Monday, December 22, 2008


Go read my old friend Jeffrey's poems in his first collection, Aquarium. The New York Times Book Review, by Karl Kirchwey, was a rave:

Here is a first book written from a very high floor of the Tower of Babel, and the view is exhilarating. Not since D. H. Lawrence’s “Birds, Beasts and Flowers!” or the bestiary written by Kenneth Rexroth for his daughters has a poet wrung so much human meaning from the natural world. But whereas Lawrence is discursively tender, and Rexroth wry and epigrammatically clever, Jeffrey Yang speaks in tongues as if touched with a Pentecostal flame. He leads the reader through a net of allusions in poems barnacled with hard words. A typical Yang poem begins with the title “Oarfish”; traces it to the abode of humans called Midgard in Norse myth; invokes the ourobouros, the serpent devouring its own tail in a symbol of infinity; quotes the 19th-century American artist Elihu Vedder, the Baroque religious scholar Sor Juana and Lawrence’s poem “Fish”; glances at the Homeric word “oarismos” (roughly, “pillow talk”); and ends with guanine, a chemical that codes genetic information and also a substance found in fish scales. Nonetheless, as Ezra Pound would say, it all coheres — not just in art but in life. Yang is an editor at New Directions, which has published Rexroth, who edited a collection of D. H. Lawrence’s poems (and, like Yang, translated Chinese poetry). In fact, a fragment of Pound’s own Canto 36 is quoted by Yang, who is “testing the overtones” of language and history by means of a collage of brilliant fragments just as his master did, exploring the “divine quiddity” of the world.

Compounding his ingenuities, Yang has also arranged the poems in this book as an abecedary, proceeding from A (“Aba­lone”) through to Z (“Zooxanthellae”). What might feel like a gimmick instead leaves the reader dazzled at Yang’s polymathic knowledge: dazzled, but not threatened, since the advent of Google means that allusiveness in poetry is no longer the challenge it used to be. In any case, as one ancient master tells us, “What people / know is inferior to what they do not know.” Yang writes with a keen ear for the sound of language; indeed, his poems’ openings sometimes seem like verbal spasms, before they smooth into grammar: “Abalone Rumsen aul√≥n / Aristotle auriform Costanoans / cultivated, Brueghel painted, / awabi Osahi dove for / on September 12, 425 A.D.” Subject, verb and object resolve only gradually out of such a music. These poems are concerned with translation and with metaphor, both of which involve a “carrying across” from the natural into the human world; from the past into the present; from one language or civilization into another. Often they use the mousetrap form of the epigram, sudden and pleasing: “The barnacle has the longest penis / of any animal in proportion / to its body size. Happiness / and proportion: / never be ashamed of evolution.” Modesty figures among the lessons to be learned from nature, too; and honesty; and patience. And the poetic vehicle for these lessons is capable of great delicacy. A poem describing a kind of tetra, the familiar aquarium fish, reads in its entirety: “You can see straight thru / an X-ray fish to its heart. / We are just as transparent / so be true, gentle, honest, just. . . .”

Accordingly, politicians are at one end of the moral spectrum for Yang, and our genetic near-neighbors the dolphin and the manatee are at the other. For in addition to its other strengths — so considerable that they may distract the reader from its most important accomplishment — this is a moral book, in the best sense of the word. “Philosophy’s shadow: poetry. Poetry’s / shadow: philosophy,” Yang writes. And chief among nature’s lessons, it seems, is that of symbiosis or “mutualism,” exemplified by the type of algae that gives its name to the book’s final poem. Zooxanthellae live in tropical seas, dependent upon coral but also benefiting it. In this poem, the lines of which change progressively into prose as if under the torque of outrage, the peacefulness of such a coexistence is juxtaposed with the coldbloodedness of those American scientists and soldiers who first uprooted certain Pacific islanders, then destroyed their atolls in increasingly devastating nuclear tests and finally returned to their desolation to sample the extent of nuclear poisoning. “Mutualism” thus becomes a foil for the absolute corruption of natural instinct, which is more characteristically human. In fact the lesson is more complicated than this: the algae described are dino­flagellates; their presence in high concentrations in the flesh of fish causes sickness in the humans who eat it. The partners in symbiosis are not neutral, as Yang notes in an earlier poem: “Some causes / are invisible to the naked eye. / Strive for equilibrium / rather than neutrality.”

This poet is obsessive, as was the 17th-century English writer and physician Sir Thomas Browne, who tried to reconcile science and religion, and who believed he read numbers and lessons in nature that were of significance to humans. Browne has the last word in this book, in a concluding epigraph that reads in part: “Thus there is something in us that can be without us and will be after us.” He could have been describing an isotope of uranium — or just good poetry, which is what Jeffrey Yang has delivered in this book.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Hard Times Books

While I was in the midst of writing my Balzac entry, it struck me that there are many books appropriate to a recessed/depressed economy, books that either take place during America's Great Depression or where money and its machinations play a central role in the plot. Hence, my books for Hard Times (more appropriate to these times, perhaps, than the top 10 or top 100 now making its rounds in the remaining book review sections nationwide).

1. M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf
Written during WWII when food rations made gourmande treats impossible, when even every single egg was cherished, Fisher gives the full details on how to make the most out of every small piece of beef, every egg, the slightest bit of butter and cream. Until such dire times again arrive, we can read this book and relish each egg with its pat of butter.

2. Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, photographs over multiple volumes
While Walker Evans is best known for his collaboration with James Agee on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I admit my ignorance of Agee's text. Instead, when I think of the worst of the Depression, the images of American men, women, and children as captured by Evans and Lange during their work for WPA flood my mind. The legs of a child lying down with a piece of white cloth thrown over the upper part of the body like a hasty shroud, the gaunt cheeks of a woman...such images speak of earnest good people trying to face the hardships that a national economy in turmoil has brought to their daily lives.

3. Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Not having read Agee, I naturally people the American epic, Grapes of Wrath, with the faces of those who appear in Evans' and Langes' respective photographs. In many ways, things have not changed much since Steinbeck wrote this call to arms for the poorer folks. Corporations would still prefer to throw away goods rather than give it away to those without; profit still means more than a social responsibility to see one's fellow human beings clothed, sheltered, and fed; hypocrisy and machinations of profiteering are still what rules the country. But, in reading Grapes of Wrath, one is gratified to learn that there might still be the hope to become better people.

4. Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens
Almost any novel by Charles Dickens will suffice as all of them are interested in a character rising from poverty to prosperity, or vice versa. One of my favorites is Little Dorrit, one of his lesser-known novels but accomplished than many others. Like Dickens himself as a child, one of the main characters has a parent in Debtor's Prison where people lived perpetually in England until their debt was paid in full. BBC recently did a movie-series of Little Dorrit which I haven't seen yet but which I hope to see. In the midst of new publicity for the movie after the movie was announced, the Mail did an interesting article on the original real-life woman on whom Little Dorrit was based, a woman abandoned by her common-law husband turned prostitute to support her child. Furthermore, the Mail article talks about a house Dickens helped found to turn wayward girls into women who could respectably marry. All such real-life facts aside, I always find Dickens tremendous fun during dreary times, even while he writes about poverty. I remember once reading a part in Anne of Green Gables where Anne has to stop eating Dickens to eat because there's always so much eating going on in Dickens. I prefer the Oxford edition with an excellent introduction by Lionel Trilling.

5. Hard Times, Studs Terkel
If you want the real deal, the way the Great Depression was actually survived by real people...the best source is the primary source. And no one does it better than Studs, the one-person chronicler of American lives who detailed the Depression whether it be factory workers, bankers, or politicians. One co-worker whose parents lived through the Depression was telling me how her parents told her there were always men passing through the neighborhood asking for handouts of food. It's scary to think about it.

6. Buddha, Osamu Tezuka
I am up to Volume 4 on the life of Siddharta as depicted by Osamu Tezuka. This series makes it onto the list as we may all want to aspire towards an inward light with less consumption as we will have less money for consumption.

7. Lost Illusions, Honore de Balzac
As with Dickens, it was hard to pinpoint one novel for Balzac which should make this list as so much of Balzac's novels involve the fall and/or rise of wealth for an individual. Yet, Lost Illusions might be considered an encapsulating novel for Balzac because it contains vivid scenes of Paris as well as provincial life along with portraying the lives of aristocrats, writers, and inventors. While few will be tempted to read the ninety-nine volumes that make up the Human Comedy, no one should pass up the seven hundred some odd pages that make up Lost Illusions. The Modern Library edition, translated by Kathleen Raine and with an introduction by Richard Howard, is superb.

