest their chins on their arms as they gaze, spellbound, at her beauty and that of the child. Her hand gently caresses the child’s chest, preventing him from falling off of her lap, her other hand caressing his knee. This is a very precocious representation of depth and rendered in a supremely subtle manner. Her eyes look at us but hide a small melancholy which we perceive in her closed but unsmiling lips. There is still a simplification of her eyebrows coming together to form the bridge of her nose in a “T” which captures the light coming in from the viewer’s left also illuminating her slightly blushed cheek as well as the fabric of her tunic resting on her knee. As the lowest figures placed next to the throne, are two angels, one of which looks at the light source and then Saint John the Evangelist while John the Baptist looks directly at us, imploring us to join him in worshiping this image. The Virgin is wearing a blue cape with golden hems and over a red gown and a white scarf on her white skin. The inside of her cape is scarlet red and is folded over underneath the seated infant creating a diagonal movement back to the two central figures. Christ is portrayed in a pink blanket over a transparent body cloth, this outer layer has golden crosses woven into it, prefiguring the sacrifice to come decades later. The child looks at us directly, his beautiful golden hair full of life in its curls and yet, like his mother, his look is one of maturity and foreboding, his right hand clutches his blanket to his chest while his left hand chastely holds the fabric to his waist. Despite the realism displayed in the representation of the Virgin and child, there is a strange morphing of the child’s blanket which becomes the Virgin’s outer garment on the extreme right side of the painting. The green tone in the halos is the underpainting and gesso where the gold flake has worn off after the years. Along the bottom of the diais on which the throne is raised runs an inscription in Latin that means, “Holy Mother of God, be thou the cause of peace for Siena and life to Duccio because he painted thee thus”

This central scene is surrounded on the left and right by more saints and prophets and the rear of this massive piece featured 43 scenes from the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ. Under the central scene is the pradella with scenes from the childhood of Christ and prophets (always identifiable as they are carrying scrolls with prophecies on them)

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53 Stations of Tōkaidō: Introduction – Leaving Edo via the Nihon-Bashi Bridge


Two lackeys crossing the Bridge of Japan (Nihon-bashi) are just coming over the hump in lockstep. Their backs are bent over by the weight of the red bundles pulled over their shoulders. One of them smiles, perhaps thinking of his mistress during the previous night. The one on the right scowls but keeps his head down, maybe annoyed by his neighbor’s good mood. Directly behind them, come two more tonsured monks, carrying tall poles for their daimyo. There is a striking contrast between the monk on the left who is scowling and scrunching his eyes and the monk on the right who grimaces but looks straight ahead – the mirth being on the right instead of the left this time. Behind them a procession of green-robed, white-hatted samurai marching in rank can be seen until the view is cut off by the trestles of the footbridge and the wall of rooftops of crowded Edo under the shogunate. It must be summertime based on the way the folks are dressed in light kimonos and bare legs. Fluttering in the wind above their heads are the two white puffs (and a smaller one carried further back in the procession) against a dark blue sky at sunrise. On the right in front of the bridge, a white dog turns his head back towards a cat who smells the fish and hopes, smiling, for a free meal. On the left, fishmongers carry their catch from the night in baskets slung over their shoulders. One in a green smock carries his fish in a basket on his head with his eyes closed, perhaps tired after fishing all night. In front of him, to his left, another peasant seems aloof in a blue coat walking behind an older gentleman with a blue bandanna and two baskets of fish as well. Ahead of the man in the green smock is another man, this time in red, who seems to be asleep on his feet. And leading this tired procession to the city-wide Nihon-bashi fish market is a man in a checkered blue smock who is turning towards the market entrance back towards the Kamo River, but whose bounty seems to exceed that of the others. This circular movement of the fisherman coming over the bridge and turning back towards the river mimics the dog on the right who turns to look at the passing cat. We cannot see the boats nor the sea, this is implied by the bridge and the fish. Written signs, most likely with regulations governing the market, line most of the left side of the building leading back to the river. The workers seem bound to this cycle whereas the nobles and monks despite being bound by fealty to their daimyo seem free to leave Edo through the open city gates. The fact that the latter are higher up in the picture frame probably also mirrors their higher social status from the workers who are on the same register as the two animals. Perhaps the ladders are suggestive of masts despite clearly representing scaffolding. On the one near the center of the image is a cast bell, perhaps tolling for prayer as these men start their day. Depth is suggested by the wooden paneling that frames the scene in the front hiding all but the foot, nose and right arm of a fisherman arriving from the left. The night sky recedes towards the top of the sheet as the sun’s rays invade the horizon hidden by the rooftops that dominate the rear of the print. There is a strict verticality enforced by the two poles in the center and symmetrically mirrored by the two gateposts which end in an abstract manner towards the bottom of the page as almost an optical illusion perhaps suggesting that the black paint is still wet or just damp from the morning dew as the light reflects differently both on the right and left on the bottom portion of the open gates. The horizonal lines of men in the procession are mirrored by the horizonal lines of the bridge footpath but the image is not monotonous owing to the slightly off-center viewpoint and the activity to either side. By placing like colors in various contexts, the peach shade can be either skin, a sunrise, the fur of a dog or cat, the painted background of a sign. One can feel a slight breeze coming off the sea from the right of the image. The smell of the fish is probably strong, perhaps this is why the priests are wearing frowns. Or it is merely because of the early hour and the menial nature of their tasks?

