Oblivion (review: 4/5)


James Tanner’s Growing Sentences with David Foster Wallace is a nice parody of the writer’s style. A little absurd but kind of spot-on. Amusing for a little while, just like it always is when you’re watching someone else work. But if you get a chance to read a bit of Wallace (granted, I’m no expert—I’ve only got maybe 3-400 pages under my belt, but more is on the way), you get a sense of how crazy inventive this guy was, whether you like the stories or not.

In the stories in Oblivion, all these layers of ambiguity or inexactness juxtapose with excessive detail. I like the way the narrators/protagonists/Wallace zip around making associations and adjustments and corrections, sentences accumulating detail as you read. At its best it’s kind of like a mural with words. Everything, large, all at once.

Let me get fetishy with a couple sentences. My favorite bit in recent memory, from The Soul Is Not a Smithy:

I was often the first to register the sound of my father’s key in the front door. It took only four steps and a brief sockslide into the foyer to be able to see him first as he entered on a wave of outside air.

Four steps and a sockslide and a wave of outside air. Lord, that’s perfect. I’m willing to grant that I especially like that one because it makes me think of Dad, but I haven’t read something so compact but evocative in a long time. Here’s a funny bit from the opening story, Mister Squishy, mostly set in a market research office:

Attached to the breast pocket on the same side of his shirt as his nametag was also a large pin or button emblazoned with the familiar Mister Squishy brand icon, which was a plump and childlike cartoon face of indeterminate ethnicity with its eyes squeezed parly shut in an expression that somehow connoted delight, satiation, and rapacious desire all at the same time.

You can certainly read the verbosity as annoying and peacockish, but I can’t help but love seeing the product of a mind at work, like he’s been doing some serious thinking and noticing. Likewise, a couple dozen pages further into the story, some clever meeting room cynicism:

All that ever changed were the jargon and mechanisms and gilt rococo with which everyone in the whole huge blind grinding mechanism conspired to convince each other that they could figure out how to give the paying customer what they could prove he could be persuaded to believe he wanted…

I’d say Good Old Neon was the highlight for me, but the title story Oblivion gives it good competition. The first is imagined reflections before a suicide. The second a husband’s retelling of an ongoing dispute with his wife about his alleged snoring. Neither of those summaries do them justice. Read those two at least.

In which a metaphor is discerned

I’ve just started reading the so-far excellent The Lost City of Z, about exploration in the Amazon jungle. The central character was a member of the Royal Geographic Society, and the author goes to the London headquarters to do some research…

In a corridor of the Royal Geographic Society’s building, I noticed on the wall a gigantic seventeenth-century map of the globe. On the margins were sea monsters and dragons. For ages, cartographers had no means of knowing what existed on most of the earth. And more often than not these gaps were filled in with fantastical kingdoms and beasts, as if the make-believe, no matter how terrifying, were less frightening than the truly unknown.

As in maps, so in life.

In a section later in the book (that I also interpret more broadly to relate to bold striking-forth and unknown futures in Life), another explorer describes the typical reactions he got to his plans:

There were the Prudent, who said: “This is an extraordinarily foolish thing to do.” There were the Wise, who said: “This is an extraordinarily foolish thing to do; but at least you will know better next time.” There were the Very Wise, who said: “This is a foolish thing to do, but not nearly so foolish as it sounds.”

A Theory of Capitalism & Socialism (review: 4.5/5)

A Theory of Socialism & Capitalism: Economics, Politics, and Ethics
The first book by Hans-Hermann Hoppe that I read was the most excellent Democracy: The God That Failed. In the introduction to that book, Hoppe talks about competing social theories and, in face of conflicting arguments about society or politics or economics, how we can decide between them:

The data of history are logically compatible with… rival interpretations, and historians, insofar as they are just historians, have no way of deciding in favor of one or the other. If one is to make a rational choice among such rival and incompatible interpretations, this is only possible if one has a theory at one’s disposal, or at least a theoretical proposition, whose validity does not depend on historical experience but can be established a priori, i.e. once and for all by means of the intellectual apprehension or comprehension of the nature of things.

In other words, disagreements can’t be solved only by appealing to historical data. In the end “a priori theory trumps and corrects experience (and logic overrules observation), and not vice-versa.” A Theory of Capitalism & Socialism: Economics, Politics, Ethics [full text, pdf] takes this deductive approach. Hoppe starts by building a theory of property. We only need property because things are scarce; where there is no scarcity (e.g. ideas) there is no property…

And the rest flows from that. Sorry I don’t remember much more than that off-hand, because I finished the book almost a year ago. This draft has been sitting neglected for months and months. Just wanted to clear out the archives. Highly recommended, though.

