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March 16, 2010

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

never.jpg
After Remains of the Day, who would have thought that Kazuo Ishiguro would have in him a dour, sci-fi novel set in a sort of boarding school. To talk about the plot would be to ruin what is essentially a 280 page slow reveal, where little of slivers of awfulness and horror find their way into the story, making us recoil in disgust as we glimpse only a fraction of the world that exists outside Ishiguro's narrative. Told in first person from a naive standpoint, the book "wants us to inhabit their ignorance, not ours" according to a Powells.com essay. The novel never holds steady or lets us gather our bearings, we spend the novel perpetually leaning forward, trying to grasp meaning among the mundane storytelling. Ishiguro lets us figure out the more horrific passages ourselves, and that's what make it so stomach-churning. Mark Romanek is directing the inevitable film version, for which, no doubt, all secrets will be revealed in the trailer. Could be read as the metaphoric story of a cow on its way to the slaughterhouse.

(The book infected my dreams more than once, a good/bad sign.)

March 12, 2010

Tim Powers - The Stress of Her Regard (1989)

timpowers_stress.jpg
Readable but overlong fantasy-horror-literary history hybrid featuring lamia/vampires and the cream of Romantic poets--Keats, Shelley, and Byron--interacting a with a fictional character, Michael Crawford, who must also rid himself of the curse and save the twin sister of his murdered wife, Julia/Josephine. Powers' skill is in seamlessly incorporating real details--Shelley's drowning, his funeral pyre, the rescuing of his heart, for one example--into a fictional narrative, and deepening the understanding of both novel and history. In the end this was a narrative I wanted to wrap up 100 pages sooner, coming down to a battle to save Josephine and their baby, who might also be a product of the lamia/vampire. The best moments are the ones that little bearing on the plot--a glimpse of a monstrous thing sharing a cargo hold--the least ones the action machinations of the climax. It did make me purchase a book of Shelley poems to counterbalance my adolescent knowledge of Keats.

(BTW, this cover is terrible and looks like a romance novel!)

February 28, 2009

Bristol's Bibliophile BookBarn Bargain Blowout Boffo Bonanza!!!


See!? The economic crapper does have a good side!

Thousands in scramble for free books after Amazon supplier abandons warehouse
By David Wilkes
28th February 2009

Bibliophiles have travelled from far and wide to the old Bookbarn site on an industrial estate in Brislington, Bristol.
The warehouse, whose lease recently ran out, once contained as many as five million books destined to be sold online.
After the lease expired, he firm running the secondhand book business moved out, leaving it full of books.
Managers of the industrial estate invited people to help themselves so they can free up space at the site.

What I want to know is how the place came to look like such a tip. Did the company, skeedaddling out of town, do this? Or did the "locust swarm" of crazed shoppers do it?

September 8, 2008

John Hodgman has a new book coming out


Hodgman's last book, Areas of My Expertise, was a laff-out loud, tears-rolling-down-my-face winner. His writing style is an American twist of Brit absurdity, very smart and learned, but also baffling and sometimes pointed. Most people know him as either the guy in the "PC vs. Mac" ads, or as a guest on the Daily Show. But his writing is in a totally different universe altogether.

His new book is called More Information Than You Need and is available Oct. 21, 2008. Yay!

August 26, 2008

Hey! Jean Baudrillard


Jean Baudrillard on my hometown,
from his 1989 book, America.

On the aromatic hillsides of Santa Barbara, the villas are all like funeral homes. Between the gardenias and the eucalyptus trees, among the profusion of plant genuses and the monotony of the human species, lies the tragedy of a utopian dream made reality. In the very heartland of wealth and liberation, you always hear the same question: "What are you doing after the orgy?" What do you do when everything is available – sex, flowers, the stereotypes of life and death? This is America’s problem and, through America, it has become the whole world’s problem.
Hey, screw you, Baudrillard! I haven't been to an orgy yet. Maybe if we had more in S.B., we wouldn't all be so uptight.

June 9, 2007

Simon and Simon: Ballard, Eno, and more


Simon Sellars interviews Simon Reynolds about J.G. Ballard

One of my fantasy projects that I toyed with for a while was a book on Ballard and Eno. They do seem of a type in some ways and they are patron saints of postpunk to an extent. But the project founders immediately owing to the fact that they are so eloquent about what they do and such brilliant writers, that there’d be zero role for any critic or commentator. There’d be very little to mediate or interpret, as they’ve said it all, so much better. They know what they are doing. I suppose you could historicize them, contextualise them. Ballard with the milieu he emerged out of in the Sixties, which was based around the ICA, right? And Eno with the UK art schools.

In some ways the affinity seems as much temperamental as anything ideas-based. There’s this wonderful Englishness. You imagine they would get on like a house on fire, trading ideas over whisky and soda in the Shepperton living room. One thing they both do is take ideas from science and set them loose in culture, find applications. Ballard is like a British McLuhan, except much better because he’s a far better writer, and a better thinker too – more original, more convincing. Eno is almost like a British Barthes, in some ways.

April 5, 2007

Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

Speedy read graphic novel about an animator's trip into the bizarre totalitarian world of North Korea, where George Orwell seems to be a prophet. Rambling narrative, good comic timing, and a journalist's eye for detail. As you can see, I got it from the library! 

Photographed by mills70

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Japan's most popular crime novelist, says the blurb, and I believe it. Zipped through this, even waking up early this morning just so I could finish the final 25 pages! A desperate housewife kills her gambling, philandering husband and her workmates help her dispose of the body. Things start to go wrong almost immediately with their plan, but Kirino keeps the twists coming, until you feel sympathy for nearly everybody. Also a good examination of the underclass of Japanese society and the squeezed middle class. 

Photographed by mills70

May 12, 2006

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

curiousdog.jpg
Vintage, 2003
Mark Haddon comes from a background of childrens books, which partly explains the simple, straightforward storytelling of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Yet the tone, and the clinical POV of its autistic protagonist allow for all sorts of adult ironies to make their way in. The novel starts off with a murder--of a next door neighbor's dog--but it is Christopher's desire to solve this parochial mystery that leads to the uncovering of secrets and real human pain--about his father's life, his mother's, and some of himself. Shades of Vonnegut-like distance and cartooning, but at heart a empathetic tale. Without the POV device, Haddon's tale would be a depressing story of a developmentally disabled teenager and kitchen sink melodrama. But as it is, its revelations are heartbreaking, because they are played so objectively.

May 2, 2006

Time Out of Joint - Philip K. Dick

Penguin Books
1959 (1979 reprint)
My friend Jeff literally gasped when I told him I was reading Philip K. Dick for the first time.
He of course has been a fan for years, and quickly rattled off a list of must-reads in his bibliography, including a biography which will give some context.
Dick novels are hard to find used here--the Public Library has a few, and the Book Den has at most one at any time. This is not a reason for me not reading earlier, just a fact. There's something groovy, then, in picking up this Penguin UK paperback, a thin novel--it feels like a coffee break.
Time Out of Joint is an early work, and tells the story of Rangle Gumm, a 40-something layabout who starts to suspect that his small-town suburban reality is not what it all seems. Objects disappear in front of him, leaving only the object's name on a scrap of paper. His young cousin finds old magazines and phonebooks that don't correspond to the era. The cousin also builds a crystal radio and Ragle begins to hear pilots passing overhead, talking about him. And why does he keep winning his local paper's mail-in quiz?
The publication date was 1959, and not only is Dick presaging all sorts of recent alt.reality movies like the Matrix and Truman Show, but part of what I liked about this novel is his depictions of life in late-50's America. He understands the phony veneer of post-war suburbia around the same time Twilight Zone was doing the same. The early chapters are now a glimpse into how people thought and acted back then, just before Dick bends their reality. He gets the consumerism that we are still suffering from, the "reality" that America creates around itself to keep out the messy Real. Baudrillard would have a field day with the book; so would Zizek. I breezed through, and got a kick in the pants--fun stuff.
For a much more intelligent consideration of the novel, for those who have read it, check out The Four Levels of Reality in Time Out of Joint by Yves Potin.

April 21, 2006

Night Has a Thousand Eyes - Cornell Woolrich

nighthas1000eyes.jpg
Ballantine
1945 (rerelease 1985)
Cornell Woolrich is sometimes considered the lost voice of Noir fiction.
Whereas Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler have their place secured, Woolrich is terribly out-of-print for the most part, with his books going for high prices on Amazon, and no publisher really putting out a comprehensive re-release. Yet he wrote "The Bride Wore Black" (under the name William Irish), which had been filmed several times, wrote "Rear Window" (you may have heard of this little Hitchcock film), and most recently the Banderas-Jolie "Original Sin" film was based on one of his stories. The Believer featured a nice retrospective a few years ago, and yet, still he's hard to find.
Night Has a Thousand Eyes was lent to me by a friend, and is my first Woolrich novel to read. It dates from the '40s, is more a post-Depression piece than a WWII one, and features the classic noir trope of inescapable fate. The novel is in two halves. In the first, a millionaire's daughter, saved from a suicide jump, relates how her father has become mentally enslaved to a poor psychic. The psychic foresees a plane crash and the millionaire cheats death, from then on hanging on his every word. He forecasts the stock market, and the millionaire makes more. But then the psychic foretells his death...in the jaws of a lion! At midnight! On a certain day! The once confident man now becomes unraveled--after all, the psychic has been right up to now...
The second half follows Shawn, a detective, who doesn't believe in all this, and is determined to figure out what's really going on (while falling in love with the once-suicidal daughter, Jean). Is it extortion? Woolrich cuts back and forth between the last night of the fate-condemned man and the detectives sent out to follow the psychic. And surely the lion is a load of hooey...except! A lion escapes from a traveling circus that night! Yeh, you heard me...
Ludicrous as it all sounds, Night takes it all seriously, and places its readers in the position of the unbelieving investigators, who reveal one fact-based clue only to be confounded with some otherworldly event. This oscillates back and forth towards the climax, which includes a desperate game of roulette, right up to a surprise conclusion literally as the clock is chiming midnight. The ending, which I won't reveal, allows its question of fate to remain ambiguous.
Woolrich's writing can often be overly prosaic, and I did skim a bit when he seemed to be padding. But it's rough and mean enough, which lashings of black dread, to appeal to noir fans everywhere...if you can find a copy.

Here's a good Cornell Woolrich site.

October 13, 2005

Harold Pinter Wins Nobel Prize

One of my favorite and most influential writers, Harold Pinter just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not only do his plays explore the frightening recesses of the modern mind, but the man loathes Bush with a passion. Good on ya!

October 11, 2005

EBCB: an excerpt

Russell Davies has been documenting the vanishing English Cafe for a few years now on his two blogs. Now it seems his paean to the classic British slap-up meal, eggbaconchipsandbeans, is to be turned into a book. I know I want a copy, not just for its celebration of this utilitarian meal, but for his enthusiastic writing:

Continue reading "EBCB: an excerpt" »

September 30, 2005

Library Thannnnng

After thinking about setting up a books database on my computer using Booxter, along comes a Web-based flickr-style version called LibraryThing. Designed by Tim Spaulding, it uses ISBN, bar codes, Amazon, and straight ol' manual input to create a db on the web to represent your collection. You can then link to it and show people that, in fact, you have way too many Star Wars Universe novels for a 35-year-old man.

As you can see, I've already signed up, entered a few books--from my reading pile at work--and installed their blog widget on the left-hand side. Ain't it amazing?

September 23, 2005

A nice small haul from the hall

Today I quickly stopped by the annual Planned Parenthood Used Booksale at the Earl Warren Showgrounds. This is one of the biggest sales in S.B., and apparently last night's opening was a madhouse. I wanted to go, but I was teaching class, so I just hoped there would be something left.

I ran into John Ridland, former poetry teacher of mine, and translator (I wrote on his book here). He had some nice words to say about my bimonthly column and this very blog, and I was glad to tell him that it's back in business. He also had recently gotten into Modern Japanese Lit through a friend and was very much into Junichiro Tanizaki. Yep, Tanizaki is a good one to start with, more so than Soseki. Of course I put in a good word for Kobo Abe.

I didn't pick up many books this year, but I did get three: Richard Brautigan's The Abortion (only later did Jon point out the irony of picking this up at the Planned Parenthood sale); Geoff Dyer's but beautiful: A Book About Jazz, which some blog or another turned me onto months ago. Now it's too late to thank them/him/her. Finally, the media contact/organizer Stephanie, who had been yakking back and forth with me on email, had saved a copy of Burroughs' Interzone for me, after I had written about my WSB Binge in my column. Wasn't that sweet of her? It turned out that book was a first-edition hardcover, too! Niiiiice.

June 24, 2005

William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible - Barry Miles

Virgin Books
2002

My cultural knowledge of William S. Burroughs used to go a little bit like this: "Naked Lunch"...ah, hmmm..."Naked Lunch" (the movie).
I knew more about him as a reference, from bands I like (Steely Dan, Soft Machine) to a voice to sample ("Language is a Virus" and "Sharkey's Night" for Laurie Anderson). So it made sense to pick up this very breezy biography by Barry Miles, who has also actively reconstructed some "definitive texts" of Burroughs' works (and after you read the book, you realize how brain-busting that must have been).
This is the story of a man who leaves his small town, sees the big wide world, does a whole lot of drugs, achieves fame, achieves poverty, then returns to a similar location to live out the rest of his days. Funny how that happens. Of course, in the meantime, he winds up influencing the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Miles traces the themes and influences running through all Burroughs' works and makes valid the writer's own claim that all his writing is one large book, with familiar characters and ideas turning up again and again. Just as some film directors start off as comic artists, Burroughs started off as more of a skit writer, composing "routines" with his friends based on wild characters, seeing where they would leave. "Junky" certainly has that quality from the get go; "Naked Lunch" is the culmination of that style. The later cut-up works are microcosm versions of the routines.
At some point Burroughs became so paranoid, and believed that people were just "agents" working for some unseen force, and that women were aliens. He actively pursued Scientology in its earlier stages, when it was a version of Wilhelm Reich's theories (Burroughs went through the e-meter business and became a 'clear') and not a money-making cult. Reading about this made me realize how much Cronenberg put into his film of Naked Lunch--not just an adaptation of the novel, but a psychobiography of Burroughs.
Miles' book is essential reading for anyone interested in jumping into Burroughs' work, not just because of the overview it gives of the books, but because so much of his life appears in his novels, that I would imagine a reader would be lost without it.
So therefore I picked up Junky right after putting this book down. Will read it soon....
In the meantime, here's a page of cut-up machines. And a page of assorted texts.

June 16, 2005

Supporting Yourself as an Artist - Deborah A. Hoover

Oxford University Press
1989

Am I having an artistic identity crisis or what?
Jeff Kaiser recommended this book--it's a very thin book--for those interested in grants. And I'm interested in grants...in the future.
This form of moolah procurement is still very popular, 20 years (!) after Deborah Hoover wrote the first edition to this book (she followed it up four years later with the second, and then kept shtum through the internet and email revolution).

Continue reading "Supporting Yourself as an Artist - Deborah A. Hoover" »

June 6, 2005

The Now Habit - Neil Fiore

Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.
1989

Like so many peeps, I have a hard time with procrastination.
This is especially baffling for me, because I find these days I procrastinate over things I like to do, and wonder what the hell's wrong with me. I was a much better procrastinator when I was younger, when I took ages to do boring school assignments and chores, preferring to write, draw, read, etc. Now I have a hard time jumping on the computer to edit film, or work on After Effects, and such. Is it the technology? Is is fear of completion? What? What? What??
Goddamn it all, I need answers. Well, I didn't find them all in Neil Fiore's book, but there are some nice "mind hacks" (to borrow a term) inside. The book, you may not be surprised to hear, is recommended over at 43 Folders, the boosters for Dave Allen's Getting Things Done. Books like these are always easy to read (and finish, bwah), so why not, I asked.
The book comes from 1989, B.E.M. (Before Email), so when Fiore makes note of "Inboxes filled with letters" he's talking about paper. (Tell me, grandad, what was it like in an office back then?)
And of course, the book is designed for the executive and/or office worker who, let's face it, has nothing but sucky things to work on anyway. When you die, nobody will remember you for the 2001 semi-quarterly report of potato vendors. Such is life.
But there's plenty for artists and creatives and before I forget the sage (and just plain) wisdom, I'll write it down here.
* Making the mistake of identifying too much with a project, until any opinion on the project is taken as an opinion on yourself. Therefore, "...procrastination can serve as a delaying action and as a way of getting past your perfectionism. If you delay starting your work, you cannot do your best and so any critiscim or failure will not be a judgement of the real you or your best effort." Although true, sometimes my best writing is done when I'm under the gun. I'd prefer not to be under the gun, yet neither do I judge my rush work as less than my own writing.
* Fiore compares a task to walking along a foot-long plank of wood for 30 feet. Easy? But what if it was 50 ft off the ground, suspended between two buildings? We'd find it hard to get across. But what if the roof we were on was on fire? We'd probably find a way to get across. Procrastinating, says Fiore, is when we raise the plank of wood ourselves and then set fire to the building--that is, we wait until the last minute until outside events force us to actually do the job. We create pressure that doesn't need to be created...
* It's all about word choice. In his most salient yet psychobabbly point, Fiore recommends switching the verb "have" with "choose", ideas of punishment and outside forces switching with rewards and free will. So don't say "I have to finish this assignment by 5 o'clock...or else!!". Instead say "I choose to finish this assignment (because this is the life I'm leading at the moment, etc. etc.)" Now whether this will enable my life script and/or send me into a shame spiral I don't know, but actually I find this a good way of looking at things, and certainly gave me a little new perspective (along with GTD) that allowed me to finish the music video I was working on. Weeks of "I have to finish this!" produced very little, because I was grouping it all together. Once I broke all that needed to be done into little batches of assignments, suddenly it was "I choose to finish one AfterEffects shot tonight" or "I want to/I bet I can..." etc.
* "Whenever you catch yourself losing motivation on a project, look for the implicit "have to" in your thinking and make a decision at that moment to embrace the path--as it is, not the way you think it should be--or let go of it. It's your choice."
* Other changes in your inner voice: Replace "I must finish" with "When can I start?"
* There is a link between chronic procrastinators and workaholics: "they are either working or feeling guilty about no working."
* Make a reverse calendar. Start with the end date, then plot out the other dates that run up to it. This does mean, however, that you must pull apart a majority of the small actions ahead of time, and make room for the unknown. This is easier said than done.
* Questions to ask yourself to overcome fear, especially when planning a project: "What's the worst that could happen?" "What would I do if the worst really happened?" "How would I lessen the pain and get on with as much happiness as possible if the worse did occur?" "What alternatives would I have?" "What can I do now to lessen the probability of this dreaded event occuring?" and "Is there anything I can do now to increase my chances of achieving my goal?" These are fair questions to ask, as long as you are not completely delusional and do them ahead of time.
* A lot of these suggestions are Buddhist. As is GTD. Dave Allen was a former hippie. Go figure.
* Telling yourself "I should have started earlier" is a waste of time. You've started, so do the work.
* "Only work will diminish your anxiety." I like that maxim. Also: "Procrastination is another form of work" (but not in a good way).
* Use reverse psychology: "I must not work more that 2 hours a day on this project." Guess what happens.
* Let go of larger goals (temporarily) in order to focus on smaller goals that can be accomplished sooner.