They are crossing the Nihonbashi bridge preparing to enter the Tōkaidō (Eastern Sea Road) on the long road to the imperial capital of Kyoto. Hiroshige himself accompanied the annual procession with a divine gift of horses from the shogun in Tokyo to the imperial court in 1832 documenting the trip in the book, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō (東海道五十三次 Tōkaidō Gojūsan-tsugi)  in 1833-1834.

What lives did these men lead in Edo before setting off on the road to Kyoto? Did they make this journey often or occasionally or was this a unique experience for them? What do the men in the procession think about the fishermen they pass as they come across the bridge? Do they see them as inferiors, or, perhaps they are friends with some of them and go carousing and drinking on their off hours? Did they even have off-hours?

Edo at this time was the largest city in Japan under the military system of the Tokugawa shogunate because of its good harbors and wealthy businessmen. The latter were excluded from government office which led to the development of extensive entertainment and the fabled pleasure district which is just another bridge away over the Sumida River from whence the procession might be coming after a long night waiting for their master as he enjoyed the local geishas in the pleasure quarter. The reigning shogun was the legendary Tokugawa Ienari (1773-1841), a man of enormous appetite who kept a harem of 900 women and fathered over 75 children who were adopted into various daimyo houses throughout Japan including perhaps the daimyo depicted here.  The emperor during the Tenpō epoque was Ninko-tennō, but as was the case during the military dictatorship, or bakufu or bakumatsu, he played little or no role in public life other than as a religious and political symbol.

In 1833, when Hiroshige is publishing this book, Japan is just at the beginning of the great Tenpō famine (1832-1837) in which thousands upon thousands perished. The violence of daily life (and the unique level of corruption and excess at the end of Ienari’s reign) is notably absent from most of the 53 Stations of Tōkaidō. The resulting instability from this period spelled the beginning of the end for the bakufu.


In this alternative cover for the 53 Stations, we see the same daimyo procession coming over the bridge, but a far more animated crowd of porters, peasants, merchants and even a group of geishas and maikos in their high-heeled geta sandals. There is a short porter in the foreground addressing a warning to a cat which as well as a group of white-robed monks on the left with a beautiful parasol.