American Nerd (review: 3/5)

American Nerd: The Story of My People

In the imagination of the fake nerd, the nerd is attractive because he is unaffected, untrendy to the point of primitivism, a kind of inert noble savage.

American Nerd: The Story of My People covers a pretty good range of history and culture, tying together various forms of the outcast and how this one particular version came together: the unathletic, socially dysfunctional, mathlete type (did I mention I was captain of my HS academic team?). It starts to get really good a few chapters into the book, when Benjamin Nugent dives into historical/literary precedent for today’s nerds and normals, e.g. Mary Bennet vs. Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice, Tibby in Howard’s End, Victor Frankenstein. He also has a great section on the history of sport and the beginnings of the nerd/jock split, and why it became so important for young men to be strapping and not Jewish (see: Muscular Christianity).

Drawing on T.S. Eliot’s essay, The Metaphysical Poets, he also delves into a split between feeling and thinking, the intellectual and the reflective. The works of Donne and his comrades were a sort of pinnacle of heart/brain unity; later writers like Tennyson, rebelling against the “rationative,” not so much. Eliot:

The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets… Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

Quality of the poetry aside, the split between feeling and thinking anticipates a social divide. Nugent:

Since the Romantic era, we have been in an age in which machines have the capacity for some minimal semblance of rational thought, performing tasks that once would have been the exclusive domain of humans. Reason is no longer quintessentially human; spontaneity is. People more inclined toward logical deliberation than spontaneous expression have started to become somehow less totally human…

The pathos of being a nerd is to feel that because you are comfortable with rational thought, you are cut off from the experiences of spontaneous feelings, of romance, of nonrational connection to other people. A nerd is so often self-loathing because he accepts the thinking/feeling rift, and he knows and cares that other people accept it, too. To be a nerd is often to live with a nagging feeling of one’s own incurable heartlessness.

The first half is great, but the book goes astray in the second. The second used more case studies and memoir. It had an anthropological observation sort of bent that doesn’t hold up nearly as well compared with the earlier chapters. I preferred Nugent’s wide reinterpretation of culture and history and literature.

But the second half does have a nice section on hipsters and the contemporary appeal of the nerd aesthetic, where I got the opening quote from. He ties it in with Norman Mailer’s essay The White Negro. There’s a nice connection between hipsterdom and the creative professions…

… a choice on the part of the privileged to identify with the outsider. The outsider in this case is the nerd, because nerds are people incapable of, or at least averse to, riding cultural trends. When your greatest fear is that you will become a loser because your intuition will fail to keep up with tastes, you embrace the nerd…

There’s also a nice bit on the connection between nerdiness and autism:

The idea that having a capacity for empathy, for expressing and understanding emotion, is part of being a normal male is fundamentally contemporary and a way of asking that men learn a traditionally feminine virtue. When men were in an unquestioned position of control in the economy—when the bedrock of the nuclear family was a single male wage, a flow of income largely unavailable to women—there was less force compelling men to make themselves attractive mates through understanding the feelings of others and expressing affection. The Asperger’s population is 90 percent male; it’s likely that one reason Asperger’s got “discovered” and then “boomed” is that the rest of us have slowly been revising our expectations of men.

Miles on Miles (review: 4/5)

You don’t know how to play better just because you’ve suffered. The blues don’t come from picking cotton.

I’ve never read anything quite like Miles on Miles: Interviews and Encounters with Miles Davis. The book collects about four decades’ worth of his life, broken up across a couple dozen interviews that were published in small jazz magazines all the way up to big serials like Newsweek and Rolling Stone. Some were with notable music journalists, a few with overmatched college radio station DJs.

The interviews start up in the late 1950s, about 10 years after he got his start with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and a couple years after he kicked his heroin habit. The general consensus, even back then: he was bleeping brilliant, charismatic, deeply flawed. Behind the gruff, badass facade was a sensitive, needy man. As the book goes on, it’s cool to see how the different interviewers sum up the career to date, through the shifting bands, radical changes in style, divorces, illness, new addictions. At some points in his life, he’s gregarious, absurdly fit from boxing, full of ideas. Later, for several years, he pretty much didn’t do much aside from drugs, rarely even leaving his house.

I don’t like to lay back. I don’t like to relax. Show me a motherfucker that’s relaxed, and I’ll show you a motherfucker that’s afraid of success.

You might have to like Miles to make it through his harangues. There weren’t a whole lot of brilliant comments or analysis of music. He usually avoided commenting on his own music, insistent that the past is dead, and I didn’t see a whole lot of criticism of other artists.

