Cultural Amnesia by Clive James

January 31st, 2008 at 6:41 am

This is a superb book.

Now, I don’t mean to be so Bayard, as I have only read about 10% of the essays, but due to the collection’s nature and my absolute infatuation with the work, I feel more than comfortable addressing it now.

I can’t help it. It’s that good.

“Necessary Memories from History and the Arts,” Cultural Amnesia contains 107 essays on figures ranging from Louis Armstrong to Albert Camus, Dick Cavett to Charles Chaplin, Jean-Paul Sartre to Margaret Thatcher, Marcel Proust to Chris Marker, as well as many other obscure figures that you and I have never heard of but luckily James has. And on and on and on. It is a Treasure and a Wealth of Knowledge.

Laurence Sterne, that great author of Tristram Shandy said that, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; they are the life, the soul of reading.”

I can’t help but assume that Clive James would agree.

James is the master of the tangent, the digression. He discusses Sophie Scholl and ends up discussing how absolutely perfect Natalie Portman would be to play Scholl in Hollywood’s adaptation of her life and therefore Portman’s unrivaled and special ability and presence on screen. James begins with Terry Gilliam’s excellent film Brazil and ends with an intriguing discussion of, among other things, torture, bureaucracy, the state, Abu Ghraib, dictatorships, Hitler, and the Khmer Rouge.

It is a bizarre and special treat to witness such a capable mind given free reign to postulate, observe, and argue. It is even more remarkable that James does it all so well. In lesser hands controlled by a lesser mind, such an exercise would have failed, resulting in wandering indulgence and insignificant randomness. This book is neither.

Clive James is one of those few critics who make you thankful for critics and not resentful and curious why they don’t create something of their own. James has created something of his own and it is very, very good.

And for all of you like Michiko Kakutani who disagree thinking that James’ “mania for digression can run amok, and the reader does wish at times that he’d stick to the subject at hand,” I can only refer you back to Mr. Sterne.

Bravo, Mr. James.

Read this book. And all the other ones.



Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine

January 29th, 2008 at 5:33 pm

Nerds used to exist on mainstream society’s periphery. With the advent of the Internet and its related technologies as well as the growing popularity and legitimacy of Graphic Novels, Nerds have emerged from their mother’s basement to share their own foibles and insecurities with the Rest Of Us. Lucky Us. See Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them.



And also luckily for Us, there are many, many graphic novels that are Good Entertainment. Shortcomings is no different and very much in the vein of other contemporary graphic novels with its sexual fixation reminiscent of Daniel Clowes and Christopher Ware. Shortcomings is dark and brooding with a clean black and white artistic style that achieves the same simple poignancy as Blankets.

In Shortcomings, Tomine’s dialogue is first-rate. The character’s speech crackles and pops with authenticity. Though Tomine is fond of using “TCH” in his character’s speech patterns. Does “TCH” represent that pulling of tongue down off the roof of your mouth to make that soft sucking noise like a quick peck?



Shortcomings has great narrative pacing that provides light, breezy entertainment despite the inevitable annoyance of overly self-aware, angsty young adults arguing incessantly about their relationship problems. The book is called Shortcomings. Tomine’s mise-en-scene is top-notch with superb transitions, crisp imagery, subtly rivaling a master filmmaker, and great movement within and across the frames. No difficult task for a static medium.

Best of all, Shortcomings is really pretty funny. Some snippets of my 3 favorite parts:

1. “So she’ll writhe around on stage with a bunch of naked creeps, and she’ll take photos of her piss every day, but kissing me…apparently that’s too disgusting for her!

2. “You’re a good kisser.”
“I know. I’m very orally fixated.”

3. “Anyway, I saw her on campus the other day, and it…escalated.”
“Oh-oh. What does that mean?”
“She started talking shit again, so I kicked her in the pussy.”

Bravo, Adrian.

So read this book. And all the others.