So that's about it (or what I marked down as interesting). Fiore hits the same points over and over, and I still have a hard time thinking about business people and why they should care about the stack of paper on their desks. I'm glad someone is there to help them out and who also, along the way, helps out the artist.
On a side note, this book came out in 1989, which isn't that long ago really. But one of the main ways to procrastinate--email and Internet--just didn't exist.

May 24, 2005

Blankets - Craig Thompson

Top Shelf Comics
2003

Blankets is a huge tome of a graphic novel, one that took artist/writer Craig Thompson 5 years to complete, and only took me a few hours to finish.
Ach, such is art.
The story, a realistic tale with dashes of magical realism and fantasy, concerns Craig, growing up in a strict Fundamentalist (are there any other kinds?) household, and struggling with his faith when he falls madly in love with Raina, a girl he meets at Christian Ski Camp. She lives in Michigan, he lives in Wisconsin, and they soon consummate a long-distance relationship that leads to the central action of the novel, Craig's decision to stay with her for a week at her family's house.
Craig's family is ruled by a domineering father (who Thompson draws a little bit like Stalin), an invisible, but not weak, mother, and a younger brother who doesn't have the most loving relationship with. He's not exactly his brother's keeper. The visit to Raina's house mirrors Craig's broadening worldview that primes him to leave the church. Raina's parents are breaking up, but Dad still comes back every day for a few hours and puts on a brave face. The couple communicate through notes stuck to the refrigerator. Raina has an older, more rebellious sister, who has left the Christian home and immediately married a lunkhead and dropped a sprog. Raina also has two adopted siblings, both with Down's Syndrome, a decision that made sense to the parents when they were kids, but now they are growing up physically, but not mentally, is fully taxing them.
Thompson gets all the details right in this slow, studied portrayal of young love, though tempered with debates over sin and battles with shame. The fundamentalist church comes across as one big gathering of alpha male high schoolers, with little difference between the mullet-heads that bully Craig, and the block-headed churchgoers who will choose ideology over family. With Christo-fascist James Dobson currently pulling the strings in Washington, it's a shudder-worthy look into a sub-culture that is isolationist and miserablist at its core, but one that has its eye fixed on a theocratic state. The anti-art/anti-creativity propaganda drilled into the children through the church, as seen in Blankets, is, well, it's child abuse, not to mention the whole body-shame-guilt crap.
Thompson grew up in this sort of environment, but like others who escape the fundamentalist craw, he knows his Bible, and Blankets occasionally departs to tell stories from the scripture that complement the main plot. His explication of Ecclesiastes--one panel the existential angst of the original text rendered in jagged Grosz-like ink work, the other a Sunday School happy bunny version of the Christian "correction" added later--is especially enjoyable.
I don't know any of Thompson's previous (minor) work, but his flexibility of style from realism to expressionism shows his young mastery of the form. This is his second book, but the first to be in this realist style. What he does for a followup will be of interest--having purged himself of his childhood trauma, will he have anything left to say? (Supposedly the next book is an "Arabian fairy tale".)
Craig Thompson has a website and an interview here at Fear of Speed.

John the Valient - Sándor Petőfi

Hesperus
2004

It was national poetry month last month, and Santa Barbara crowned its first poet laureate, Barry Spacks,
who I covered (with some tardiness) for the News-Press in my column. However, I missed publicizing, but still managed to give a shout out to, John Ridland, the poet who was one of my professors at UCSB back in the day. He was giving a reading of his own translation of Sándor Petőfi's "John the Valiant". After a few nice email exchanges, I received a copy in the mail. Being poetry, it was a quick read.
According to the introduction, John the Valiant is Hungary's national poem, a work of children's lit that speaks to young and old alike. The Hungarians look upon it like we look on Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz, a text that keeps giving. People can quote huge chunks of the text, apparently.
Earlier translations, when they could be found, were prose, but Ridland's translation returns to the original poem's four line stanzas, and rather regular, child-like rhythm. This makes for some awkward rhyming, as the original Hungarian (presented here on the left side of the page) keeps the rhythm and rhyme throughout.
The story is simple enough. Besotted young country lad John Crack'o'Corn has to flee the farm and his love Nel after accidentally letting his flock of sheep disappear. He winds up joining a traveling army and fights on the side of France against the Turks, singlehandedly rescuing the King of France's daughter in the process. He refuses the princess' hand as he's still in love with Nell, only to get home after an incredible further adventure (he winds up riding an eagle like a horse) to find Nell dead.
A nice, suitably gloomy ending, but Petőfi was told to keep the story going out of popularity.
The second half suffers a little from the unplanned sequel syndrome, as we find in Hollywood a lot these days, and Petőfi throws in more fantasy--Giants, witches, assorted bad guys--to keep the punters happy. It ends on the island of fantasy, the only place he can ever reunite with his love. It's a strange book--if there's anything missing it may be the author's voice that would successfully link these disparate episodes together, something only found in the original language. I know so little about Hungarian literature that the book is interesting just in the way it has broadened my mind. Plus, it's short! Thanks to Professor Ridland for having the good sense to pass it on to me.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West - Gregory Macguire

Regan Books
1996

Recommended on a list of "socialist (leaning) sci-fi" which I think you can still find here, and then doubly recommended by my friend Chris,
and then found for a dollar that very afternoon in a used book shop (dontcha just love syncronicity?), I finally zipped through this after it sat on the To Read pile while I finished Austerlitz.
Now ten years' old and adapted into a musical of all things, the novel takes the Wizard of Oz and retells the tale from the Wicked Witch of the West's point of view, opening up Oz into a rethink, where the Wizard is an authortarian ruler, Animals who can speak are persecuted like Jews, and Elphaba (the witch's real name) is a misunderstood atheist who suffers from being on the wrong side of history. History, as you know, that is written by the winners.
Not to say that Elphaba is good and Dorothy bad--the novel is not just a mirror-reverse. Instead, the tale is a complex journey of conflicting desires and sad figures, and a slowly dawning sense (for the witch's atheist beliefs) of predetermination, which we readers sense is Nabokovian in nature. Gregory Maguire creates characters that breathe, and successfully places within a completely different world without snarkily referring to our own, or breaking the fantasy. Characters talk from within their subculture, and we have to divvy out their belief systems. Explication be damned. Elphaba (the name comes from, ah-ha, L. Frank Baum's initials) winds up a tragic, misunderstood character, and Dorothy a well-meaning but oblivious agent of death.

Getting Things Done - Dave Allen

Penguin/Putman
2001

If last year's "Most Important Book" was City Comforts, this year's has got to be Getting Things Done,
by productivity guru Dave Allen. My personal path to Allen was this: wondering what shareware/freeware apps were essential once I had my G5/OSX...Phil sending me a selection of links...one of those links being the blog 43 Folders...them recommending (nay, internalizing) Getting Things Done, or GTD as the hep cats call it...the library having a copy.
I have since turned into a prosyletizing GTD-head, turning on my friends Jon and Jeff to its tips and tricks, and on a bigger level, making large adjustments in thinking to handle the amount of tasks the creative person has. So many ideas we have, we artists, so little time to do them. Allen writes for the executive, but his system of lists and folders, and his mental system of prioritizing (the classic triple Ds of "Do Defer Delegate") and solving tasks is for everybody, and has already paid off for me in big ways. The desk at home remains clean...every night. Small tasks, like phone calls, emails, and the like get taken care of right away. Large tasks and projects are broken down into smaller to-do lists. The email has been sorted out and in one night I took care of an Inbox that was spilling over with 450 emails. There's nothing so edifying as crossing out completed tasks one after the other.
I haven't done everything (yet) suggested in the book, and not everything applies or is of use. For example the "43 Folders" idea that the blog has taken for its name would be good if I was an executive with many paper-based projects and a big filing cabinet (the 43 includes a folder for every day of any particular month and one each after that for each following month). But I'm not, so that can wait. I still need to clear my desk of crap (mostly magazines), and I still want to have a proper sorting out of the filing cabinet and toss out old bills. (This sort of talk would lead to a sarky quote from Jon: Ted! You're not Getting Things Done!!!)
In conjunction with the book (which I have now bought, because it's something you want to have around), I am using the "hipster PDA," an idea that grew out of the geeks who champion GTD. It's a daytimer made out of 3x5 index cards and a metal clip. Totally customizable, and requires no batteries, stylus, or expensive software. You also don't feel like a twat if you lose it. The missus is embarrassed about this because she thinks it's a cry for help (or a least a cry for her to buy me a PDA), but I assure her that it's not. Jon now has one, to which his sister responded, "Hipster here means poor, you know that, right?" So we are now calling our HPDAs the iStack. (Jeff recommends pStack, as there's nothing "i" about it, but I don't know.) You can see a photo of mine here.
43 Folders also has a rough summary of the book here, but the book is so dense, it might not make too much sense (or have the necessary impact).

May 19, 2005

Rudy Rucker Has a Blog

And you can read it here. Maybe that's old news, but last time I was at his site (while I was reading his "Master of Space and Time") it was a plain ol' html thingy with not much in the way of updating.
And it's from his blog that I found Alien, in 30 Seconds, Reenacted by Bunnies. Yay!

May 18, 2005

Aspen: The multimedia magazine in a box


Over at the always wonderful and data-deep UbuWeb, there's a complete look at Aspen, which, from 1965 to 1971 was an exclusive magazine "in a box". Each issue was different, and each contained a jumbled assortment of items, ranging from art prints and essays to flexidiscs and Super 8 film spools. Contributors included some of the best known names in art at the time. I'm sure the surviving issues are worth thousands--UbuWeb presents the full archive to watch, listen, and read.

April 28, 2005

Austerlitz - W.G. Sebald

Modern Library
2001

It's like a novelistic version of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil,
said Jon, which was good enough recommendation for me. However my experience of Austerlitz is really a tale of two readings. The first half was unwisely choosing to read the book at home, at night, as my bedside reading. For a novel that rambles, stream-o-conch' like through various stories and ages, with very few fullstops and no chapters, this was a poor choice for the late night read. It defeated my poor brain at every turn. Once I finished "Getting Things Done" at work, I brought in Sebold's book and on breaks got into the second half and was done in days. The second half, coincidentally or not, is where the rough edges of a plot begin, and where the novel becomes less experimental.
The title character is a wandering eccentric, who makes friends with the narrator, and whose stories and search for his vanished history take over the book, such as what happens in Heart of Darkness. Austerlitz discovers later in his childhood that he was spirited out of Nazi Europe by the Kindertransport, to be adopted by a Welsh family. Years later he goes looking for clues to his parents by retracing the transport route back. It's a journey into an old Europe of evocative places and place names, and the empty center for those who want to go looking for history after it has been annihilated. There are no conclusions, only infinite possibilities.
By the end I was rather underwhelmed by it all, as it ends on such an uncertain note. But I did like this passage on time:

And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?

Why yes, it most probably is...

April 13, 2005

Jumper - Steven Gould

TOR Books
1992

Gould's book takes a sci-fi premise--teleportation--and throws it into a coming-of-age story for young adults.
This got highly recommended by someone on BoingBoing, and being YAF (Young Adult Fiction) promised a quick read.
Davy Rice learns he has the talent to "jump" to locations he's been before one night when he flinches from his father's drunken, physical abuse. He pops up in the safety of the school library. He does so again when he runs away from home and nearly gets raped by a truck driver. From these grim beginnings, we follow Davy as learns the limitations and benefits of his powers, but most importantly tries to seek "closure" (eek) over his abusive dad and his absent mom.
I have to say I was ready for the sci-fi, but wasn't prepared for the touchy-feely psychobabble. Davy spends quite a lot of the book crying, weeping, and blubbering. Even more amazing, he hooks up with an older woman called Millie (older as in college student), who becomes his shoulder to cry on, and is so well-adjusted she's like a cut-rate family counselor (and the voice of the author). Now, that's some sci-fi! The more the tears roll down his face the more she wants to sleep with him. Don't try this at home, kids.
The first half of the book is all logistics, as Davy funds himself by robbing a bank, creating a little safe house apartment in NYC, then gradually extending his knowledge of places (he can't teleport to places he hasn't visited). He gets revenge on Daddy Dearest by making him believe his son's a ghost, a similar tactic he does to the truck-drivin' rapist. He makes amends with Mom, just before she is blown up by a terrorist (!), spinning us into the book's second half, a riff on "with great power comes great responsibility." The NSA want to know who this teleporting kid is, and how he's able to get onto planes and subdue terrorists. Davy has a special desert oasis hideout where he brings his vanquished foes, dropping them from 50 feet in the air into the water. Also on his tail is Brian Cox (who hopefully will be played in the film, if they ever make it, by Brian Cox) his nemesis at the NSA. By the end of the book, Davy confronts all three father figures (Dad, terrorist, and agent) and Gould does a good job wrapping everything up without a shootout or a speech (those come early, usually from Millie).
I enjoyed the novel for what it was, although I skimmed all the times the waterworks got turned on. What pleased me most was the ordinary uses of teleportation. When Davy is traveling to scout out new locations, his flight is delayed five hours. He teleports home, sets the alarm, then has a nap up till boarding time. Now that's a super power!

March 31, 2005

King Solomon's Carpet - Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)

Random House
1991

I picked up my first Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell novel for two reasons;
the story was centered around the London Underground and because I had seen the TV adaptation of Dark Adapted Eye. I have to say I'm slightly disappointed, even though sticking with the book to the end. Halfway through this convoluted tale, filled with strange variations of loser characters, I did not know the plot. There's a large former schoolhouse in London that is let out by the landlord Jarvis. This includes Alice, a woman escaping both a dull husband and her newborn child; Tom, a busker who scrapes by and takes up with Alice; Jed, who keeps a falcon; Tina, a freewheeling spirit with two children, one of which is Jasper a rough 10-year-old who thrill seeking is undertaken by riding the roofs of underground trains. There's also a dark-clad figure, Axel, and his companion who dresses up in a bear suit and terrorizes passengers with confrontational theater.
Jasper, Jed, Jarvis: three "J" males. Try keeping these straight as the narrative jumps between them. There's also Tina's mother Cecilia, who lives elsewhere and who had unmentionable, suppressed Sapphic longing for her longtime friend Daphne.
I kinda expected all these lives to intertwine in strange, unexpected ways, but so many of them are loners and socially inept that, despite renting rooms in one big house, they don't. Of a main plot, there is the one of Alice, escaping a controlling marriage and finding a controlling relationship with Tom, until being seduced by the dark charisma of Axel, who, I don't think it would be ruining anything seeings I guessed it in the earlier chapters, is a mad bomber. I finished the book, and I'm relieved.
Though mentioned as a book about the underground, the author shows no affection for the system--the tube is portrayed as dark, polluted, and full of strange, pleblike people. Oh well.

March 16, 2005

Man Ray's Montparnasse - Herbert Lottman

Harry N. Abrams
2001

Herbert Lottman's book on Man Ray and Montparnasse,
at that time in history the center of the art world, is one of the best books I've read about the pre-WWII art scene. Most of my previous reading on the Surrealists have come either from their own texts, or in the stodgy writings that accompany art books. But none gave a sense of time and place as this history of a neighborhood.
It's not exactly a book on Man Ray, but the American born, reluctant photographer (nee frustrated painter) serves as a conduit through which passes nearly every single important artist of the early 20th Century. Man Ray moved to Paris, believing he would be a painter, but wound up paying the bills with photographic portraits. His subject/client list is enviable: apart from the group of Dadaists and Surrealists that haunted the cafes there, he photographed Gertrude Stein, Eric Satie, Marcel Proust (the day after he died), Picasso, James Joyce, Hemingway, and many more. He was able to stay above the fray of many political/artistic fights and divisions because of his portraiture, and never earned the wrath of Andre Breton.
Lottman reports all this in the context of how these artists spent their time--sleeping with their models and mingling with people of all nationalities at the cafes and clubs that lined the street. They moved in and out of tiny studio apartments, and they opened and closed galleries. Man Ray had several major love affairs, first with the infamous Kiki, who is the model in his most famous early work, Lee Miller, his student and lover who then went on to a successful career in her own right, and a few other dalliances.
The world that we get to look into in the book is refreshingly modern, but also long past, especially when one considers how important creation and art was to all these people (well, except Duchamp, who had a successful career doing as little as possible). It would be hard to imagine such vigorous defences of art made today.
Anyway, a bloody quick read, to be had on Amazon for cheap, printed on lovely thick glossy paper, and full of relevant photos (although I would have liked more).