8. What Work Is, Philip Levine and Eunoia, Christian Bok
Very soon after 9/11, one bookstore buyer told me that he tries to keep his poetry section fully stocked as he considered it an important way of feeding the mind with other ideas besides current events. While What Work Is is mostly about Levine's own reinterpreted events of the Depression, it also has a somewhat inspirational tinge. Besides What Work Is, I would recommend Eunoia by Christian Bok, a poet singularly up to the tradition of Oulipo (whether he be professed as one of them or not). There's no greater joy for a lover of poetry than reading this accomplished piece of whimsy, genius, linguistic rules, and frivolity rolled up in one.

9. Theory of Moral Sentiment, Adam Smith
While Smith is better known for the Wealth of Nations and his metaphysical invisible hand, we are the worse off that Theory of Moral Sentiment is not as well read by American capitalist. While Wealth of Nations might detail the mechanisms of economics which has been reinterpreted to suit our current ideas of how finances should be jigged, Theory of Moral Sentiment details the relationships between human beings. In such notions, Smith shows an idealistic and humanist side that would have allowed for a more humane interpretation of his Wealth of Nations. Such a reinterpretation might be called for after the fall of capitalism in its current form.

10. Illuminations, Walter Benjamin
If there is one flaneur who daily interpreted culture and the effects of capitalism on culture, it is Walter Benjamin whose essays on every aspect of culture was shot through with the understanding that all of culture was being changed in front of his eyes by "Modernity" as enforced through manufacturing and technology. He understood that his very life was under such forces, that the cultural values that he esteemed would no longer be esteemed by societies that were being reshaped, where folk cultures were dying out, and objects that testified to history and its place in time were being eradicated. Even while questions about our economics and the financial underpinnings of the nation might need to be reassessed, will such things happen? Instead, will we all just want to be reassured that things will return to the way it was a few years ago?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Balzac and money

In this time when every single dinner party languishes into laments about the economy, it's fitting to read Balzac. Granted, buying the complete Human Comedy is not a cheap venture, but one can help along the economy with such an expensive outlay. Moreover, given that the Human Comedy is composed of 99 separate stories, the whole project can keep me entertained for at least two years for approximately $140 dollars (sixteen volumes purchased at $93 with the other two volumes being picked up separately through used book vendors on Amazon). The edition I purchased was edited by George Saintsbury (of History of English Prosody fame) and includes a useful introduction to each of the stories in the Human Comedy.

As Henry James notes in his essay, "Honore de Balzac", money is always of interest to Balzac and often a motivator for villainous or cowardly deeds. It is speculated that Balzac's great interest in money derived from the fact that he never could make enough to pay off all his debts. Indeed, if this is a primary reason to be so interested in money, those of us in publishing would only publish books with money as a central theme. I myself believe that Balzac, along with many French Naturalists, saw how much capitalism, in its evolving modern form, was changing the fabric of life and the values of society. Zola has that wonderful novel called The Ladies' Paradise where the real central character is the first large department store in Paris.

In regards to Balzac and money, Henry James wittingly says about one of his characters:

His women, too, talk about money quite as much as men, and not only his ignoble and mercenary women (of whom there are so many) but his charming women, his heroines, his great ladies. Madame de Mortsauf is intended as a perfect example of feminine elevation, and yet Madame de Mortsauf has the whole of her husband's agricultural economy at her fingers' ends; she strikes us at moments as an attorney in petticoats. Each particular episode of the "Comedie Humanie" has its own hero and heroine, but the great general protagonist is the twenty-franc piece.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

THE cookbook

Yesterday, I took the subway down to Union Square to the Strand where I was mentally prepared to browse for several hours. Suffice it to say that I did not last the four or so hours I anticipated to look over all of the fiction available at the Strand. Instead, I had to leave after two hours...because staying at the Strand can be extremely dangerous to my bank account (pitiable thing that it is).

In my many years of visiting the Strand, I had never once ventured to look over their cookbooks. I assume this is because I was always bewilderingly distracted by their poetry and fiction, along with the many tables of discounted new books. However, yesterday, I ended up meandering along the hardbound classic section as I have been keen on finding another Balzac novel translated into English (while famous Balzacs such as Lost Illusions, Pere Goriot, Cousin Bette, etc. are easy to find, much of his Human Comedy remains unavailable in English today).

Little did I know that the cookbook section is right next to the hardbound classics; in the midst of my Balzac search, my eyes wandered to alight on Julia Child and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II, first edition! Surely, this must have been an oversight on the Strand's part. Their loss, my gain. While missing a dustjacket, the cover was a beautiful blue fleur-de-lis pattern on an off-white background, classic and elegant.

As soon as I got back home, I settled for a long cookbook read while eating goat cheese on wafer-thin crackers. Nothing that will make you as hungry as reading Mastering the Art of French Cooking (I assume the same for Volume 1 which I plan on buying very soon). Even thinking about the book now has me reaching out for those crackers, anything to fill my mouth while thinking about those soups recipes rich with cream, the roasts studded with lardons before being briefly pan fried with pork fat, the sausage recipes with one portion ground pork to one portion pork fat, the pate cooked in brioche dough, the deconstructed cabbage reconstructed with a stuffing of ground pork and rice, the lighter than air pound cake...hungry yet?

For all the recipes, what makes Child and Beck's cookbook so outstanding is the thorough description of technique, the idea that each section is built around one technique which can be mastered and used again and again throughout one's cooking lifetime. In many ways, today's cookbooks are extremely light on technique with too many homecooks reliant on cookbooks to offer a diverse range of techniques that needs to be learned over and over again. However, this is not the way cooks of old did it. Instead, what matters are a core set of skills (after all, cooking is a craft) that can be learned and which can be reinterpreted through various recipes.

For example, Child and Beck cover a good range of beef stew recipes. However, underlying each recipe, as the authors point out, is the central skill of braising with variations on the beginning and finishing portions of the recipe as well as slight modifications of ingredients. In this section, the authors, amateur cooks themselves who loved food but did not cook for restaurants, offer comprehensive information on different cuts of meat, what makes a certain cut of beef better for braising.

Many of the recipes are illustrated with drawings showing technique. This isn't the cookbook as food porn, which is so often the case these days and a visual feast I fully indulge in frequently, but the cookbook as a serious manual to a central skill.

Why a central skill? I realize that many people now cook only for entertainment. However, nothing is as nourishing or as reliable as a good meal. There might be days when I won't have the time to read (that mental and even emotional sustenance that I need). But I must eat, even if my lunch is too frequently in front of a computer. And I always eat a full breakfast, not a continental breakfast of pastry and coffee. With such eating habits, I try to always make a substantial main course that will last me for several breakfasts in a row (today, I made chicken and rice porridge with jujubee). Even if I have a long day of reports ahead of me, I can look forward to my breakfast, enjoy having something warm and filling, particularly on these cold December mornings. I know pop psychology is popular these days as a means of working one's self towards happiness...but I really think everyone would be happier if they learned to cook so that they could eat something delicious everyday.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Not work reading, someday?

So, there are all the joys of working in publishing...such as all the free books, meeting people who do nothing but work on books in one way or another and talking with such people about books, and doing something I love for a living.

However, believe it or not, as everyone in the industry will tell you, you never get the time to read for pleasure. The problem is reading for work. Work at the office is filled with too many distractions to actually read, between people popping in and out with questions, emails, and sorting through the kazillion pieces of paper waiting in the in-box.

It makes perfect sense that a co-worker gave me for a birthday recently: Franz Kafka's The Office Writings! Among the contents are "Jubilee Report: Twenty-Five Years of the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute" (1914), "Help Disabled Veterans! An Urgent Appeal to the Public" (1916/1917),"The Scope of Compulsory Insurance for the Building Trades" (1908), and much more written by Kafka as a lawyer working for the largest Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute in the Czech Lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to dip into it...too much work reading!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

OT: The divine Eggleston

Go see it at the Whitney Museum. Your eyes will thank you.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Schulz and Peanuts

I finally read David Michaelis' biography, Schulz and Peanuts, in a long marathon read starting on Friday evening and lasting all day Saturday. First off, I love the cover designed by Chip Kidd:

And before anyone reads further on my review, it might be more appropriate to look at Austin Kleon's review which he posted on his flickr page.

Now, onto my thoughts on David Michaelis' interpretation of Charles Schulz's life. I say "interpretation" as I do consider all biographies such and that the biographer is an active force in shaping the understanding of the subject. In many ways, a biographer is a harder task than that of a writer since a biographer is not dealing with inventions but with a human being who once lived (and occasionally are still living). Therefore, the final book is also a reflection of the biographer's ability to approach his subject with sensitivity and understanding while keeping a critical distance lest the biography become a hagiography.

