I actually read more than this section would suggest. I just haven't been updating reviews. Oh, well. More time to read, that way.
Lately I've been reading a lot, but it's mainly tech-oriented:
David Pogue's Mac OS X: The Missing Manual: OS X is great, but there's a lot of very useful stuff in this book that I wouldn't have otherwise known. There's also a lot of stuff that's obvious to me, but wouldn't necessarily be to people who haven't been using the Mac OS for years. Highly recommended if you're taking the plunge, or have already.
I'm also reading Apple Computer's Object-Oriented Programming and the Objective-C Language PDF book (downloadable with the latest development tools from the Apple Developer Connection): While I'm not an Objective-C programmer myself, I'm interested just in the learning process here, and seeing what I can pick up. I've been using this to fill in gaps in my knowledge as I work through Aaron Hillegass's eminently readable Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X (more info at his Big Nerd Ranch site). Very approachable book, but even he recommends the Obj-C PDF.
Where will this all lead? I dunno, but the Developer Tools CD came with the OS, so why not check it out? (And for the bandwidth-enhanced, the December 2001 flavor of the Developer Tools contains the supposed-to-be-awesome Applescript Studio. Free Apple Developer Connection membership required for the free download; the bandwidth-impoverished may order a CD for $20.)
I really dug Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad. Just came out in hardback, good cross-section of a sample of the 80s indie band culture, many of whom contributed mightily to my musical education. That there are chapters devoted to Mission of Burma, Big Black, Minutemen, and Beat Happening sold me on the book, but it's all good. Sometimes he accomodates himself a bit too strongly to the point of view of whoever he's interviewing, but it's a small flaw, and perhaps the only history we're ever going to get of this scene. And this book seems to have helped convince 'Burma to reunite for two shows, so it's worth a purchase for that reason alone.
Two recent reads: Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, which is a hoot, and even mentions Hell and TV as selections on his daily mix tape. And Neil Baldwin's Man Ray: American Artist, the biography of my fave painter/photographer/filmmaker (L'étoile de mer and Emak Bakia, of course, are part of the film soundtracks shows). More details forthcoming.
I have some Perec (Species of Spaces and other pieces), the new James Tate, and Ed Ruscha (They Called Her Styrene), lined up, though. Talking Heads were apparently Ruscha fans, having used his Sand in the Vaseline painting for the cover of the collection of the same name, but his work is much more engaging than suggested by only that data point. (In the summer of 2000, I caught the Ruscha show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and picked up the exquisite exhibition catalog as well...although as ever, the separations don't capture the images as well as they could.)
While I was in the Bay Area, I happened to pick up Everybody Loves a History, a biography of Wire published in the early 90s, just after Robert Gotobed left and they became Wir. I listened to a lot of Wire and Colin Newman solo stuff as an adolescent, and hadn't been keyed into the whole background, so the book was a must-read for me, as well as inspiring. It's mostly the band speaking for themselves. When I got back, the book and Mike Watt's cover of "The 15th" made me resolve to go back to all that Wire and related vinyl I'd accumulated, and work my way through it again. Gotobed is probably the perfect rock drummer--everything crisp as it should be, great timekeeping, no grandstanding. The textures they developed and the structural choices they made were striking. I had started with Pink Flag and pretty much worked my way through chronologically when I was buying the stuff, so my reactions were probably not too different from that of their fans the first time through. I remember loving the punk of Pink Flag, and not knowing quite what to make at first of Chairs Missing, which I now think is far superior. I remember being put off by the dissonance and darkness of 154 at first, but hearing it now...it's amazing how many patterns, beats, and choices became lodged in my brain as something elemental to music. It became a real foundation for me. For the band, things fell off a bit for me after Snakedrill, and the biography sheds a lot of light on why that was.
For Christmas, a friend got me Jon Lee Anderson's biography of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, which I've just finished. It's fascinating. When I get time, I'll put up a review.
The quick list of the last few months:
Edmund Morris's Roosevelt book: No invented characters here, maybe because there's such a compelling character at the core.
Philip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle First printing hardback, too.
DT Suzuki's essays on Zen
Jon Lee Anderson's biography of Che (thanks, Joe!)