March 12, 2005

20th Century Boys - Naoki Urasawa

Viz Comics (U.S. Release)
1999-onward

Near the completion of this fan-subtitled version of Urasawa's manga masterpiece,
Viz Comics announced they were finally bringing out this title in the States, scuttling what was til then a 17 volume labor of love. I was fortunate to grab a Bittorrent file of Vols. 1-16 off the web just before they disappeared for good.
So consider this a preview.
If American comics have to go through the rigmarole of dopey "They aren't for kids anymore!" articles every couple of years, imagine what it would take to get something like this unfolding manga serial taken seriously. Yet out of anything I've read this year, this multi-layered comic has be one of the most satisfying and emotional experiences I've had for a long time.
It's a genre-busting series that combines sci-fi, horror, and adventure elements into a generation spanning plot. Influences and allusions abound: Stephen King's "It", Patlabor 2, The Seven Samurai, Dennis Potter-esque time jumps, The Stand (King again!), and much more.
At the center is failed rockstar Kenji, who is currently running a mini-mart and looking after his sister's baby daughter. Yet his childhood comes back to haunt him, when it is suggested that a religious cult, the leader of which is a man named "Friend," is plotting to take over the world, using a secret plan that Kenji and his friends designed back in elementary school as a joke. As Kenji assembles his old school friends, now all in their thirties and a various stages of their lives, they try to figure out through their collected faulty memories who Friend could possibly be, and how to stop him.
This is just the launching pad for an adventure that jumps backwards into the past, forwards into the future where things haven't turned out for the best, and into a virtual world where the memories of their 1970s childhood are replayed and "corrected."
Never, unlike other series, did I get the sense that Urasawa was just making this up as he goes along. Like The Sopranos, otherwise meaningless exchanges and scenes from the early volumes return much much later, revealing their deep meaning and throwing me for a loop. The manga is full of mysteries and unanswered questions, and each time one is answered, 10 more mysteries present themselves.
The emotional core of the manga deals with the idealism of youth and the failures of adulthood, and whether that can be regained despite (or because of) impossible odds. We see this in Kenji and friends, but also in Kenji's niece Anna, who grows up to be a sort of savior herself.
"20th Century Boys" is also quite frightening. The pacing is cinematic, with big scares revealed in full splash pages. The face of "Friend" starts as a device out of suspense film: shrouded in shadow, we assumed his identity will turn out to be a character we've already seen in broad daylight. But as 20th Century Boys progresses, "Friend"'s face becomes a thing of horror, causing paralysis in those who gaze upon it (we only see reaction shots). It's a device that Urasawa uses again and again, and he always finds a fresh way of employing it. (I read the fansub as a slideshow on my LCD monitor, so I never see the pages ahead of time. It's an excellent way to get maximum frights out of the comic!)
Urasawa is still writing the manga, and some of these series can stretch to thirty volumes and beyond. In Volume 16we jump ahead in time again and a new whole chapter of the story begins to open up, so I believe we're nowhere near the finish. And now that Viz will start bringing out the series officially, we'll have to wait for them to catch up. Unless Urasawa drops the ball near the end, this will be one of the most important mangas in recent memory.
P.S. Bush-haters may notice that the story of a religious cult that orchestrates its own terrorist attack to take over the government is...a bit familiar. But having been started in 1999, Urasawa's comic is either prescient or tapping into the same evil forces in the air that are now part of our reality.
P.P.S. Now that I've discovered this whole underground of fansubs, I'm going to be reading a lot more manga!

UPDATE (5/25/06): From Wikipedia: "20th Century Boys is still running strong in Japan, and currently has 21 volumes so far. It seems to have been inspired in parts of the story by the works of Stephen King, containing allusions to It and The Stand. It was recently licensed by Viz (2005), however at Urasawa's request it has been rescheduled for release after Monster finishes its English serialization due to a change in art style over time."

Currently, scanlations are available here, but you must register: http://www.x3gen.com/new/manga_downloads_20thcb.php

March 9, 2005

Absolute Friends - John LeCarre

Little, Brown
2004

Recommended by Jon, and my first LeCarre novel
(after this, I think there will be more). This most recent work tries to figure out the world post-Cold War, in regards to spies, while backtracking and flashbacking to show the making of lead character and double agent Teddy Mundy. LeCarre evokes 1968 Berlin well--a hotbed of student activism--and what comes after, and Mundy's relationship with a fellow activist, also spy, called Sasha. We then follow his rather centerless, wandering life, never really sure of his identity (as the author points out, spies have to operate under an enforced and necessary schizophrenia.) Finally, we catch up with Teddy in the present day, long after the fallen Berlin Wall has put an end to Teddy and Sasha's careers. Now Sasha has come a'calling, with an offer.
LeCarre has been criticized for turning the last couple of chapters into a diatribe against the Bush Administration. He does get out some zingers: "It was an old Colonial oil war dressed up as a crusade for Western life and liberty, and it was launched by a clique of war-hungry Judaeo-Christian geopolitical fantasists who hijacked the media and exploited America's post-Nine Eleven psychopathy."
Like Seymour Hersh, LeCarre believes we've been taken over by a cult. And it should not surprise you that I think that way too. But the reviewers make it appear that this is just a context-less rant. It's not. The novel is a traditional LeCarre spy narrative upended suddenly and violently by dismal post-911 realism. It's Smiley's People with the ending of Costas-Gravas' "Z". The fundamentalists on both sides are working towards the same goals, and both are enemies of reason. It's a sock-knockin'-off ending, and expects you to jolt awake from it.

March 1, 2005

The War of Art - Steven Pressfield

Rugged Land
2002

One of my favorite productivity sites, 43 Folders,
recommended this book to all who have dealt with writers block and such, and so I decided to check it out. (At least I think it was 43 Folders--maybe it was a link from them to somewhere else). Steven Pressfield is best known for the book "The Legend of Bagger Vance," which was made into a movie with long title intact. The War of Art is a very short, lots-o-white-space manifesto on creativity, which can be read in one sitting. It can also be digested in one sitting, as the thought behind the 200 pages can be summed up this way: "Stop procrastinating. If you're a writer, write. If you're a painter, paint. Just get on with it!"
Not the most shocking advice, though it never hurts to read it again and again from different people. Because he is offering this to all sorts of artists, from screenwriters to sculptors, he keeps things general. But it's the general where his writing is at its snooziest. I learned much more from his biographical anecdotes sparsely dispersed through the book than from the generic self-helpy stuff.
Oh yeh, and it only takes two hours to read, giving you ample time to get back to whatever it is you're working on.

February 24, 2005

River of Shadows - Rebecca Solnit

Viking
2003

I came to this book for two reasons
--one that I am interested in Eadweard Muybridge, as he is considered the grandfather of motion pictures (and a character in a story I am/was writing), two that I've read Rebecca Solnit's writing on Tom Dispatch, where she usually writes hopeful essays of an ecological nature. So when I heard that she had written this book on Muybridge and the birth of the modern world, I needed to check it out. And damn, can this woman write! This is the kind of history book I love, one that takes in disparate elements and demonstrates how they all snap together. The previous history of Muybridge I have read was straight hagiography and focused on his motion studies and his time in Stanford and Philadelphia. But Solnit is more interested in the years that went into creating a man who would change history--stopping time, in essence; making people aware of themselves as an image--and the society that surrounded him. Solnit brings in the railroads, San Francisco history, the emancipation of women, the last stands of the Native Americans, the birthing of educational and artistic institutions, and much more. Here is a sample paragraph which demonstrates Solnit's command of the language and of juggling several ideas:

Those great landscapists Russel, Hart, and Savage photographed the physical process of the building of the railroads, and when the line was open, Mybridge and Watkins both made extensive stereoscope series of the scenery along the route. Most accounts of the building of the railroad concentrate on just that: the heroic and unprecedented toils of the laborers and engineers that drew a line in wood and iron across the continent. But less visible webs were being spun. The transcontinental railroad was far vaster than any of the manufactorites of the East. It required unprecedented strata of bureaucracy, unprecedented degrees of managerial coordination, and it reached as far into the political and economic systems of the United States as it did into the landscape. The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific were the biggest corporations of their time and the first to have such extensive dealing with the federal, state, and local governments. The modern corporation's complex synchronizations first appeared there, and so did the penetration into the world on such a scale. First the railroads, then the networks for distributing energy, food, and basic goods, drew people further and further into a system; and more and more of them became employees of such systems. The independence of the frontier and the subsistence farmer retreated further and further. This was the moment in which many Americans first began to feel like cogs in the machine.

And so here we are today. One of Solnit's points is that the "Wild West" was the last gasp of a mythologized frontier that was about to become less wild and more regimented, just as authors were romanticizing the Native Americans while the Feds were busy killing the last "insurgents" off.
Muybridge comes across and driven, but private, only partly aware of the changes he is making to the world, and maybe not as honored in his time as he should be. The ultimate American success story, he retired to England where he was born, and died ten years later in 1904, the graveyard slab misspelling his name as Maybridge. Whoops.

February 1, 2005

Alfred E. Newman, the Origin

Who woulda thought?

The
Search for Alfred E. Newman

By way of Metafilter.

January 28, 2005

Ecology of Fear - Mike Davis

Metropolitan Books
1998

Ecology of Fear is Mike Davis' follow-up to his groundbreaking City of Quartz,
that most wonderful alt-history of Los Angeles. Ecology of Fear is not so fiery, and concerns itself mostly with the L.A. basin's propensity to natural disaster. The chapters focus on one disaster type each: Earthquakes, Fires, Tornados, Wild Animal Attacks, and such. Later chapters approach the subject from a different angle--one traces the literary history of the destruction of Los Angeles (a fascinating chapter) and another is more of a revisiting of the themes of City of Quartz, that is of the class segregation and class war.
Davis shows a weakness here not seen in City of Quartz, in that his rhetorical tactics start to show through. When he believes a danger is real, he accuses the authorities of being complacent. When they are not, the authorities are over-reacting. Of course, this varies due to the danger, but it's still there.
The book drags a bit, as Davis tries to get every example of a disaster in their appropriate chapter. After a while, the rare L.A. tornado got a bit dull to me. I did, however, love his hagiography of disaster novels, and how their heritage is racist and reactionary--natural disasters usually being an excuse for a good ol' "final solution" style mass death, which we still find today in those awful "Left Behind" Bible-porn books. I also liked Davis' history of forest fires, which is a collection of dumb rich people building in fire zones and then watching them go up in flames. Mostly, Davis questions ideas of historical data--how can we say what is "normal" for Southern California when records have only been kept for 150 years? When the Owens Valley lake was drained, opponents protested this destruction of a natural object. However, at the bottom of the lake, they found tree stumps, evidence that very long ago, a drought had stayed long enough in California for a forest to grow. And we think a seven year drought is bad...

December 20, 2004

Kwaidan - Lafcadio Hearn

Dover
1904 (this edition 1968)

Strange that it took an American emigre to immortalize Japanese folk tales,
writing at a time when the oral traditions he was capturing were dying out. Strange also that his Kwaidan ("odd tales") is so short, when Japan is brimming with ghost stories and monsters. Of course, there are other books in Japanese by Japanese authors of folk tales, but this is the classic, and Hearn became an honorary Japanese. Kobayashi's film of the same name tells five of these stories, but readers will spot that only three come from the "Kwaidan" volume, the rest from his other books. Hearn's insect studies are also included here--his essay on ants is particularly good, as he compares human society to the ant colony, and the colony wins. He also tries to get his mind around how humans would adapt to living with a hive/soldier ant mentality of pure selflessness, and doesn't succeed.
My friend Gerald gave this to me in 2003 on my birthday, along with The Glass Key by Hammett. I finally got around to it. In fact, I think I read it in Japan, but my memory is foggy--I surely don't remember the ants article.

December 15, 2004

Amazon's Quiet Revolution

While Google announces new acquisitions almost daily (the universal library is fairly mindblowing), Amazon makes little improvements which you only notice later. For example, I just added Mike Davis' Ecology of Fear to my "Now Reading" sidebar, and went to grab the URL. You can now read the first sentence of the book, and get a list of the books Davis cites in his book (all hotlinked) and a list of books that cite Davis' book (also holinked). It's a minor improvement on the site, yet quite cool.

December 4, 2004

Days Between Stations - Steve Erickson

Vintage
1985

I first heard about Steve Erickson's writing
in a long artist-resurrection article by Brian Evanson in The Believer (one reason why I love the magazine). It was an examination of how Erickson was labeled the "next Pynchon" after the success of his first novel, and what happened to him since (quasi-obscurity). It was much later that I found his first novel in a used store for a dollar. Can't say better than that. It wound up being my read over the two weeks spent in Taiwan this November, so the novel and the country are strangely mixed.
Perhaps Erickson would want it that way, for "Days Between Stations" is all about dislocation, not just of place, but of character and place. There are several characters in the novel, which begins in modern day (the 1980s) and jumps back to the 1910s, but I got the sense that essentially we were meeting the same three people in different guises, whether or not they turn out (later in the novel) to be related through the decades. There are love triangles between Lauren (the first person we meet) her philandering husband Jason, and her mysterious downstairs neighbor Michel. But Michel could also be a version of Adolphe, a wunderkind who grows up to be an Orson Welles of the silent era, audacious and revolutionary in film as D.W. Griffiths. He's in love with Janine, the star of his film on the French Revolution, who also may be his half-sister, but she is "owned" by a unscrupulous rich bloke called Varnette. Janine, in turn, may be Michel's mother. Or maybe not.
This is not a straight-forward novel, and when we meet Lauren and Jason, they live in a Los Angeles that is turning into a large sand-dune, battered by desert storms. Later, we learn that the Mediterranean has receded so far as to run Venice's canal's dry. There are also time loops and mysterious fogs and experimental films and unfinished masterpieces and a cold snap that almost leads to the immolation of Paris. It's like Sci-Fi Romanticism, without any explanation how these events are happening. Erickson doesn't care how it happens, he cares what happens to the people it effects.
In the end, some of these questions are answered, some not, and the great romance that's promised remains tantalizingly out of reach.
As for reading, the opening takes some bearing-getting, but once I got to the silent movie sequence, I was hooked.

November 19, 2004

In Watermelon Sugar - Richard Brautigan

Dell
1968

When I was in the 5th Year (the equivalent of 10th grade in the States),
I had a most excellent English teacher called Mr. Arbon. Our class was a bit above the usual, personally selected in the 4th for "advanced studies" and so were only about 15 in total. Twice during the year, Mr. Arbon would assign a book report, and choose individual books for all of us. The first time I was given Catcher in the Rye and the second time it was Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America. Imagine writing a book report on that--I was too busy picking up bits of my blown mind to really write a report of any coherence, though I did respond by writing my own Brautigan-inspired short stories. Mr. Arbon then lent me all the other Brautigan books he owned, which was nearly all of them, but not quite.
In Watermelon Sugar was one of the missing, and I only read it recently. It's a thin book, just over 100 pages, and took me most of a day to read. How does Brautigan fare now? Well, I like him just fine, actually.
The story of "In Watermelon Sugar" describes a writer living in a sort of "new Eden"-like commune, a town called Watermelon Sugar, which also processes watermelons for all sorts of fantastical things. There is the main gathering place, called iDeath, and a villain of sorts, inBOIL, who represents the old ways. It's a novel of dualities--Watermelon Sugar is both a place and a thing; the location is both wilderness and city; it is finite and infinite. There are two women the writer gets involved with, one who goes astray and one who doesn't. There is a joy of life about the inhabitants, but death is a constant presence.
Brautigan's style is at times close to Japanese haiku in its economy of language and the jumps it makes line to line.
Over time Brautigan came to symbolize the hippy movement to many, and the idyllic nature of this novel suggests why--a glimpse of a downhome utopia threaded through with a gentle surrealism borne of the American forest. It's sort of my spiritual home.
By the way, there's a much better essay on the novel, which unearths its Christian mythos over at the Brautigan archive. There's also a more recent musing on the name of iDeath in an era of iPods and iMacs. Finally, here's a sample of the first few pages.

November 16, 2004

Arranged by Color


The Adobe Bookstore in San Francisco decided for one week to arrange their books by color. Why? Why not?

November 15, 2004

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon

Picador
2001

Michael Chabon's imaginary tale of two revolutionary comic book creators in the late '30s/early '40s has a wealth of pleasures for the comic book fan.
Those who know their history, from Superman and the hero boom up through to the Wertham hearings of the 1950s (the comic book industry's own McCarthy trials) and beyond to the birth of Marvel, will smile to see how Chabon fits Kavalier and Clay into this timeline and not step on any toes.
The novel moves quickly, jumping from Joe Kavalier's magical flight from Prague as the Nazis close in, rooming with his cousin Sammy Clay in New York City, and the birth of their comic book character the Escapist. Chabon's imagery and metaphor is simultaneously surface-level and subconscious. Joe's escape from the Nazis directly leads to the creation of the character that will make Empire Comics millions, but as the novel progresses, both characters find themselves struggling against their own mind-forg'd manacles. Joe feels survivors' guilt over his family, and eventually runs off to escape his failure, joining the armed forces to fight the Nazis. Sammy meanwhile is trapped by his sexuality, becoming trapped in "the closet." Then there's Rosa, Joe's love from almost the first time he sees her (naked, by accident, who winds up trapped by circumstance.
Celebrity cameos dot the novel (as somebody noted somewhere, it's a sign of post-modernity that only by including celebrities into historical fiction do we feel the character exist in "reality") from Orson Welles (K&C attend the premiere of Citizen Kane) to Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. By this section--where Chabon suggests that the radical storytelling used in Welles' film influences K&C, and Kavalier becomes a sort of amalgamation of Will Eisner and Gil Kane--I was starting to lose interest. Clay discovers his sexuality when he falls in love with the radio star playing the Escapist for broadcast. Kavalier foils a bomb plot by an anti-Semite. Then Chabon throws Pearl Harbor in the mix (we know it's coming, but we don't see it coming) and the section of the novel where Kavalier goes slightly batty stationed in Antarctica. This turned out to be my favorite part, actually--something about humans in extreme situations are always suspenseful, and also because it reminded me of one of my favorite movies, "The Thing" (John Carpenter).
The rest of the novel follows the fallout from this central episode, where Kavalier can finally indulge his own superhero fantasies of battling Nazis, and finds himself wanting. And once again the themes of lost fathers and father-figures comes full circle.
It took me a bit longer than necessary to get through what is actually a book that demands a quick read, but every moment I spent with it was, well, pure escape.

