Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Ben Franklin

I’d read somewhere that this was among the better autobiographies written by a famous American. I’ve gotta admit, that I’m fairly new to the field of autobiographies, having read only one or two now.

Big Ben Franklin’s skinny little volume was most noteable because it reminds us that autobiographies are written by people, not historical figures. Accordingly, what is most striking about this work is all that it doesn’t contain. For example, it ends well before the beginning of the revolutionary war, Continental Congress, Declaration of Anything, and so on. So forget most of the context in which you think about Benjamin Franklin, (no kites with keys tied to them either) and prepare instead for the self-aggrandizing tale of a citizen of Boston and Philadelphia, whose civic contributions to Philly were numerous.

Ben is concerned much with prices, the printing business, how to relate to others, and how to be virtuous without being a member of any of the New England sects which dominated the cultural landscape at that time.

A final detail which bears mentioning is that Ben’s language is delightful; written in a time far enough back to be tongue-teasingly archaic and irregular, but not so far back as to remind us of the incomprehensibility of Dryden. His sentences are long, winding, and chock full of clauses, and his vocabulary is a lot of fun to try on.
The Watchmen by Alan Moore

First “graphic novel” I’d ever read, and it took some coaxing by The Professor and LT, I’ll admit. But, this was a cool work of fiction; far more than I’d expected, even if there were people in tights who dress up and chase criminals.

I’ll not go into any plot or character details here, since I think the movie is about to break on the shores of North America like a marketing tsunami. The subject matter is very dark, the character portraits complex, the plot labyrinthine. The artwork is, as a rule, mediocre at best, but the “camera work” and scene composition is often interesting. There’s a particularly cool chapter told with attention towards the relativity of time such that it stutter-jumps around over a fifty year span every panel or two.

Overall, it was a neat bit of super-hero mayhem and murder to devour over the course of a few sunny hours in Florida in the days just leading up to Christmas.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuinn

LT recommended this one to me, and since I remember enjoying reading The Dispossessed a few decades ago, I eagerly gave it a try.

This is classic sci-fi from the eighties. Guy shows up on a planet where gender relations are very usual because, well, gender isn’t binary. Turns out that the inhabitants of this planet are neither male nor female most of the time, but enter a sort of estrus state where they can become a specific gender for a few days when it’s time to reproduce or to, you know, party. As you might imagine, this adds an usual dimension to the politicking and interpersonal relationships in their quasi-feudal society. Our primary narrator observes all of this and gets deeply involved in palace intrigue and international diplomacy. Then the story takes a radical right turn, and we get an extended men-vs.-nature bit in which a couple travels across arctic wastes for a few hundred pages.

All of this works out okay, I suppose, but several issues kept me from really enjoying the novel too much. The first was its plodding prose – frankly, just plain bad in many cases and dull in most others. The second was that I felt the novel was unable to maintain focus. If the idea was that traditional gender roles has a huge influence on society – okay, fine. Tell me about that. If the notion was that realpolitik works differently in a culture where gender is non-binary, okay, fine, keep focused on that. Instead, I’m left with a setup, and elaborately explained set-piece dealing with this core conceit (“What if instead of having a predefined gender, people could become male or female when it was time to have sex?”) that ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere. The politics and behaviors of the characters and kings here was basically what you’d get from similar Earth societies. The interpersonal relationships and intrigues weren’t markedly different either. And then, as if she was as bored as the rest of us with the notion, the author wanders into a different story for the last third of the book. Now, if the point is, “gender roles don’t really influence the machinations of culture all that deeply”, then I suppose this book would serve as some low-grade ammo for this perspective. But I’m nearly certain that this is exactly the opposite of what Ursula was trying to wrestle with.

Finally, I’d be curious to get The Professor’s take on this one, since she’s so much more deeply initiated in to the arcane of 21st century gender studies than am I. She might understand what was attempted here in a way I’m just missing. But, since it just wasn’t that cool or interesting, I don’t think I’ll ever recommend it to her.
The Cellar by Richard Laymon

More bad horror. Picked it up after watching the superb film, “Let the Right One In”, which I thought a beautiful work that does credit to the horror genre. So, with vampires and murder on the brain, I picked out a likely candidate from the local Chapters. Read it fast, maybe four hours total on a colddarkrainy Vancouver Sunday at the Fairmont.