David Michaelis had a large task in front of him as he is the first biographer of Schulz who passed away 2000. Moreover, as Michaelis tells us in his acknowledgments, Schulz did not believe in keeping drafts nor notes on his work and destroyed such items on a daily basis. What Michaelis had to work with were Schulz's letters, what Schulz's family, friends and acquaintances could tell about Schulz, and the Peanuts which Schulz penned up to a few months before his death.

In this regard, Schulz is not unique in becoming an enigmatic personality for a biographer to research; yet, such a loosely documented life tests the biographer's ability to weigh all evidence carefully. Unfortunately, Michaelis, while doing Peanuts-lovers a favor in researching Schulz's life and some of the inspirations for Peanuts, is a heavy-handed interpreter. Michaelis suffers from the psychoanalysis twitch. In this, he is not alone. Reading Schulz and Peanuts, I felt I could easily substitute Sylvia Plath's name for much of the psychoanalyzing: dead parent when young, ambition, unhappy marriage, and all this being used as fodder for the artist. Inasmuch as one should be careful not to presume in ever so delicately psychoanalyzing one's own friends, a biographer owes something (perhaps respect?) to his dead subject in not imposing a psychoanalytic trajectory that explains the artist too easily.

In essence, Michaelis' idea of Schulz can be summed up as such: Schulz suffered from his mother's cold and distant Norwegian demeanor. Therefore, when Dena Schulz died when Schulz was twenty, Schulz had yet to show his mother his accomplishments. The early death of his mother, combined with Schulz's feelings of inadequacy with his mother and his rough and tumble sardonic Norwegian relations, metamorphized in the young Schulz to a passive-aggressive ambition to become the best at comics while also creating a void which never allowed Schulz to feel satisfied with his accomplishments or his romantic life.

It might well be that Dena Schulz was a distant mother and that Charles Schulz felt that he never lived up to her expectations. However, this does not explain enough about Schulz's ability to create the world of the Peanuts, one which wasn't hermetic, as Michaelis seems to imply, but an imaginary world that reflected the true emotions of the world we inhabit. As such, while the children are cruel to each other, there are also lyrical moments of tenderness, music, dancing, philosophy, wit, and many of the humane ideas which balance out the cruelty and the awful sense of fatality in our lives.

In projecting his own psychoanalytic interpretation of Schulz, Michaelis fails to explore further all the aspects of the Peanuts (and possibly the many different aspects of Schulz) that made the Peanuts such a legendary comic strip.

Earlier, I mentioned Sylvia Plath and how the interpretation of her life is interchangeable with that of Schulz. The now entrenched viewpoint that Plath is a confessionalist poet whose works are a reflection of her inner turmoils has irreparably damaged much of the scholarship on Plath. Many scholars and biographers, insensitive to the technical brilliance that Plath brought to her poems, have wasted their energies on finding a one to one correlation between Plath's works and her life. However, a close reading of her poems reveals that while Plath interwove real aspects of her life into her work, she transformed events into a symbolic and often a mythical language that was influenced by writers such as T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Hopkins, Dylan Thomas and more. Such transmutation of life into fiction and poetry was not a cause to find a psychological disease in a writer until the recent decades; if anything, such transformations were seen as part of an artist's task.

Michaelis follows in the path of many contemporary biographers in looking corollaries between the Peanuts characters and the people in Schulz's life. For instance, Michaelis interprets Lucy as a pure transposition of Schulz's first wife, Joyce, who had an imperious manner and seemed to commander their marriage. In support of such a narrow understanding of Lucy, Michaelis interweaves strips (as he does throughout the whole book) of Lucy's domineering behavior. Yet, what he fails to mention are the strips when Lucy dances with Snoopy, when she can be surprisingly gentle or tender to Linus, or when she displays curiosity towards the world in such small things as watching bugs on the sidewalk. While it seems likely that a number of the strips about Lucy were inspired by Joyce and the Schulzs' unhappy marriage, it also seems possible that the character of Lucy was larger than that. In the same vein, Michaelis interprets Charlie Brown and Snoopy as two different aspects of Schulz himself.

Throughout his whole life, Schulz said that the Peanuts were his own creation, and Michaelis gives many instances when Schulz would not allow anybody's interference as to what should go in any of the strips. If Schulz maintained this artistic line, as Michaelis believes, then, aren't all of the Peanuts a reflection of different aspects of Schulz, or at least as Schulz understood the world?

What I dislike about finding narrow corollaries between a work and an artist's life is that it narrows our understanding of a work rather than enriching it. If I am to believe that Lucy is only Schulz's first wife, what then am I to make of the many instances when I sympathize with Lucy as she is on the page, as she was created by Schulz and then leapt off the page as a vivacious, crabby, loud, violent, funny character?

Peppermint Patty is attributed by Michaelis to be a take-off on Schulz's tomboyish cousin, Patty Swenson. Yet, later in life when Schulz married a second time to Jeannie Clyde, much of Jeannie's activities and words were transposed onto Peppermint Patty. It would seem that Schulz himself saw his characters in a more fluid manner where he worked some of the people onto the characters that were suitable.

In his groundbreaking work, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud posits that it is easier to emphatize with comic strip characters because their faces are such a quick sketch, a few lines with few deliminating characteristics, making them almost universal. In many critical writings on James Joyce's Ulysses, scholars note Joyce's telescoping of the specific onto the universal in plotting a son and surrogate father story onto an epic myth. One might say that it is necessary for any artist to strive to make her characters and feelings understood universally. After all, the task of an artist is to interpret his world and then offer it up to an audience so that the viewer or reader can use such works to better interpret his own life. In this, Schulz was triumphant. While Michaelis' biography has covered much ground in research, the interpretation seems lacking. It would be a shame if future Schulz biographers were to see The Peanuts in such a confessionalist manner, as has happened to Plath's work. Instead, I hope that other biographers will use Michaelis' research and follow up with a more broadening understanding of Schulz's life and his work.

Friday, October 31, 2008

OT: Snoopy Curry

Just because....A friend posted this photo on her album after a visit to Tokyo.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Economist Book of Obituaries

Yesterday over oysters and soup, a friend gave me a copy of The Economist Book of Obituaries. I haven't seriously read The Economist in years, mostly because I never really enjoyed the writing style. Being mostly a fiction reader, most non-fiction has to be gussied up into something more florid for me to get used to it (we all have our faults; the inability to read non-fiction well is one of mine). However, I had never read their obituary section, even though I've long enjoyed New York Times' obits. Boy, was I in for a pleasant surprise.

The obituaries in The Economist include what one would expect: the famous politicians, Princess Di, movie stars, famous musicians...the people who are always making the news. But, The Economist also has a policy, starting with the very beginning of their obit column, of favoring the lesser-known personality over the world famous figure. Hence, along with the stars are behind the scene political advisors, an oil-rig fire fighter, Alex the African Grey (famous for being able to construct real sentences with semiotic meaning), philosophers, sports figures, brewers, economists, the last survivor of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study who passed away in 2004, human rights activists, the forger of Hitler's diaries, gangsters, corrupt dictators...all the many people who have contributed to the world, whether for good or for the worse.

Written by Keith Colquhoun, a novelist, and Ann Wroe, a biographer, the obituaries are marvels of well-constructed and effective sentences. While each obit clearly has a decided perspective on the deceased person, it also judiciously lays out all the facts and sides to a personality. In many instances, though, the obituary writers hew to The Economist's tone of dignity (a sort of very British let's be worldly gentlemen sort of feel perhaps). One such example is the obituary of Princess Di:

One of the oddities of many of the articles written about Diana during the past week is that they dwell on her search for privacy. True, she had no privacy, but she appeared content to be constantly on public view. After Lenin died the Soviet government employed researchers to make a record of every day of his life. The reporters and photographers who made Diana their career did the same, and more efficiently. She mostly smiled on their dog-like attention and occasionally threw them a bone which would turn up in a tabloid next day as a "world exclusive."

Her friends were privy to her more intimate thoughts and those too would become public property. The princess went on television to give answers to the most searching questions about her life in a BBC programme that was sold around the world. As a product, Diana never palled. There was always some event to keep her public keen, a new lover, a new cause, some painful disclosure about her physical and mental health. Privacy is a luxury still available to the rich, albeit with difficulty. Princess Diana preferred to display her infinite variety.

It should be noted that the obit is accompanied by a photo of Diana before her fairy tale wedding, with the yet to be princess looking rather sulky, her shoulders rather slumped, face tilted and the hair casting a shadow over her eyes which brood up at the viewer in annoyance peevishly. The young Diana Frances Spencer is ill-dressed in a oxford shirt with a vest sweater and a seersucker skirt that hangs off her like a potato sack. The photo goes with the notion that such a Diana might have relished the stardom that being Princess of Wales instantly endowed.