November 14, 2004

The Geography of Nowhere - James Kunstler

Touchstone
1993
Does what is says it will: give voice and the language to the nagging feeling that much of America suburbia, building, and way of life is a empty, hollow void of greed and consumerism. However, it's not all a tirade against this modern world, but more a history of how we got here. Don't look to Kunstler for the rosy glasses and small town nostalgia--his tour of major movements in American planning shows how the rot was there from the start. The main strand he sees that links us to our Puritan town planners is their break from European tradition and the idea that land and property have value beyond that of the dollar. This is what results in the splendid cultural and social centers of Europe--the Italian piazza, the central square. When land is assigned monetary value only, there can be no public places. Now, of course this changes--there's a nice section on the design and theory behind NYC's Central Park--but the idea of property value stays with us. Doing what you want for yourself and not for any public good has resulted in bland, anti-social architecture, strip malls that beg not to be looked at.
The bad cop to David Sucher's good cop, Kunstler in small doses is a hilarious crusty curmudgeon (though he's not that crusty). In book-length form, he's a serious, world weary analyst of our particular social malaise. It was only when I read out the following passage to my friend that I realized how funny it was:

Carpentry is an exacting set of skills. Even at the professional level it has been debased as a consequence of mass production, and the number of incompetent building contractors is disturbing. At the amateur level, it is worse. In fact, the home improvement industry actively promotes the idea that skill is not important. All that matters is buying the right tools and building materials. The tools will do the work, and the materials--such as factory-made drop-ceiling kits--will eliminate thinking. All the homeowner need do is lay out some money at the building-supply store, and then take the stuff home Saturday morning. The job itself is "a snap." All this is based on two contemporary myths: [1] the idea that shopping is a substitute for design, and [2] the idea that it's possible to get something for nothing, in this case skillful work without skill.

For me, there's very little exaggeration, and so I had stopped laughing some time back.
Some of the book takes in the best and worst of American cities, best being represented by Portland, the worst by Las Vegas, Atlanta, and, well, pretty much everywhere else. He's ambivalent about Los Angeles, which can be new urbanist or hellacious depending on which onramp you choose.
Kunstler's theories on the end of cheap oil and the downfall of suburbia should be listened to, if not heeded. There's little chance of that these days. But being so, this is an essential book.

November 10, 2004

City Comforts - David Sucher

City Comforts Books
2003

Out of anything else I've read this year, David Sucher's "City Comforts" has completely changed the way I look at the world,
in particular cities and the urban environment.
It was reading James Kunstler that first put voice to my feelings about living in strip-mall America, but Sucher's book is a sort of antidote. "City Comforts" is a guidebook to what's right in a city (Kunstler focuses on the opposite), with photo illustrations every page from his native Seattle, Portland, and other livable cities to prove his point.
Sucher's philosophy of urban planning comes down to three points, which he hammers throughout the book.
One: Build to the Sidewalk (Property Line).
Two: Make the Building Front Permeable. Use windows and doors to link the interior of the building to the exterior of the street. No mirrored glasses.
Three: Prohibit Parking in the Front of the Building. This is not to be confused with on-street parking, which is essential. It is almost a sub-rule of Rule One.
This isn't just the point of the book, but a backbone. Elsewhere Sucher photographs parts of cities he likes and then tries to divine a rule from them. Some are obvious, others aren't.
For example: Mixed-use buildings make sense at transportation hubs. At a train or bus station, why not have supermarkets and other essential shops? This is a given in many metropolitan areas, but it doesn't seem in use here in Southern California. Bus depots sometimes have crappy little gift shops, but so do hospitals and gas stations.
Being able to go for a stroll is not just relaxing, but, I learned, in some cultures it's essential:

"In many parts of the world, particularly the Latin nations, it is a part of daily life to take an evening stroll. There is s acomplex and involved ritual to this walk, this promenade, this passaggiaeta or paseo, as it's called in Italy and Spain. It was a tradition in France and Britain, and in the United States, too, before the automobile spread us so far apart that now one has to drive to find a place to walk."


Sucher titles this section "Bumping into People" because that's what makes urban living so enjoyable. Last Saturday, for example, I had lunch with my wife, but then took the afternoon to go to the coffee shop to write. On the way there I ran into my professor from my days at UCSB outside the art museum. In the art museum's cafe I ran into my dad, who was having lunch with my cousin and her husband, who were visiting from England; I briefly checked out the public library's art gallery and ran into my friend Alex's girlfriend Carla, who now works there. Finally when I got to the coffee shop I ran into Laura, formerly a waitress at the above mentioned cafe writing two 10-page papers for her class. And that was all in the space of one block and 30 minutes!
Other ideas that turned me on: Widening bridges over freeways into streets with shops (continuing the street that leads up to it); using white noise from a waterfall to cover traffic noise; allow windows to open visibility into businesses, for people watching and to see work being performed (countering idea that work happens outside public sphere).
The book is over 200 pages long and has at least that many ideas. Buy one for yourself and one for the urban planner of your town. One thing Sucher points out is that this isn't a no-growth proposition. But if the citizens can't point to examples of what works and what doesn't in a city, then they can influence developers better instead of just opposing them.
In Santa Barbara, we have a little of both. Downtown S.B. is vibrant and offers plenty of strolling areas, but a majority of this is centers down 10 blocks of State Street. Go one block either way and the "urban village" experience stops. Instead we get parking lots, storage units, blank-walled office buildings, administration buildings, and no mixed use. A stroll down these streets can be very lonely indeed. "City Comforts" is essential reading if you want to understand your environment, and better yet, gives you the tools to change it.
As far as I know the best (and only?) place to buy the book is from Sucher's web site. You might also want to check out his blog.

November 9, 2004

Back to the Source: Ian Nairn

Here's an excellent post over at 2blowhards.com on Ian Nairn. I'd never heard of him until now, but his writings on London apparently would go down very well with the James Kunstler/David Sucher crowd (to which I belong). He was more of a fan of modernism than Kunstler, but still understood the essential truth that people like to live in walkable, friendly cities, not in pod boxes out in the suburbs. And this was many many years ago.
Looks like it'll be slightly difficult to find some books by him, but I'll start looking.

October 4, 2004

All Entertainment All the Time

Mark Edmunson, a professor at the University of Virginia, has just released a book, "Why Read?" that takes on the modern educational system. In this excerpt, he points out how the liberal arts has been reduced to pure entertainment--education as commodity.

All Entertainment All the time
So I had my answer. The university had merged almost seamlessly with the consumer culture that exists beyond its gates. Universities were running like businesses, and very effective businesses at that. Now I knew why my students were greeting great works of mind and heart as consumer goods. They came looking for what they?d had in the past, Total Entertainment All the Time, and the university at large did all it could to maintain the flow. (Though where this allegiance to the Entertainment-Consumer Complex itself came from?that is a much larger question. It would take us into politics and economics, becoming, in time, a treatise in itself.)

I want to credit this link, but I've lost the link page! Whoops.

October 1, 2004

Book Sale Bonanza

Yesterday I went to the opening of the 10th Annual Planned Parenthood Book Sale, one of the biggest book sales of the year in Santa Barbara. Located in a large hall at the back of Earl Warren Showgrounds, there was plenty to go through. Being "The Press," and having written on the event for my column, I got in on the "pre-opening" day, where the serious book dealer wages angry battles over rarities. While many carried around large cardboard boxes for their finds, I relegated myself to what I could carry under one arm. I got five books for a total of $18. And they were all things I've been looking for or come under the categories of interest below:
William S. Burroughs: El Hombre Invisble by Barry Miles (The "I Need to Know More About Authors I Like" Category)
Beowulf (Seamus Heaney trans.) (The "I Must Read More of the Classics, But Only If the Translation Is Great" Category)
In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan (The "Reread Authors from Impressionable Teenage Years" Category)
The Onion: Our Finest Reporting (The "Now You Have to Pay for the Online Archives, I Better Buy the Books" Category)
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (The "Books Jon Has Recommended, Nay, Insisted, I Read" Category)
In the meantime, I'm stuck into the Chabon book. Wheee.

September 16, 2004

The Vintage Mencken - H.L. Mencken (ed. Alistair Cooke)

Vintage
1951, reprinted 1990

I picked up this Mencken book after seeing his name used many times in the same sentence as Twain.
Before then I hadn't heard of him, but fortunately Amazon had a good guide to him and the Book Den had it in stock.
Selected by Alistair Cooke, this is a fairly decent overview of the man, starting off with Mencken's memories of Baltimore, the city he rarely left, and ending with an essay on death.
Mencken was one of the original crusty curmudgeon journalists, chomping on a cigar, attacking the typewriter, and assailing all preconceived notions, left and right. He's not exactly a fan of democracy, either, if by that you mean mob rule. In one of the most fascinating long articles near the center of this collection, "The National Letters," he takes on the paltry (up to the time of writing, 1920) contributions made by Americans to world literature. (Hemingway and Steinbeck were right around the corner, but miles away, and that doesn't necessarily mean Mencken would have liked them.) His view that it is our inherent Puritanism, coupled with a pleasant moderation, which has led to weak lit is close to Robert Hughes' view of American art before the Modern era. yet Mencken's prescription is for the creation of a true aristocratic class. This is a hard thing to parse, but he doesn't mean the rich either, who have all the money in the world but no sense of heritage or class. (He has a lot to say about the idiotic rich, as well.)
Elsewhere, his look back at the Wilsonian era is notable for its parallels to life under Bush: fearmongering (Germans instead of terrorists), a leader who speaks in sound bites without substance, a cowed press and academia, intolerance of dissent. But enough of me, here's some choice quotes by Mencken that should give you some taste:

Civilization is at its lowest mark in the United States precisely in those areas where the Anglo-Saxon still presumes to rule. he runs the whole South--and in the whole South there are not as many first-rate men as in many a single city of the mongrel North. Wherever he is still firmly in the saddle, there we look for such pathological phenomena as fundamentalism, Prohibition and Ku Kluxery, and there they flourish."--from "the Anglo-Saxon"

Or how about this comparison found in a review of what we would now call a puff-piece bio on Wilson:

"This incredible work is an almost inexhaustible mine of bad writing, faulty generalizing, childish pussyfooting, ludicrous posturing, and naive stupidity. to find a match for it one must try to imagine a biography of the Duke of Wellington by his barber."

Ouch.
Mencken also wrote many an epigram: "Whenever you hear a man speak of his love for his country it is a sign that he expects to be paid for it."
"Puritanism--The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
Who knows what Mencken would have made of Bush, but I don't think it would have been favorable. He certainly would have seen through the phony bravado and "common man" play-acting, as he does in his reports of politicians excerpted here (when FDR wins the nomination during a very tight convention night over challenger Al Smith, Mencken is sure it will spell upcoming defeat for the Dems.
For the insight into American tastes and politics, this book is worth reading. Although Mencken's style is wordy, it still has bite. Charges of racism are refuted at least in this volume by his strong support of allowing blacks and whites to mix in public (in Baltimore, of course). He is quoted elsewhere as putting down the intelligence of the "negro," but read alongside his even more vicious attacks on religion, corrupt politicians, and the great unwashed, Mencken lets them off easy.
Side note: This book's previous owner, I would guess, looks to be an angry undergrad, full of righteous political correctness, who had gone through the book and checked off all the sentences where Mencken fails as a member of the 1990s. This, of course, is missing the point, but these wrongheaded annotations almost seem appropriate to this volume.

September 9, 2004

The Moviegoer - Walker Percy

Noonday Press, 1961
Man, I really wanted to get this book, to get into this book, but it just did nothing for me.
Walker Percy's novel of existential crisis set in New Orleans is often talked about in glowing terms by its fans. It seems to have the ability to put voice to a early-30s malaise, and many readers identify with this strongly. I would have thought I was prime material for this, but apparently not. So much of the writing struck me a unnecessarily and deliberately vague, though taken in small does, Percy's prose is quite lucid. Yet there was nothing drawing me from page to page. Maybe I'm just an idjit, but I kept losing track of what was being talked about.
The plot is minimal--a few days in the life of Binx Bolling, a 30-year-old manager of a brokerage firm. He spends his days either visiting movie theaters, where he feel he can connect with the reality on screen more than real life, or taking one of his secretaries out in his MG for a bit o' rumpy-pumpy down near the shoreline. There's also his aunt who is ready with advice and comes from a distinguished family, and his cousin Kate, who suffers from some mental illness that is not entirely spelled out.
Along the way there are numerous diversions with a small cast of characters in an around New Orleans. I'm sorry to say, I've forgotten most of them.
Bolling has a brief revelation early on in the book--he sees through the dull surface of reality and tries to comprehend the true timeless state of the universe, and this is what sets him off on "the search"--the lifelong struggle to achieve that state again, to know that he's onto "something." I should have been fascinated by all this, or amused, but I was just unaffected. Better luck next time.

September 8, 2004

Granta 86: Film - Edited by Ian Jacks

Granta Publications, Summer 2004
This summer issue of Granta is devoted to Film,
and there's quite a lot of good reading here, mostly all of it non-fiction. Editor Ian Jack's view of film centers around '70s art cinema, which isn't entirely a bad thing. There's an lengthy excerpt from John Fowles' diary dealing with the on-again-off-again making of "The French Lieutenant's Woman," which, typical to Fowles, disparages nearly everyone he comes into contact with. Interesting encounters with Dennis Potter, Harold Pinter, and more. There's an account of being a rat trainer called on by Werner Herzog to populate his film Nosferatu with over 18,000 rats. Most die. (Being a Herzog film, many of the film crew nearly die too).
Jonathan Lethem's piece on Cassavettes makes me want to rent several of his films (I've only seen Husbands, and I'm told this is not the place to start). There's a memoir by Shampa Bannerjee about playing Durga, Apu's sister in Pather Panchali, but this is mostly anecdotal. I also liked the remembrance by Andrew O'Hagan about his two years as the Telegraph's film critic, from which he earned little respect.
It's an easy read this issue, and brings back many names that used to be household (the trio of German directors--Herzog, Wenders, Fassbinder--who revolutionized their country's cinema), if not for a reconsideration, but at least to blow the dust off the spines. But you may come away from the issue feeling that cinema has died and all that's left is curation.

September 7, 2004

Danny Gregory's New Book

Oh man, everytime I think my childhood memory's been tapped, along comes some other web site/documentary/book that reminds me of something I had relegated to the attic of my brain. This time it's filmstrips, those little rolls of slide film that would teach you things about the world as you followed along to the audio. BING! Turn the crank for a new picture. BING!
Danny Gregory, master of illustrated journals, has just put out a book celebrating these notoriously cheesy strips. Me wanna. But does the book make a BING sound before I turn the page? One can only hope.

August 13, 2004

Bend Sinister - Vladimir Nabokov

Time Reading Program, 1947
Not just the name of one of my favorite Fall albums,
but Nabokov's first novel in English. I had only read one other Nabokov before this (Lolita, of course, in 1995) and reading Bend Sinister reminded me of his mastery of language. The novel follows the philosopher and instructor Krug, having just lost his wife to illness, and living with his precious son in a society that is slowly growing into a Soviet-style totalitarian state, run by none other than a former schoolmate from childhood they used to call the Toad. Obstinate, Krug believes his intellect and position will keep him from harm, even as friends and family are disappeared around him. By the time reality intrudes and his child is threatened, it is too late. The Soviet state (how familiar is this system after reading (some of) Solzhenitsyn!) is presented in all its banal but surreal glory, yet this is in no way a realist novel, as Krug disappears in a landscape of dreams, ideas, thoughts, as does the novel itself, with Nabokov's wordplay (in English, so incredibly developed) making a kaleidoscope of sentences. The supporting characters often seem to be half-anagrams of Krug's name, or variations on a set of letters at least. One chapter is devoted to a intriguing, but ultimately facile re-thinking of "Hamlet". Nabokov appears on and off as a godlike character, toying with his characters, and Krug starts to become aware of this. For some reason, the overlapping realities reminded me of "The Singing Detective," though Nabokov came first, obviously. There's even a section that reminds me of Dennis Potter in interview in which Potter talked about past and present running simultaneously together, like sprinters on a track. Here's Nabokov:

Do all people have that? A face, a phrase, a landscape, an air bubble from the past suddenly floating up as if released by the head warden's child from a cell in the brain while the mind is at work on some totally different matter? Something of the sort also occurs just before falling asleep when what you think you are thinking is not at all what you think. Or two parallel passenger trains of thought, overtaking the other.