What happens is, there’s a house where something eeevil lives. It’s so eeevil that lots of people have been killed there over the years, and the family of eeevil inbred hunchback types who live nearby run a haunted museum of sorts of out the place. Luckily, this collection of clichés doesn’t prevent assorted folks from foolishly venturing into “Beast House.” Turns out, mostly bad things happen there.

Meantime, a young mother and her teenage daughter go on the lam from her eeevil and rapacious ex-husband who has just been released from prison. But when their car breaks down, it isn’t near Disneyworld. Nope, unfortunately for them, it’s near—you guessed it! – Beast House!

Overall, this was lurid enough to not feel like it was pulling punches, mixing plenty of sex with its violence. There’s a beast orgy, some very unpleasant child-rape sequences, and lots of good old fashioned murder. Otherwise, not too remarkable.

I’d give this one a B- for the pulp horror genre. It’s not as good as House of Leaves or Salem’s Lot, but it’s a lot better than The Farm, or The Right Hand of Evil.
Shame by Salman Rushdie

Rushdie’s novel about Pakistan is satirical, biting, funny, beautiful, chilling, and usual all of his phenomenal bag of tricks. It’s a full-volume circus, featuring methuselean crones, virgin birth, generals who cry, magic prognosticating tapestries, fornication, enough metaphor to confuse the most devout scholars, and another fifty years of Indian-Pakistani history besides.

Shame tells the tale of a collection of men and women who are metaphors for the birth and fall-from-grace of the nation-state created by partition in the late fifties. But don’t expect a clear cut history lesson; while the literal narrative unfolds as it might well have, the world is chock full of magic realism.

Rushdie’s writing is, as always, so lyrical, so stylized and so, frankly, beautiful that he’s able to take the reader exactly where he wishes in every overfull paragraph... For example:

Once a beautiful young women rendered lovely and naked by the hot wind from a terrorist bomb that killed her father, the mother of brain-damaged girl who represents Pakistan grows old. As she ages, and her husband, the autocratic military dictator who runs the country becomes more and more corrupt, she dons the black burqua and begins to speak only in metaphors. “[she] became in those years, almost invisible, a shadow hunting the corridors for something it had lost, the body, perhaps, from which it had come unstuck. She became less than a character, a mirage, almost, a mumble in the corners of the palace, a rumor in a veil.”

Recall now, that this is the mother of “Shame”, the young woman who represents Pakistan, and who becomes a bestial whore, slaughtering the citizenry in her furious retardation… Ahh, Mr. Rushdie, tell us how you really feel about partition.

Anyway, this is a great book. Again, it’s not quite Midnight’s Children, but it’s not far from it. The language is beautiful, the characters fascinating, the scenes memorable, and the entire tower constructed in such a way that you don’t realize what you’re in the middle of until you’re surrounded. And by then it’s too late to do anything but keep turning pages, mouth slightly agape in wonder as this master juggler and illuminator lets his trick unfold towards it’s beautiful, inevitable, and chilling conclusion.

IF you haven't read Rushdie, and care at all about style, language, fiction, or the multiplicity of cultural perspectives which comprise our world, might I most heartily recommend?

It's worth interjecting here that these posts are made in the order in which I read these books. This is one reason that there is often a significant delay between posts -- many times I've not had a chance to go back and write a review of something, so while many later books have already had their writeups done, the posting of the whole is delayed.

It's important to me to stick to these two rules -- that I not write about any book I don't actually, completely finish. (There are a LOT that I only make it 2/3 of the way through and just get bogged down, distracted, leave them in another country, whatever.) Also, I refuse to post out of order -- to my mind, everything you read is influenced and weighed against the stockpile of knowledge and memory in your head. To read David Foster Wallace (RIP) without having first read Pyncheon is to miss much of the tradition in which the former is working. More succinctly: Revelations makes little sense without Genesis.