Almost consistently, the writers are more generous and sympathetic to the lesser known figures. One that moved me a great deal was the writing on Bip, the character created by the mime, Marcel Marceau:

He [Pip] never spoke. Mr Marceau's father died in 1944 in Auschwitz, and Bip's silence was a tribute to all those who had been silenced in the camps. It was a recollection, too, of the necessary muteness of resistance fighters caught by the Nazis, or quietly leading children across the Swiss border to safety, as Mr Marceau had done. In one of his acts, "Bip Remembers", the sad-faced clown relived in mime the horrors of the war and stressed the necessity of love. In another, his hands became good and evil: evil clenched and jerky, good flowing and emollient, with good just winning.

I was struck to read time and again about the many people who were orphans. It reminds me that eighty or seventy years ago, mortality was much higher, diseased more rampant and the two world wars a major devastation to nations and individuals.

Besides learning about individual personalities, many of the obits on political figures around the world are informative in relating exactly the contextual political history of their times. As such, now I finally understand the basis of the civil war in Sri Lanka, some of the policies of the French government after World War II towards its colonies, and much much more twentieth history.

On one final note, I am gratified to note that the British style of quotation marks is exactly the way I have always believed that quotation marks should semiotically used.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Nancy Mitford and her sisters

Really, they each deserve a heading of their own, but I am making her siblings contingent on Nancy Mitford as I started off my interest with Nancy Mitford's biographies. A couple of years ago, I read, in an article about Voltaire and his works, about Nancy Mitford's book, Voltaire in Love, detailing Voltaire's relationship with the Marquise du Chatelet, an unusually scientifically-oriented woman for her time. I haven't read anything by Volatire except for Candide. However, Candide is one of those books that everyone has: "The Book (or one of the books) That Changed My Life."

(Some of the books to make that list for me is Camus' The Plague, Dylan Thomas' Selected Poems, Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures, Fareed Zakaria's Future of Freedom, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Elaine Scarry's On Beauty. These books aren't even necessarily the books I consider the best written books I have read, nor always the most sophisticated in terms of intellectual thinking, even though most of them are intellectually stimulating. Rather, they are books that converged with a certain pivotal moment when much was changing in my life and where the books crystallized a certain change in my own thinking.)

I read Voltaire's Candide multiple times for classes. Like Conrad's Heart of Darkness, it seemed to be required reading in every other class I took...possibly because I had such a fascination with the French Revolution during my college days. In all, there were four separate times when I read Candide. It says something about my lack of perspicacity that it took the fourth read for me to appreciate Candide and the notion of tending the garden at the end of Candide. That didn't happen until my second year in grad school where I was miserably not tending my garden, or more or less lackadaisically attending classes while uncertain of what to do with my life. Then, Candide hit me like a brick-of-walls revelation (it's for moments like this that the Joycean concept of epiphany seems the only apt description).

Reading Nancy Mitford's Voltaire in Love provided all sorts of biographical and historical details that are helpful in placing Voltaire in context, not only in terms of his personal and romantic life but also in terms of politics, his own oddly querulous but somewhat obsequious or provocative (in turns, depending on his position with the court) behavior towards the French court. The book is also good at giving colorful specifics on intellectual arguments, the back-biting between intellectuals, and the petty bickering that seems to be the grease of life everywhere and in every century.

Previous to reading Voltaire in Love, I breezed through Mitford's Madame de Pompadour about the beautiful mistress of Louis XV whose political intrigues are often blamed for the loss of the French monarch's popularity and as paving the populous road towards hate of the regency. The political action which Mitford cites as being the most unfortunate of Madame de Pompadour's well-intentioned but politically naive step was in being one of the primary instigators of France's alliance to Germany which led to the financially debilitating Seven Year's War. Interestingly, Mitford writes that Louis XV was very against war of any kind except in absolute need of national security. Along with other monarchs of that time, Louis XV saw war on the battlefield (not in the frontlines, but still he was on the battlefield unlike politicians in our time who visit soldiers at forts and bases but do not actually endanger their physical being) and appreciated that the sacrifice of human lives was enormous and not to be taken lightly. The other reason Madame de Pompadour is so notorious in history is that she was one of the rare commoners to become a monarch's lover, being born into a bourgeois family rather than an aristocratic one.

After reading both books, I became intrigued by Mitford herself. Both of the biographies have a light and funny voice that makes reading history fun rather than a tedious trudge through facts. While they might not be the books for serious scholars of French history or French intellectual history, they are perfect for a layman such as myself looking to learn more about Voltaire and Madame de Pompadour without committing myself to long tomes. From the sparkling wit of her tone, it was clear that Nancy Mitford must have been quite the social personality as well as being learned.

I had long had Mary S. Lovell's The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family on my bookshelf as a freebie from years ago when it was first published but knew little about any of the Mitfords, from the notorious Hitler-adoring Unity, Diana who married England's Fascist's party leader, to Jessica Mitford who literally fled her family to become one of America's top muckrakers and civil activist and Nancy Mitford who moved to Paris, in love with one of De Gaulle's advisors and sorting through various French archives for further research on other biographies, including one on Louis XIV and Frederick the Great. Among the lesser publicly famous sisters were Debo, the youngest sister who married into one of England's most prestigious families and helped restore the family's beautiful and stupendous estate, Chatsworth, and Pamela, known as the quiet Mitford or "The Woman," within the family, for her motherly ways.

Lovell's family biography is appropriate for Nancy Mitford as Lovell brings a human touch to one of the most tremendous times of the twentieth century when Facism and Communism were on the rise with Hitler remaking Germany after the financially disastrous Treaty of Versailles which held the ruined German government liable for the financial costs of the war to the allies. As a consequence, Germany lost its colonies (remember that this is still a time when colonies were deemed an appropriate holdings of a European nation) and ten percent of its own land. 12.5 percent of the German population suddenly found themselves no longer living in Germany. Furthermore, as the reparations continued, they crippled Germany's ability to recover from World War I. When Germany found itself so economically incapable that they could not continue reparations, French troops entered the Ruhr to demand payment. All these consequences of the first World War led to the downfall of the Weimar government and the rise of Hitler.

As Lovell's group biography capably shows, many in Europe at the time admired Hitler's ability to bring Germany out of such dire circumstances. Along with Hitler's command of Germany's domestic difficulties, the rise of Communism in Europe was seen as a threat by the wealthier and aristocratic British such as Tom Mitford, the one brother among the six sisters, who didn't agree with Hitler's virulent anti-Semitism but espoused Facism; he went so far as to do everything possible to be stationed away from Europe during World War II so that he wouldn't have to fight Germans.

It speaks to Lovell's abilities as a writer and her scope as a biographer that she is able to bring a perspective to why half the Mitford family actually liked Hitler. Besides the fact that Hitler's reign ended Germany's economic misery, they also knew Hitler personally. Unity, the fourth of the Mitford siblings, early had an infatuation with Hitler; once she was sent to Germany, as an attempt by her parents to get the disinterested adolescent girl engaged in her studies, she spent many hours in restaurants that Hitler frequented. Her efforts were rewarded by Hitler who finally noticed the tall Nordic featured girl who seemed to be everywhere he was and invited her to his table. Over the course of years, many members of the family, most notably Unity's parents and her sister Diana, were personally introduced to Hitler, dined with Hitler and held fairly normal conversations about the arts, food, and the everyday topics of polite discourse.

While Unity was in Germany swooning over Hitler (literally -- her contemporaries and friends have talked about Unity's body shaking whenever she saw Hitler), Decca (Jessica) Mitford felt smothered by the lack of stimulation on the Redesdale homestead (the Mitfords' parents were Lord and Lady Redesdale, in the confusing manner of British arisotcratic patronyms) and decided to run away with her Communist cousin, Esmond, who also happened to be Winston Churchill's nephew. All of the Mitfords were related, not by blood but by marriage, to Winston Churchill through their father who was Churchill's wife's cousin (David Freeman Mitford's aunt's -- on his mother's side -- daughter, Clementine, married Winston Churchill). Esmond began to harbor a hate of almost the whole Mitford family for their conservative politics as well as the Lord Redesdale's severing of ties with Decca during Esmond's lifetime (much as he had broken ties with Decca's older sister, Diana, for divorcing her husband, an heir to the Gusiness fortune, in order to have an affair with Sir Owald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF)). When Esmond died fighting on the British side of the war, Decca somehow came to believe that her sister Diana and her husband were personally responsible for the war and her husband's death.