There's plenty to read about Nabokov and this novel on the web--Zembla is the main repository of scholarly work. I discovered that there was even a film version made of the novel, though unless someone like Peter Greenaway was making it, I can't imagine how true to the story it could be.
Note: Again, for a first novel in English, the vocabulary stretched my brain to its limit. Check out this list of words I had to look up:
megrim, triskelion, selenographer, amorandola, Keeweenawatin, mnemogenic, velvetina, ruelle, pauldron, salix, cardiarium, dolichocephalic, decorpitation, noumenon, eidolon, kurorts, deoculation, yarovization.
(The problem with Googling unknown words: every fifth word turns out to the name of a literary journal.)

How the Irish Save Civilization - Thomas Cahill

Doubleday, 1995
Enjoyable pop-history of how Ireland rescued higher learning and humanist Christianity during the Dark Ages.
The book wastaken with me on my recent San Francisco trip as reading material. I finished a few days after I came back. This was the first of Cahill's history quintilogy (the other volumes looking at Jesus, the Jews, and two other as of yet unwritten subjects), and it's a good primer for studying Irish history and/or early British literature. Cahill backs up at the start and talks about St. Augustine (the first autobiographer in the West), then gets around to the savior of Ireland, St. Patrick, who, though he didn't chase the snakes out, did convert the natives from a warrish paganism to a calmer Christianity without causing the country to implode in corpses. Just for that he should be admired. But he also brought with him a promotion of learning, and very humane idea of how the church should interact with the populace, and (most importantly) a love of books and an inspiration to text copyists, who rescued as many Latin books they could and went ur-Kinko's on them.
Cahill often relies too much on quoting songs and poems at length when only a line or two would do, but he makes his case. That the Irish would later come to be known as a lesser people by the English is a major tragedy, and a prejudice that can still be felt (to put it mildly).

August 3, 2004

The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2001
Saying that The Corrections is a tale of a nuclear family coming together
for one last Christmas--the father is slowly dying of Parkinsons--is like saying Ulysses is a story about two guys wandering around Dublin and only meeting in the evening. Jonathan Franzen's amazing novel made me laugh many times, not just at his humorous turn of phrase, or his ability to cut to the heart of an absurd situation, but his absolute skill at jumping back and forth in non-linear time in a fresh way, of spinning the reader round until familiar situations and locations are rendered strange and wondrous. It's a laugh at the deft slight-of-hand that he's perfected.
The Lamberts were once a traditional Midwestern family, but their three children who have flown the coop, leaving a large, empty house, a mother who obsesses over Christmas and a father who is slowly losing his grip on reality. The eldest child Gary, is a successful businessman/depressed alcoholic with three kids and an awful, manipulative wife (Franzen gets in good digs at the generation of hassle-free parents raising sonofabitch children); middle child Chip is a failed professor and scriptwriter who is gamely hanging on to his youth and who leaves for Lithuania to join the dot-com revolution; finally, youngest daughter Denise is a famous chef whose sexual shenanigans have been a constant disruption in her life.
Each section of the novel is devoted to one of these five characters, but freely jumps about when it needs to. Although comic, it's also tremendously sad, but not in a maudlin way. Characters have epiphanies, but are usually in no state to change anything. Or they continue on their merry way.
The novel brims with three-dimensional characters to such an extent that I started to dream about situations in the novel as if I was sorting out events of the past day. Even more peculiar, there is a scene in the last part of the book where Gary, staying in his childhood bedroom, has a late-night hallucination that he can't leave the room because of the horror that waits for him in the hallway. He is forced to pee in a commemorative beer stein. It was only after putting down the book, falling asleep, and eventually rousing myself from a similar troubled non-sleep that I realized that the sequence suggests that Gary has the gene that is causing his father's dementia (father's basement, indeed, is full of empty coffee cans full of urine.) But it's again to Franzen's credit that he doesn't signpost this foreshadowing. I mentioned this to my friend (who was the one to recommend the novel) the following day and he hadn't caught it either. I suppose the novel would hold up to several rereadings, and Franzen seems to be making allusions throughout to the Chronicles of Narnia, among other things. But I can't remember enough about the books to get it all.
I meant to highlight phrases that I liked, but I got into the book so much I just forgot. I will, however, leave you with the one I Post-It noted: "Soon they were engaged and they chastely rode a night train to McCook, Nebraska, to visit his aged parents. His father kept a slave whom he was married to."
The novel is full of such turnabout sentences, and as such was a delight to read. Apparently, there's much consternation over Franzen's novel-writing style and/or his attitude to his characters. Just read the bloody book like I did.
(Check out this Franzen interview at Salon.com.)

July 13, 2004

A Scanner Darkly, Scanned 14 Times

A nice collection of Philip K. Dick Book Covers. Can't wait for the Linklater film adaptation of Scanner!
By way of The Cartoonist

June 20, 2004

Elevator Music - Joseph Lanza

Picador, 1994
This looked like a promising book on Muzak, lounge music, and everything in between,
but I was disappointed in the end by it. Desperately in need of a coherent thesis and a discriminating editor, Joseph Lanza's book is a bit of history here, some hagiography there, with one or two interviews thrown in because he could.
One main problem is that I don't believe Lanza likes half of the music he writes about. Sure he probably likes Martin Denny and Les Baxter, but I don't feel any passion when he's writing about Mantovani. And it's like he thought the former would be a great topic for a book, or perhaps Muzak (and aren't they the same thing? I hear someone rhetorically asking), then set off to write. As deadline loomed Lanza discovers--gasp--he doesn't really like 90% of this stuff.
Evidence of my theory is that he packs his hagiographies of these artists with ad copy quotes from the backs of albums. Instead of responding to the music honestly, Lanza tells us what some record company stooge in the '50s told us to feel.
The initial history of Muzak is interesting, as the idea of music as crowd control is examined. But then follows a long section of musician biographies, none of which are particularly enlightening, or made me curious to hunt anybody's work down in thrift stores. To me there's worlds of difference between Peter Nero and Antonio Jobim--to Lanza there's not.
Then the book looks around for things to write about. He spends a chapter on the Mystic Moods and 101 Strings orchestras, trying to make a case for their albums' sonic playfulness. There's a chapter on "space music" and Windham Hill that doesn't tell me too much about the label and its impact (and isn't that impact over?).
As this book is written in 1994, we get an interview with Angelo Badalamenti on his Twin Peaks music, but it feels out of place here. Lanza tries to make a case for his subject and overreaches:

"Demographics in the future will be defined less and less by sex, age, politics, or even income, and more and more by one's taste for exotic locales or nostalgic situations absorbed from childhood television exposure--a social direction which gives background music an awe-inspiring role."

You don't actually believe that, do you?
Anyway, do we even have Muzak piped in buildings these days? Everywhere I go, they have bloody "lite rock" playing, supposedly soothing me with the screechings of Mariah and Whitney.

June 15, 2004

McSweeney's Quarterly Concern Vol. 13 - Chris Ware, Ed.

McSweeney's, 2004

Chris Ware, possibly one of the finest comic artists of the last 20 years, takes the editorial reigns for this issue of McSweeney's, and turns it into a half-quirky, half-conservative survey of the State of the Art. Conservative in that very few of the artists are unfamiliar to me, and any fan of Fantagraphics Books and Last Gasp will know the roster: Robert Crumb, Los Bros Hernandez, Daniel Clowes, Jim Woodring, Seth, Kim Dietch, Julie Doucet, Lynda Barry, and many more usual suspects. Quirky, because we also get essays from John Updike, Ira Glass, and glimpses of errata from Krazy Kat's George Herriman and Charles Shultz. Those last two are not surprising if you know that Ware is also editing their collections. Most of these separate articles are by Ware as well, and his writing is scholarly and not snarky; if you were expecting the self-deprecation of his Acme Novelty Library text, it ain't here.
There's a slight thematic thread running through Ware's selection, which is set up in an essay on Rodolphe Topffer, the "inventor of comics." Topffer's work, which is subsequently appropriated by the Americans (if not outright stolen) is a satire on a romantic, suicidal buffoon. It's almost if the despair and self-loathing that infects most American comics is there from the beginning, like bad DNA.
Ware leads off with selections from the present and past, ones that play with the iconographic simplicity of earlier strips. Ware's own work, a short two-pager about a collegiate romance (told from a female POV, a first), is typical of his spare brilliance. How he gets so much emotion out of tiny little ideographs is beyond me. Then follows Ware's appreciation of artist Philip Guston, who is often called "comic bookish" even by critics who like him. Ware's here to dispute it (which he does easily). Guston's work, sampled here with three unnerving paintings, sets the stage for the uneasy middle of the book, with scary work from Mark Beyer, Gary Panter, Charles Burns, Richard Sala, and Art Spiegelman.
There's a section on comics journalism (Kim Dietch's Death Row piece, and a section from Joe Sacco's Sarajevo tales, among others), then the final selection, closest to Ware's heart, I believe, in which comics are used to bare souls (Joe Matt, Debbie Dreschler, Jeffrey Brown) and expand the medium into the complex levels of literature (no excerpt of the Hernandez Brothers can really do them justice, though). I love Ben Katchor's work in this compilation. His "Hotel & Farm" series belongs to a strain of American Surrealism that has brought us Lynch and the Coen Brothers, but has nothing to do with either of them. The stories, based around the city/country conundrum of the title, weave various strange narratives together like a fabulous tall tale. I want more of this. Adrian Tomine's work resembles a younger version of Raymond Carver or John O'Hara, of relationships falling apart slowly, inorexably. It's too bad that many of the submissions to this issue come from already published work, though--it would have been nice to see how each of the artists dealt with a particular assignment. On the other hand, such plans often lead to weak work. Still, this is a large (265 pages) anthology, and Ware is to be commended for this overview.
And did I mention that the dust jacket folds out into a splendid Ware-drawn Sunday comic section doubletruck? It's a lovely thing all around.

June 9, 2004

Life of Pi - Yann Martel

Harvest Books, 2002
A lot of my reading of "Life of Pi" was informed by my previous reading
of a compendium of shipwreck and survival-at-sea tales last year (see here for a review). That book scooted into the present day and skipped modern tales of being lost at sea, since, it informed us, modern lifeboats are so much more well stocked.
Indeed so. We get a good look at what's in a modern lifeboat in Yann Martel's novel, but that doesn't stop the supplies running out and the despair and hallucinations from setting in. Much of the novel is set in a lifeboat shared by its title narrator and a fully grown Bengal tiger. Pi is a 16 year-old Indian lad who winds up in this predicament after the cargo ship, which was carrying his family, assorted members of his father's zoo, and himself to Canada to emigrate, sinks in the Pacific.
Before then we learn Pi is a young lad with a passion for religion (he becomes, much to his teachers' chagrin, a Christian, an Muslim, and a Hindu simultaneously, because he just loves God) and a knowledge of science (mostly zoology, learning in his surroundings).
I expected a religious fable, and while there are elements of that (much more than I'm interested in), the novel never stops being a boys'-own survival tale, with Pi learning to assert himself as the Alpha male on the tiny boat. Much is to be learned about big-cat behaviour, as well as how to kill and eat various sealife. I had also never heard about 'solar still' devices to turn sea water into fresh, until this book.
Near the end, Pi goes temporarily blind, and the book gets weird (and very readable). He meets another lifeboat survivor, who comes to an unfortunate end. Pi lands on a floating island made entirely of fresh-water-making algae, who sole inhabitants turn out to be meerkats.
And the end, after being rescued, Pi offers the Japanese insurance investigators two versions of the same story, one with the tiger and a much more bloody version with nothing but humans. He asks them which story they liked the better, and is told the more unbelievable one, the one with the animals. "So it is with God," he says. It's an attack on dull reason (and bloody realism), but the book is at its best when combining the two. (Martel also offers, by doing so, an 11th hour twist that you can take or leave, the opposite of the narrative tactics of recent Hollywood thrillers (such as "Identity."))


This book has been inescapable in and outside reading groups. Unlike The DaVinci Code, "Life of Pi" is charming and well-written, Martel is able to go with description, interior and exterior, that other writers would probably never consider (especially in the slow disintegration on the boat. I don't believe Martel ever had to go through such an ordeal, but you believe his character did.)
Here's an interview with Martel, if you are interested in a little more background.
The book also made me add Pondicherry to my list of future travel destinations, along with a stay at one of the many hill stations in the country.

June 6, 2004

Master of Space and Time - Rudy Rucker

Bluejay Books, 1984
The word is out that Michel Gondry's next film will be an adaptation of Rudy Rucker's 1984 novel "Master of Space and Time"
and that it will star Jack Black. I had never heard of Rucker up to this point, as I don't really follow sci-fi (trying to read "Ringworld" back when I was 15 put me off the sort of high-technology based sci-fi). Apparently, though, he's one of the fathers of cyberpunk along with Gibson, and if Gondry likes him, I better check him out.
So I did. By a pure stroke of luck, our local library had only this novel and "The Hacker and the Ants" on their shelves, and the former is now completely out of print. (Jon, who is now interested in reading the book too, found that there's only two copies in the entire L.A. County library system, and one is reference.)
Well, now, I haven't read a book so fast. Less than 24-hours later I was returning the book back to the library. One thing I know--it'll be a hoot of a film. In fact, the first chapter is pure Gondry, in which our hero Joe is briefly sent into a time loop and wind up surrounded by ever decreasing and increasing copies of his body. This is due to his friend and crazy inventor Harry (I assume the Jack Black role) who has come back from the future to tell Joe he's mastered time and space. How? Joe will tell him tomorrow, he is told. And off we go.
Rucker plays with the paradoxes of time travel and indulges in some parallel reality play, but in essence this is a three-wishes story, with each of the three main characters (the third being Joe's wife Nancy) getting a chance at changing the world. Gondry has always expressed admiration for the pop physics of "Back to the Future," and so this will be his take on it, I suppose.
There's a little bit of dated elements here--the slight homophobia and the caricatured Vietnamese bloke grate a bit--but the story is so fun it doesn't matter.
If you can find a copy you won't be disappointed.
There's aRudy Rucker web site for more info.

June 3, 2004

McSweeney's No. 13 and Design Observer

There's a great debate going on over atDesign Observer about the new issue of McSweeney's, edited and designed by Chris Ware. It certainly looks like a beautiful thing and I can't wait to get my paws on it.

June 2, 2004

The Big Mango - Jake Needham

Writing about books, as I do, I occasionally get free stuff in the mail from authors, and occasionally, I read them. In a recent column, I wrote about Penguin UK's insipid campaign to make book reading by males "sexy" (ad slogan: "Are You Good Booking?") and received an email from Jake Needham, a writer of detective novels who can't get published here, but does a rollicking good business out of Asia. It helps that his novels are set in Thailand, of course, but he's all-American and writes in English. He's also been told that he's "too male," whatever that means (and James Ellroy isn't?).
So I just spent a few days reading his debut novel "The Big Mango," a chewy bit o' pulp that made its way to the top of my reading list as soon as I opened the envelope. The plot revolves around a huge load of money, hidden after the fall of Saigon, and the two-bit lawyer who is mysteriously called to Thailand to investigate the death of the man who may have known where it is.
It reads fairly autobiographically (not that Mr. Needham is two-bit, or any bit), a middle-aged farang falling in love with an alien world (here being Bangkok) and its hot alien women. There's a lot of driving around on tuktuks and many descriptions of the unbelievable tropical heat. Lead character Eddie Dare is well drawn enough, but his army buddy/traveling companion Winnebago is along for the ride mostly--he doesn't seem to have much narrative function apart from comic relief. Ex-pat reporter Bar feels like a flip-side to Eddie, and his life is interesting until the plot necessitates more action. There are no major Thai characters in the book, just farangs and a mysterious Vietnamese woman named Lek, although I guess you could say Thailand is the main character. With Eddie fresh off the boat and the time span of the novel only a few days, there isn't time for a deeper portrait of Bangkok to emerge. But as Mr. Needham's written two more set in the country, perhaps he's had a chance to flesh it out. Still, a quick read, exactly what the book sets out to do.

May 6, 2004

Quick Links

Here's a harsh review of John Fowles' Diaries from the London Review of Books. I had no idea the man was so misanthropic.

In 1996 I picked up a copy of Learning From Las Vegas in paperback. Only now do I discover that the hardback original is much more beautiful. (And it'll set you back $3,500 or so, used.)

Stockhausen: Ahead of His Time

This is from Joseph Lanza's book on elevator music that I'm currently reading:

Karlheinz Stockhausen later suggested using computer-programmed "sound swallowers" to neutralize every unwanted noise in a public place with its opposite vibration."

Do you think he meant these?

May 3, 2004

Hebdomeros (and other writings) - Giorgio de Chirico

Exact Change, 1992
After slogging my way through these collective writings of de Chirico,
I have decided that out of all the surrealists and proto-surrealists, this man comes as close to my own artistic aesthetic.
Not that I would have known from the title work, a novella called "Hebdomeros," the only novel he wrote, a completely mad and dreamlike work that did not seem to come from the same artist, the man who painted empty plazas full of long shadows, statues, and mannequins.
For "Hebdomeros" is full of people. No real characters, save the title man, who is a wilder version of de Chirico, and who is somewhat of a painter, an artist, but who travels through the novel in and out of linear time, dreamstate, and textual reality.
It's a work comprised of long, unweildy sentences that shift subject matter while you read them. "Dreamlike" has never been a truer description, as scenery shifts (though confining itself to hotel rooms, seaside towns, countrysides, and piazzas) along with characters. Yet nothing in "Hebdomeros" is reminiscent of de Chirico's paintings, which is quite notable--he didn't see the work as an extension of his painterly concerns.
This is made obvious with the other works that make up the second half of this book from Exact Change. Here we have a two rough sketches, warm-ups for the novel, written in similar (and equally confusing) style; Three stories containing a character called "Monsieur Dudron," in which the narrative is more traditional and where we are alerted of shifts in dreamstate; and then a series of attempts at a manifesto, where the more familiar elements of deChirico's paintings finally turn up--the statues, the lonely square, the banners and flags seen over the tops of buildings, the allusions to Homer and Ulysses; and two critical appraisals, one of New York City, and one of the painterCourbet. DeChirico admired the realists, but was in search of realistic solutions to Nietzchian revelations ("Ecce Homo" being a favorite philosophic text). When deChirico describes his paintings, he adds sound, so next time you see those banners over his walls, there's a flapping, cracking sound to be heard.
I share some of his feelings, particularly the "nostalgia of the infinite," by which he means, I believe, that sense of sadness and mystery when looking at things far away or hidden behind a wall, such as his flags or passing trains.