Who cares about all this? Likely just me. I'm not aware of anyone who reads this regularly, or even occasionally. Though, now that Facebook and Twitter have brought all us so much closer, it's possible that readership has increased! If you are out there, dear reader, add a comment and let me know!

Written from a 2nd floor study, grey day, Austin Texas, with the memories of Christmas and family fast fading in my mind...

Dreams from my Father by Barak Obama

This fine and earnest biographical memoir reveals that we have just elected a first rate mind to be the next president of the United States. Written shortly after his graduation from Harvard Law, Obama gives us a history of his life and a superb meditation on race in America.

From his childhood in Indonesia to his troubled adolescence in Hawaii, through to the ghettos of Chicago in which he worked as a community organizer, and finally on to his father’s grave in Kenya, Mr. Obama writes with clarity, just the right amount of detail, and a degree of lyricism which is surprising from someone who has become a career politician.

The book is candid, and no doubt proved politically inconvenient at points; he speaks frankly of things and describes situations which most politicians would be tripping over themselves trying to disown.

I loved this book, bought and gave out two copies immediately after reading it. I hope that Sherry enjoys the book as much as I did.

This book made me even more proud of the choice we collectively made. Dreams from my Father suggests that perhaps we have our first philosopher-president in a very long time.
Profiles in Courage by John Kennedy

What a fine reminder that once upon a time, politicians were statesmen too. Luckily for the entire world, I think that such a time may have come again now that we’ve elected Barak Obama. But I get ahead of myself, because when I read this book, the election was still weeks away, and I still had some concern that the forces of ignorance would once again carry the day in the US of A. So I turned to a book I’d long heard mentioned by a man whose life was over long before I was born, but whole legacy of nobility in politics inspired a generation.

Written while he was a freshman senator, Kennedy’s book provides compelling and heartfelt portraits of other members of the US Senate who provided examples of political courage, typically by doing something that was against the common grain, was political suicide, or both. Sam Houston, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Robert Taft, and one or two others. It is impressive, filled with historical portraits which are interesting and motivational. In particular, Kennedy’s descriptions of Daniel Webster portray him as perhaps the greatest American ever to live, and make me want to read more about him.

I’m disappointed to read that Kennedy is now believed to have not been wholly responsible for writing this book; apparently he had a lot of help. In any case though, this doesn’t cheapen the work. It is still a fascinating, occasionally moving collection of biographical sketches of politicians who were motivated by higher values than a need for reelection or a desire for power. Profiles in Courage should serve to remind us all that the US Congress is, for all its faults, a courtroom in which moral choices which shape our future and reflect our national character are tried. Though our leaders may too often be found wanting, the institution provides a venue in which the best in us can sometimes be found on display.
Winning by Jack Welsh

I had to read this one twice. My friend TJW, scion of Vancouver, advised me over a year ago that this book represented, in his opinion, the best of management theory and practice. Having now read it, I completely agree, and would add that it’s also a fine primer on how to be a leader in modern organizations.

The book is quite thorough enough and easy enough to comprehend that two readings aren’t necessary. But too long had passed since I looked at it, and I sincerely feel that a person could likely benefit from the lessons contained herein every year or so. From how to motivate employees, to how to hire new ones, to a superb chapter on business strategy, Welsh, the Warren Buffett of company management shares with us concise lessons on nearly every aspect of modern business.

The book is easy to grasp, and should likely be required reading for anyone with a stake in how a corporation or division is run.

Thanks, Jack. Useful lessons distilled from a storied career. Thanks, Tarrnie. Good recommendation.

Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki

Felt a little bit guilty reading this one, as if I wanted to put a brown paper book-cover over it, so people couldn’t see me reading a pop-finances book For Dummies™. For whatever reason, though I enjoyed some of Kiyosaki’s articles in the past, I wanted to avoid feeling like a chump, so I avoided this book.