Much as now, politics was personal intertwined with the ideological. Diana supported Fascism because her lover, later husband, was the leader of the BUF. Decca early sought out Socialism and Communism as a means of rebelling against her parents who, along with many aristocrats and commoners of that time, did not see any reason to send their daughters on for further education even as they sent their son to university. Nancy supplied information on Diana to the British government because she believed that the British must fight against the Germans. Lord and Lady Redesdale, split by ideological differences about the war (Lord Redesdale supported the war whereas Lady Redesdale insisted that Hitler was the nice man she had often lunched with while visiting her daughter Unity in Germany), eventually physically separated as well and never lived together again. Unity, whose adoration of Hitler was so overwhelming, came to believe that the purpose of her life was to unite Germany and Britain in diplomatic alliance somehow despite the fact that she was a young and naive woman rather than a diplomat and a politician. When war was declared, she shot herself in a suicide attempt that left her mentally impaired for the rest of her life.

It is inevitable that we look back towards World War II and see Hitler as a monster that, of course, should have been stopped. World War II, in retrospect, has all the force of all historic actions validated by historians. It was necessary. Yet, this is in hindsight, after the war has been won. During the Mitfords' time, when they were living the political uncertainties, the war was contested within the family with their individual ideologies, personalities, love affairs, passions and goals shaping how each understood the war. I recall reading a recent review of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke where Baker was criticized for his portrayal of Churchill as a war-mongerer. Yet, independent of Baker, Lovell talks about this as a commonly understood portrayal of Winston Churchill by his political contemporaries, that Churchill was impatient for war and wanted it when there were other politicians who were not as eager for war so soon after the first World War I (interestingly, one of Diana's lifelong defensive points about her Fascist husband was that he was a pacifist who fought in World War I and did not want war again).

In thinking about war as understood by a nation's citizens in the time of war as opposed to understanding a war after the war is won, I wonder how historians will understand the current American war in Iraq. I am one of many who think that the war has been an aggressive act to secure a foothold in the Middle East at the cost of many lives, American and Iraqi as well as those of nations fighting on both sides. In thinking about the Mitford sisters, their divided stances on politics, and the light that Lovell sheds on the uncertainty of the future in any political situation, perhaps the only thing one can say is that future historians' understanding of this current war will be shaped by how the war is won or lost rather than by the uncertainties that accompanied this era.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

OT: Sarah Palin's sentences diagrammed

I stole these diagrams from Kitty Burns Florey's Slate article on diagramming Sarah Palin's sentences.

Sarah Palin during the Katie Couric interview:
It's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia as Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where—where do they go?

Sarah Palin during the Charlie Gibson interview:
I know that John McCain will do that and I, as his vice president, families we are blessed with that vote of the American people and are elected to serve and are sworn in on January 20, that will be our top priority is to defend the American people.

Sarah Palin on confusion:

Of Kitty Burns Florey's own sentences, I particularly admired and giggled over this one:
The sentences she uttered in interviews with Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity, and Katie Couric seem to twitter all over the place like mourning doves frightened at the feeder.

Mourning doves frightened at the, Palin or the voters?

Monday, September 29, 2008

OT: House says No to Bailout

Graph of Dow says it all (graph from New York Times). I know this isn't even remotely related to books, but I find it all so depressing that I can't think of anything else.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Comic-con and getting rid of sexual harassment

Please go read this by Bully and John on how to help get rid of sexual harassment at Comic-Con.

While I've never been to Comic-Con, having had John and Bully as friends for many years, I trust what they say (besides, they are the kind of folks you can trust). The comic and graphic novel scene is very neat, and it's a shame to let a few guys who can't behave ruin it for everyone else.

And Hurray! to John and Bully for doing something about it. Join the effort. Click on the link in the first paragraph.

Rant: Stupidity

Well, we all knew it...the blog is just like the world in revealing the many aspects of human nature. But it happens to be different than the world in that any individual can have their ignorance and stupidity crystallized and revealed for the rest of the world in the way of all fast media.

Therefore, without further ado, I have the displeasure of outing this particularly self-insular and self-centered piece of writing by a young man who had never heard of David Foster Wallace until Wallace's recent sad death.

On the blog, as on in the real world, not knowing something doesn't always imply that the person is not famous; it can just be a pointer at one's own lack of knowledge in certain arenas. Given that all of us are necessarily limited in knowledge due to the limitations of the human brain and time on this earth (I fully admit my ignorance of all things related to pop culture, mathematics and science), there's no problem with that. However, what is a problem is mistaking a serious writer who suffered from a debilitating mental disease as a sensation- and fame-seeker.

Mr. Matthew T. Sussman could only have made such a mistake in ignoring his own ignorance of a very well-known American writer and foolishly deciding to turn his ignorance into a sensation- and fame-seeking piece on David Foster Wallace. He should feel ashamed for his lack of intellectual curiosity as well as a lack of intellectual honesty. In both traits, he is the exact opposite of David Foster Wallace whose writing is much admired for displaying an energetic curiosity towards all things and all beings in the world as well as the ability to work through intellectual questions in a discerning manner.

OT: obit of Joan Winston

Very interesting obituary on someone who sounds very of the original organizers for the Star Trek conventions.

Hope she finds an afterlife in outer space.

Friday, September 19, 2008


I am totally crushing on The Cloudspotter's Guide, a book chockful of wonderful facts about clouds, including elephants....more later.

But, in the meantime, go join the Cloud Appreciation Society.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Violence and its representation

A couple of nights ago, I was too tired from various reports at work to read too much, so I opened Gilbert Hernandez's Chance in Hell about a girl possibly abandoned by her parents in a surreal violent junkyard and rescued by a man who grew up in the said junkyard. Like previous Gilbert Hernandez graphic novels which I've read, Chance in Hell has a gritty social overlay; however, Hernandez also develops a more symbolic language to talk about the psychological effects of violence on his characters. Both trademark traits propel the plot of Chance in Hell in which the main character, Empress, is raped as well as watching people die in the surreal junkyard only to perpetuate an impulsive act of violence herself.

It is perhaps inevitable to be saddened and disturbed by such a book, particularly a graphic novel where the violence is visually rendered. One could argue, of course, that the visual representation of violence has been made quotidian through regular viewings on television and at the movies (and I must disclose at this moment that I gave up television a few years back and only watch television at friends'). However, I found myself startled by the violence in Hernandez's book; in retrospect, I wonder if part of that surprise and deep disturbance is the format of a graphic novel as opposed to a movie or a tv show.

In a book, whether it's a graphic novel, a poem, or a cookbook, one can return to different parts. While I am stating the obvious, I am intrigued in taking this ability to look again and again in conjunction with the fascination with violence and sex (by the way, on a very large theme...why is it that so much violence is often linked to sex in various plots, whether in novels, tv, movies, songs, etc.). In watching a movie or tv, the scene of violence moves. It is not static. Violence in photographs or art is static; it is "captured" in the singular moment or singular representation. Graphic novels takes the static and creates a moving plot...yet, one can replay the plot with a turn of the page. In this sense, violence, as represented in a graphic novel, can be viewed more easily many more times.

In thinking about violence, I am reminded of a friend who cannot watch any violent movies, including Hong Kong cop movies (some of my favorite movies are John Woo films). To me, such films, along with Quentin Taratino's riff on Hong Kong cool, are not real as violence due to the stylization which takes precedence over any pretense of representing reality. Yet, such violence when real, when enacted in life, is a negation of humanity itself. In saying that I don't mind stylized violence, am I unconsciously helping foster a "cool" view of violence? The very question smacks of morality, but I can't help but wonder what happens in an age and ethos when violence is so easy to represent with irony and style whereas tenderness and gentleness is almost impossible to represent without Hollywood sentimentality.

When considering tenderness and gentleness, I still think about the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," a movie I watch almost every year. It remains an emotionally moving film because it isn't saccharine. Instead, the movie ponders a very serious question about a good man on the verge of suicide after financial ruin. I don't necessarily think that "morals" are useful in thinking about the arts. Yet, I do want to consider carefully what is possible in various representations. Is it easy to represent violence? Is it difficult to represent tenderness? Is it easy to represent an evil person? Is it difficult to represent a good person? Or, perhaps even more complicated: how does one faithfully allow for the mix of both violence and tenderness, the mix of good and bad (evil always has such a metaphysical ring that it doesn't even seem to exist), the more likely reality that most of us encounter?

Friday, September 5, 2008

War and Peace, changes, and self-help books

It's been awhile since I've had the mental wherewithal to put a coherent posting, mostly because I've been trying to adjust to some major changes in my life as I just moved cities and switched jobs. Granted, I moved back to the city where I grew up and switched jobs back into an industry where I worked for a number of years...but still, there's all the usual adjustments of learning new commuting times, returning to a four-season climate (including the most hideous of humid summers), and just thinking about every new new thing.