I usually don’t buy jazz records. They make me tired and depressed.

But I loved seeing how he phrased things, how he responds to similar questions over the years, and how he remembers and retells things differently. And there are occasional asides that I never would have expected:

I don’t know where I want to live. But the best time I ever had in my life, other than playing trumpet, was when I was out in the country riding horses.

The Bin Ladens (review: 5/5)

The Bin Ladens
Before 9/11, I don’t think I could have named one living person from Saudi Arabia. Afterward, I could name one. So I didn’t know much going into Steve Coll‘s book.

The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century starts near the turn of the century, with Awadh Bin Laden’s beginnings in Yemen. His sons Mohamed and Abdullah would leave for Saudi Arabia and begin the Bin Laden Construction Company. The close ties that Mohamed managed to develop with the first king of Saudi Arabia helped cement his fortunes, earned with a combination of pluck, overwhelming work ethic, and obsequiousness. He and his kids would become involved in construction projects in Riyadh, Medina, Mecca, and other spots in Saudi Arabia. The Bin Ladens were in on a pretty incredible list of projects: lots royal palaces and getaways, highways, telecommunications, infrastructure, renovations on the Prophet’s Mosque and the Grand Mosque, and some semi-suspicious military-related projects near the Yemeni border. The Bin Laden family relied on the royal family.

Mohamed had at least 54 children. His oldest son Salem became the new family patriarch after Mohamed’s death and continued the ties with the royal family and launched a new wave of international investments. The family businesses and the family itself spread across the globe. Miami, California, D.C., Boston, London, Geneva, Egypt, Syria, everywhere. His brother Bakr rose to leadership when Salem died.

Osama was the 17th son of the family. His story, like the rest of the family, seems to get a pretty fair treatment. It’s easy to paint a one-dimensional villain as we now see him, but the whole story is told. There’s a sense of appreciation for some of the energy and courage of Mohamed, the ineluctable cheer of Salem, the maturation of Bakr. Coll doesn’t hesitate to point out contradictions or hypocritical behavior of anyone in the family. He’s also quick to qualify when his research is incomplete (“the best evidence suggests that…”).

I could have done with fewer anecdotes about shopping sprees for planes and jewelry. Otherwise, a great read and a surprising page-turner for its heft.

Emmet Connolly collected a bunch of worthy quotes from reading Brian Eno’s book, A Year with Swollen Appendices. I didn’t figure him to be so cantankerous. My two favorites:

I gave a talk about self-generating systems and the end of the era of reproduction ‚Äî imagining a time in the future when kids say to their grandparents, “So you mean you actually listened to exactly the same thing over and over again?”

and

Once we get used to the idea that we are no longer consumers of “finished” works, but that we are people who engage in conversations and interactions with things, we find ourselves leaving a world of “know you own station” passivity and we start to develop a taste for active engagement. We stop regarding things as fixed and unchangeable, as preordained, and we increasingly find ourselves practicing the idea that we have some control.

Crisis & Leviathan (review: 5/5)

Crisis & Leviathan
I had been meaning to read Robert Higgs‚Äô book for years and I’m very glad I got to it. And I’ve been sitting on my review for a while because I always fear sounding like a shrill, libertarian paranoid.

Crisis & Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government explores the past century of American history, the national response to the nation’s worst crises (whether genuine or contrived), and the aftermath of each. The government’s scope and power exploded in response to World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. And after each, the powers were mostly disassembled.

Mostly. The so-called ratchet effect meant that after each event, the government never fully relinquished all its powers. Some of that was due to bureaucratic inertia or cronyism—some agencies never disappeared, but continued or assumed new roles in the aftermath. And a large part was of course due to changing ideology and public support for the government’s new roles. There were the lingering effects of decades of propaganda and new generations raised in those times. We grew comfortable with the new role, learning that it “wasn’t all that bad”—we could still worship as we pleased, and the news wasn’t yet nationalized. We looked to the progressive examples of the European states. The costs of the larger government were hidden with clever schemes like income tax withholding—you never miss what you never had—and the ever-growing number of people included in the tax base. Mind-blowing trivia: in 1913, the highest income tax bracket was 7% and 98% of the population owed no income tax. Times change.

One of the big assumptions in the book, one that makes me uncomfortable for our present, is that “government has substantial autonomy in its policy-making”. Like we saw recently, even with widespread opposition to the first bailout, we got one anyway. And the strategy seems to change with every day. We probably have even more on the way. Especially in these crisis situations,

Few people outside the government have enough information to identify the precise contours of the emergency or to formulate comprehensive plans for dealing with it. Citizens tend simultaneously to demand (a) more governmental action and (b) less research, public consultation, debate of alternative, and general “due process” in governmental decision-making.