Finally though, I broke down and decided to read it in October. Like many of us, I suspect, finances and the economy are much on my mind in these troubled days.

Kiyosaki’s trope is simple; he had two father figures, one of whom was highly educated, the other of whom was an aggressive, successful businessman. Kiyosaki clearly learned more from the rich dad than from the educated dad. He tries to impart some of these core philosophical differences to the reader in two hundred pages of tortured English.

The core point here is: invest your money in assets which will return money to you. Don’t invest your money in expenses. Then, work to grow your assets, and be smart about using a corporate structure to avoid as many taxes as possible. It’s sound advice.

Key points:

1. You must think differently about money, about investing, about assets and liabilities than most people do if you want to get out of the rat race.

2. Your job, no matter how well it pays, is unlikely to ever make you rich. The nature of the deal is such that your cost of living is likely to increase with your wages, you pay so much to the government, and no matter how hard you work, there are only so many hours in a day.

3. By being smart about taking advantage of various tax structures, the power of incorporation, etc. you can help avoid some taxes, and help pay your expenses with pre-tax instead of post-taxed money. This will help.

4. You must above all understand the difference between an asset, which is something that returns you money without any effort from you, and liabilities, which are anything that cost you either time or money in upkeep. (Your home being the principal thing most people mistake for an asset.)

Overall, I agree with most of the lessons in this book. Money is power, though not an end unto itself. In order to get free from the rat race, one needs more than just the income they can derive from employment.

Now, my ability to put some of these lessons into practice is what I really need to spend time on instead of this navel gazing blog.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Haruf has gifted us all with an unadorned, moving little novel about the intertwined small-town lives of Holt County, north of Denver. Our cast of characters includes a couple of old ranchers with hearts of gold, a pregnant high school girl, two boys whose mother is suffering from depression, and a principled teacher. These lives get tangled up in various small-town doings. Ultimately, we’ve given a hopeful message about the ways community can pull together to help out with kindness and love.

The novel is well written, the prose neither flashy nor too wooden. In terms of tone, it’s Richard Russo without the flashes of wit and comedy; John Gardner without the stylistic brilliance or hopelessness.

The parallels drawn between humans and animals are likely exactly the way you’d think if you lived in a rural area. (Indeed, I’ve noticed this tendency amongst the few truly rural dwellers I know.) This shows up over and over – the parallel scenes in which the ranchers use a “calf extractor” is contrast with a young woman’s first exposure to a speculum. Later, the brothers even argue about thinking of her as a heifer. But none of this is mean-spirited. It seems to be from a genuine desire to make the a point that goes a little something like this: “While we are all just animals, subject to the same indignities of the flesh as the lowest herd beast, humans pull together through personal bonds which form communities. And that makes all the difference.”

There isn’t a lot more to say here. The plotting is prosaic. The characters sketches. The language very Iowa school. The net is vaguely heartwarming; like a Hallmark Special. Nice, sweet, just lurid enough in a few details to feel authentic, while not quite as legit as a Terry Allen tune.

I enjoyed the novel. It’s quite fast (I read it in two days, late summer, Texas), and fits firmly into the “stories of the American heartland” genre.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnagie

This classic of mid-century boosterism is charming, useful and accurate, if terrifically dated at this point. This book is a collection of chapters dealing with ways to make oneself a more likeable, more sociable, better person. It is not cynical, nor are its lessons overly manipulative. The book reminds you that everyone wants to be liked, and thinks of themselves as a good person. It advises that you determine what motivates and interests others. It advises you to avoid criticism except in delicate ways. It is filled with practical advice on how to raise your charisma, be a nicer person, and get what you want by ensuring that others want it too.

Useful, concise, and now, having aged like a fine cheese, historically interesting.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Merry Christmas to all!

Having just had a few days to catch up on R&R, I'm just about to post a ten-pack update in an effort to get this page caught up on the year's reading!

Stay tuned for details on a few Rushdie novels, some sci-fi, bad horror, economics, the memoirs of a few presidents, and my first review of a graphic novel!

Happy Holidays!