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Book Reviews for Series by Fino

Fino’s Grishaverse Reviews
<a href=”“>Shadow and Bone</a>
<a href=”“>Siege and Storm</a>
<a href=””>Coming Soon – Ruin and Rising</a>
<a href=”“>Six of Crows</a>
<a href=”“>Crooked Kingdom</a>
<a href=””>Coming Soon – King of Scars</a>
<a href=””>Coming Soon – The Language of Thorns</a>

Fino’s Cixin Liu and other Chinese SciFi and Fantasy Reviews
<a href=”“>The Three Body Problem</a>
<a href=”“>The Dark Forest</a>
<a href=”“>Death’s End</a>
<a href=”“>The Wandering Earth</a>
<a href=”“>Supernova Era”</a>
<a href=”“>Ball Lightning</a>
<a href=”“>The Redemption of Time (Fan Fiction approved by Cixin Liu)</a>
<a href=”“>Invisible Planets (Short Story Anthology)</a>
<a href=”“>The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories</a>
<a href=”“>The Grace of Kings</a>
<a href=”“>The Wall of Storms</a>

Fino’s Dune Reviews
<a href=”“>Dune</a>
<a href=”“>Dune Messiah</a>
<a href=”“>Children of Dune</a>
<a href=”“>God Emperor of Dune</a>
<a href=”“>Heretics of Dune</a>
<a href=”“>Chapterhouse: Dune</a>

Fino’s Knausgaard Reviews
<a href=”″>Book 1</a>
<a href=”″>Book 2</a>
<a href=”″>Book 3</a>
<a href=”″>Book 4</a>
<a href=”″>Book 5</a>
<a href=”
book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1″>Book 6</a>
<a href=”″>A Time For Everything</a>

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Dune Overview and Chapterhouse: Dune Review

41pfJPIPdgL._SX301_BO1,204,203,200_Introductory notes:
Some initial notes for building my impressions of Dune where book references are denoted by D1-D6 for the 6 volumes of the trilogy – warning – there are some spoilers below, but once again if you have read this far into the Dune series, they are hardly spoilers because you already know all of this, or most of it.

Royal Houses

It is interesting to me that despite the massive scale of Dune, it remains a tale concerning really only three families (initially) competing for power.

Power Bases
Bene Geserit (female)
Bene Tleilaxu (male -females reduced to living axlotl tanks for breeding (D5)
Ix (unknown, only contact with male ambassadors)
Honored Matres (female – returning Bene Geserit from the Scattering hellbent on destruction)

There are also only three extra-royal organizations (and later a fourth) that operate within the walls of the first 6 books. Of course, each of these (yet not always described in a homogeneous amount of detail) are incredibly complex societies with interesting dynamics which made for great reading.

Zensunni (overall fusion of Islam and Zen Buddhism which is sort of the ambient religion across the Known Universe)
Sufi (closely related to Zensunni – very close to Bene Tleilaxu core beliefs)
Freemen Worship of Leto II / the God Emperor / the Tyrant (for Bene Geserit) / Guldur (for Honored Matres)
Orange Catholic (remnants of Roman Catholic faith)
Note: The Bene Geserit, while originally derived at least partially from Roman Catholic Monastical practices views religion as a tool for manipulating the masses and opportunistically plays religions off each other)

I liked the mashup of Zen Buddhism and Islam and found that it was a creative way of projecting out human development. One should note that – other than perhaps futars late in D5 and D6), no aliens are in the Known Universe so the humans are all descendants of a diaspore from Terra in the distant past. The idea being that the Zen Buddhists and those of the Muslim faith blended together whereas – apparently – the Roman Catholics split into Bene Geserit and then disappeared. I found no mention at all of polytheist beliefs such as Hinduism or Dualism beliefs such as Taoism.