Reading is Deadly

January 28th, 2008 at 7:28 am

I hate to be so vain and self-centered and to maintain such delusions of grandeur, but when this many world leaders die based on the books I’m reading…

Just a few short days ago I finished Jon Krakauer’s magnificently terrifying account of Mormonism, Under the Banner of Heaven, and BOOM, Gordon Hinckley drops dead.

And just today I started Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine which begins with an account of Suharto’s questionably corrupt economic maneuvering to control Indonesia. And now BOOM, Suharto drops dead.

I’ll try to resist reading any books tomorrow.

Or at least anything on the subject of anyone I like.



The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

January 27th, 2008 at 5:55 pm

This is a good book.

Not a great book, but a good book.



As a humbling, interesting book about Our World and the incompatibility of our Current Society with Ecology, The World Without Us belongs on your shelf next to Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, An Inconvenient Truth, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. There is plenty to keep your eyes wide open in horror at our existence’s lack of harmony with the environment. Like the frightening petrochemical monstrosity that is Houston, Texas. Yeehaw!!!

This is a subversive and ultimately very effective and worthwhile book in that its thesis is simple, but in that innocent idea to hypothesize what the world would be without human life, Weisman has an intriguing frame for which to explore and assess the magnitude of human’s impact on the planet – an extensive, pervasive presence. Unfortunately, Our Legacy is most likely doomed to be chemicals, metals, genetic tinkering, ecosystem manipulation, farms, cities, industry, nuclear waste, mining, pollution, etc, et al. Interestingly enough, it is the bronze and copper sculptures as well as the radio waves of information that we have beamed into space that will probably be the longest-lasting remnant of our flawed existence.

It is oddly comforting to know that in our absence nature will quickly reclaim our cities, farms, and homes. It is equally alarming to know how much of our byproducts will continue to plague the planet long after our departure.

Weisman is at his worst when he lingers too long describing what would happen to the Panama Canal in our absence (Surprise, it’d stop working, like a lot of things…). He is at his best describing the beautifully, tragically ironic reclamation of places like the Korean DMZ and the Chernobyl disaster by endangered fauna.

This book is frustrating when you realize that the only decent thing to do for The Cause would be to go away. It’s not a cause without supporters. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement and the Church of Euthanasia both have their points. Even our current mode of departure with the expensive funeral industry leading the way with exotically unnecessary coffins is rife with negative impact on the planet. But don’t bother getting too riled up about environmental destruction because Weisman makes a compelling case for our Doom to be wrought instead by New Technologies.

The creepiest, eeriest, scariest, most resounding part of the book comes when our modern civilization and the pompousness of our overindulged lifestyles is compared to the fall of the Mayan Empire: “Society had evolved too many elites, all demanding exotic baubles…a culture wobbling under the weight of an excess of nobles, all needing quetzal feathers, jade, obsidian, fine chert, custom polychrome, fancy corbelled roofs, and animal furs. Nobility is expensive, nonproductive, and parasitic, siphoning away too much of society’s energy to satisfy its frivolous cravings. Too many heirs wanted thrones, or needed some ritual bloodletting to confirm their stature. So dynastic warfare heightened. As more temples need building, the higher caloric demand on workers requires more food production…Population rises to insure enough food-producers. War itself often increases population – as it did in the Aztec, Incan, and Chinese empires – because rulers require cannon fodder. Stakes rise, trade is disrupted, and population concentrates…There is dwindling investment in long-term crops that maintain diversity. Refugees living behind defensive walls farm only adjacent areas, inviting ecological disaster. Their confidence in leaders who once seemed all knowing, but are obsessed with selfish, short-term goals, declines with the quality of life. People lose faith. Ritual activity ceases. They abandon centers.”

Sound familiar?

Not one to be entirely negative and without Hope, god bless him, Weisman offers compelling data in support of population control and concludes his acknowledgments with, “Without us, Earth will abide and endure; without her, however, we could not even be.”