Our Dumb Century
Vacuum Tube Circuits for the Electronic Experimenter, Julian M. Sienkiewicz (1961)
William Gaddis died yesterday. He was an amazing writer--The Recognitions is one of my four canonical works of fiction, and quite possibly one of the great works of this century.
It's interesting to note that he was born the same year as Kerouac. Two radically different strains of literature started with these guys. Kerouac's easier to read, but Gaddis is more rewarding over time.
Just finished reading Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, which I picked up at The Village Bookseller, a small, independent bookstore in Kane, Pennsylvania. (The Web site suffers from enormous images, so be warned.)
I thought Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase was an amazing achievement--he has a great touch for slipping serious weirdness into his work. The next one, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, had its moments, but was not (I think) the same achievement that A Wild Sheep Chase is. The one after that, Dance, Dance, Dance, was a significant disappointment. Ostensibly a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, Dance is an unsatisfying frappé of some of the characters and themes from the earlier book. Much of Murakami's writing follows several paths to dead ends, ratcheting up the creepiness as the narrator gets closer to the truth. Dance ends up violating the creepy integrity of Sheep Chase, letting the dead ends pile up without getting any closer to anything. Conversely, much pseudo-mysterious arm-waving accompanies the obvious and trivial.
What's interesting about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is that some of the themes and obsessions from his other books turn up again--mysteriously deserted hotel with permeable walls, the fading-in-and-out of trances, the Japanese occupation of Mongolia, sheep, etc. The themes from Dance are used much more effectively, and this book is something of a return to form. It seems that he was living in the States when he wrote the weaker books, and I'd heard that he'd moved back to Japan to write this one. I've heard that he's due to have another one out next year, so with luck he's still on form. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is especially worth picking up if you can get a remaindered copy, as I did. As Harry, the Man with the Snake on his Face said during Scramble Days, "How can you lose?"
Thinking more about Sarah Vowell's "Radio on: A Listener's Diary", I'm curious about some of her grudges, particularly against NPR reporters and hosts, although I can understand the source of one of her disappointments--the gradual slickification of NPR. The first NPR broadcast--nearly live coverage of an antiwar demonstration in 1970--has the wild flavor of unedited slices of reality. Listening to it, you have no idea what's going to happen next, and compared to these tapes (and if you haven't heard them, you should) most contemporary NPR pieces seem premasticated and overnarratized, with foreshadowing introductions, explanatory commentary, ending with neat little wrapups and off-the-shelf banter. The old stuff is like swallowing life whole.
But does it make sense to have something against NPR for becoming slicker? I guess the answer is to create a forum for more raw, less narrative radio, which is what This American Life is trying to do, and Vowell's an associate editor there (if I remember the position correctly). At the time she wrote the book, though, she wasn't there yet, although she describes visiting the new WBEZ studios as one of the first This American Life broadcasts was being put together.
Just picked up (and read) Sarah Vowell's excellent "Radio on: A Listener's Diary" which, like the best writing, feels like what it's writer was listening to. It's a diary of a year's worth of radio listening, and I can't put it down. Among the gems:
This four-way conversation between the young male caller, the two male critics, and he female artist, draws and quarters me: as a woman, as a critic, as a radio listener, as a fan. On the one hand, [Courtney] Love is indicting her female fans for participating in violating behavior. On the other hand, Love makes a lot of remarks throughout the interview that aren't exactly drenched in girl power, especially her newfound insistence on avoiding interviews with female writers; as a female writer I find that reprehensible--just plain lame. Also, while the two critics present seem sympathetic to the female struggle, I seem to have spent my entire life listening to boys talk about music.
Reading music criticism was a cultural lifeline for me when I was in my adolescence, and reading rock and jazz writers was like having long conversations full of essential meaning.
The project of this book is the diary of someone listening to the radio--what she hears, and her reactions to what she hears. It's wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and highly readable. You won't hear the radio in quite the same way again.
He also administers photo.net, a database-driven photographic resource, which includes suggestions for good places to buy equipment, as well as classifieds.
And he also has an intriguing essay on "why MIT should be tuition-free" for undergraduates. If you've ever suspected that your alma mater existed primarily to siphon money from your pocket, you should read this.