Saudukar (males from Salusa Secundus in service of Harkonnens and Shaddam IV of the Corrino family)
Fish Speakers (females from Rakis in serivce of Leto II)
Honored Matres (females with mix of various Scattering populations with sexual skills honed to an extreme but also the physical prowess of the Bene Geserit but with extreme violence and no regret or pity)
Bene Geserit (females with extreme martial arts skills and body control)

Some of the most exciting writing in Dune is of course the battle scenes and it is interesting how the elite forces switch from all-male to all-female on the advent of Leto II. The Honored Matres are pretty badass (and very scary) and it was awesome how Miles Teg evolved into a godlike fighter before his doom on Dune.

Dune / Arrakis / Rakis (home to the Freemen, planet of the Sandworms, sole natural source of melange in Known Universe)
Caladan (home planet to Atreides clan)
Giedi Prime / Gammu (home to Harkonnens)
Salusa Secondus (prison planet) (home to Corrinos?)
Hidden Chapterhouse planet (home to Bene Geserit)
Tleilax (home to Tleilaxu)
Ix (home to Ixians)
Junction(s) (waystations for the Guild Navigators)

I was frustrated that we never visited Is or Tleilax and learned precious little about any planets besides Dune, Giedi Prime/Gammu and Chapterhouse. One would think that in a galaxy of billions and trillions that there would be more planets, but I suppose that Frank needed to simplify somewhere.

Bene Geserit hierarchy
Mother Superior
Reverend Mother
Breeding Mothers
Acolytes (1st Degree – 3rd Degree)

The BG became a sort of mashup of the military and a female monastic order that was interesting to read about. Unfortunately, there are many revelations for which the reader has to wait for D6 to learn about.

Famous Mentats
Thufir Hawat (D1)
Miles Teg (D5, D6)
Duncan Idaho’s last ghola becomes both Mentat and Zensunni philosopher (D6)

Like for the BG, we learn only scattered things about mentats until late in the series. The idea of replacing “thinking machines” after the Butlerian Jihad with human computers is fascinating and one of my favorite innovations in the Dune Universe.

Immortality Strategies
Bene Geserit- selective breeding, Others Memories, all powered by mélange addiction
Tleilaxu – axlotl tanks (deformed females) with selective breeding

Major Historical Moments
Before Dune
Butlerian Jihad – end of “thinking” machines, calculations monopolized by Guildsmen, Mentats and Bene Geserit
Creation by BG of Miossionaria Protecta
Establishment of BG Archives (?)
Birth of preborn Paul and his sister Ayla (the Abomination) to Leto and Jessica due to spice addiction. Jessica had disobeyed the BG and had a son first rather than a daughter which is a massive rock in the BG genetic pond for which we see the ripples over 5000 years of Known Universe history over the 6 books.
Paul Atreides passes Bene Geserit “box” test by Mother Superior – first male ever to pass the test
Move of Atreides family from Caladan to Dune under Emperor Shaddam IV’s direction ostensibly to protect the spice trade
Betraval and Assassination of Leto I
Flight of Paul to Fremen and their acceptance of him as their messiah, the Maud’dib
Victory of Paul Atreides Maud’dib over Shaddam IV and Baron Harkonnen at Arakeen using worm-fremen army and the Voice and death of first Duncan Idaho, Lady Jessica, Gurney Halleck, etc
Dune Messiah
Birth of preborn twins Leto II and Ghamina to Paul Maud’dib and Fremen Chola
Assasination atttempts on Leto II and Ghamina
Death/disappearance of Paul Maud’dib
Children of Dune
Abomination / possession of Ayla by spirit of Baron Harkonnen
Appearance of Preacher
Destruction of Ayla
Leto II assumes a Golden Path to save humanity by fusing with the sand trout and becoming Shai-Hallud / Shaitan / God Emperor
God Emperor of Dune
Peaceful reign of 3000 years under Leto II
Creation of Fish Speakers
Allowance of Aix technology
Deliverance of Duncan Idaho gholas by Tleilaxu to Leto II
Leto II killed during festival
Heretics of Dune
2000+ years of Scattering
Writing and distribution of Zaire ideas Manifesto (ghost written by HR Odrade daughter of Teg and future Mothre Superior)
Tleilaxu murder each of the delivered Duncan Idahos until last one
Appearance of Sheeana with power over worms on Rakis near Sietch
Waking up of Duncan Idaho by Teg and failure of Lucille to bind him to Bene Geserit
Breeding of Duncan Idaho ghola and Honored Matre Murbella
Conquering of Gammu by HR
Destruction of Dune by HR and death of Teg
Chapterhouse: Dune
Hunting of Bene Geserit by Honored Matres
Transfer from Lucille to Rebecca
Secret Israel
Agony of Murbella
Battle of Junction
Escape of ghola Duncan Idaho and Sheeana