Sometimes the skyline is blocked by a wall behind which rises the whistle of a locamotive, or the clank of a departing train: all the nostalgia of infinity is revealed to us behind the geometrical precision of the square.

My childhood was often spent in the backyard of my house wondering what lay beyond the high fence at the top of the hill that bordered our property. Of course, I could have taken the road up and around to discover that, but it would have been different. De Chirico understands the same thing: the train seen at a distance is different from the same train seen up close. He wants to recontextualize things, much like the later Surrealist and Pop Artists did: he thought it a splendid enigma to put furniture in the middle of roads, or forests. He toys with the idea of placing statues of men in bedrooms, or sitting in chairs looking out windows.
Soon after his classic period, de Chirico tried to become a classicist (figures!) and got denounced by the artists around him. He wound up signing his work "The Greatest Painter" and making counterfeits of his old work. Oh dear.
The book taxed my vocabulary, which I consider pretty broad. For your fun and pleasure, I include a short list of words I had to go look up.

Parthenonize, pedagogize, ephebogogize, megaron, ithyphallic, hypostases, telluric, peristyle, amphorae, cholagogic, "acquae calidae", ogival, littoral, hygrometrically, clepsydra, catafalque, vernissage, Alpheus, Thermopylae, ephebes, lacustrine, "lares and penates", "Rialto bridge", Quiberon, boreal, Zouave, deliomaque, Dioscuri

He also mentions artists and poets I didn't know:

Etienne Spartali, Pandolfo Colenuccio, Corot, Poussin, Louis Le Nain, Zrzavy

If I was paid to write this, I would use Merriam-Webster and link to all these, but in this world you're on your own.

The Witches - Roald Dahl

Puffin, 1983
Here's a secret about my married life:
Jessica likes to be read to. Something about my deep, sonorous (read: monotone) voice comforts her at bedtime and sends her right off. While she spends her own reading time either in magazines or on a few books (right now it's some Buddhist text), we use the reading time to check out children's literature. (They're quick to get through, and fun to read out loud. Not like, say, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.)
It was a sad fact that I never read "Winnie-the-Pooh" until I read it to Jessica, although by that time I enjoyed all of its nuances and Milne's effortless style.
I picked up "The Witches" the other day for 50 cents, and that became our new book.
First of all, this is a great book for reading out loud. With The Grand High Witch, parents and other readers can indulge in their vurrrrrrrst German accent, as Roald Dahl envisions a witch not as a cackling crone, but as a half-zombie She-Wolf of the SS. The witches' grand plan to exterminate all children is not far indeed from Hitler's "Final Solution," and the mice/vermin parallel is well taken.
Dahl creates a hero who gets turned into a mouse half-way through and doesn't get turned back into a boy. He very cleverly reverses the "coming of age" trope - by getting smaller and becoming unhuman, the hero grows up and realises his destiny. There's also a penultimate chapter where the mouse-boy realises that he won't live that long, being a mouse and all, but as he loves his dear old grandmamma, they will grow old together. It's a weird, mortality-filled chapter that made Jessica ask, "Is this book really for kids?" (Don't ask me, I'm still getting over the recent shock of my first read of The Velveteen Rabbit. Talk about traumatizing a child.)
Dahl is a devious genius, and his bile is well placed. There's no coddling here, with witches not just seeing children as nuisances, but as things needing to be eradicated. There's no witches with hearts of gold, or witches to be fooled, they are just there to kill children. That's it. Refreshing, indeed.

April 25, 2004

The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown

Doubleday, 2003
Okay, you're kidding, right?
This is the most popular fiction book for months and months? Once again I find my enduring faith in the American public severely tested by this fact. Dan Brown's thriller about a search for the Holy Grail succeeds in being a page-turner, but little else. His two lead characters, Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of religious symbolism; and Sophie Neveu, a French detective specializing in cryptologist, exist to lead the reader through the web of Grail facts, but appear to have little else. I can't tell you anything about Langdon except his field of study. Neveu's character is sketched in more, because it's the murder of her grandfather that sets the story on its way.
Halfway through, I realised why this book is so popular. Brown treats his audience not exactly as idiots, but as blank slates who know nothing of art, of Europe, of history, of even the most rudimentary conspiracy theories (quite amazing post X-Files). The non-divinity of Jesus, the resuscitation of Mary Magdalene from whore to feminine equal, and the question of a J+M bloodline, may curl the hair of the fundies and intrigue the pop-Christians in the general public (who freely mix their Bible, "angel cards", and astrology charts), but for any half-serious biblical scholar or, really, anyone whose been around the block a few times, it's nothing that new. And to then have to read it all in Brown's pedantic style is a bit much.
Here's a typical Brown passage:

The agent signaled to an insulated wire that ran out of the back of the computer, up the wall, through a hole in the barn roof. "Simple radio wave. Small antenna on the roof."
Collet knew these recording systems were generally placed in offices, were voice-activated to save hard disk space, and recorded snippets of conversation during the day, transmitting compressed audio files at night to avoid detection. After transmitting, the hard drive erased itself and prepared to do it all over again the next day.

All he really has to tell us is that some offices are bugged and that this is where the info is collected. Brown backs up to fill us in on details such as these all the time, with awkward dalliances into art history, architecture, theology, and more. They aren't exactly woven into the narrative as much as they're pasted in. Brown's authorial voice is like a trivia buff at a cocktail party, telling you the history of the martini you're drinking, or when pimento olives became popular.
On top of that, there's the inner thoughts of the characters that sum up the action and major plot points for those who haven't read many books before and/or who suffer from short-term memory loss. "I'm about to dash out of the Louvre...a fugitive." (after about 50 pages that demonstrates this.) And my favorite: "Accompanying the gravity of being a hunted man, Langdon was starting to feel the ponderous weight of responsibility, the prospect that he and Sophie might actually be holding an encrypted set of directions to one of the most enduing mysteries of all time." Yes, yes, yes. We know!
I am interested in seeing how this is all going to play out when the film adaptation comes out. With mainer-than-mainstream director Ron Howard handling it, will they water down the crux of the plot, that Jesus was mortal and fathered a child? Will the fundies go and picket? Will they issue a jihad against Brown? Should anyone who lives in a secular nation and has an ounce of common sense care?
Meanwhile, I wrote about TDVC for my book column (I was shorter and nicer than above), and included a parody. Enjoy.

THE DELI CODE

Robert Langdon entered the delicatessen on the corner of Rose and Crucian Streets. Langdon knew the deli had been at the downtown location for over three years. Before that it had been Willie's, a mid-level bistro for eight years. Before that it had been Ella's Haberdashery and Lightbulb Emporium.
"What kind of sandwich would you like, sir?" asked the girl at the register.
Robert Langdon knew about sandwiches. It was known by scholars that the food item was named after John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich. In 1762, the earl had asked for some meat to be served between two slices of bread in order to avoid interrupting his gambling game.
Yet the question still remained of the meat and the type of bread that Langdon, over 200 years later, would be asking the deli to assemble.
"What do you recommend?" Langdon asked, tactically.
"Pastrami on rye is popular," said the girl, as her dark brown eyes sized him up.
Pastrami had long been a staple meat of the Italians. Before the advent of refrigeration in the 20th century, large amounts of beef were soaked in brine, then smoked, in a process known as "curing."
Bread, on the other hand, had been around since the time of the Egyptians, and was commonly made from a dough of ground or milled cereal grain, usually wheat flour, and leavened by chemical or microbiological action. Rye bread was a combination of wheat and rye flours, giving a loaf a lighter texture than the pure rye bread known as pumpernickel.
"That sounds fine," said Langdon.
"One pastrami on rye!" the girl suddenly shouted to an unseen person in the back.
I'm about to eat a pastrami on rye sandwich, thought Robert Langdon.

[That's quite enough. - Ed.]


April 14, 2004

Oh dear me...

Most of you readers don't know that I write a book club column for the Santa Barbara News-Press. I'm not personally in, or have ever been in, a book club, and so it's all pretty new to me. I am very aware, though, of how similar most clubs are. They have all read The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown, and, after hearing good and bad things about it, I picked it up at the library on "Express Loan". I've dropped all my other reading to blast through this in a couple of days, at the end of which I will have some sort of opinion.

I'll let you know soon...

March 29, 2004

Zen in the Art of Archery - Eugen Herrigel

Vintage, 1953
About as long as a good-sized New Yorker essay,
Eugen Herrigel's book about his many years as a German studying Japanese archery (kyudo) and Zen comes recommended by a struggling Zen friend as a good primer (along with the longer and unread "Three Pillars of Zen" by Phillip Kapleau Roshi). And in a Zen-like moment, I found it exactly when I wasn't looking for it in Book Den used books (or was that a Tao moment?).
Zen is the most mindbending of philosophies, and Herrigel's struggle to master his chosen art is full of, well, such moments. His sensei, Kenzo Awa, offers little explanation, but guides his students through a series of failures and frustrations, so that the proper way of doing anything comes as a much larger enlightenment. When, after many years (years!) Herrigel starts to hit the target, Sensei chides him for any satisfaction: "What are you thinking of? You know already that you should not grieve over bad shots; learn now not to rejoice over the good ones. You must free yourself from the buffetings of pleasure and pain, and learn to rise above them in easy equanimity, to rejoice as though not you but another had shot well."
The importance of meditation, and of ceremony, of what sports-type secular people call being in the zone, before engaging on a work of art, is part of the Zen experience too. It is the most purpose-filled arts (swordsmanship, painting, archery) that Zen requires to be approached with purposelessness. It's very difficult to comprehend, but Herrigel does his best.
Herrigel's wife, too, spends her five years learning the art of Japanese flower arranging, and goes on to master Zen in her own way. Herrigel doesn't say much about her, which says something about the times and his attitudes. These days, the book would have to be about both husband and wife, I suppose.
Over at Amazon, the book gets good ratings, apart from some kyudo expert called Earl Hartman, who feels the whole book is a sham.

To put it bluntly, Herrigel got everything, and I mean everything, wrong. He himself only practiced kyudo for three years, if his translator Sozo Komachiya is to be believed (he started in 1926 and returned to Germany in 1929). He spoke no Japanese. He was himself a mystic (or he wanted to be one, anyway) intent on understanding Zen, not archery, and he had very definite pre-formed ideas about what he was looking for and what he believed Zen, and, by extension kyudo, to be. Given such a situation, the impending disaster was a forgone conclusion. Even with the best instruction he would not have understood kyudo.

His book is very seductive, filled as it is with tantalizing mystical stories about a seeker on the road to "enlightenment". So, it will appeal to romantics who have no experience in either Zen or kyudo, and it has been my experience that the book indeed appeals primarily to such people. It is instructive to note that those people who have experience in either discipline are quick to point out how thoroughly Herrigel bollixed it up.

Gosh. Well, that's that then.

March 28, 2004

The Tao of Pooh - Benjamin Hoff

Penguin, 1982
I found the Tao of Poo at our library's used book corner for 50 cents.
I've been interested in Benjamin Hoff's thesis since reading the Pooh books in '99--that the ineffable Pooh-bear embodies Taoist principles. Pooh just "is", and hence lives life peacefully unlike negative Eeyore, busybody Rabbit, or overly intellectual Owl.
This would have made a good little book, or a comic. But Hoff pushes the similarities to their limits, and finding them wanting fills the book with stories from Lao Tzu and other philosophers and his own diatribes against modern society. Pooh gets a bit diminished throughout, and by including large chunks of Milne's text, it plainly shows up Hoff's own writing as plain. He's not that good, either, at mimicking Milne's voice, so his conversations with Pooh ring a bit false. Probably better than the Disney atrocity, but still not quite there.
However, the first chapter helped me understand the difference between Buddhism, Confusianism, and Taoism. In it, Hoff relates the story of the Vinegar Tasters, a scroll painting. One man tastes the vinegar and has a bitter look on his face, another has a sour look, and the third has a smile. The first man, Hoff says, represents Buddhism, who sees life as suffering and bitter. The second represents Confucius, who sees life as sour, not like it was in the old days, and sees that living life according to the old ways will help it return. The third man, the Taoist, sees the vinegar as vinegar and appreciates that it tastes just as it does. He sees life as trying to understand and appreciate the essence of all things.
Well, that's my version of Hoff's version, written from memory, but nothing else that follows in the Tao of Pooh had quite that effect. By the third chapter I began to feel dissent from his lecturing. Of course we can't all be like Pooh--he lives in the 100 Acre Wood, and is not subject to the forces of capitalism. He always has a steady supply of honey, pays no rent, and...well, you see how it doesn't exactly fit. If I kept turning up at people's homes looking for "a little smackerel of something," then I'd be called a freeloader.
Chapters are loosely based around a character from the books and how they stand for fallible human traits and in opposition to Pooh. Hoff especially has it in for Rabbit, but then Rabbit is the meanest character in the Pooh stories, always trying to evict newcomers to the forest.
Anyway, a quick read and not a totally enjoyable one. I don't feel much of a Taoist afterwards, but I do feel an urge to go back to the Pooh books.

The Lurking Fear and Other Stories - H.P. Lovecraft

Dell Rey, 1971 edition
When my family first moved to England, we stayed in the village my dad and mom grew up in.
(No, this story is not about how I met Cthulu.) I went to that village's library only once I believe. It was about the size of a closet. The book I checked out was an H.P. Lovecraft collection. Only upon getting it home did I read the fine print and found that it was a selection of his unfinished tales, posthumously completed by various (lesser) writers. Feeling gypped, I didn't make it past the first couple of pages. (I probably also found it boring).
I was a horror fan when I was a teenager, so it's surprising that I never got around to Lovecraft until now, especially since I was going beyond Stephen King and reading things like Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker (when he only had Books of Blood to his name).
Lovecraft has always felt to me like the fine single malt whiskey of horror writers. There's no detours into humor, nothing playful, no experiments in style. Just madness and horror. (Much like Glenlivet). And indeed that's how it should be. I takes a few stories to get into his prose and his rhythms, but once inside you begin to appreciate the fine detail and the slow pace. You want to roll the paragraphs around on your tongue and savor it.
Maybe it was my associations with that early library book, but I for a long time thought that HPL was British. I guess I was confusing him with M.R. James (who I still haven't read--these two authors are high on the list of Mark E. Smith of the Fall, so from him my Lovecraft interest was piqued).
What I didn't expect was how so many of the tales in this collection come from an anxiety over evolution and miscegenation. Apart from Chthulu and creatures that live in another dimension ("Beyond the Wall of Sleep", "The White Ship", "From Beyond"), the monsters that stalk these tales are often the result of some long past intermingling of man and beast. More often than not, they come to resemble our evolutionary relatives, the monkey ("The Lurking Fear," "Arthur Jermyn") and the fish "The Shadow over Innsmouth", "Dagon"). Both narrators in "The Lurking Fear" and "Innsmouth" fear and are repulsed by the inhabitants of the out-of-the-way villages they stay in--who are initially presented as sloping-foreheaded inbred yokels (the phrase "white trash" pops up twice here, and HPL was writing in 1920-1930 or so) until the true magnitude of their breeding is revealed.
But the true horror that Lovecraft finishes on is not death, but the realization of the narrators that they too are somehow linked to this nefarious family tree. Arthur Jermyn sets himself on fire when he realizes that his grandmother was some sort of albino ape-thing; the narrator of "Innsmouth", after escaping the fish-people in the town, slowly comes to realize that he is part of them, and his fate comes as a degenerative or evolutionary illness. We have found the monster and he is us.
After reading these dozen tales, it's easy to see why filmmakers have found Lovecraft so hard to adapt. The narrators are usually solitary souls, and the action is usually of the slow, creeping kind. The "monster," if there is one, only shows up on the last page, if at all, and by this time the narrator is usually at a loss to describe the indescribable. Plus there's no guns or boobs. However, Lovecraft would work well as radio monologues--radio being the perfect format for "the unnamable" (and I'm not talking about Rick Dees). I wonder if that's ever been done?
For a good website about the man and his works check out the H.P. Lovecraft Archive.