Now that I've had some time to slow down after the last three weeks, I've finished Komar and Melamid's Painting by Numbers. What at first seems like a joke on both the art world and on "the people" is much more complex.
An interesting quotation investigating the implications of the survey results indicating that blue is the favorite color preferred by most of the American population, with green coming in second and yellow last. (Others are in the middle.)
From Vox Pop: Notes on a Public Conversation by JoAnn Wypijewski, Part 2 of Painting by Numbers.
The Lüscher Color Test...is the popularized "Quick" version of a more expansive test that first came into use by psychologists in 1947.... [L]et's pretend that America, as represented by the favorite and second-favorite color preferences indicated in the poll, is taking the Quick Test. The object is to rank eight colored cards in descending order of desirability.... the resulting choices are meant to indicate the chooser's wishes, worries, conflicts, at a particular moment in time.Ring any bells? I don't think this serves as some validation of psychological profiling by preferred color, but as a description of the American psyche in the '90s you can't beat it--despite the current economic boom which, remember, is only benefitting a small percentage of the population. It's interesting to note that this color profile changes as one goes up the economic scale. On the same page, Wypijewski notes that "the lower a person's income the greater the love of blue, and the higher the income the greater the love of the color of money." (The survey results are exhaustively cross-tabulated for the curious.) As she writes later in the same paragraph, "Fear is in the air, and that funny blue landscape is looking a lot more macabre."
By this standard, America is an anxious wreck.
It loves blue and green, meaning its greatest hope is for a tranquil environment in whch things proceed in orderly fashion, along more or less traditional lines, and in which it has a measure of control over events. It seeks excitement and exhilaration byt feels somehow obstructed in its desires, prevented from obtaining those things deemed most essential, and obliged to forgo some pleasures. It can feel satisfaction, but at its back there is a whisper that all might be fleeting. Its choice of yellow in last place or second-to-last place is bad news, indeed, since yellow is the color of the future, of change and hope. "Rejected yellow," according to the test's interpretation tables, suggests alienation and profound insecurity, a sense of hopes disappointed, ground lost, and fear that there may be "no way out." When yellow is in last place, the calm of blue is a distant dream, that "agreeable object that flies from us." [from Goethe's book on color, speaking of blue] And rather than symbolize serenity, it suggests an urgent clinging--to tradition as a hedge against insecurity rather than as simple continuity--and a dis-ease or outright intolerance toard that which is familiar. (page 62, italic insertion mine)
This painting, which at first seems to be a simple joke on the bad taste of "the people" has feelers out to our collective anxiety, is representative of it. And even if we throw out this color interpretation, we still feel unease when considering the painting itself. Its parts don't fit together, and not just because it's a "bad" painting in terms of design. George Washington stands there with nothing in particular to do, and he has nothing to do with the other parts of the painting--the picnickers in contemporary clothes, or the hippo (especially the hippo). Arthur Danto's essay sheds some further light on this.
From Arthur C. Danto's Can It be the "Most Wanted Painting" Even if Nobody Wants It?, in Part 3 of Painting by Numbers
It would have been interesting...if Komar and Melamid had included a set of questions that asked if people preferred paintings that resulted from finding out what they most wanted in a painting, or paintings in which the artist painted from inspiration. [Danto follows this with a reference indicating he suspects they would prefer the inspiration.] My sense, then, is that the "most wanted painting" is incompatible with what most people want of a painting. But that may be different from what most people want in a painting.... [M]y parallel intuition here is that something can be the "most wanted painting" even if nobody wants it. (page 136)I think that Danto's distinction between "what people want of a painting" and "what people want in a painting" is one of the finest (in both senses) distinctions I've seen in a while. And later he hits us with another:
What is striking about America's Most Wanted is that I cannot imagine anyone really wanting it as a painting, least of all anyone in the population whose taste it is supposed to refect. No one who wants a painting of wild animalsor who wants a painting of George Washington wants a painting of George Washington and of wild animals. (page 138)These two distinctions do a lot to explain (but not necessarily explain away) some of the strangely unsettling qualities of the whole Most Favored projects. Danto also points out that, asked to specify a wild animal, most people wouldn't say "hippo," but a hippo undoubtedly fits the bill. The fields mapped out by "our" desires are wide enough and far-ranging enough to contain surprises. The incongruity of the "most favored" painting is the incongruity of dreams. And few would argue that dreams are completely without waking meaning, if only to reveal what obsesses our waking minds.