The Poet’s Plight

January 24th, 2008 at 6:12 am

Why do they kill the poets?

Lorca.

Nadia Anjuman.

Despite the Current Administration’s occasionally obnoxiously jingoistic xenophobic nationalistic drivel, can you ever imagine Them getting so desperate Here that they hurt the likes of a John Ashberry? Or sweet little Billy Collins? Or Louise Gluck?

No.

So it is with wide-eyed horror that I gasp in revulsion at the cowardice of Burma for arresting Saw Wai, a poet. Wai recently published a poem in a magazine in which the first words of each line read: “General Than Shwe is crazy with power.”

Never has an acrostic been so dangerous.

At least in America our poets go unnoticed and ignored like they’re supposed to!



Weschler Moments

January 22nd, 2008 at 3:47 pm

In the books I’ve been reading lately, I’ve had some serious, what I call, Weschler Moments, occurrences of strange connections named for the author’s book Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences.

In quite possibly the best book of last year, if not ever (seriously, this book is my scripture), Clive James explains the reason for his great book’s title, Cultural Amnesia: “One of the intentions of this book is to help establish a possible line of resistance against the cultural amnesia by which it suits us to forget that the convulsive mental life of the twentieth century, which gave the United States so much of the cultural power that it now enjoys, was a complex, global event that can be simplified only at the cost of making it unreal. If we can’t remember it all, we should at least have some idea of what we have forgotten.”

Arriving at a similar theme of western amnesia is Robert Hass, who in his latest collection of poetry, Time and Materials, has a poem called “I Am Your Waiter Tonight And My Name Is Dmitri.” Early in the poem, it goes like this:

……….There is probably a waiter
In this country so clueless he wears a T-shirt in the gym
That says Da Meat Tree. Not our protagonist. American amnesia
Is such that he may very well be the great-grandson
Of the elder Karamozov brothers who fled to the Middle West
With his girl friend Grushenka – he never killed his father,
It isn’t true that he killed his father – but his religion
Was that woman’s honey-colored head, an ideal tangible
Enough to die for, and he lived for it: in Buffalo,
New York, or Sandusky, Ohio.

And in The World Without Us, Alan Weisman relates the tragic irony of how Korea’s DMZ, one of the world’s most dangerous places, has become one of its most important by providing inadvertent refuge for wildlife that might have otherwise disappeared. Animals like Asiatic black bears, Eurasian lynx, musk deer, Chinese water deer, yellow-throated marten, an endangered mountain goat, and the Amur leopard all cling to life in this person-less tract of precious land.

Robert Hass also weighs in on this delicate tragedy with the poem, “On Visiting The DMZ At Panmunjom: A Haibun,” in which he laments humanity’s failure to comprehend and properly categorize large numbers, mainly those of our dead lost in bloody battle. The poem concludes:

The flurry of white between the guard towers
- river mist? a wedding party?
is cattle egrets nesting in the willows.



Will Cell Phone Novels Kill The Author?

January 20th, 2008 at 11:47 pm

Will cell phone novels kill “the author?” That’s what a famous Japanese literary journal asked on its January cover in response to the increasing popularity of novels written and viewed on cell phones as well as published in traditional hardcover books.

Cell phone novels are a bizarre splinter genre that have been flirting with the market in Japan for some time now.

It’s a thoroughly fascinating emergence and convergence of art, technology, and culture with the usual trappings and conflict between traditionalists and modernists.

As one cell phone novelist explains, “They [cell phone novel readers] don’t read works by professional writers because their sentences
are too difficult to understand, their expressions are intentionally
wordy, and the stories are not familiar to them. On other
hand, I understand how older Japanese don’t want to recognize these [cell phone novels] as
novels. The paragraphs and the sentences are too simple, the stories
are too predictable. But I’d like cellphone novels to be recognized as
a genre.”