Higgs’ study of each era ranges through the socionomic and political conditions before, during and after; the prevailing ideologies; the leading elites and interest groups; emergency orders and agencies; court challenges and decisions; and the institutional fallout—what society learned. He ranges through statistical analyses, Supreme Court decisions, legislative studies, executive backroom dealing and more. While there is a clear growth trend, Higgs makes the distinction between big government and Big Government. The first is an issue of size, the second has more to do with intrusion in peaceful affairs. We’ve had increase in both. I find it astounding that, during World War II for example, we so easily accepted conscription and price controls—even the courts went along with it. And once you give in to those, what are a few other small sacrifices here and there?

The book was published in the late 1980s, but you can see the same patterns repeated in the wake of 9/11 and our current financial awkwardness. This does not bode well.

By the second week of March 1933 an extraordinary conjuncture had developed: 1) a genuine economic crisis, especially the massive unemployment and the pitifully depressed production and consumption; 2) and artificial economic crisis produced by the nationwide banking shutdown; 3) a widespread sense of crisis and a feeling that only extraordinary measures could prevent an even greater catastrophe, sentiments manifested in the numerous and diverse calls to “do something” even if dictatorial powers were required to do it; and 4) a new administration taking office unencumbered by perceived responsibility for past ill fortunes and unchecked by opposition from a partisan Congress eager to obstruct and embarrass the President.

How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken (review: 3.5/5)

how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken
How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken collects some of the criticism of Daniel Mendelsohn. Books, movies, theatre. Mendelsohn is a Classics scholar so his work is constantly making connections with the old Greek and Roman tragedies and epics.

I didn’t read all the essays because sometimes I just wasn’t familiar with what he was criticizing. But among the ones I liked were:

Daniel Mendelsohn had a good interview on NPR last month.

The Best American Crime Reporting 2007 (review: 3/5)

best american crime reporting 2007
There are a couple real standouts here, though this collection wasn’t as sharp as some of the others in the Best American series that I’ve read (Science 2007, Science & Nature 2007, Comics 2006). As is tradition, here are my picks:

The Loved Ones is the must-read of the bunch. Tom Junod’s awesome reporting starts with Sal and Mabel Mangano. The two New Orleans nursing home operators were accused of negligent homicide when many in their care died in post-Katrina flooding (the couple was later acquitted). Along the way he hits on broader themes of journalist ethics, family, love, blame, and responsibility. One of the best pieces I’ve come across this year.

The School is another great one. C.J. Chivers narrates the horrifying Beslan school hostage crisis, when Chechen rebels took 1000+ kids and adults hostage, using them as leverage against the Russian government. It’s dramatic, troubling stuff.

My Roommate, the Diamond Thief is pretty much what it sounds like.

The Inside Job is Neil Swidey’s reporting how an employee of John Ferreira embezzled about $7 million dollars over a couple years, without his knowledge.

Umberto Eco on “How I Write”

umberto at emory university
This year, Emory University’s Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature are delivered by Umberto Eco. I didn’t know much about him before, but he kind of blew my mind. This afternoon I stopped by to hear him talk about “How I Write”. I was *really* impressed with how much he plans out his worlds beforehand, even making maps, blueprints, and sketches of his characters. I would love to see some of his doodles. These are mine:

Here are some notes deciphered from my handwriting:

  • He describes himself at age 76 as “a young and promising novelist”—he’s only been doing novels for 30 years or so.
  • When he was a kid, he would start with an image. He drew his stories from end to end, only later going back to put the text in juvenile block letters.
  • “At 16 I started to write poems like everybody else.”
  • Most of his fictional works start with an image: “I wanted to poison a monk in his study,” a pendulum, a trumpet, Constantinople in flames.
  • When he first does research he starts with collecting documents, travel, drawing maps, and even sketching the faces of his characters. When doing the travel research, he walks around with a recorder to describe everything he sees, hears, smells, street names, etc.
  • “The structure of the world is fundamental to the writing.” Though the writer may choose to withhold information about the fictional world and bamboozle the reader, “You have to take account of the reaction and collaboration of the reader.”
  • One *very* cool anecdote: a movie director loved the dialogue Eco wrote in The Name of the Rose, saying that it was the perfect length. Eco knew it was the perfect length because he had mapped out the monastery so completely that he knew the length of time it would take his characters to walk from one place to another. (!!!)
  • Connected with this idea of world-building is the ancient practice of ecphrasis. Ecphrasis is the genre of “complete description”—retelling another work so vividly that the audience can know it without directly experiencing it. Eco says it’s a good tool for writers because it “gives us more ideas than actually witnessing the thing itself.”
  • Some “postmodern” characteristics of his writing: intertextual irony (e.g. quoting real-life works in works of fiction), metanarrative (commentary on the tale in progress) and double-coding (speaking to multiple audiences, like a Pixar movie). It “establishes a smart complicity with some readers, and also provokes other readers to read twice.”
  • These postmodern intricacies “are not an aristocratic tic, but a way of respecting the brightness and curiosity of the audience.”