And now for my review of Chapterhouse: Dune
Wow, that was quite a tumultuous and somewhat anti-climactic end to the Dune saga. I will write a long post here with plenty of quotes summing up all my Dune impressions for those who wish to read them.

“When she thought of the largely passive non-Bene Desert populace ‘out there’, Odrade sometime envied them. They were permitted their illusions. What a comfort. You could pretend your life was forever, that tomorrow would be better, that the gods in heaven watched you with care.” (p. 49)

Odrade is the daughter of Bandar Mentat (and overall badass mofo) Miles Teg who becomes Mother Superior of the Bene Geserit following the events at the end of Heretics of Dune. She has a deadly standoff with the Honored Matres which dominates Chapterhouse (the hidden BG headquarters planet). She is a great character – full of depth and insight such as the quote above. The Bene Geserit thanks to melange and some genetic engineering created a form of immortality which is threatened with extinction by the Matres flooding into the Old Empire from The Scattering (see God Emperor and Heretics) and Odrade’s strategy is a fascinating one to see being put together and then executed.

“The presence of Others Within who subtracted none of her attention from what went on around her had filled her with awe. We call it. Simuflow. Speaker had said. Simuflow multiplies your awareness.” (p. 60)

Chapterhouse opened a whole new line of inquiry into the fate of Israel with the characters of the Rabbi and Rebecca – the few last remnants of the diaspora now on a galactic scale. Rebecca is pulled into the Bene Geserit in order to save the Others Within that were massacred on Lampadas by the Honored Matres. While this is an interesting interlude, it is a little frustrating that Herbert throws this in in only the last book of the series and dies before developing this idea any further. The primary interest of this interlude was in fact a bit more information on how the Bene Geserit functioned with the Others Within which was helpful in better understanding them.

God formed me to deceive the powindah! His slight, childlike appearance was formed in a grey skin whose metallic pigments blocked scanning probes. His diminutive shape distracted those who saw him and hid the powers he had accumulated in serial ghola incarnations.” (p. 84)

The last Tleilaxu, Scytale, was an interesting character. Tleilaxu having been destroyed by the Honored Matres, Scytale is a prisoner on the no-ship on Chapterhouse. Perhaps Herbert sensed the end coming because the potential he built into this character (especially the whispering which was supposed to serve as a trigger for the ghola of Duncan Idaho) was never exploited in this book. That being said, he is fairly one-dimensional and serves as almost an albeit morbid comic relief.

“Honored Matre assumptions about control fascinated Lucilla. You controlled your universe; you did not balance with it. You did not train yourself to sense your own subtle responses, you produced muscles (forces, powers) to overcome everything you defined as an obstacle. Were these women blind?” (p. 100)

Lucilla was one of the most enigmatic and powerful characters in the later Dune trilogy I found. Here she is prisoner to the HM and studying them hoping to get a message to Odrade in time for the BG to prepare a defense. It was interesting to compare the BG before Paul/Leto II/The Scattering (all powerful, mystical, and mega fighters who subjugated emotion completely and sex as a precise weapon and the BG who viewed sex only as reproductive function.