As part of such changes, I just bought...2 self-help books. I can't help but feel somewhat addled and fluffy as a human being just admitting that I bought those self-help books, let alone saying that I am in absolute earnest about reading these books. However, as I recently admitted to a friend, I've learned many things about life from more shallow sources, particularly Agatha Christie's mysteries and Korean soap operas.

So, what have I learned from Agatha Christie's mysteries? As someone who started reading Agatha Christie as an adult (rather than all my middle school friends who were reading them when they were eleven), I loved her psychological portrayal of human beings. Granted, they aren't the deepest psychological portrayals, but I always felt they struck at the essence of certain personality quirks. And sometimes, having a quick thumbnail sketch of human psychology, rather than a long and involved book, is useful as a way of easily understanding certain traits.

In regards to Korean soap opera...I would say that the lesson is, contradictorily enough, the exact opposite: that certain situations and circumstances do not call for deep rumination on human motivations but rather behaving in a way to make the best of a situation. In that regard, Korean soap operas address the deeply pragmatic vein of Korean culture while still turning on all the tears for the melodrama. The other thing I love about Korean soap operas is how the best ones are detail-oriented and based on mores. In many ways, there is a similarity to earlier British novels such as Jane Austen's novels (many Korean soap operas are still about marriages) or something like Anna Karenina (the sprawling multiple family soap operas with large casts, differences in classes and various personality types, the one tragic figure, etc).

So, given that so much of what I know about life does not come from profound sources but Agatha Christie and Korean soap operas...I should be perfectly fine in saying that I just bought Pema Chodron's Comfortable with Uncertainity and Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit. Pema Chodron's book are brief essays (very brief, roughly a couple of paragraphs each) that takes a Buddhist approach towards life and how to accept different vicissitudes of living. While I am not Buddhist, I find certain aspects of the religion (in its ideal, not institutional, form) jiving with my own hopeful aspirations for myself such as getting rid of one's ego, cultivating gentleness, acknowledging one's flaws, compassionate living, etc.

Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit is about creativity as Tharp has thought about it in relation to her practices as a dancer and composer of dance pieces. Yet, I think that much of how one approaches life, and work as well, is improved in keeping creativity alive and part of everyday living. Certainly, trying to see, whether I am walking the same blocks everyday or on vacation, has improved the enjoyment of my life vastly. Some days, I think there's really nothing more wonderful than seeing a beautiful building; yet, I feel the same when I see a flower blooming during the rare hikes (I am all urban girl). In many ways, creativity is engaging the world with all of one's senses and then interpreting it through one's mind and sensibility. To learn to utilize the senses, sensibility, and the mind is a tremendous resource.

Lastly, I have wanted to buy Richard Pevear and Larissa volokhonsky's translation of War and Peace since it first came out; I loved their translation of Anna Karenina. And I saw a hardcover still available and displayed at a bookstore, so I snagged it. Although the hardcover is pricey, I think it's worth it. Could I have bought it on Amazon for cheaper? Yes...but when I buy a hardcover for $37, it has to be perfect in appearance. And occasionally Amazon delivers books that are not in its best shape, particularly for one so obsessed about making sure the cover is smirch-free, untorn, and pristine.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Michael Eastman, Vanishing America

Dotty has it, Cairo, Il

Eddie's BBQ

Big Hole, Montana

Barn, La Crosse

Marcella's Resort

Cairo, Il

I could look at these images over and over again and not get tired of them one bit.

Unfortunately, the layout of the book (from what I can tell looking at pages on Amazon) does not treat the photographs as the work of an artist/photographer but rather as an Americana book. So, layout is bleeds, numerous photographs squeezed onto one page without margins. This is a bit disappointing given that Eastman's photographs are stunningly beautiful. However, I consider it still worthwhile to get the book after looking at these photographs on-line and will plunk down my credit card in a couple of weeks to get my copy. I will report further once I've perused the whole book.

OT: Moon Water

This is such a beautiful image that I had to post it to my blog even though it's not remotely related to books. It appeared on the New York Times with the following explanation:

Moon water. The green spherules, made of glass, are pieces of the Moon, typically about one-fifth of a millimeter in diameter, that were erupted from the lunar mantle long ago. New analysis of these volcanic glasses, which were collected by Apollo 15 astronauts, indicate that they contained 745 parts per million of water before the eruption. That suggests that there could be water in the interior of the Moon, which would be unexpected. The Moon is believed to be the result of a collision between the Earth and a Mars-size asteroid, and that cataclysm would have left the Moon high and dry.

Photo credit: NASA.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Insular Literature?

In the second volume of his history of Modern poetry, David Perkins talks about the differences between what New Criticism espoused as opposed to the actual way the New Critics had learned literature, including by reading literature in foreign languages.

I admit to being an heir to New Criticism thoughts in that I am not fluent in any foreign language, only knowing stray phrases here and there from various languages I studied ad hoc while in school. However, not knowing a language is no excuse for not reading a book in translation, including some of the most exciting poetry currently available.

Kevin Bezner in Oyster Boy talks about how New Criticism was a wrong turn in American poetry in that it espoused a natural diction in poetry rather than a language wholly different. While I don't necessarily agree with all of the review (particularly Bezner's contention that sonnet imposes a form on content; rather, in a good sonnet, the content should be chosen as suitable for the sonnet as should each word in its ability to burst out into the compressed form of the sonnet. This is what makes Gerald Manley Hopkins' sonnets so memorable along with the sprung rhythm. The contemporary practice of seeing content divorced from form has led to many unmemorable sonnets.), I think Bezner has a point. The use of almost wholly colloquial language in poems seems to be a mostly American practise.

Perhaps this points to a question I had in an earlier posting as to why the poets writing in Portuguese and Spanish have been influenced in a different way by the Whitmanian tradition than Americans have. The Portuguese and Spanish language poets seem to have encountering Surrealism at the same time that they were encountering Whitman as a poetic influence whereas Americans seem to have incorporated Whitman more along the lines of Mark Twain colloquialism meets the long line.

It could be that we are at a point where we are headed towards a cycle of insularity unless we can break off somehow. I say this when I think about my own generation of writers who seem too content with the current American poetry scene. I once heard Paul Muldoon say during a lecture that a poet is doing something wrong if he is not uncomfortable. There's so much placid acceptance that I would prefer some anger at this point.

I consider Paul Celan as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. It is hard to think of another poet from anywhere who remained so true to articulating truths about the world while still maintaining veracity to the art. He did not write of everyday comforts, but of the difficulty of seeing the world without a veil. When I read Celan, I feel that this must have been a tremendously difficult task for Celan, one that required careful and lengthy parsing of language as well as much time spent at considering each articulation of the world.

Currently, it is estimated that only 3 percent of books published in the U.S. are works in translation (3 percent is also the name of a new review website dedicated to foreign literature). For a vast publishing industry, this is too small a percentage and we lag far behind most nations with a robust book industry.

While it is important to listen to American voices and to read the representation of American lives, in a time when our presence on the international scene reflects how little we understand other cultures, it's important for current generations and future generations to read about other nations. Moreover, I would say that such understanding shouldn't be done through the interpretations of an American author, but rather that we should fully encounter the unfamiliarity and strangeness of other nations, their artistic sensibilities, their perspectives, and their interpretations on the world.

Besides the political scene, it is crucial for writers to read literature from everywhere. How else are we to continue growing, to be made uncomfortable?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Moby on Widgets

This is what Herman Melville's Moby Dick widgets look like.

You can get Moby Dick widget t-shirts as well.

Monday, July 7, 2008

OT: Starlings!

I've seen these birds swoop down in mass formations for years in my parents' neighborhood, and then later in the vicinity of my office, without knowing what they were. They make the most amazing formations, a pulsing swirling entity of perpetual motion. I can watch them for hours, in awe.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut

I was lucky enough to read Takashi Hiraide's For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut in manuscript form a couple of months ago. It's a revelation in how to write small prose poems in beautiful language that interconnects into a larger poem with concrete themes that burst out into grander themes when read together. There's the regular commuter rails, minute observations of insect life, the wonder of fruit, rain falling into larger pools of water, the wonder of the universe encapsulated in each microcosm of living. A small bit of the book:

# 95
The battle of poetic forms, like a rag tossed on the pavement, is wet with recently spilled stars. What passes above it is a mechanism simply for passing by, a glance to be ignored. The formulaic camp remains blind to this section where each scenery emerges, but wrapped inside an old rallying call is rather a single section of acropathy patients eager to capsize the encircling cobblestones through the freedom of poetic form. They close their small eyes to the fact that a form of free verse is already a form at the disposal of political power, and that a rag waves no differently from a nation's flag.