And some aphorisms:

  • “Constraints are fundamental to any artistic endeavor.”
  • “For novels, stick to the subject, and the words will follow. For poetry, stick to the words, and the subject will follow.”
  • He has an interesting take on making engaging academic work: “Literary research must be narrated. Scientific papers should be written like a whodunit.” (Scott McCloud made a parallel comment when I heard him a couple weeks ago. His statement was about the shared challenge of teaching and writing non-fiction: “After you explain it, is it still interesting?”)

The event was followed by a reception with wine and cookies (and some other things, but I had my priorities).

notes on umberto eco's lecture

A Romance on Three Legs (review: 4/5)

a romance on three legs by katie hafner
Spoiler: Katie Hafner‘s book, A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, is one of the most enjoyable I’ve read this year, a really nice little page-turner.

Glenn Gould was one of the great pianists of the 20th century, known as much for his personal quirks as for his musicianship. Gould’s eccentricities are pretty well documented. His increasingly reclusive, kind of paranoid personality led him to eventually abandon the concert stage in favor of the recording studio:

Gould had come to hate the risk-taking associated with live performances and grew tired of what he called the “non-take-two-ness” of the concert experience. He believed that people were just waiting for him to mess up, and he resented it. ‘To me this is heartless and ruthless and senseless. It is exactly what prompts savages like Latin Americans to go to bullfights.’

The new-to-me, perhaps even more interesting character in this book is Verne Edquist. Edquist got cataracts as a child. Surgery didn’t work and he lost most of his sight. He was sent to a school for the blind to learn a trade, where he took up piano tuning. His ears were very good, and he gradually worked his way up the ranks from basic tuning, to regulating the piano action (tweaking the mechanics), to tone regulating (tweaking the timbre and tone color across the full range of the instrument).

The third character in this book is CD 318, a Steinway concert grand piano. Gould was an extremely sensitive musician. His enviable technique and his own neuroses made it especially hard to find a decent piano. After flirting with a couple other pianos, the light, fast touch of CD 318 won him over. Edquist would become the primary tuner to understand Gould’s needs and service his instrument. The book tells their story.

Along the way, there are a couple nice digressions that lead into how pianos are made, how piano tuners work, the origins of sponsored musicians with exclusive company endorsements, and the history of Steinway & Sons (during wartime they were forced into making coffins and airplanes, among other things). And there are a couple nice tidbits like, “in the early twentieth century, piano tuners outnumbered members of any other trade in English insane asylums.”

Super Spy (review: 3.5/5)

Super Spy
I picked up Super Spy at the Decatur Book Festival last month. I was talking with the guys at the Top Shelf Comics booth, asking them to steer me away from ennui and towards something a bit more exciting. This was their pick of the pile, on the genre fiction side of the spectrum. Matt Kindt‘s book is a spy novel.

It story starts off really well, and then settled down to a comfortable “good.” The different chapters jump around in time, changing focus among a cast of characters whose stories intertwine. The pace of the storytelling is very quick. People you get to know in 4 or 5 panels are dispatched a page or two later. I don’t think I spoil much by saying it happens a lot. Lots of dispatching. Or that’s how it seemed when I was reading.

The art gave me pause for a second, but grew on me. It’s not super-realistic or refined, but more slashy and dramatic, lots of contrast and rough edges and changes in perspective. It’s a muted palette throughout. The design of the book is pretty cool. Each chapter is a dossier and the space behind the panels is colored to look like a worn folder. In one scene, a death in the panels is underscored with blood spatter in the gutters:

excerpt from Matt Kindt's book, Super Spy

Nice detail there. The whole thing is worth a look. Here are some sample pages from Super Spy.

Looks like a couple people already wrote the book I was thinking about creating: Appalachian Pages, a thru-hikers’ guide for the Appalachian Trail. The real winning idea here, the one that I wanted to see, was having the elevation profile watermarked on each page so you can sneak a peek at the day’s challenges in a glance:

sample page from Appalachian Pages

Thank God they saved me the work. It looks great. If I ever end up on the AT again, I wouldn’t be surprised if I carried this book instead of the classic AT Data Book.