In Japan, of last year’s 10 best-selling novels, five were originally cell phone novels. It’s a genre that has gained popularity in a youth culture raised with cell phones and reading manga and comic books. Critics, however, complain that such dominance of poor literary quality is spelling the doom of Japanese literature.

Of course. You’ll have to forgive Young Pioneers for rejecting society’s norms and traditions in order to invent things like computers, airplanes, and the printing press. The march of progress is a bloody, treacherous fight and this one will be no different.

Literary merit is no insignificant matter. We should be glad Japanese kids are reading, but for good or bad, what they are reading should also be taken into consideration. Working at a bookstore when I did, I was constantly disappointed to watch every middle-aged house wife in America march in to purchase a trashy romance novel and a diet book. There are a lot of good books out there, so we should probably be as equally disappointed in the Japanese youth for settling with inferior, undeveloped cell phone novels.

Will such a sub-genre emerge in America? I doubt it. But if it did, it would certainly threaten the already weak e-book market. I am personally not very eager to read an entire novel on a cell phone, but I’m sure there is an whole generation of tweens behind me salivating for a nice, mediocre, easy-to-read, easy-to-follow cell phone novel.



Deluxe by Dana Thomas

January 19th, 2008 at 6:33 pm

I should not have read Deluxe immediately after having read Richistan. I’m a huge fan of coupling two similar books, it’s like peanut butter and jelly, or whiskey and my mouth, but this combination was unintended or at least unconscious and these true tales of Excess and Image left me in a bizarre, contradictory paradox of feeling both rich and poor. Rich in Spirit. Poor in Reality.

If there ever was a pair of prissy Siamese twins sashaying around the world on their yachts clutching Hermes handbags like vultures to a carcass, it is Richistan and Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster. More wealth and money in America has meant more shopping and buying. Throw in some ruthless business tactics and aggressive marketing and you have sewn a gown of change. Drastic change. But contrary to the alliterate subtitle, Deluxe is not about Luxury Losing Its Luster. It’s about Luxury Losing Its Faint Glean of Pretension. A polish perhaps long overdue. But maybe I’m too much of a liberal populist.

As Thomas explains in her introduction, “The luxury industry has changed the way people dress. It has realigned our economic class system. It has changed the way we interact. It has become part of our social fabric. To achieve this, it has sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history, and hoodwinked its consumers. In order to make luxury “accessible,” tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special.” And though that may sound like some vindictive, polemical, rabble-rousing, Thomas can’t sustain the vitriol throughout the entire book. She loves the luxury industry too much.

Deluxe is a tale of Modern American Consumption, which is not about quality or practicality, or need, or even price, but about the Brand, which is a Lie. And like all the other well-marketed and perpetrated brands (lies), luxury has been masterfully sold. For the most part, luxury goods are still of superb design and style, but just mass-produced and marketed.

Deluxe is about how globalization has finally made it to the luxury industry. The “art” of luxury has been replaced by the bottom line. If you’re a shareholder in say, LVMH, that line looks very nice (the luxury goods industry is a $157 billion business). If you’re Dana Thomas, that line does not look as lustery as it used to.

Deluxe is about the reformation of a storied, elite industry historically run by artisans and craftsmen that has been taken over by capitalists with their eyes not on design, style, and luxury, but on their balance sheets. Once in power, these businessmen applied the Usual Tactics to the luxury industry with profitable results: outsource to reduce costs, market heavily in order to sell the image, status, and story of the brand, and then market to the middle class, especially with entry-level products like fragrances and handbags, and sell what’s left for a discount at outlet malls. Now that the fussy ogre that is America has been sated and is lying down for a nap, go after the emerging markets: China, India, and Russia.

This may seem all fine and well and par for the course, but what Dana Thomas takes issue with is that the Luxury Industry has lost its credibility and has forsaken its noble past. As she explains, “When luxury brands themselves go mass market, however – selling a full range of goods in ubiquitous boutiques, outlets and duty-free stores and on their own Web sites – they undermine their well-crafted message. They become an everyday occurrence, a common presence. They aren’t a luxury anymore.”