Oh, and please admire the beautiful bilingual book design: recto English translation (trans. by Sawako Nakayasu), verso Japanese original.

Fantagraphics Sale!

Fantagraphics is having a backlist sale with many excellent books at 25% discount.

I recommend the following:
Francesa Ghermandi's Wipeout: weird shaped beings in a noir love triangle murder money story. Movie genre meets graphic novel. By the way, the noir has made a huge comeback in many different graphic novels.

Mark Kalesniko's Mail Order Bride: a comicbook-toy-geek orders a bride from South Korea only to have the submissive bride go through a journey of self-discovery and female emancipation in the land of Canada (cue Joni Mitchell).

Milt Gross's He Done Her Wrong: an early early story even before the days of "graphic novel" being coined as a term, this is all the best sentimentality, melancholy, and body language of silent movies in graphic comic form. Don't miss it. There's nothing like it. One of my favorites.

Tori Miki's Anywhere But Here: I can't even explain these quirky little panels, so I am stealing this from Paul Harrison-Davies' blog:
Kangaeochi is form of Japanese stand up comedy where the laughter (assuming the jokes funny I guess) comes a couple of seconds after the jokes punchline. Now this isn't an extreme example of Japanese politeness, it's better explained by the english translation of kangaeochi, 'the thinker's punch line'. Basically you aren't supposed to 'get' the joke, at least not straightaway. ‘Anywhere But Here’ is a collection of one page comics that are the visual equivilant of kangaeochi, out of 90 pages I laughed, or smiled, or grinned, or nodded in appreciation, at maybe 10 pages.... the first time round. That's the thing, these comics are so strange, so odd, so removed from anything I've ever see, so charming and told with such beautiful and simple artwork that you have to look at them again, and again, and again... and then, you laugh. You get it, it's so obvious. And brilliant, did I mention that?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Summarize Olympic sport

Bully sent me this video link when I wrote my visualizing a la Proust post. I've been so hectic that I haven't had a chance to watch it until today. It's worth watching, particularly for Monty Python fans. Then, give the competitive summarization of Proust a shot yourself:


Not books, nor book-related...but I am sure you can use a book break occasionally as well.

Christmas Island Red Crabs - video powered by Metacafe

Monday, June 23, 2008

Moby hibernating?

When I discovered the website, it was like stumbling on a motherlode, a veritable treasure chest of all things book-related that were bound to fascinate and awe me.

However, the website seems not to have been updated since 2006. My guess is that the founders, since venturing out into the perilous and exciting world of independent publishing, are too busy to post on their site. And who can blame them? Melville House is a wonderful addition to the industry, a great mix of eclectic, smart and fun books. Go check it out.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Booksellers and Independent Bookstores

Over the last week, I've been spending a great deal of time talking with independent booksellers. I am lucky enough to be living in a city, San Francisco, with some of the most active independent booksellers.

When I try to explain to people outside of the book industry why independent bookstores are so important, people often don't understand. It could be that my view is so much as an insider that it doesn't connect with people who are not immersed in the book world as I am. However, I feel it is important to explain the necessity of independent bookstores and to try continuously to explain in the hopes that more people will support the independent bookstore in their neighborhood.

First off is the very general explanation for supporting independent businesses locally. Chain stores are not a good way to create a middle-class within a neighborhood because the majority of the money is sent to the headquarters. Even while such stores might employ local people, the profits will not be spent by locally. The employees will earn the salary, and given that we are talking about retail stores, most of these employees will not be earning a great deal whereas the larger profits will be given to headquarters and corporate employees who live in a different region of the country. However, if one spends money at a local store, the profit goes directly to someone who lives in that city or town and who will be spending the dollars within the community. Therefore, the cash flow remains within the community and helps to make a more stable middle class and one that is not based too much on flow in and flow out from other regions.

The second reason is how you, the reader, benefits from the expertise of people who live and breathe books for a living. When I started working in publishing, I started actively questioning all my friends and acquaintances on how they bought books, what compelled them to pick up a book in a bookstore and buy it. What surprised me is how many of them answered that the biggest problem they faced was that they didn't know what to buy. Generally, these were friends who are not writers, who read on a moderate basis, have subscription to the New Yorker, but do not actively follow the book reviews. They might happen upon a book review occasionally, but they do not see it as part of their weekend morning to peruse the book review to see what book might interest them.

For such readers, independent bookstores are a gift. There, the bookstore staff actively follows book reviews, knows what other people in the industry has recommended, but also, crucially, knows the local taste. On top of all that, they will often spend the time to talk with customers and make recommendations specifically based on your taste in books and what type of book you are looking to read at that exact moment. I recently watched a bookseller in action as I had inadvertently visited him at the busiest part of the day. He would be talking with me at the counter when a customer would come up and ask for a recommendation. He would give some ideas of his favorite books at that moment, ask the customer what she kind of book she was reading, and then start walking her towards different categories to show her a few books that might suit her. She ended up with two books that interested her.

For a serious bookreader, the need for independent bookstores is different. Possibly the last thing I need is more books. I have a bookshelf filled with double rows of books, books in stacks on top of the bookshelf, and stacks of books on the floor. Yet, books are an addiction, and I need to constantly replenish. If I know exactly which book I want, it would be easy. But like the casual reader, I want to be informed, but also excited, stimulated, and thrilled by falling in love for a new book. Here, independent bookstores that I know and trust serve as my drug dealers. We have a relationships. I might not even talk with a bookseller while I am there. Instead, I will spend several hours browsing, and end up with three books. I take this addiction very seriously; it is central to my very existence. When a bookstore that I rely on for such browsing hours close down, it is a catastrophe in my life. When Posman on University Place closed down, I was quite upset and talked about it for a year in confusion and sorrow. When Gotham closed down, not only was it upsetting on a personal level as I knew a number of the staff, but also upsetting as a lose of a known space. Each independent bookstore is distinct in how they choose to lay out the space, what kind of shelves they use, and the final atmosphere they achieve, from the small and cozy, to the large and spacious, from cluttered to neat, from the labyrinthine to rows of symmetrical shelves. Often I end up at a different bookstore based not only on my knowledge of the kind of books they are likely to stock, but also on what kind of space in which I want to spend my hours at that given moment. Each is an atmosphere that interacts with my personal needs. It is a dynamic that no chain nor online retailer can achieve.

Finally, I'd also like to say that for someone working in an independent publishing house as I do, independent booksellers are our front row of defense. They are the ones who promote our books, who take on risks to buy our books and sell it. In much the same ways that my company takes on a risk to acquire a manuscript by an unknown author and publish it, independent bookstores will take on the risk to promote an unknown author as long as they like the book. This is the kind of mentality that has made the book industry such a thrilling industry, and it is one that is in danger of fading when people start thinking that the industry should be about profit. Everyone in the industry needs to make their business work and to make a profit. Last thing I want to see is a business fail, whether it's a publishing house or a bookstore. However, I also think the central mission of our works are books. In saying that, I believe that we should all be dedicated to making the best books work.

I started off this post talking about my visits with booksellers here. I had previously worked as a sales rep, meaning that I once sold books to independent bookstores for a living. However, I found out that spending time socially with booksellers is a different phenomenon. A selling session is always rife with the certain tension needed to banter and to go back and forth focused on the actual selling. In a social setting, we are also freed of such business. Instead, we are people in the same business who also love books. And it turns out that booksellers are almost natural raconteurs, an often unseen and rare species of the extroverted bookworm. They talk for hours about their favorite books, their moments in the bookstore, the industry, and everything else on the planet. They happen to be among the best informed citizens of the world, having read about everything there is to read about and then discussing these things with their customers. They are a delight, real individuals and vocal citizens.

So, if you have finished reading this post and stayed with me throughout this lengthy push for one of my favorite things in my industry, please go to an independent bookstore and buy some books.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Visualizing Thoughts a la Proust

The same friend (who was mentioned in the previous Visualizing Thoughts post) and I were discussing the difference between visualizing when reading as opposed to reading without visualization. She had read my post, and said that my post clarified what reading as an event was like for me (should one call reading an event or an act?).

We segued into discussing music and visualization. When I was in high school, my band conductor talked about a certain composer, whose name I have since forgotten, as evoking one image after another for me. I tried quite sincerely to listen to the same composer and to try to evoke images. I could not, but what I felt was a rush of emotions, similar to the sensation of reading. Now, when I hear a piece of music that I played when I was younger in high school band or orchestra, I often hear the instruments that sat behind me: the trumpets in band and the cellos in orchestra. Particularly during Bizet's Carmen, I hear the rough timber of the bow against the cello strings. Perhaps my love of the cello can be attributed to the years I spent sitting in front of them and admiring the grandeur of that instrument, hearing its deep resonance.