March 14, 2004

The Garden of Eden - Ernest Hemingway

Collier, 1986
Ernest Hemingway's last posthumous novel,
this one apparently got worked on in spurts from 1946 to his suicide in 1961. Perhaps it was the sexuality, perhaps its the deep psychological depths he explores, but something made him ambivalent about finishing the book. This is reportedly an edited version of the remaining scraps of a manuscript, but I feel it holds up pretty well.
The story centers on American writer David Bourne and the extended honeymoon he has with his new wife Catherine on the Cote d'Azur in France during the '20s. Their life is sunbathing, swimming, cafes, and humping like, well, like newlyweds. But a second woman comes into the picture, Marita, an attractive Italian girl they nickname "Heiress." A very strange, bitter love triangle begins. Lesbianism is the selling point, but there's nothing in the writing to get hot and bothered about--to its credit.
At first the novel seems to be exploring sexual ambivalence and David's problems with it. Catherine cuts her hair till it matches David's. They both become very, very tan. They trade sexual dominance, when, on every other night, it is suggested that she is buggering him (how is not made explicit). Obviously, David is a bit confused by all this.
If this is the Garden of Eden, then the apple contains the knowledge of sexual orientation. Catherine believes exploring all sides of her blossoming sexuality will bring her and David even closer. She believes that by becoming like him that they can share a lover.
It doesn't happen that way. As the honeymoon wears on, David wants to get back to writing, which brings out Catherine's jealousy and indifference. Slowly, Catherine's language--what we take at first to be the idealism of the young and in love--begins to hint at a truly unstable mind.
Marita becomes the girl caught in the middle, then evolves into a saner, more open version of Catherine. It's a very complex set of relationships, and Hemingway's spare and elliptical dialog and scenes means that its often hard to notice when the knives are truly out until disaster strikes.
Another narrative enters the book after Marita arrives, that of David's short story, an autobiographical tale of him and his father hunting an elephant in Africa. He desperately needs to understand what happened to him and this epiphinal moment with his father--as if an answer can help him solve the problem of Catherine (or why he attracts similar women) instead of just escaping from it.
I fully appreciated Hemingway when spending a two-hour creative writing class in UCSB (all those years ago) dissecting "Hills Like White Elephants." The economy and wealth within inspired us all to go out and write wretched approximations of his style (crossed with Raymond Carver). But when I look back I realize that we (or maybe just I) had understood the style, but not the substance. Hemingway's characters come out of great pain that I as a 21-year-old thankfully didn't know. Relationships that devolve into vicious battles disguised as mundane conversation--that was all on the horizon. Yikes.
For an incomplete novel, it has symbolic depth to spare. The autobiographical flashbacks complement the story, as the elephant they kill has--briefly alluded to--something like homosexual tendencies. While being hunted the elephant visits the corpse of his friend (and something like a lover) to mourn before moving on. The removing of the tusks can be seen as a sort of brutal emasculation. But the ivory also pops up later to describe Catherine's hair.
There's a great purging near the end, of David's work and of his "women problems". It's not explicit whether David had truly solved his problems or just delayed them for a different, future cast of characters. But David has at least passed his trial.
Some of the passages where Hemingway describes David's writing methods feel like a glimpse at the author's own craft, especially those intangible moments in between synapse and pen:

Thank God he was breaking through on the stories now. What had made the last book good was the people who were in it and the accuracy of the detail which made it believable. He had, really, only to remember accurately and the form came by what he would choose to leave out. Then, of course, he could close it like the diaphragm of a camera and intensify it so it could be concentrated to the point where the heat shone bright and the smoke began to rise. He knew that he was getting this now.

A Boozy Sidebar (wait..did you say bar? Mine's a whiskey and soda.)

Being a Hemingway novel, a lot of drinking goes on in "Garden of Eden," a hell of a lot. And a great variety of things get drunk. Yet, nobody gets drunk. Catherine had mood swings like that of a drunk, but she's touched in the head, so it doesn't count. It's intimated that David's father was a drunk (which makes him one), but we never really see David on a bender, and he seems to not drink before (or during) writing. It's his reward afterward, though.
Hemingway introduces us to many of (I assume) his favorite drinks and the drinks of France. And he will often just use the brand name when describing a drink, so much looking up was done after finishing the novel.

Here are the main categories:

Wines: Lanson Brut, Manzanilla, Perrier-Jouet, Tavel, Tio Pepe, and Valdepeñas. Sometimes Hemingway just writes "wine," or sometimes "white wine" or "cool wine." Some of the above wines come in red or white, but red wines never get described, so I would assume (because it's set mostly in the south of France in the summer) it's white.

Beer: Only one beer gets name checked: Tuborg. Sometimes, just described as a "cool beer." Say, are you getting thirsty?

Hard liquor: Whiskey and soda, baby. This is David's drink of choice by the end. He first starts drinking it in Chapter Nine, and, as his relationship with Catherine gets worse, he drinks more. It should come as no surprise that, in flashback, we learn that David's dad preferred whiskey and soda. For soda, Perrier is named most of the time.
Hemingway also names Haig Pinch and Perrier as David's popular drink, and because Haig Pinch is a Scotch, possibly these are one and the same.
I don't know if you count vermouth as a hard liquor, but a vermouth and soda is had once.
For the real hard stuff, absinth is drunk three times early on in the novel. A drink called Pastis is mentioned once. This is "a very particular mixture based on star anise, liquorice, and various aromatic plants" with a 70% alcohol content and a milky, orange-yellow color. In an early scene the absinthe is poured into this slowly for a heady mix. Cripes. I'm surprised the characters made it to Chapter Four.

Mixed drinks: Martinis are had often, and mixed in a tall pitcher with ice. It's only near the end that we discover the recipe: Gordon's Gin mixed with Noilly Prat. On the rocks.
Tom Collins: drunk twice.
The most interesting drink mentioned is a Chambery Cassis, which is a French Vermouth mixed with Cassis, a blood-red, sweet, black currant-flavored liqueur. Sounds good.

Liqueurs: Armanac (a kind of brandy) and Perrier. "Fine a l’eau" (cognac and water). Marismeño (a brand of sherry).

And if you don't like booze there's: Tea (once). Cafe au lait (once). Cafe creme (once). Borrring!

Statistically, the whisky and Perrier is the most popular drink (16 mentions), with martinis in second (over 10 mentions), and tied in third place, Tavel and beer (5 mentions).

March 13, 2004

On the Roll, I Mean "Road"

"On The Road" Manuscript. 120 feet long. Single-spaced, typewritten manuscript held together with tape. Written in three weeks while on a coffee and Benzedrine high. Sold for a record $2.43 million at Christie's. Purchased by Indianapolis Colts' owner, James Irsay.
Blimey.
KEROUAC MANUSCRIPT

March 6, 2004

The Story of Philosophy -- Will Durant [and!] Heroes & Heretics -- Barrows Dunham

Durant: Time Reading Program, 1933 (this ed. 1963)

Dunham: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964

Blimey. Four months it's taken me to get through these two tomes, both histories of the Western world with a focus on philosophy.
I never took Philosophy in college, and up to now my knowledge was primarily focused on post-modernism and existentialism, with my history supplied by Monty Python's Philosopher's Song.

I first started on Will Durant's text after having it recommended by Jon, and then finding a cracking good paperback version (Time Reading Program, with a thick, card-like cover and a nice chronology inside--great paper too) in a used bookstore in Ventura. I jumped right in--Plato, I believe it was--and when my other friend Mr. C______ heard I was reading Durant, I soon received his well-read copy of Barrows Dunham's "Heroes and Heretics," because "If you're going to read a history of philosophy, you should at least choose one that's good." So sayeth Mr. C.

Durant's book is still in print. You can find new copies in Borders, as well as used ones everywhere, from yellowing, 1970's Pocket Book editions, to well-underlined student copies. He, along with his wife Ariel, also put out a Story of Civilization in 11 volumes that is gathering dust over at Thrasher Books. What an undertaking that would be.

Dunham, on the other hand, is unknown to us these days. He a socialist/communist, was persecuted by the McCarthy hearings in the late '50s, and subsequently lost his professorial position at Temple due to it. (Twenty-six years after a federal court dismissed the charges Temple restored his pension, which they had blocked all that time). All his major works are out of print--including "A Giant in Chains" and "Thinkers and Treasurers"--but during his day he was a big friend of the left, and wrote poetry in his early days, as well as corresponding with Dashiell Hammett among others).

I read these books parallel to each other, with a chapter in Durant on Voltaire being followed by Dunham's take on the man. There wasn't an exact one-to-one correspondence, and often I was with Dunham for a long period before Durant was even in the same century.
Let's have a closer comparison, and break down these books:

Will Durant focuses on philosophy, and just the philosophy, ma'am. He doesn't have any time for Christianity, which he sees as a sort of Orientalist philosophy of resignation brought in around the downward spiral of the Roman Empire. Christianity, to Durant, is all about giving up making a change in this world and pinning all your hopes on the next. Not any way to live, he thinks.

Here's Durant's TOC:
Plato. Aristotle. Bacon. Spinoza. Voltaire. Kant. Schopenhauer. Spencer. Nietzsche. Henri Bergson. Benedetto Croce. Bertrand Russell. George Santayana. William James. John Dewey.

Notice that little jump of, say, 2,000 years between chapters 2 and 3. Hegel gets a look in at the end of the chapter on Kant (mostly to point out that if you think Kant is unreadable, wait until you get a load of this guy.) The last 6 are Durant's choice of modern European and American philosophers, of which probably Russell and Bergson continue to pull some weight. Durant wrote this book in the aftermath of World War One, and doesn't hint at the war to come.

Interestingly, he ends with a oblique critique of American consumerism:

No doubt we have grown faster than nations usually have grown; and the disorder of our souls is due to the rapidity of our development. We are like youths disturbed and unbalanced, for a time, by the sudden growth and experiences of puberty. But soon our maturity will come; our minds will catch up with our bodies, our culture with our possessions. Perhaps there are greater souls than Shakespeare's, and greater minds than Plato's, waiting to be born. When we have learned to reverence liberty as well as wealth, we too shall have our Renaissance.

If you've been to Wal-Mart recently, or up to Rodeo Drive, we haven't matured yet. In fact, we're probably regressing.

Of all the philosophers in the book, I believe it's Voltaire that's closest to his heart. Building on Francis Bacon's thrill of coming out into the Renaissance light and wanting to write about everything, Voltaire not only does that, but carouses with the low- and the high-lifes of his time, is in and out of prison, falls in love with a beautiful, intelligent woman, and ends his days returning to Paris as a celebrity of sorts. What's not to love? After that philosophy becomes a game for miserable academics like Schopenhauer, who thought women were out to get him, and loonies like Nietzsche. Only Russell and Dewey come off as sensible in the last couple of chapters. He certainly isn't too fond of Kant, and tries not to quote him at all, using the excuse, "Kant is the last person in the world that we should read on Kant." (Though he's probably right).

Closest to Dunham's heart is the pre-Christian Jesus--"the leader of an armed movement for national liberation" as he refers to him--and Joan of Arc, who saved the ass of the King of France and the country itself, led the people to battle, and then ran rings around the Inquisition before being burned at the stake sometime around her 19th birthday. Quite tough competition for any high schooler.

Dunham, who faced the Inquisition of McCarthy, obviously sees a kindred spirit in her, and his writing does her justice. His chapter on her is as good as his chapter on Jesus, at that is one of the best, as an atheist, I've ever read.

But let's step back and look at Dunham's list of "Heroes and Heretics," for as you see, Joan was no philosopher, but she changed the world.

Akhnaton. Socrates. Amos. Jesus. Paul. Marcion. Arius. Athanasius. Pelagius. Zosimus. Vincent. Abelard. Arnold of Brescia. The Cathari. The Waldo. Duns Scotus. John Wyclif. William Tyndale. Joan of Arc. Erasmus. Luther. Calvin. Marc Antonio de Dominis. Copernicus. Bruno. Descartes. Spinoza. Hobbes. Locke. Voltaire. Diderot. De Prades. Kant. Cardinal Newman. John William Colenso. Darwin. Marx. Lincoln. Eugene Debs.

Some of these names will be familiar, some are terrifically obscure. Compiling this list (because it is not determined by chapter headings) I came across some I had completely forgotten. Some heretics disappear in time. Other heretics change the world.

I can't say I was too interested in the section after Paul up to the Enlightenment, for men arguing over the minutiae of a text that was never meant to undergo any sort of logical scrutiny has little worth in my eyes. It is surprising that Dunham dwells on this part of history (the part Durant ignores) after proclaiming himself an agnostic. But he is studying a system and needs the evidence.
This is a book that is not just a history of heresy, but a book that examines the process of heresy and orthodoxy. Philosophy is usually heresy because it is responding to an unjust orthodoxy.

Dunham's writing soars and plunges where Durant's just coasts. He's also quotable. Take this section from his chapter on Luther:

But there are two ways of judging ideology to be important, and they differ as excuse differs from justification. You can invent a doctrine as a public cover for policy, the policy and its motives being of main concern; or, having accepted doctrine as true, you can deduce policy from it. In the first case, doctrine is something specious and ad hoc: the normal relation of theory and practice is reversed, and instead of theory's giving rise to practice, practice gives rise to theory in the form of apologetics. In the second case, doctrine behaves honestly: it is theory enlightening practice by supplying the means to know and the wisdom to choose.

He is writing about Luther here (an example of the second case), but he is also talking about the two types of government. It's something Chomsky would write; it certainly describes the Neo-cons and their policies.

Sections like this as scattered throughout, as are fabulous epigram-like sentences. "Government is legalized violence, and science is peaceful understanding," is one of them.

Of America (the focus of his last chapter) he paints the country as a land created entirely by heretics, but also one that oscillates between the Bill of Rights and the Witch Hunt. The pragmatism in the middle is our strength and our weakness. "...whether [Americans] are dispossessing a slave owner or putting a socialist in jail, it is all on behalf of liberty." Indeed.

Dunham published this in 1964, two years after the Cuban missile crisis. Staring death in the face along with the rest of the world, as well as having stared down the House Un-American Activities Committee, Dunham passes into an optimism that many "survivors" have. In a way, "Heroes and Heretics" is Dunham's "survivor's tale."

He ends with this:

...I do not share the existentialist pessimism which advocates surrender before attempt. We know our future to be uncertain, but more than this we do not know. Where nothing is certain, nothing is doomed, and accordingly we may explore with some confidence certain very attractive possibilities: an abundant life, a peaceful world, all blessings shared with all men. If such tasks seem above our powers, why, so seemed the tasks of every age to the people of it. They grew, however, equal to their tasks--and so can we. While friends are warm and grandsons are glorious, I cannot think the growth will fail. For we are to become (it will be remembered) 'lords and possessors of nature'--lords also and possessors of ourselves.


This is a terrific book. It should be back in print, even if he is a heretic.

(Thanks to Mr. C for the long loaner! I hope I've done the book justice.)

February 16, 2004

Kitchen Confidential - Anthony Bourdain

Bloomsbury, 2000
Another thing the visit from my friend Phil turned me on to was Kitchen Confidential,
the autobiography/expose/rant from chef Anthony Bourdain. I found out that Phil and I had been talking about the same guy--I was telling him about this show called "Cook's Tour" on the Food Network, and he was telling me about the book, yet neither of us could remember his name. When we browsed in Chaucer's Books--and nothing made my friend happier than being in bookstores, so I certainly indulged him--I asked him for that title and--ah-ha--it's the same bloke!
Turns out that I'm the last to read it--I've mentioned the book to several people and I get the "last on the bus" look.
I was going through a difficult chapter in the Will Durant book--the one devoted to Immanuel Kant, where even Durant suggests he has a bit of a problem reading the man (but not as much as Hegel)--so I eagerly turned to Mr. Bourdain's down-and-dirty stories from behind the swinging kitchen door.
Bourdain obviously delights in revealing the kitchen of haut cuisine as roiling pits of raw testosterone, much as early on in his career he was shown the blistered and scarred hands of his boss after having the nerve to ask for a bandaid. Bourdain makes it sound like you could cut your own hand off and still be expected to come back to work a few hours later, stump at the ready.
He tells us when not to order fish (Monday), never to order beef well-done (they'll pick out the worst cut for you, then throw it in the deep fryer), and the few simple ingredients to cook like a pro. In an amusing penultimate chapter, he visits a friend's restaurant and has to retract all his hard, fast, and swinging-dick rules after seeing the gentlemanly behavior on display. There's a nice chapter when he discusses his battle scars, and one section on a trip to Japan that made me quite hungry.
Bourdain swears like a sailor, has no fear in telling you what a smack-head he was in his early years, and successfully puts the fear of God into anybody half-thinking of owning a restaurant someday. Own one? I'm nervous now just to walk in one.
I read this in 3 1/2 days, so I don't feel so guilty of leaving the Kant on hold (that chapter is now done, anyway).

February 10, 2004

On Writing - Stephen King

Scribners, 2000
I picked this up at Border's sale table. Good ol' sale table.
This book had just been discussed in the most recent issue of The Believer, and so for $4 I got it. Came home and damn near read the thing in one sitting. Understand I was a big King fan when I was a teenager, but I gave up after the bloated "It".
Here, King gives us some tips on writing, but the first half of the book is really his autobiography. It's a good read--King no doubt has the page-turning knack--and the writing craft section is fair. He doesn't pretend that everybody reading the book can be a successful novelist, but he does preach dedication and obsession. "Throw the television out," is one of his first suggestions. I agree with him there.
As I plow my way through my film script, I took a lot to heart. It was just the break I needed.

Giorgio de Chirico: The Endless Journey - Wieland Schmied

Prestel, 2002
There's not too many books on DeChirico, one of my favorite Surrealist painters.
And most of those are expensive and large, so it's nice to find this small book from Prestel. In between the mammoth reading of Barrows Dunham and Will Durant (a report on which I swear is coming), I've sneaked in a few "in-one-or-two-sittings" books. I picked this up at LACMA and spent my time in Phoenix (where I developed stomach flu) reading it. A good primer on DeChirico (Rule One for writing on Surrealists: Not many of them were really Surrealists. Wha?) and one that stretches out to bring in the influence of Appolinaire and how Max Ernst created art that "answered" the ideology/symbolism as seen in DeChirico's work. I had no idea really, but Schmied makes it all very clear. The book is no hagiography--it skips the last 30 years of his career--but hits all the major points. However, don't read if you are looking to having stomach flu-based hallucinations. I found my self in a half-awake state stuck in one of his empty plazas with his mannequins. Unpleasant.