Thomas’ story is significant and interesting enough but blandly told. As a fashion writer having covered the industry for decades, she has great reverence and respect for luxury but her straightforward, journalistic approach felt flat to me. The blow-by-blow history interspersed with anecdotes failed to make me care about the loss of a little luster. That’s not to discredit Thomas’ impressive tale. Deluxe is clearly a labor of love and the result of exhaustive research and travel from someone who was already on expert on the topic. It contains a variety of opinions and perspectives but you almost wish someone told it who had a smaller bias and a bigger penchant for weaving a more revealing and rousing tale.

Thomas is at her best when she departs from bemoaning the loss of abstract, nebulous ideals and focuses on the legitimate social and economic ramifications of this industry’s massive evolution. One of the most interesting elements of the book was Thomas’ investigation into the widespread counterfeiting of luxury goods that has risen from luxury brand’s outrageously high demand. As Thomas notes, “The industry’s marketing plan had worked: consumers don’t buy luxury branded items for what they are, but for what they represent. People don’t believe there is a difference between real and fake anymore.” But before you buy a fake Fendi bag to satisfy your lust for status and image, please, please read this book. Counterfeiting is a dark, detrimental black market and before you know it you’ll believe that one commercial that insists smoking marijuana contributes to terrorism. Counterfeiting contributes to terrorism too by the way. So buy from your local grow house. And buy a real bag. After reading this book, I can tell. I can. See that stitching?

But what was really interesting was learning that Gucci uses a special machine developed and used exclusively by them to cut cowhide that uses water jets moving at twice the speed of sound. As Thomas observes, “The water jet is remarkable to see because, in fact, you can’t see it. All you see is the leather cut, as if by magic, and a mist from the water jet dissipating to the sides.” Isn’t that NEAT?



Hillary Clinton Speech Writers Author Humorous In-Flight Stump Speech

January 17th, 2008 at 4:23 pm

It is the Year of The Election and with the Writer’s Strike continuing with no end in sight, our gluttonous appetites for consumption and entertainment will have to be filled by The Election, mediocre sitcoms, and fantasy television like American Idol (Why is this country full of delusional whiners? Our music and art programs must be in a deplorable state if this many people haven’t gotten their chance on stage through high school productions, band, glee clubs, and YouTube by now. But man, does it make for some great television!)

Of all the candidates, are Hillary Clinton’s speech writers the best? The most creative? The funniest? Which candidate has the best sense of humor? On a recent flight on her campaign plane, Senator Clinton riffed on the usual flight attendant pre-flight announcement and, in my favorite part, noted, “If you look out from the right, you will see an America saddled with tax cuts for the wealthiest and a war without end. If you look out from the left, you will see an America
with a strong middle class at home and a strong reputation in the
world.

Yes!

Well done, Senator Clinton. But what will you do about our education system? Specifically our music and arts programs? Something has gone horribly wrong. Are you watching American Idol? Have you listened to the Top 40? Do you read the bestsellers?



Richistan by Robert Frank

January 15th, 2008 at 4:51 pm

The first thing I noticed about this book is that it is about a half
inch narrower in its width than typical hardcovers. The editor,
like a desperate, talentless high school student, changed the margins a bit in
order to extend the content into a more respectable book-appropriate
length. The size manipulations notwithstanding, Robert Frank’s
Richistan is another decent non-fiction book illuminating another
fascinating American subculture.