Sure, much of this project is a joke, but it's the best kind of joke--one that asks serious questions, one that kicks the foundation out from under certainties. I have more thinking to do about this.
I'm pleased to see that Rafi Zabor has won some recognition, in this case the PEN/Faulkner award. I always enjoyed his pieces in Musician magazine, back when it was primarily jazz-oriented.
The Washington Post's article Debut Novel Wins PEN has the story. So what else has he been writing lately?
This holds true for a similar polling-based project of theirs concerning music. In both cases, phone polls probed the most and least wanted qualities of paintings and music.
The results are interesting, particularly because the least-wanted works are far more engaging than the most-wanted (although Ithaca's most-wanted painting is pretty semiotically impressive).
On rereading Naked Lunch, I'm particularly struck by something that doesn't seem to be talked about much (at least in the places I've been reading): Burroughs' misogyny. It makes this book difficult to get around. If you check out the Amazon comments pages, the comments fall into "It's brilliant; it changed my life," "It's incomprehensible; I couldn't read it," and "It's disgusting; I'd kill him if he weren't already dead." Let's take these one at a time.
The "brilliant" comments I can't quite agree with. I can see how they come about, though: people are thinking of the book as a planned-out flow, calculated to elicit a specific, finely tuned mental response. Having read The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945-1959 I've seen that the material was written and conceived as free-standing routines, which were shuffled around in various orders, the "final" one decided by the printer. In several of Burroughs' letters, he suggests that this or that section can be eliminated for this or that market--in other words, various sections were nonessential. I'll admit that there is something to ordering a book this way, but the admission of chance elements as a textual composition method had been around since Dada, and probably before. But the "finely tuned mind bomb" of some critical raves doesn't seem, actually, to exist. Some of the material in the book is funny, much horrifying, some evocative of something, but there isn't much here that's precise or calculated. (It can be argued that that isn't the point, and I'd agree.)
The "incomprehensible" comments are understandable; the book becomes more comprehensible with the road map of the letters; you can see where this or that routine is an embellishment of this or that event. It can't be read as a conventional narrative, which is, of course, the point. Trying to read it that way is like trying to read a book without opening it. At the sentence and even the paragraph level, things make sense. The "incomprehensible" criticism comes from a desire for conventional narrative.
The "disgusting" criticism is difficult. Much of the book is disgusting. This is, obviously, deliberate. Burroughs says in the letters that his method is to think of the worst possible thing he can think of, and write the result. Well, there's something in here to offend just about everyone. But the problem with the "he meant to do that" defense is that much of the "offensive" sections read not like a witness to or critique of something horrible (capital punishment, for example, in the "Blue Movie/Rumpus Room" section) but like comedy or sexual fantasy. So? So I wouldn't go claiming that this book is the gospel of a Junky John Brown, rising up to denounce our slavery to the various evils of modernity. The misogyny is disgusting and demeaning. Somewhere in the letters Burroughs says that he writes the worst possible thing he can think of, so he's trying to be disgusting--and that doesn't negate misogyny as a problem in this text.
In any event, I'm still reading, so there's probably more commentary to come.
In this week's The Village Voice: Film: a film version of J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition. Be on the lookout; it sounds good.
To be honest, I haven't read the book yet, but it's been on my acquisitions list for years. (I should have bought it when I first saw it, at a local bookstore, now long gone.)
The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945-1959
A friend gave this to me as a birthday present recently. It's amazing--if he hadn't existed, there's no way anyone would believe him as a fictional character. Every other letter he's getting off junk for the last time, or he's saying something hilarious and disturbing. In all, a very human picture of him, but in no way is this a warm and fuzzy book. He's the genuine item, pretty much who you'd expect from his persona, just more complete.
The letters provide a great deal of background on--and nearly verbatim material for--Naked Lunch, which he was writing during the mid-late '50s, so I'm starting to reread it.