October 24, 2003

The Magus - John Fowles

Dell, 1965
Technically this is Fowles' first novel, and the first that I have read (the first the public knew was The Collector). This was recommended to me by G_____
and I soon moved from the teeny-weeny print of the paperback to our library's hardback version, the better for reading a 600-page tome while in bed. The Magus tells the story of a young Englishman who travels to a small Greek island called Phraxos to teach English. Instead he gets wrapped up in the psychological games of a mysterious millionaire islander called Conchis, who may or may not have helped the Germans in the war, may or may not be able to summon the dead, bend time, and offer a glimpse into a world beyond reality.
The book was a quick read, though dense and literary, and respectful of the reader (he drops many references to The Tempest long before one character points them out). In plot it's similar to the reality-bending thrillers on the late-'90s, where every 25 pages some new revelation turns all previous events on their heads. Near the end it begins to sound a lot like David Fincher's "The Game" from 1998, but with much more at stake than making some business executive learn to laugh and love again.
Fowles evokes not just the Greek Island, but the feeling of traveling abroad after college, the sexy danger of it all. The lead character Nicholas is indeed right in the middle of one of those identity-forming experiences, one that Conchis exploits.
The end doesn't wrap up the plot, but thematically it closes well, though far off into the abstract. There were a few nights where I wound up going to bed at 4 a.m. because I got so caught up in it.

October 11, 2003

Odyssey - Homer (Stanley Lombardo, trans.)

Hackett Publishing, 1999
After the stories of shipwrecks and survival in Leslie's book, I decided to complete my Homer duology and do the Odyssey.
It's another fantastic translation by Lombardo, and brings the poem alive.
Knowing about the poem and actually reading it (for the first time, unlike the Iliad) are two different things, obviously. All the juicy, famous bits (Circe, Lotus Eaters, Cyclops, etc.) that have been passed down to us through art at literature are actually taken care of quickly, with the Lotus Eaters getting so short a mention I kept waiting for them to come back. For me, a lot of this surprise comes from reading Joyce's Ulysses (10 years ago, blimey), who devotes a whole chapter ("Wandering Rocks") to an option that Odyssius doesn't even take. (I wonder how different my reading of Joyce would have been if I had read this first, despite using three navigational supplements alongside it.)
Such a different work than the straightforward Iliad, here full of time-shifts, false narratives, flashbacks. Disguises and tests of loyalty.
In a discussion the other night, my friend DJ mentioned that one of the book's themes is hospitality, which indeed strikes me as correct. How to treat guests, and how to act when you are a guest is an idea returned to over and over, from the Oxen of the Sun and Circe back to Odyssius's return, where his ill-treatment at the hands of the beggars makes his revenge much sweeter--though incredibly delayed.
My favorite moment, very personal, is the brief episode with the dog Argus, who waits twenty lonely, abused years for his master's return, and is the only being that recognizes him in disguise. Once he has seen his master enter his home, the dog gives up the ghost. Homer handles this with great economy and emotion and little melodrama.
Like the Iliad, the epic ends in an unexpected place, with Odyssius about to go out again into battle, but called back suddenly by the gods. Don't you think you've had enough of that, the gods ask, rhetorically.

September 12, 2003

Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls - Edward E. Leslie

Mariner Books, 1988
When I started reading this anthology
of tales of surviving (or not) shipwrecks, airplane crashes, and general lost-in-the-woods survival, it was pretty easy going. But 520 pages and something like two months later I made way to the back page, a little undernourished, slightly crazed, and vowing never to read any more anthologies on just this subject.
Well, I kid. But Edward E. Leslie is a pretty generic writer. He did his research, but most of this book is a paraphrase of survivors tales from the Elizabethan era onward. Only a few times does he fill in some of the historical data (a bit on pirates, a bit on the "survivor tale" cottage industry, a bit on the early days of aviation where barnstorming and daredevils were all the rage) as a context. There's a few pages on analysis on the psychological effects of surviving near-death experiences, on cannibalism, and, right near the end, a bit of modern commentary on the shallowness of the "life lessons" more recent survivors have gathered.

Most survivors who have come of age since the 1950s do not claim to find any deep meaning in their travails. Conditioned by popular culture, they report that what they have learned is to live for the moment and to appreciate the little things in life. It is remarkable just how often these sentiments are expressed using these very words. For instance, one recent surivivor, referring to an ordeal during which he was very close indeed to dying explained that "when God didn't let me go, I was sure He had something in mind for me. And now I think I know what it was--learning to really appreciate living. Little things I used to take for granted, i don't anymore. Just getting up in the morning or watching one of my boys hook a fish is an unbeleivable thrill. I never felt this way before--and it's wonderful."
Did God have Job and Jonah suffer just so they would notice the flowers beside the well-worn path or the play of light in a drop of water? Paul was struck blind on the Damascus road so that he might be able to open his eyes and see. Today, sitting atop the ruins of our lives, we do not reconcile ourselves to God, fate, or the laws of the natural universe; instead we find wonder in the petals of roses that push up through the ashes. We do not discover inspiration in the belly of the leviathan; rather we emerge from that enormous digestive tract to pay heed to the phosphorescent fishes that swim near the surface of the vast ocean.
As we kneel on that ancient thoroughfare, the scales having fallen from our eyes, we lift our heads and cannot perceive anything in the bright new light that our popular culture has not instructed us will be there. And this culture teaches us that nothing is of value except wealth and immediate gratification."

And this is the last page where it starts getting interesting. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of this quasi-Christian editorializing, disagreeing with some of it as I do--(Is Leslie hoping that all survivors will gain deep wisdom, that of a prophet? Does he favor the Old Testament God to Jesus? He throws the bit out there about popular culture, but spends an early chapter discussing the survivor narrative. The fact that some of these sailors returned repenting their sins. Is that a better reaction? Can't it be just as shallow?) As I said, he barely goes into it.
Mostly, though, the book is just paraphrasing.
There are some good stories to be found. Most chilling is a diary kept by a man marooned on an island by pirates for what we take to be buggery (on the high seas, as the comedy sketch goes). He does well to survive 150 days, but he makes some crucial mistakes, among them wasting entire days repenting to God. Reading the diary excerpts, I assumed he had made it home. But no, he goes crazy from hunger and illness and dies. The diary was then purportedly found by soldiers a year later (sitting next to a skeleton, perhaps?).
I also liked this WWII story of three men in a life raft in the Atlantic, slowly going insane, until there's one man left. It's grim stuff.
Leslie leaves some trivial but important details out, too. But then, in other places it seems like all he's concerned about is the trivial. For example, he leaves a whole chapter to the tale of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and friend, who survived being stuck in the Libyan desert. Not that it's essential to the story, but it was my friend who reminded me later, as I told him the story, that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry went on to write "The Little Prince." You'd think that would at least deserve a mention.
And in a final story about a woman whose plane crashed into a cliff in the Sierra Nevadas, he uses a photo of her "with Blair Brown, the actress who portrayed her in the movie version of her story." Wouldn't you like to know what movie that was? Well, Leslie doesn't tell us.
(But I will: it was a TV-movie from 1978 called And I Alone Survived, a title that kind of ruins the suspense when she starts off with two other people.)
Also, by the end, Leslie is jamming in as many 20th century survival tales as he can. Somebody needed to edit this book a bit more. In fact, someone else should have written it. Leslie doesn't have the black humor to pull off these tales of human misery. My candidate: John Marr, who used to write a great zine called Murder Can Be Fun, whose gleefully wrote about themes such as postal worker shootings without sounding cold-hearted or callous. I think you can still find some of his writings online that may pertain to our subject.

July 15, 2003

The Culture of Complaint - Robert Hughes

Oxford University Press, 1993
Originally subtitled "The Fraying of America" for the hardbound first edition
that I just read (the one currently is called "A Passionate Look into the Ailing Heart of America," and I'd be curious why and when this changed.) Ten years later, how does Hughes criticism of America hold up?
The Victimhood Culture is still with us, though as it applies to feminism and on campus, I think this has mutated into what Hughes would probably term "un-PC." Debates over what to call people, places, and things don't really exist now. Either they've been accepted and subsumed into culture (gender based job titles seem a thing of the past) or they've been dropped from simple unweildiness. Yet, America is full of victims, and from out of that comes costly litigation. The current lawsuits against big tobacco for causing cancer and against fast food chains for causing obesity are just two examples. (Myself, despite my distrust of big business, consider most of these suits completely frivolous. I still believe in free will, and I don't believe that people 50 years ago had no ideas of the dangers of smoking. Maybe they didn't know all the dangers, but I don't think they thought it was good for you. Still, those same people no doubt thought alcohol was nothing but trouble, yet here's doctors telling us today a little tipple keeps you healthy.) Victimhood is tied into exploitation and big business (drug companies) and shows no sign of going away.
Many of the worries that Hughes was concerned about were based upon a country where the concept of free speech was being debated in context to art movements (his chapter on Mapplethorpe, Serano's "Piss Christ", and the NEA scandal seems so very long ago; when was the last time art made headlines except for earning milllions at auction?). Now free speech itself is threatened by Christian fascists such as Ashcroft, nobody's really worried about whether a photograph is rude or not.
Hughes wrote and published this just as Clinton was being inaugurated, and part of the book is taking stock of 12 years of Reaganism. He's not too sure about Clinton, but he has little of anything good to say about Bush. Again, how long ago it feels.
Hughes also sees the dumbing down of American education as a result of anti-elitism, cultivated by the Right, enacted by the Left. Here I think he's still correct. The basics are not being taught, and students are coming to college knowing nothing (and this is based on my experience working with them). On the other hand, there's free will: if you really want to learn more and keep on learning, you can do it.
There's a nice section where Hughes talks a little bit about his education and life growing up in Australia, which taught me a thing or two. It wasn't too long ago, either.

In those days we had a small, 95 percent white, Anglo-Irish society, in whose public schools you could learn Latiin but not Italian, ancient but not modern Greek. What we learned of the world in school came through the great tradition (and I use the word without irony) of English letters and English history. We were taught little Australian history. Of the world's great religions other than Christianity--Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam--we were as perfectly ignorant as a row of cats looking at a TV set; or would have been, if Australia had had television in 1955, which, luckily, it did not.


His defence of multiculturalism as an addition to culture, not as a separate or "better" culture is particularly well argued and written, and says what I've always thought. Increase knowledge, not replace it.
His last chapter on art makes the case against people who believe art shoud somehow been "good" for you, like a curative. Hughes traces this thought back to the Puritans, and the early Americans first shocking encounter (a few generations on) with European culture. (This brought me back to a SBCC class I had years ago (maybe it was just a onetime lecture) about American art, pre-20th century. Oh, how achingly dull I found it.) If America had been founded by Catholics who somehow had broken from Rome, but kept all the artistic stuff (painting, architecture, the lot), how different America would have been...perhaps.
Anyway, 1993 sounds like a time when the culture was being debated. Now we're watching our entire country be destroyed and petty artistic or linguistic squabbles are not on the table. Still, it's a worthwhile book. Hughes is certainly no friend of the ultra-left, and he loathes the right, yet he isn't a middlebrow. He's just an independent thinker who calls America his home. I wonder what he's been thinking recently?
Lastly, while reading the book I sent this thought to my friend Chris a week ago.:
"The situation that Hughes writes about in the CofC, esp. on the Left, has
largely disappeared. I don't think there's a hysteria anymore on what to
call somebody or something (even if the hysteria was media created,
perhaps). What *has* happened, and what Hughes and the Left didn't see
coming, was that PC talk, and the things it tries to hide, has been taken
and adapted by the Right. How else could they use the phrase "class warfare"
and get away with it?"

All right, class, now discuss.

July 1, 2003

Iliad - Homer (trans. Stanley Lombardo)


Hackett Publishing, 1997

At long last finished the Iliad last night, after months
of just being too busy to read. After reading Stanley Lombardo's excellent translation, I think I'm spoiled for the rest of Greek Literature in English (barring of course Lombardo's Odyssey, which I'm tempted to pick up next.) I read the Iliad back in college in one of those dry prose versions (probably Martin Hammond or Samuel Butler) and I never could figure out why this rambling repetitive narrative was a cornerstone of Western Lit. With Lombardo's translation-in modern English, heavily colloquial, and in verse-that's all suddenly apparent, and my memory of the first reading seems to have vanished.
There were moments when I had to stop and remind myself that what I was reading was thousands of years old. Lombardo makes you feel like it was yesterday (and seeing I started reading it during the beginning of the second Iraqi Boffo Oil Grab and Civilian Massacre, it probably was yesterday), and Homer's techniques and style shine through.
Lombardo sets apart the lengthy metaphors that are part of Homer's technique in italic mini poems; these "asides" heighten the poetic effect by taking you out of the action for a line or ten and then spinning you right back into the thick of battle. And who wouldn't groove on the gory and inventive detail that Homer invests in the damage a bronze-tipped spear can do to the human body. We get enter and exit wounds, popping eyeballs, crushed skulls, spraying blood and intestines, all in gratuitous slo-mo. Somebody call the Minister for Worrying Over Children and have this book banned immediately!
Two main things interested me throughout The Iliad. One was the even-handed approach that Homer gives to both sides: war is hell, but war also seems to be the social interaction of two equal units (which you can't say for most of the wars of the 20th Century). Imagine a Gulf War narrative that quickly sketched the family background of both American and Iraqi soldier just before both were killed, making the losses equal, and equally sad.
The other interest was the rather complex conception of fate as it applied to the mortals and the gods that took their sides. The hierarchy on Mount Olympus complicates things to start with. Zeus has determined that Troy will fall, but within these plans there's much room to plot. Fate and predetermination are of a much looser quality than in Christianity, and I'm sure much has been written about it. I guess it boils down to this: a Christian would see getting hit by a car as God's will, with the reason kept mysterious. A Greek would see it as Zeus's will, but the reason would be based up several factors, one being that a few years ago you displeased Hera by not burning an ox in supplication, which led to a fight among the gods, and also there was that time when you picked on your brother, who, you always suspected, was favored by a goddess, and she put in a good word for him. Or something like that.
My final question: Why on earth does this action-packed, spear-and-shield epic end with a major sporting event (the "funeral games")? I didn't see that coming, but I'm sure Zeus knew.

June 10, 2003

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March 19, 2003

The Enchanted World of Sleep - Peretz Lavie

As you can see to the right, I finally finished Peretz Lavie's The Enchanted World of Sleep. Lavie only gets really technical in a few chapters, but for the most part his look at the science of sleep is a pleasant "lay person" read. What did I learn?
* Before electrodes, scientists used to measure the moment of sleep when a patient would drop a tennis ball from their hand. In my case, it's a shot glass, but the theory is the same.
* There are 4 stages of sleep, and then REM sleep, and that's when dreams come. It's also when we lose all muscle control. When waking up from dreams, people usually go to another stage. However, in very rare cases, people can awake in the no-muscle contol part and feel like they're paralyzed. I hope this never happens to me--how freaky is that!
* There is no set time to sleep. If you can survive on 6 hours a night, then you need 6 hours of sleep. People who sleep 10 hours per night aren't necessarily more rested. In fact, they're probably more sleepy.
* I really wish the test case in their dream research, Mr. R, would publish a book. He could wake up from REM sleep and recount long, short-story like dream narratives. They reprint one in the book and it's very good.
* Animals don't have REM sleep, but they do dream, and that stage is called paradoxical sleep (meaning the animal is most at rest, but also most active in the brain.)
* The world record for going without sleep is 264 hours.

The last third of the book is on sleep disorders, namely insomnia, jet lag, sleep walking, sleep apnea, and narcolepsy. He also has some good things to say about children and when they "should" go to bed. A majority of parents force their kids to go to sleep at 8 p.m. so the adults can watch TV or whatever, then appear amazed that their children won't sleep at the chosen time, or that they then wake up at 5 a.m. Thankfully, I was never raised that way...and that's why I'm writing about this book to an audience of three people at 2:36 a.m.

Anyway, I also finished the MOJO magazine special on the Beatles early years. That might still be hanging around some newsstands. You'd think there wasn't much left to say about the Beatles, but because the writing staff is so good (Mark Lewishom is on there among other major music journalists) they have some insightful things to say, none of which I can remember right now.

So..now I can get stuck into The Iliad, which seems appropriate in this season of war and suffering.

March 12, 2003

More for the bookpile!


More for the bookpile! Just when I thought I had tamed the number of books waiting for me to read (not helped by myself either), here comes a lightning visit by my friend Scott, bringing me two gifts: We're Desperate: The Punk Rock Photography of Jim Jocoy, SF/LA 1978-1980, a photograpic anthropological study of the original punks, and City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City. Fortunately, they're both photo-heavy so "reading" them will be a breeze.

February 12, 2003

What's Become of Waring - Anthony Powell


Anthony Powell waits for the rice to be done.
Image from the Anthony Powell site.


I finished up Anthony Powell's What's Become of Waring, given to me by a certain Mr. C_____, who is a dear fan of his later A Dance to the Music of Time. The novel is set in something like pre-war Britain and follows, in a very laid-back --embarrassments and loves of the upper class--British Comedy way, the efforts of a book editor to track down the title character, a famous writer of travel books who may or may not be dead or real or a plagiarist. Before I read it, I thought the plot sounded a bit post-modern, or even a bit Pynchon-esque, but after reading I realise 1936 is really too early for that sort of narrative. It's more a shaggy dog story that a deep examination of identity

Very gentle humor, lots of comedy of manners from an age long gone by, characters with names like Winefred, you get the picture.

Some interesting facts about Mr. Powell (that's pronounced "Pole"): His nephew-in-law is Harold Pinter, one of my favorite playrights. Also, he really liked his own homemade curry, although I disagree on using butter with cooked rice. On the other hand I'll give him a break because for one thing he's dead, and the other is I bet he didn't own an electric rice cooker.

So what should I read next?

January 24, 2003

Blake - Peter Ackroyd

Finally finished Peter Ackroyd