The key issue in Dune is the disruptive impact of LOVE which ignites the first crisis in D1 when Lady Jessica falls in love with Leto I and rather than giving birth to a girl as her Bene Geserit masters would expect her to do, gives birth to Paul who then exhibits characteristics of the Kwisatz Haderach and becomes Maud’dib to the Freemen when he survives the BG test and achieves prescience. The next crisis occurs because Leto II loves humanity and wants them to survive. The last crisis is when Duncan Idaho and Murbella fall in love and do not fulfill (once again) BG plans. Unfortunately, we never really get to the end to know whether “love conquers all” or just fucks everything up.

Fantastic and legendary read. Please comment!

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The Painting That Ate Itself

[UPDATED – see the end if you already read the article before 29 June, 2018]
When we see art in a museum, we are often under the false impression that it is eternal. I mean, the paintings were painted long ago, and were hung up in the gallery years or decades or even centuries before, so won’t they still be around for generations to come? Even in the best of cases, the materials that make up a painting (varnish, ink, canvas, wood…) all can degrade over time and require constant vigilance. Back when governments cared about preserving the arts, many museums had their own restoration departments who surveilled the works. However, in these Neo-liberal times of reduced cultural budgets and such, museums like the Louvre actually outsource the restoration work to outside contractors.
A common malady for old paintings is when they take on a yellowish hue. This is due to the oxidation of the varnish that the painter (or successive restorers) put on top of the painted surface to protect it. This issue as well as damage to the painted surface (curving wood panels causing cracks or mold on canvas for example) are constant battles that museums and their restoraters face all the time.
But often, the degradations are actually the artist’s fault. Leonardo da Vinci’s incredible Last Supper in Milan suffers from the fact that Leonardo used a water-based solvent which has tended to flake off over time. It was restored in the 1990s with the heavy financial assistance of some Japanese mecenes and to avoid further degradation, the whole building is in a sort of quarantine due to which visitors have to pass through two doorways before being allowed to view the masterpiece. Actually, La Cena (as it is called in Italian) suffered another insult years ago. The building it is housed in was repurposed as a depot for Napoleon’s soldiers who cut a door right where Jesus feet were in the center of the painting and further, the soldiers occasionally took target practice at the figures! Before you mention the rumor that Napoleon’s soldiers also blew away the nose of the Great Sphinx in Giza, I need to tell you that that story is totally false. In fact, the nose was cut off in ancient times. We know this because there are engravings and sketches of the Sphinx in the centuries before Napolean’s Egyptian conquest with the nose already gone. The most likely explanation is that since the Egyptians believed that the art they made of gods and pharaohs was actually a manifestation of the god or pharaoh itself/himself/herself and that the orifices such as the mouth and nose – being openings towards the interior power of the sculpture – can transmit the power of that powerful entity from the afterlife. It is likely that a successor of Djoser who built the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids wanted to ensure that he would not come back and mess with his plans so he cut the nose off to kill the supernatural power of the Sphinx.
If you have ever visited the Louvre, you have perhaps wandered around in the huge red rooms behind the crowded room where the Mona Lisa smiles enigmatically over the millions of pilgrims that come from all of the world to take selfies in front of her. And in the second of these rooms, you may have noticed, or not, the massive painting from 19th century genius Gericault, The Wreck of the Medusa (Le Radeau de la Meduse). This masterpiece depicts a random incident that the artist had read about in the paper – a shipwreck after which (like the modern day Costa Concordia in 2012) the captain and crew split on good boats back to France while the 400+ passengers were left to fend for themselves for weeks in the middle of the ocean. Only 10 or 11 people survived and this only by feasting on the remains of the other passengers – they became cannibals. Gericault decided to depict this act of cowardice on the part of the captain and his ilk by painting a huge canvas and taking this tragedy as his theme. The fact that he took a random incident out of the newspaper was exceptional as the subjects of huge paintings up to that point by European artists were primarily based on religious or mythological stories or on important historical events or battles (like the Battle of Eyla by Gericault’s teacher Gros in the same room to the left of the Medusa or The Coronation of Napoleon in the previous gallery by David). By choosing these anonymous heroes, Gericault was challenging the status quo. But, he made a big, big mistake. Often, painters will cover the canvas or wood surface they are working on with an initial color like white or red. In the late Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, often the surface was painted red in order to diffuse a bit of warmth to the overlaying colors. Gericault wanted this shipwreck to be dark and foreboding, so he decided to paint the background in black. The problem is that due to the size of the surface to be painted, he figured he could use a form of tar to obtain a very uniform black surface on which to add his paint and save a little money on materials. Little did he suspect that the acidity of the tar would gradually eat away the paining laid on it. When you look at the painting today, there are large areas of black that appear to have bubbles on the surface of the canvas. This is the tar rising from the canvas and destroying the paint. The painting about cannibalism is actually eating itself and there is precious little we can do about it.
UPDATE 29 June 2018: I learned today in my art class at the Louvre that in fact, three French researchers Jean Petit, Jacques Roire and Henri Valot analyzed the Radeau and found no trace of bitume in the pigments used by Gericault! Unfortunately, their book “Les Liants et Les Couleurs” where they discuss the analysis in detail is out of print (€150++ on if they can find it), so I can’t really read about it and discuss it here. This means that the reasons for which La Radeau is eating itself remain a mystery! Isn’t it amazing that in this world of artificial intelligence, big data, and space travel that we can still have a chemical, scientific mystery? 🙂
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Fantastic humor from my favorite Nairobian!