In reading the third portion of Swann's Way, I was struck by how Proust talks about language and visualization:

"Words present us with little pictures of things, clear and familiar, like those that are hung on the walls of schools to give children an example of what a workbench is, a bird, an anthill, things conceived of as similar to all others of the same sort. But names present a confused image of people--and of towns, which they accustom us to believe are individual, unique like people--and image which derives from them, from the brightness or darkness of their tone, the color with which it is painted uniformly, like one of those posters, entirely blue or entirely red, in which, because of the limitations of the process used or by a whim of the designer, not only the sky and the sea are blue or red, but the boats, the church, the people in the streets."

Here, Proust is talking of language as a categorizing function, particularly nouns. Yet, anything which is given a specific name is endowed with a identity which takes it out of a category and places it as unique, one of a kind.

However, I must say when I read the word "bird", I don't see "little pictures" but merely understand it conceptually while I am reading. For this reason, I tend to be very focused on characters in my reading rather than the plot. Non-fiction generally tends to be a more difficult category for me, particularly more fact based non-fiction such as history (as opposed to more conceptual non-fiction based such as philosophy or theoretical writings).

When I read fiction, the central character is the center of emotion, the one whose inner-life is the pivot of all action. One might say that I fall into the inner-being of the character, but it is one whose eyes are closed to the visual, whose ears are closed to spoken words. Instead, the book is a hermetic seal within the inner-life; this is how a book functions for me.

For this very reason, to read a book without a central consciousness nor one central character is much more difficult for me to focus on. Large works of history, which I try to read occasionally to understand important portions of history, tend to be difficult. Science books, where visualization is difficult. Philosophy, while requiring mental agility and clarity, is more appealing than a history book to me.

It was interesting to me to hear my friend talk about how visualization works for me. Even when she reads a non-fiction book where there isn't a visual scene that is a component of the fact being conveyed, her brain will come up with a visual component. If her brain does not immediately come up with a visual component, she will read the passage over and again until a visual component is arrived at.

In talking over the book as a hermetic seal, which is part of the argument that some critical theory is based on, I wondered how many critical theorists have thought about reading as conceptually based as opposed to sensory based. In thinking this, I realize that there are some early linguists (and of course Wittgenstein, as discussed in my previous post) that tied visualization to language. It's been a long while since I studied critical theory, but I don't recall this difference in reading as being discussed in any of the essays I read. If this difference in reading approaches was discussed and written about, would it change the way critical theorists wrote about the book? For instance, the phrase "field of language"...what does that mean for people who visualize? For me, it means the hermetic seal, the closed in world of the novel, the closed in play of language itself where language can be unmoored and played with through alliteration, syllabic counts, rhymes and off rhymes. But if language is moored to a visual orientation, how does the field play out for those readers? Interesting to wonder about.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


Now that my brain has stopped obsessing about Scottish terrier barrettes, I can talk somewhat intelligently about Maupassant.

Like so many people (or at least the majority of Maupassant reviewers on Amazon), I had read a couple of short stories by Maupassant, the most anthologized being The Necklace, during high school years and then never read him again. What a shortcoming it is of contemporary American culture that Maupassant is not better appreciated!

Reading "Mon oncle Jules et autres contes" (the bilingual Dover edition, even though my French is non-existent except for the usual Mon Ami, Mon Cherie with me being worried as to the feminine/masculine ending on even these slightest usage...and I even took French lessons in high school and college; one of these days, I will put together a post on how to take 5 languages and not retain a single one) was a revelation. Maupassant can take the briefest of descriptions and reveal the psychological makeup of a character. Here's a couple of sentences describing the central character, Hector de Gribelin, in On Horseback:

Then, at twenty, a position had been found for him and he had entered the Navy Department as a clerk with an annual salary of fifteen hundred francs. He had run aground on that reef like all those who hadn't been prepared early on for life's rough combat, like all those who see life through a mist, unaware of the necessary measures and staying power, those in whom no special aptitudes, particular faculties, or fierce energies for the struggle have been inculcated since childhood, all those in whose hand no weapon or implement has been placed.

How many Hector de Gribelins do we know, those who come to life without the necessary faculties and skills to negotiate their way? The description also points to a concern that is scrutinized time and again in this brief volume of stories: the human preference for self-deception and delusion over observation. Such delusions are tied in to notions of societal status (as in On Horseback), the ego, and justification of avarice.

It should be mentioned that Maupassant was part of the Naturalist group. He was mentored by Flaubert and knew both Zola and Huysman well. I assume he must have also been friendly with Balzac, whose analysis of human psychology seems closer to Maupassant than either Flaubert or Zola. Like Balzac, Maupassant uses every single episode, every single detail to show us how greed motivates dishonesty, and leads to justifications of cruel acts. One story that I found horrifying was Pierrot about a little dog that is taken on as a guard dog by an elderly woman when onions are stolen from her garden. The problem, though, is that the woman finds the cost of feeding the dog too dear and decides to throw the dog down a quarry where it seems that dogs were regularly thrown away in this Normandy town (quite a different Normandy than Proust's Normandy). Hearing the dog yelp in fear and in pain (the dog hurt something in falling down the quarry), her feelings are then thrown into guilt and she starts throwing food down to the dog in the quarry. Initially, she tries to get someone to go down the quarry and get the dog out, but the labor charge he cites is too dear. In the end, she finds a way to justify stopping feeding the dog and letting him die.

It's not so much the death of the dog that is horrifying but watching the vacillations of emotions, the vicious cycle of parsimony and self-justification that are the two poles of her true nature and her desire to justify her actions. In the end, it reveals human nature so minutely (the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt talks about) that it's rather horrifying...cynical, yes, but also true.

However, I will also say that not all the stories are so cynical, in the same way that Balzac's novels also contain characters of goodness. There's nothing more charming than the Bohemian friendship in Mouche, the humor in Toine, and nothing more touching than the Frenchmen in Two Friends.

But what is prevalent throughout it all is a close examination of how human beings actually behave, and the inner motivations for such behavior. It's no wonder that Henry James was such an admirer.

Friday, June 13, 2008


I could tell you about Maupassant, or I could tell you that this company makes me want to spend the most ridiculous sum of money on Scottish terrier barrettes with Swarovski crystals.

I will talk about Maupassant later. I am too busy window-shopping on the internet.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Borders, swan song?

Speculations have been flying for the last year or so as to what would happen to Borders, whether they would be able to survive financially or be forced to sell themselves off.

Unfortunately, it looks like they might have to sell themselves off.
One potential buyer is, of course, Barnes and Noble. However, Border's major stockholder, William Ackerman of Pershing, is saying that Borders should approach Amazon for a buyout.

People are always surprised when I defend Borders. Many people consider Borders to be the same as Barnes and Noble. It's only within the last five years that Borders became very similar to Barnes and Noble in look as well as books chosen for their shelves; this was part of a decision to purposefully encroach on Barnes and Noble marketshare. It backfired for Borders with Borders losing their original customer base which was more sort of a young male geeky crowd (what does it say about me that I find myself more part of that demographic than others?).

I've always loved Borders' depth and range in Ancient Greek history and literature. Outside of a university store and online stores, they were the most reliable bookstore for this category. Additionally, their store on Park Avenue had an unusually large poetry section (had, I say, as that store is slated to be closed down). Also, they carried university press titles that Barnes and Nobles did not carry in the 90s. I remember going to a Barnes and Noble store in 1998 and trying to special order a university press title and being told that it was a service they didn't provide.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Borders. They were once a fascinating company, and the vestiges of their unique culture still remain in the older stores with deep backlist representation and wide variety of titles. I've bought Korean cookbooks there that are not available in other brick and mortar stores, philosophy titles, and many volumes of poetry in the Park Avenue store. In some ways, their stores complemented the independent bookstores as Borders often had large sections of categories that many independent bookstores do not. And of course, in other ways, Borders was another direct competitor to the independent bookstores in the categories that most trade bookstores cover (fiction, history, current affairs). It's a shame that Borders lost that commitment to books and decided to pursue greater profits in a change of mission that might cost them everything.

non sequitur

Because sometimes you need to take a break from reading to save bunnies:

Cure The Bunny

Click here to play this game

I think bunny is happier in heaven.

And then I decided a longer break was needed, visited Bully's website and stole this:

Alright, alright, I am actually going to read.