Don’t confuse it with
Absurdistan, which also could have been the title of Richistan, which
is subtitled, A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich.
It’s a journey that turns out to be a pretty absurd ordeal. Too many
times I read books on topics and wish Hunter S. Thompson was around to
give them his treatment. Drugs are the perfect metaphor for these
American Times. Like watching network television sober; you must be an
idiot or high if you think it’s funny. And only rip-roaring drunk and
hopped up on uppers with downers close at hand for when the going gets
really rough are you prepared for the outlandish pomp and perverse
entertainment that is a Presidential Election.
Why are we celebrating and worshiping these people like rock bands and
gods? They should be pandering to our whims and fancies, they work for us! They’re public servants!

Depending on your perspective, Richistan is either a really interesting
and motivating book or a very, very depressing tribulation. Or maybe both. “Rich” is
defined in Richistan as a net worth of 10 million or more, acknowledging that a mere
one million is now a relative bare pittance in the skewed, perverse
world of the New Rich, those fuckers. Richistan widely acknowledges
that the rich are getting richer at increasingly fast and lucrative
paces. The lower and middle classes are being fucked in our own
ignorant way. Richistan speaks of great inequality between the
have-most and the have-littles.
The social fabric is looking like it has been wrapped around an hour
glass. The rich are getting richer. The rest of us are getting poorer.
This is a bloody torment of a book and I resent it for being so
fascinating. Why are we obsessed with celebrities and rich people?
Frank’s examination into this particular group provides an adequate
frame with which to do some very interesting and worthwhile
observations on the state of class, wealth, happiness, and lifestyle in America. And ultimately, with all the talk of Old Money, New Money, More
Money, and thusly, No Money (that ignored drunk cousin in the corner
and on the floor), you realize there is more: sophistication, civilization, ethics, happiness, values, and more. Much more.

Richistan
is full of fascinating, absurd characters that engage you in a way that
is much like watching Britney Spears recent public field trips. You are
both horrified and captivated at the same time:

Meet Ed Bazinet, the founder of Department 56, the company that has
sold you and your family all those cute little ceramic hamlets of tiny
snow-capped cottages and innocent figurine villagers on his way to
becoming an exorbitantly wealthy multi-millionaire.

Meet the
couple who’s bed came from the archbishop of Milan’s quarters and has a
carved Jesus on one side (his) and a Mary on the other (hers). Yeah,
cause that’s what I’d do with my money. And do the creepy, incestuous undertones of that bed freak anyone else out?
It’s not a His and Hers bed!!! It’s a Father and Daughter bed! Boo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Meet
the billionaire who says, “It’s true what they say – the first billion
is the hardest. The second one was pretty easy.” Oh okay. Let me get
right on the first billion.

Meet the 72-year-old billionaire with the 34-year-old girlfriend.
Because that is actually what I would do if I was rich.

Meet
the billionaire who lost his fortune and now sits with his arthritic
golden retriever in the living room and stares at the twinkling lights
on his Christmas tree in May because it cheers him up. Like some
twisted sequel to Grey Gardens

Meet the Richistani who has a solid-gold straw for drinking champagne.

With
entirely new levels of consumption in Richistan, waste and excess are
necessary to show rank and social class. Larry Ellison, chief of
Oracle, received his 454 foot yacht that cost more than $200 million
and observed, “Well, I do think it’s excessive. It is absolutely
excessive. No question about it. But it’s amazing what you can get used
to.”

Watch
out all you slackers, you 30,000aires, the Old Money of Idle Rich
are being replaced by this New Money, and this Richistani crowd are the
Workaholic Wealthy. In Richistan, there is an increased influence in Philanthropy
and Politics. But it is not a passive involvement in either arenas for
these new gladiators. The Richistani are not content to give a fish or even to
teach fishing. They must revolutionize the fishing industry.

There are Rich People Support Groups. There are summercamps
for 23-year-old rich kids on how to not squander their family’s fortune
and how to ask for a prenuptial agreement.

And basically, all of this was wildly entertaining to me in a
dark, paranoid way. It’s a sick, demented world but one that seems to
be excessively comfortable if you made it that way.

After Richistan, I’m ready for a heaping spoonful of William T. Vollmann’s Poor People.