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NSFCCDP Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

gits_trailerI picked up Ghost in the Shell as a manga in Tokyo nearly 20 years ago and was blown away. The story of Major Motoko Kusanagi with her friend and subordinate Batou of the cybernetic eyes and her boss Lt Col Daisuke “Monkey Face” Arakami in 21st C Japan following two more world wars and a massive influence of IT on daily life was a revelation. I then saw the first two anime films (but not all of the Stand Alone Complex ones) and again found them to be groundbreaking and incredibly interesting. So it was with baited breath that I waited for the live action version with the stunning Scarlett Johansson playing Motoko, well mostly just “Major” or “Mira” in the film. The manga served to introduce the characters and their universe. In the anime, the “Puppet Master” was the key villain hacker that her governmental anti-cyberterrorism unit, Section 9, was chasing. In this live action version, they kind of borrowed from another manga character, Hideo Kuze (played by Michael Pitt) and merged him with the “Puppet Master”. As for the graphics, there are some beautiful nearly frame-for-frame reproductions of the original anime in the film that are quite spectacular, especially Major’s dive off of the building in the thermo-optic camouflage suit at the beginning and the chasing of the civilian that was hacked by Kuze through the wet alley and the beautifully choreographed fight between him and Motoko in her thermo-optic gear.

On the negative side, the story is supposed to take place in New Port City in Japan, but it is rather obvious throughout that it was shot in China (Hong Kong to be exact as we learn in the closing credits) so that kind of disappointed me. That being said, all the special effects and the view of the city full of holograms was still impressive. The next downer is the controversial “whiting out” of the Motoko character by casting a caucasian in this role rather than a Japanese actress. OK, they knew they’d make major bank with Scarlett on the poster and Motoko sometimes does look similar in the anime to Mira in the film, but still, it was perhaps a bit of a commercial decision by director Rupert Sanders. I regret that the music from the original anime was not recycled in the film because that was one of the greatest aspects of the anime. The last thing that bugged me was the ending and the denouement which was a sort of Hollywood twist to the original, but much more sentimental than the original manga and anime.

Overall, I enjoyed this film a lot despite the reservations I voiced above. It was entertaining and, again, beautifully shot and graphically worked over. And Scarlett was pretty convincing as Major. I think I need to go back and see Lucy by Luc Besson now as I missed that one and perhaps it is another aspect of Scarlett playing science fiction that would be interesting.


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